June 4, 2012

Looking for an Answer

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 4:03 am by Sue Hine

It’s such a simple question.  Quite straightforward.  Should be easy-as to give me an answer.

Why does your organisation involve volunteers?

The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy!  Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff?  Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power?  And if you say No way – impossible!  then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.

Why does your organisation involve volunteers?  This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief.  Let me offer a few leads to think about.

There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel.  Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence.  Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers.  The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme.  Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.

There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category.  Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example.  All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.

Why?  Why involve volunteers?

Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff?  Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work?  Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?

I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.

Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness.   Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal?  Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?

Which are?

I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then

  • Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
  • There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
  • Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
  • Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
  • The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
  • And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.

There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility.  Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.


  1. Carrera-Leigh Spence said,

    I work for a social care charity who primarily support people with drug and alcohol addictions. We involve lots of different types of volunteers, for different reasons:-

    1. Those who have been through treatment themselves. We involve them because of the unique insight that they can bring to the organisation and the fact that they aren’t limited by non-disclosure policies in the way staff are. Allowing them to volunteer also aids a lot of them in their own recovery and equips them with the skills they need to enter the job market. There are also those who feel guilty for the help they’ve received, so simply want to give something back. You might think that thats about them and not us, but in fact we’d do a lot to help our service users and ex-service users out, so despite the fact that we’re gaining from it, its as much for them as us!

    2. Students. We involve student nurses, student social workers, student counsellors and others in order to help them complement their studies with placements. The benefit we get from this is the knowledge they bring as they are studying at that very moment – often they bring new ways of working that we can roll out across services.

    3. Complementary therapists – here I run the risk of breaching your rule on talking about cost saving, but quite simply we’re not funded (we’re a government aided charity) to provide complementary therapies, so without volunteers we wouldn’t be able to offer this service at all. We recognise that a holistic approach to recovery works best, so have gotten around this funding ‘hole’ by filling it with complementary therapy students looking to practice their new skills on our client group.

    In addition to the reasons given here, I personally think involving volunteers is great simply because of their passion and motivation. I’ve worked alongside all too many members of paid staff who are there for the money and not the love of the job and it shows in their work. Our volunteers are often looking to break into the sector or are trying it out before committing and jump at the chance of a new challenge – what more could a volunteer manager want?


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Carrera-Leigh. I can summarise your reasons for involving volunteers as Reciprocity; Up-dating knowledge and new ways of working; and in respect of the Complementary Therapists, they are Adding Value / Enhancing existing services. Does this sound about right?


  2. […] to try and re-forge old connections or seek out new ones. One of the hardest things to do is convince people to give up their free time to help someone they don’t even […]


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