Managing volunteers isn't rocket science...

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By Jamie Ward-Smith on
volunteer management 2175 views 0 likes 15 comments

...sometimes it's harder!

I've acquired a renewed sense of respect for volunteer managers since I recently finished an 18 month contract leading a charity's volunteering team. The work included undertaking a review and restructure of the service which ran a large programme of 800 volunteers, working primarily in social care with some support roles in fundraising, including charity shops, and corporate services.

The charity in question was a great organisation to work for but I was really struck at some of the issues faced by their volunteering team when I started. One of the biggest was the general attitude towards volunteers by many in the organisation, often perceived as a nice to have but not a must have aspect of their work, to verging on outright hostility towards involving volunteers in some quarters. Much of this attitude stemmed from what were unrealistic expectations from some staff, who usually expected volunteers to magically appear within hours of a request, often to fill roles that had very little appeal.

Add to this was a growing issue of how to motivate, support and, in some cases, move on volunteers. The latter was a particularly thorny issue, with managers frequently having to tolerate poor behavior which occasionally would amount to outright hostility towards staff and other volunteers, usually from long servers reluctant to embrace change. At what point do you draw the line when a volunteer is giving far less to the organisation than is being spent by it to accommodate their whims or bad behaviour? Having to 'manage out' an older volunteer, who has spent many years giving their time, albeit with little tangible benefit to the charity, is one of the biggest challenges, especially when you've worked so hard to try and resolve the situation.

Managing people who are under no contractual obligation to be there has to be one of the hardest jobs to do well. With a contract in place you at least have a clear structure for your relationship which is based on the exchange of time for pay. Without this you are reliant on constant negotiation, review and motivation with no guarantee that the relationship will succeed and with no easy way out if it does not. Many charities try to manage this by imposing structures and procedures which ape those of paid work, but we know from experience that this puts people off getting involved and are increasingly risky in a world where volunteers can successfully sue for unfair dismissal. In a response to our desire to manage risk we over professionalise what is usually unmanageable in the traditional sense. I suspect this is why the role of a volunteer manager is so often unappreciated because there is a fundamental lack of understanding or real appreciation of how difficult it is to get people to give their time and have a positive impact on your work at the same time.

More recently I have been involving volunteers since the launch of ivo. I've been hugely lucky to have had the support of some great people, but have had equal levels of frustration with others - volunteers that start off keen then lose interest for no apparent reason or who just don't do what they say they will.

None of these issues are new of course. But one thing they have taught me is that not just anyone can manage volunteers well. It takes the right mix of personality, experience, instinct and, to some degree, training. Bizarely, in setting up ivo I seem to have forgotten some of the golden rules of volunteer management, not least the 'would you do it?!' one when it comes to asking someone to do something!

I'll be honest, there have been times when I've questioned the need for a volunteer management movement. But this past year has reminded me why we really must value this often overlooked profession. Whether you voluntarily lead a team of neighbours to run a community project, or you're paid to manage a team of volunteers for a large charity, it isn't an easy thing to do well and we need to ensure there is access to available help and advice and sufficient regard for those that provide it. In a climate where voluntary help is becoming increasingly important to ensure that neighbourhoods and services function, we cut volunteering infrastructure at our peril.

I used to sometimes say  'Volunteer management, well it's not exactly rocket science is it?'. No it isn't, as I've recently been reminded, sometimes it's actually harder!

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Top answer

Aways remember many things in life can change very quickly for the motivated volunteer saying 'Yes' and also their personal situation can be altered at the flick of a switch from having to drop everything for a personal or family crises to not having the resources to enable the activity to take place - eg car breaks down, laptop blows up, house fire.... these have to also be taken into account when you manage volunteers - people may lose interest as they may need more guidence or explaination about what is required - some do need large amounts of support but don't let you know this initially. those who just don't do what they say they will - well even I find my self in that category at times - life or work just gets in the way and the volunteering suffers. Volunteer managers have a tough job and have to have amazing flexible qualities - it's not a job you can learn from a book or a course, yes they give you guidelines but you need many qualities besides.
Enjoyed the blog, next time you forget and go back to that kind of role, call me and I'll happily accept a role as your advisor. ;D Have fun

Jamie Ward-Smith

Wise words indeed and yes will do! It was a great experience, it's so easy to forget how hard the job can be when you're working in support services so I'm really glad I did it - plies the people were lovely and such amazing services...

