Do volunteers need managers?

Following on from the wise words of my colleague Sean last month, if volunteers are people who make a free choice about being involved in our organisations, should we perhaps take that free choice further and enable volunteers to choose what and how they get involved. In other words… do volunteers need to be managed?

Before you all start rallying and protesting, bear with me a minute or two. Let us start with the presumption that most people who volunteer do so because they support a particular organisation, and because they want to be helpful.

Continue the theme – most people who volunteer have some skills, some experience, some knowledge and some common sense. Let us assume that most people who volunteer could probably come into many organisations and see for themselves what needs to be done, they can make a reasonable assessment of whether they are capable of doing the task, they can ask for help or information when they need it, and competently get on with the task in hand.

How true are these presumptions? Do the people who support our organisations always support the progressive steps that we take? Do people who have some personal experience of the causes that our organisations support always know enough to be helpful? Can people easily come in and see what needs doing or are our most imperative tasks those that are hidden?

Whilst most people can assess whether they are capable of doing a task, they may not be able to assess their cultural or valued ‘fit’ to an organisation. Do volunteers need managers? Well that really depends on how we see management, and the role of the volunteer manager in particular.

Management is commonly understood to include the decision making process where a plan is put into practice. Strategic planning is part of this process, as is thinking about the allocation of resources (including people) and resolving any potential conflicts.

The planning is of course only effective and possible if managers have access to up to date and reliable information – about their organisation, about the environment in which they are operating and about the people who they are engaging in their work.

How does this understanding of what management is relate to volunteers on a day to day basis? I would suggest that many of us operate in an increasingly complex environment. Our organisations may have externally imposed goals to achieve or targets to reach.

We may have to accomplish specific objectives (set by others) in relation to volunteers in order to sustain funding. And in a climate of redundancies we need to continue to ‘fly the flag’ for volunteers whilst ensuring that our paid colleagues do not feel (and are not) usurped and replaced. In addition to this we need to ensure that volunteers coming into our organisations are using their skills and experience in a way that not only fulfils them, but also serves the needs of our organisations in the most effective way.

Good practice recommends that volunteers are managed in terms of organisations’ norms – ensuring that they have the information that they need in order to behave appropriately within the organisation, and also that volunteers are managed in terms of their own forms – the ongoing support and development that they may need in order to continue to perform to an optimum level. Good practice suggests that volunteers do need to be managed.

Common sense dictates that in order to provide continuity and sustainability, to get the best out of people, to ensure that resources are allocated in the most effective and efficient way, that any potential conflicts are resolved, and that everyone benefits from the process, then volunteering within organisations must be managed.


3 thoughts on “Do volunteers need managers?

  1. For those of us dealing with large numbers of volunteers on multiple sites the need for management is more easily demonstrated. Making sure that each volunteer has the same experience, and that it is a positive one, requires considerable organisational skill and continuousmonitoring. It is not somthing that can be left to chance.But then I would say that wouldn’t I.

  2. I think the answer to this is that there is no single ‘right’ way to involve volunteers.  In some organisations it might be appropriate to let volunteers define their own roles and boundaries completely (although I would still argue that someone needs to be co-ordinating and taking an overview). However on a practical level, this won’t work for a lot of organisations  A lot of us have to have very close boundaries around what we do because we work with vulnerable people, we cannot risk letting volunteers decide on an individual level what the best way to ‘help’ service users is. Not because volunteers are inherantly less likely to know the right thing to do, indeed we should involve them in setting and reviewing policies and procedures, but because to minimise risk we have to work in a certain way.Also, most of us are funded to provide specific outputs and outcomes.  We should definitely involve volunteers in planning the projects we are fundraising for, and utilise their experience to make sure we’re providing services in the best way possible.  But with the best will in the world, if we are currently funded to provide ESOL qualifacations for 100 asylum seekers a year, a volunteer who is not interested in working in that service, but wants to run cookery courses instead, may be difficult to involve. The idea that volunteers should be allowed offer time to organisations in the way that they personally see as best, was popularised by the American volunteer management experts a few years back.  I can definitely see why it is popular one, however the way the voluntary sector works here is very different, and I’m don’t think it can be applied here to the majority of organisation’s work.  Not to say that volunteers shouldn’t be fully involved in planning and reviewing organisation’s work, just that for most of us there needs to be some parameters to how people are managed.

  3.  I sometimes wonder why we are even considering the question, do volunteers need volunteer managers? I have never heard managers of paid staff asking themselves the same question in relation to the management of paid staff; as such perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is, are we so in “awe” of those who manage paid staff, that we are becoming riddled with self doubt, as to our effectiveness and value within our respective organisations. I fear if we continue along the path of self doubt, then this will inevitably become a self-fulfilling prophesy, ultimately to the detriment of volunteers and volunteering. Let’s stop navel gazing and start “shouting” about how good we really are, or put it another way, how many managers of paid workers would get their staff to turn up day after day, without a monitory incentive?

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