The evolutionary crossroads volunteer managers face

AVM now has a regular column in Volunteering England’s Volunteering magazine. If you are a member you can access the magazine at

February 2009 article: The evolutionary crossroads volunteer managers face

What is volunteering? Many things to many people, of course. To me, it conjures up images of enthusiasm and satisfaction, of happiness and sometimes sadness. But always of people giving, to make a difference.

And yet sometimes volunteer managers are the vampires of the volunteering world, draining the excitement and passion out of every volunteer we chance upon, by demanding references, CRB checks, interviews and risk assessments.

Google ‘volunteer good practice’ and you get 693,000 hits; recruitment, induction, training, paying expenses, health and safety, screening, data protection, regulations to abide by, procedures to follow, forms to fill in…

It’s hardly surprising of course. We live in a world where we’re told what we can’t do not what we can. Where rather than being risk-aware, we’re not just risk-averse, we are risk-petrified. Where few challenge the blasé ritual of carrying out CRB checks. We live in a world where 49% of non-volunteers are put off volunteering by bureaucracy.

Is this the measure of volunteer management coming of age? Have we become a ‘proper’ profession now that bureaucracy and accepted practice are our gods?

Volunteer management has truly matured over the last fifteen years and the development of good practice has played a large part in that. But my fear is that we have hit an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Having crawled out of the primordial slime and slithered out of the sea, we are now blindly heading right back into it.

Volunteering good practice was always a dynamic way of challenging the norms, of meeting the evolving needs of the world we lived in. But how many of the obstacles to volunteering have actually disappeared over the last few years? Overly formal processes? Incorrect CRB checks? The inability to change our practices for new types of volunteers?

It seems where once good practice was a way of improving volunteering it has morphed into ‘accepted practice’, and a way of controlling it. Instead of opening minds to opportunities it has closed them to mere compliance.

Unknowingly we have rushed headlong into the model of ‘traditional’ management without recognising that managing volunteers is different. A volunteer management model that is fit for purpose must be a loose and baggy thing. It must be a model that can be used by the largest organisations to the smallest community-led ones, one that can involve the great diversity of people that our society has to offer. Above all it is one that is flexible. One that can meet the needs of the client, the volunteer and the organisation, all at the same time.

We need to regain confidence in what we do and our ability to question. Why does our application form need to be four pages long? Why must we CRB check all our volunteers?

We need to be more flexible in our approach, to better understand the competing needs we juggle and not make assumptions.

And we need to be better at how we present the bureaucracy we are inevitably faced with. Giving a volunteer half the Amazon Forest so ‘they know all the polices we have in place to make their experience enjoyable’, as I once saw, is not good volunteer management.

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