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Coalition Building: Staff vs. Volunteers

How many times have you been part of a coalition and you struggled with actually getting anything accomplished? Conversely, how many times have you been part of a coalition that was able to follow-through with commitments and keep the group moving toward common objectives? While there are many factors that can influence these situations, one of the most important is the level of staff support in leading the coalition. You can have the most passionate and energized volunteers, but if you don’t have staff moving the coalition along, it’s really difficult to achieve lasting change and success as a coalition.  This week we are focused on understanding the common roles of staff vs. volunteers in a coalition. Although there will be variations, here are some of the common roles I’ve experienced and seen work well in coalition building.

  1. Roles of staff. Staff provide leadership and infrastructure for the coalition. This infrastructure often includes meeting planning, organizing and support. Staff usually draft meeting agendas, invite participants, facilitate the meetings and take notes/send follow-ups for the meetings. This has sometimes been described as being a “party planner.” 🙂 Even if they are not responsible for all of these functions, they are often responsible for identifying contractors and/or support for these functions. Staff maintain the various plans for the coalition and serve as connectors to coalition members.  Staff draft work plans, budgets, handle membership lists, manage websites and communication plans and strategies. Staff may be responsible for identifying and applying for grants/funding sources and/or fundraising. Staff monitor progress of the coalition and the coalition’s outcomes including evaluating what is working well and what needs to be improved. Staff serve as the primary contact for the coalition and are often the “spokespersons” for the coalition. Staff develop reports, factsheets and resources that can be used by the coalition. Staff synergize the work of volunteers and identify opportunities to do more together than can be done on their own. 
  2. Role of volunteers. Volunteers are usually coalition members who contribute in their area of expertise and experience. They may participate in a team or workgroup based on their knowledge and experience. They provide recommendations on priorities and on resources developed by the coalition. They find ways to leverage their own work or the work of their organization with other coalition members and the coalition overall. If they are in a leadership role (e.g. chair or co-chair), they may provide input and recommendations on meeting planning, content, priorities, etc. Volunteers may help lead the meetings or facilitate conversations. They vote on topics relevant to the coalition and they may promote the resources developed by the coalition.
  3. Coordination of staff and volunteers. One of the challenges I have seen in new coalitions or those that have struggled to continue to remain active is the lack of coordination, communication and expectation-setting among staff and volunteers. Some staff members may become disgruntled because they feel like a “glorified secretary” focused on meeting planning or some volunteers may become disgruntled because they feel like they are doing the work that a staff member should do (plan, organize and facilitate a meeting).  In order to effectively work together, it’s important for staff and volunteers to be clear about expectations, roles and responsibilities. Depending upon the funding situation and the change in leadership, it’s important to revisit these roles and responsibilities and find ways that each role can thrive in the coalition. It’s also important to respect the roles of one another. If you are a coalition member and volunteer, take time to thank the staff for organizing the meetings, convening teams and keeping you updated on the latest information with the work of the coalition. If you are a staff member, thank the volunteer coalition members for their participation and find ways to acknowledge and promote their work within the coalition.

So what about you? What has been most challenging for you in identifying roles and responsibilities for staff vs. volunteers?

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Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

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