October 10, 2010

The FAQs for Making Better Managers of Volunteers

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter at 4:00 am by Sue Hine

I think we should start a dedicated website on this topic.  Here is why, and what I would like to include:

  • To help people find out the real oil on managing volunteers. 
  • To make sure people know what they are letting themselves in for when they accept an appointment as a manager of volunteers. 
  • To point out to employers what they should be looking for. 
  • To ensure volunteers get a good deal.   

 There is no reason more important than this last point.

Here are a few questions for starters, with my answers.  Additions and amendments totally welcome.

What does it take to become a manager of volunteers?


Physical and mental stamina. 

Ability to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Managers of volunteers do not have to be a Hamlet, nor suffer his fate, but by heck you might have to work hard at ensuring your organisation understands why volunteers are involved and what they contribute, and then make sure everyone appreciates and values each volunteer. 

All blessings if you do not have to be such a staunch advocate, but I bet there will be other challenges to test what you are made of.

How do I get there? 

Well, sorry folks, there isn’t really a professional career path to follow, though we are trying to get this going.  Mostly you can fall into the job through your years of voluntary service, or there is a Sits Vac advertisement that catches your eye just when you are thinking of changing jobs.  Or you are employed part-time, and hello – you could do manage volunteers as well, couldn’t you?

 And for some people, when you do get there the job is like nothing else and you want to stay there forever.  For some people.  For others, it might be the job to run from as fast as you can.

What do I need to know?

Ah – Ummm – Well……… Actually there is a whole heap of stuff, but we haven’t quite put it into a marketable package just yet.  Or you can choose from a whole lot of different packages.   There is general agreement that core knowledge of Recruitment and Retention, Training and Support and Rewards is essential, though you should really go a lot further than this.  Everyone has different ideas on exactly what a manager of volunteers needs know.  You need to be selective, to pick what fits with your organisation, to mix it with your personal style and then add a stir or two of downright commonsense. 

And how do I learn?

Yeah – well most people just learn on the job.  There are training programmes dedicated to managing volunteers, from university courses to one-off seminars – both international and local.  And that sets up a question of ‘what don’t I know?’ and ‘which course is right for me?’  Which is a bit troubling to answer if I have not figured what I need to know: that is the first question to address.  

There are also lots of learning opportunities in joining a local network for managers of volunteers.  Contact your local Volunteer Centre to find out what they offer.

What are the rewards?

Discovering the joys of watching other people (the volunteers) grow and develop their personal skills

Seeing how a well-run volunteer programme can work wonders for the organisation.

Taking pride in your contribution to making the volunteer programme work; acknowledging your own skills and abilities.

Being part of an organisation that espouses values you believe in, and is active in working towards those values.

There are lots of challenges in becoming a manager of volunteers.   Have a look at recent research publications:

 From People First, Total Solutions, Martin J Cowling’s Global Survey (2008) – see particularly the Volunteer Leadership Data  http://www.pfts.com.au/documents/0805GLOBALVOLUNTEERMANAGEMENTSURVEYDRAFT6-4.pdf   

Victoria University (Karen Smith and Carolyn Cordery): Managers Matter: A Survey of Volunteer Management Capacity in New Zealand.  (June, 2010)  http://www.victoria.ac.nz/fca/research-services/volunteer-management-research.aspx.

Valuing Volunteer Management Skills  (September 2010), published by the Institute for Volunteering Research (UK)  http://www.ivr.org.uk/aboutus/News  The following paragraph comes from the forward of this research:

 “There is a lot of good practice in volunteer management across the sector, but [the report] highlights the need for training and development to plug key skills gaps among people who manage volunteers.  It also identifies that volunteer management remains undervalued and under-funded in many organisations, including those with largest incomes.”

I rest my case on the need for a better deal for managers of volunteers.


  1. Martin J Cowling said,

    Thanks for the link to our survey!
    Enjoyed the blog–as usual!!


  2. DJ Cronin said,

    Great piece of writing. I agree we could have a website that deals with this issue alone. I particularly warmed to your “Taking pride in your contribution to making the volunteer programme work; acknowledging your own skills and abilities.”
    I would change “What does it take to become a manager of volunteers? To “What does it take to become a good and effective manager of volunteers?:
    Because right now well anyone can become a “manager of volunteers”
    Lets not kid ourselves that some organisations “like” the idea of having volunteers and then ask “Sheila from accounts” to “look after” the vollies”
    I have spoken to many organisations and groups about my “Sheila from accounts”. And you know what? I don’t blame Sheila at all..in fact Sheila sometimes goes on to be a dedicated Volunteer manager!
    I am downright irritated with organisations that “lump” the role of Volunteer management on employees with other roles. It simply demonstrates a lack of understanding of volunteer management.

    Imagine the reaction if “john from finance” was approached by the CEO one day and asked to “look after” the employees by becoming the HR Manager as well. Balderdash! It would never happen. And it shouldn’t happen with management of volunteers either.
    Again Sue – a great piece. I only hope that some CEOs and boards and other management read it too. Then we can ensure that we move away from our echo chambers. How can we make this happen?


    • Sue Hine said,

      It’s a long term project DJ. You gotta keep at it. Remember the word ‘conscientisation’? And here is where networks can come into their own, and I am thinking beyond our professional contacts.


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