Is bad volunteer management the only refuge for altruistic volunteering?

I am not a believer in the existence of altruistic volunteering, of giving with no regard for yourself. I am of the generation immersed in the motivations and benefits of volunteering. For us, the volunteering relationship is not a one-way altruistic pathway but a two-way reciprocal relationship, where even those who volunteer just to help or to give something back, receive a personal reward such as a sense of satisfaction or fulfilment.

Of course, this is not to belittle the gift of time volunteers give to society. In fact, it’s completely the opposite. By understanding what motivates people to volunteer and the rewards they receive, it means we can not only better meet the needs of existing volunteers but also understand why people don’t volunteer.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I was chatting with a volunteer, who had a story that is familiar to many of us. He had been volunteering for a local organisation for about four years. For the first three years, he thoroughly enjoyed it and got a tremendous sense of satisfaction from it. But in the last 12 months he’d been increasingly suffering from ‘volunteer burn-out’, to the extent now that every time he volunteers it is a chore. He gets that ‘Monday morning’ feeling. He now wishes, he’d never started.  

Why doesn’t he just stop? Because he feels guilty about letting people down. The one time he suggested he might leave, he was told he was irreplaceable. It was meant to be a compliment but it just added to the burden on his shoulders. 

His story made me re-think my thoughts on altruistic volunteering. For here was a person who, thanks to not being managed well, no longer got any benefits or rewards; no satisfaction, no enjoyment, no personal fulfilment. He was truly volunteering with absolutely no regard for himself.

So it made me consider whether altruistic volunteering does in fact exist, but only, perversely, where bad volunteer management removes any benefit for the volunteer?

3 thoughts on “Is bad volunteer management the only refuge for altruistic volunteering?

  1. I agree with the general view that the cover of altruism normally hides a more personal motivation and I don’t see anything wrong with that as a volunteer manager and volunteer.

    Though the loading of “responsibility” onto a volunteer is a kind of volunteer manipulation, which is a technique that perhaps many of use use to encourage a volunteer to take a challenging step forward into new levels of volunteering?

    However hopefully we wouldn’t take it to the extreme, as the case sited

  2. In respect of the question posed “What is a volunteer”, I’d like to widen the debate further.

    Speaking as both as a long standing volunteer in my own right, and as a volunteer manager, I personally see it like this.

    In a nutshell, volunteering is any activity that is undertaken without any expectation of money and/or monies worth in relation to volunteering activities undertaken, over and above legitimate expenses.

    In order to help contextualise this; true volunteering would in my opinion not include “volunteering” such as ESV (employer supported volunteering), importantly where such ESV meant that a person would still be receiving their normal daily wage whilst undertaking “work” for an organisation as a “volunteer”.

    I am aware that there is somewhat of an undercurrent, even a paradigm shift towards ESV in certain quarters. However, whilst there may be a current desire to focus in on and use ESV volunteers, especially, although not exclusively, in relation to “changing rooms” type opportunities; I am somewhat concerned that there is actually a sector need for ESV “volunteers” as is being suggested by some, for example through training programs etc; typically in relation to alleged ever diminishing numbers of people wishing to volunteer; which I feel is probably more to do with what opportunities organisations are offering, allied to the re-enforcement of positive relative benefits to individual volunteers, rather than scaremongering about a near future, often almost apocalyptic vision of a volunteer famine, and who’s only salvation will be ESV, and the involvement of big business and their employees.

    The fact is that the population of UK Plc is growing not shrinking; we have an ever increasing pool of people who are new to these shores, our culture and possibly new to the concept of volunteering; as such we should be, being more creative in recruiting such people, which not only increases volunteer numbers but also helps in respect of integration, social cohesion, and sense of belonging.
    Equally, age should no longer be a restriction in respect of volunteering; we all have as managers a fantastic opportunity to tap into the baby boomers, their skills and knowledge as many approach retirement and are considering their future options.

    Let’s never lose site of the many loyal and independent volunteers, many of whom will never have had any contact with big business and ESV programs, and who have brought us this far, and for many of us to the positions we hold today.

    We should never forget that people for what ever reason, be that altruistic or not, traditionally volunteer in their own right, for their own reasons and under their own steam; and in the main those new to volunteering just need signposting appropriately from the many good and valuable volunteer centres across the country.

    I wonder when the credit crunch begins to bite within business, how soon will it be that such businesses say to ESV volunteers, unfortunately given the current climate, the reality is that we need you here working for us, or I’m sorry but we can no longer afford for you to volunteer on our time; as such will there be any thought given to the organisations who have become involved with ESV volunteers?

    Going back to, “What is a volunteer?”

    Personally, I volunteer because I want to, because it’s different from my day job, because I am involved with a different group of people, with a different outlook on life, but fundamentally I volunteer because I get something out of it and enjoy it, is this altruistic?

    Is my willingness to volunteer with what could be seen as altruistic leanings a result of bad volunteer management from the organisations I work with, absolutely not!

    I do not, and would not “volunteer” as I do if the volunteering was part of some prescribed personal/professional development plan driven by business in order to be seen to be doing something for “the community” and to tick a moral box.

  3. We are funny creatures, aren't we? we don't really do it for ourselves, but we benefit and then we stop benefitting, but we do it anyway? I don't know if it is aultrusim when someone is worn down and guilted in to volunteering – are they doing it for goodnesses sake and nothing else? No, it sounds like it is driven by guilt, obligation, history and the way they are managed or not, as the case may be.On holidays I had a conversation with some parents who now refuse to do anything for the school as they felt like they were the only ones being asked and were getting 'do-gooder fatigue' (amazing what terms you come up with on hols). I think one of the fundamentals of VMs is being able to ask for more, knowing when not to ask and always starting the ask with giving the Ok to say No. So many people in our sector are committed to service and don't know how to say No. I wonder if that kind of skills set is reflected in the new National Occupations Standards for VMs?

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