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!