May 6, 2012

Whose Side are You On?

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter, Organisational gains from volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 1:19 am by Sue Hine

We can talk about management of volunteers forever.  We can have endless conversations that wander through the ins and outs of competence and tasks.  We can venture into the thickets of community issues and political pressures and questions about sustainable funding.  We can do a moan about the lack of recognition for our work (and volunteers).  But it’s not very often that we stop to figure out the fundamentals of the role of a manager of volunteers.

What is the purpose of the role?

Last year I wrote a clear statement:

The purpose of being a Manager of Volunteers is to contribute to the organisation’s mission, to facilitate delivery of services. So my role function is to attract, train and support (etc) volunteers to carry out tasks that will do just that.

Now I want to take the opposite position:

The purpose of the role of Manager of Volunteers is to develop the very best team of volunteers and to ensure they have the very best experience of volunteering.

A good volunteer experience takes precedence over the organisation’s mission and delivery of services?  Yes, absolutely.

So the volunteer benefits at the expense of the organisation?  I knew you would jump to that conclusion!  Let me persuade you otherwise.

Think about developing a team of volunteers.  There they are, knocking at your door, keen to ‘help’ the organisation.  They are a mixed bunch, with a dozen or more different motivations, and another dozen or so skills and aptitudes.  That’s your raw material, and you are not into conveyer-belt production.  Your job is to meet their expectations, as best you can.

So the training programme is designed to sustain volunteer enthusiasm as well as to introduce them to boundaries set by organisational policy and the roles they will be undertaking.  That is, there is a framework to follow, and enough flexible space within it for volunteers to flourish in their work.

The devil for ensuring a good volunteer experience is always in the detail.

Communication is the big No 1.  Follow-up, check in with volunteers, ask them how they’re doing.  Communicate regularly via various media to keep volunteers informed, to help them feel part of the organisation.  At the same time, be visible and proactive in advocating for volunteers with paid staff, including supporting staff who work directly with volunteers.

Continuous improvement for volunteers also needs to be on the agenda.  Volunteers may want to move their skills to another level or to try something different as much as paid staff.  The volunteer who does not ‘fit’ need not be turned away if you hang on to your sense of innovation.  That’s where management of volunteers becomes an art, way beyond the confines of human resource management.  Volunteers are a source for inspiration, not just a resource or an asset for exploitation.

Feedback on performance is as important for volunteers as it is for paid staff.  Get beyond the regular (and sincere) “Thank you” to add positive reinforcement of a job well done:

I was impressed by the way you….

Or try extending skill experience by adding:

Next time you could think about having a go at …. 

This is not just buttering up a volunteer ego, it is demonstrating your confidence in volunteer competence and ongoing capacity for development.

An annual review for each volunteer is another string to maintaining volunteer satisfaction.  Not so much a review of performance as a self-assessment of present involvement and future aspirations – and always including reflection on how to improve the volunteer programme, management of volunteers included.

Don’t forget the exit interview.  That can be another strand for comment on possible improvement and change.  Keeping a record of ‘reasons for leaving’ will draw a useful picture on turnover and levels of volunteer satisfaction, which could be incredibly useful in indicating to senior management and boards on the state of the organisation.

So what is the pay-off?  Why is a good volunteer experience important?  You will get any or all of the following:

Support for organisation mission     ADDING VALUE TO SERVICES            Retention          Loyalty       Commitment                Public Relations

Ambassadors in the Community               CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

Volunteers pilot new ways of delivering services          INNOVATION

Volunteers build Civil Society         Community Development

SOCIAL INCLUSION        Service enhancement

Get the best team of volunteers and enable their very best volunteer experience and you will find volunteers contribute OTT to organisation mission and service delivery.  All round there is a Win-Win outcome.



  1. Wonderful comments thanks Sue – I will be using some of the gems here.


  2. Tricia Clarkson said,

    I couldn’t agree more sue – my experience has always been that a good volunteer experience benefitted everyone


  3. Sue Hine said,

    Good to hear from you, Janice and Tricia. I am now thinking about what I missed out – the extent of personal gains for all the volunteers, whether for employment or family relations or for their own personal well-being.


  4. thevolunteerhub said,

    Hi Sue, I haven’t been in the volunteer management world for too long, but I completely agree with you.

    Someone once said to me that in a voluntary organisation, a volunteer manager should place the well-being of volunteers above that of the people they are helping (the clients). With a team of enthusiastic and happy volunteers, the clients also get more from the volunteers.


    • Sue Hine said,

      It’s the quid pro quo thing, isn’t it? Very important, for volunteers as well as the people they are helping. Thanks for your comment.


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