August 7, 2011

Raising the Flag, Again

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Managers Matter at 1:43 am by Sue Hine

Sometimes I feel a bit like one of the cast of Les Miserables, one of those who line up at the barricades repeating slogans and the mantras that were created a long time ago.  Or I find myself humming Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind.  How many times must I plug on about the significance of volunteering and quality management of volunteers?

The question of where the manager of volunteers fits on an organisational chart has become a seasonal chestnut – debate and discussion turns up every year. Sometimes it feels like the managers of volunteers – the people who engage, organise and lead umpteen people to contribute in a major way to the organisation’s mission – are regarded as nuisance value.  It seems volunteers and their managers do not fit into conventional management structures, particularly where organisations employ a substantial paid staff.  Ah well, let’s plonk them under Human Resource Management.

Big Mistake.  The Manager of Volunteers gets shoe-horned into the bureaucratic stuff of policies and protocols, the straitjackets of recruitment and legislative requirements.  As if that was all there was to managing volunteers (or to managing paid staff for that matter).

Or volunteers and their manager are simply part of Support Services, along with maintenance and administration and maybe the cleaning and food services.  Well – that tells me volunteers are simple handmaidens to the really important stuff of the organisation, an indulgent, nice-to-have adjunct to the real work of the organisation.  Excuse me – What would happen if volunteers withdrew their labour for a day, or two, or more?

I think there are three things going on here:

  • When the governing board and executive team do not ‘get’ volunteering they are forgetting the mission and vision of the organisation.  They do not understand the vitality of volunteering and its contribution that goes beyond the optional extras.
  • In the pursuit of imitative corporate excellence the organisation risks overlooking the real value of volunteers and their management.  Forgetting the original activism of hardy volunteers who formed many organisations, and ignoring local community engagement and support, are surely ways to losing volunteer contributions.
  • And both of these points seem to derive from the devolution of government responsibilities on to the community sector.  We are jumping through a set of hoops dictated from outside our original frame of reference.

When I pull my head in from such polemics I can look to more reasoned arguments.   The following links connect with some wise heads in our industry, and can link you to much more.

Have a look at this UK blogpost, HR and Management of Volunteers.   “HR is set up to manage paid staff, to develop policies and procedures for paid staff, to assess pay scales for paid staff. It’s not set up to deal with volunteers.”  But we end up managing volunteers the same way, because somehow following bureaucratic rules has become the driving force of operational practice.

In 2003 Susan J Ellis raised questions about philosophic, practical, managerial, and legal HR issues.  Volunteers are ‘human’ she said, and they are a ‘resource’; it’s just that “volunteers are the unpaid personnel of an organisation”.  The really big question here is Why should unpaid personnel be treated differently from paid staff?  They shouldn’t of course, but somehow the quiet endeavours of a team of volunteers do not get the recognition of achievements accorded to various (paid) staff of the organisation.

In 2010 another Energize Hot Topic itemised four critical distinctions between HR and Management of Volunteers: HR has formal responsibilities, whereas Management of Volunteers needs to be creative and flexible.  Because, as Susan J Ellis wrote in an earlier post, what distinguishes volunteers from a paid work force is “their flexibility, the luxury of focus, short bursts of energy, and multiplicity of perspectives”.

Finally, there is an e-volunteerism article: the Odd Couple Marriage of HR and Management of Volunteers offers a good summary of the uniqueness of managing volunteers, balanced with what we can learn from HR.

Papers like these could just help us out of the bog of being ‘just a volunteer manager’.  I would like to think the arguments here could strengthen the case of colleagues who want to argue for their presence at the table of the executive team.  And if you need some extra ‘sound bites’ go to the latest Energize Hot Topic.  There is no last word, just more flag-waving, please.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks as always, Sue, for the nice mentions. Hope you can generate discussion on this in your part of the world, too. At least it feels less lonely out there tilting at windmills. 🙂



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