Great writing Jamie - I guess a lot of it is to let the volunteers know that their time will be used the most valueably and in the best and most efficient way to get the best results needed for the clients- then with some feedback if possible - letting the volunteers know what a difference they are making...

I'd agree 100% with these points. We did some research recently which included the challenges charities experience in recruiting and using volunteers which very much identified these issues, and more. Charities struggling to find people who had the right skills, experience and time, who would stay long enough to make an impact. Situations where services were being run more in the interests of the volunteers than the beneficiaries etc. I'm sure everyone on ivo is convinced of the huge benefits of volunteers, but many charities have a negative experience and give up on volunteers ( .

We definately need more debate about what works and how. Its often an organic process to find that sweet spot of mutual interest. In many ways I think volunteer management is more art than science!

Jamie Ward-Smith

Thanks Janet, would you be willing to contribute to a feature on the issue? Be good to quote some stats form your link...


Yes - absolutely.

Jamie Ward-Smith

Fab, will do something on this the week after next :o)

Great blog Jamie!

It can often feel a bit of an uphill struggle when you are faced with a culture that doesn't embrace volunteers or volunteering in all parts of the organisation. The reasons why are many and numerous but can include done it before and it didn't work, I don't have time, what on earth could volunteers to for me etc etc.

I think our role is to identify what these issues are, provide solutions and support and demonstrate how volunteers can add value. Sounds easy but as your blog indicates often quite tricky. I've found working with the people who are willing to take that leap and then communicating their success stories to others can often be quite powerful.

Change can be particularly difficult for long standing volunteers and staff alike. As organisations we obviously don't want to lose lose volunteers because of these changes but we have to respect anyone's decision to leave if the new way of working just doesn't fit anymore.

I think the problems tend to arise when volunteers appear to sign up to the new ways of working but continue to do what they've always done which often has serious consequences.

You can try and manage that but at some point you have to come to the conclusion that this is just not working for anyone - volunteers, service users, staff and the organisation.

It is a hard decision to make but once it has been made then I think you have to stand your ground, try to signpost people to other opportunities that might be a better fit and try to manage any negative fallout that might occur as a result.

Jamie Ward-Smith

Thanks, agree sharing stories is a powerful way to inspire others - one of the big reasons for creating ivo :o) Yes you're right, the problem arises when volunteers can't or refuse to accept change but stay on anyway. I had a weird scenario when a volunteer refused to talk to me, in front of everyone said she wanted nothing to do with me, and I was the boss! It was tricky as I needed to get her out as painlessly as possible, an unpleasant encounter!

I second CarreraLeighSpence - a great article, and one that encapsulates my thoughts after the 'bad volunteers are a cancer in an organisation' issue. I felt the - admittedly very bad - choice of words obscured an important conversation around management of difficult volunteers (and why management of volunteers is so important in general!), and I wish I'd been able to articulate this response!

Jamie Ward-Smith

Thanks! I agree, that article was not helpful in addressing what is big issue - I was amazed at how reluctant people were to tackle poor behaviour or performance and at how little information is out there to provide help and guidance on how to ask a volunteer to leave...

Great article Jamie. I'd like to see more about handling difficult or unproductive volunteers as I echo your views on how difficult it is to manage underperformers who are often unaware of the effect they have on a team or organisation. I too find it difficult to draw that line and am hoping that it will come more easily with a little more experience and some expert guidance!

Jamie Ward-Smith

Thanks! Yes agree this is a big issue, we should do a feature on it to get people to share their experiences :o)


Agreed - should we collaborate on something? I will hopefully have a new job soon and will be able to stop using my evenings to do applications and instead use them for writing and blogging!

Jamie Ward-Smith

Very happy to, I have an idea for a title maybe, 'When the good turn bad'! We'll need to do some research, maybe focus on a few case studies, I certainly have a couple - do you want to have a go at first draft? Or I could though tied up on funding bids for the next fortnight...

Fingers crossed for the new job!