Conflict in Volunteer Organisations: Lessons from the CFA

by Vince Scopelliti

The CFA dispute between paid and unpaid volunteers has been a salutary tale for any Australian organisation with a mix of volunteers and paid workers. In many cases, these groups work together in relative harmony. After all, paid staff and volunteers tend to share similar values and goals in these workplaces.

But how, when and why do things tend to go awry for volunteer-dependent organisations?

We examine the particular ‘hot spots’ within this space, including the underlying cultural tensions that can balloon into all-out conflict in the volunteer-based workplace, and set out simple tips for diffusing tension within this important segment of the Australian workforce.

ROLES AND RESOURCING

Many small charities and non-profits begin operations on a few dollars, a band of passionate volunteers and a dream to ‘do good’ in the world. As service demand grows – very likely when free or low-cost community services are provided – executives within a charity can quickly find themselves scrabbling to deal with competing legal, accommodation, client, staffing, volunteer recruitment, cash flow and supplier issues.

It is perhaps no surprise that the task of addressing cultural issues can quite rapidly shift down the list of priorities in volunteer bodies. Take for example the common disparity between the numbers of paid and volunteer staff. Dollars are sparse and it can seem logical to invest in the recruitment of an unpaid force of volunteers. Yet large numbers and intermittent shifts for volunteers can leave paid staff feeling confused and undervalued, particularly if the role of paid staff is overlooked in the effort to make volunteers feel appreciated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, paid workers might then draw information and resources closer to their chests in an effort to protect their positions in an uncertain work space.

THE VOLUNTEER’S DILEMMA

On the other side of the issue, volunteers can feel as though the treatment from paid staff in unfriendly and unhelpful. Intent on carrying out a community service, volunteers can find themselves excluded from knowledge and decisions to which paid employees are privy. Before long, an ‘us versus them’ mentality begins to grow. Yet all of this might go undetected by management. With important work to carry out for the organisation, issues of culture and conflict can quite understandably become overlooked. However, we do so at our peril – as the CFA debacle has so clearly illustrated.

So protracted has the struggle been between paid and volunteer Victorian firefighters that the federal government has felt compelled to get involved with a controversial amendment to the Fair Work Act 2009. This demonstrates just how far worker/ volunteer animosity can go if left unaddressed by employers.

SOLVING THE CONFLICT

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of early action when clashes between paid staff and volunteer workers begin to surface. At the first sign of difficulty between these groups, consider conducting a thorough workplace investigation to establish the nature and extent of the cultural problems.

Internal investigations can be helpful, yet there are many factors to consider when collecting data. These include strict adherence to the requirements of fairness, impartiality, privacy and completeness when conducting the inquiry.

In many cases it can make sense to call upon the services of a workplace investigation professional to assist with or carry out the process. Unfortunately, when some employers attempt to look into general issues of workplace culture themselves, well-meaning mistakes can be made in trying to ‘get to the bottom of this’. And the detrimental consequences can be considerable – should bullying or discrimination issues arise, a flawed investigation can mean that future formal processes will be hard to successfully manage.

BEING FOREWARNED

In volunteer-based organisations, it is essential that core business is not made the only issue that is worthy of energy. After all, the noble endeavour of fighting fires for the Victorian community has now become a poor second to the relentless issue of conflict between paid staff and volunteer firefighters. There are many pro-active and positive methods for dispelling conflict between the people in such worthy organisations. The key is early action, involving a swift, professional and fair investigative process into any brewing cultural difficulties.

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