Breaking away from HR

On Volunteering England’s website the current poll question is ‘Should volunteers be managed in the same way as paid employees’. The answer was so obvious I almost didn’t bother answering – they might as well have asked whether the Pope is Catholic or if bears pop behind a tree to relieve themselves.  It was a slow day, though, so I hit ‘no’ anyway.

And to my utter shock I was in the minority. Just 37% of us believed yes, they should be managed differently. I would have been disappointed if that figure was 80 or 90% but just over a third?

Now I could rehearse the arguments as to why it’s not the same (legal issues, motivations etc) but we’ve become so hung up on the details we have forgotten the fundamental importance behind managing volunteers and paid staff differently.

In the last few years, there has been a radical shift in both the how and why people engage in voluntary action. Patrick Daniels has blogged eloquently on how the web is changing the ways people give, for example. But there is much we can also learn from the more activist and self-help end of the giving spectrum. However for those of us who work in the ‘traditional’ voluntary sector, we are unable to really explore how these could benefit our clients because we don’t have the flexibility to engage with them. And we don’t have that flexibility because we have sleepwalked our way into adopting the work-place model of management.

How did this happen though?

As volunteer management became more accepted and more established within organisations, there was obviously a need to fit it within the organisational edifice. And for many, the best fit was to follow the HR structure.

So as volunteer management became more accepted, for many organisations it was subsumed within the HR world. A world of policies, procedures and bureaucracy governed by a legislative employment framework. And just like the merger of any organisations  – where one is very big and one very small – the outcome was that there was little left of volunteer management.

Now, you might argue that all that’s required is some slight tweaking. After all HR is all about all human resources isn’t it, both paid and unpaid?

Actually no it’s not. Sure, in theory that’s sounds reasonable but the real world doesn’t work like that. In the real world HR is about paid staff. In the real world HR is set up to manage paid staff, to develop policies and procedures for paid staff, to assess pay scales for paid staff. It’s not set up to deal with volunteers.

We fiddle around the edges to make sure volunteers aren’t seen to be employees but to all intents and purposes we manage them in the same way. A world of policies, procedures and bureaucracy that isn’t governed by a legislative employment framework.

Half of non-volunteers are put off volunteering by bureaucracy. We all know of people who’ve been put off because they’ve had to wait too long. And if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, can we honestly say that we are flexible enough to involve any type of volunteering, that we don’t hold up hoops to be jumped through simply for the sake of holding them up.

But bureaucracy is nothing new. The same barriers were identified fifteen, even twenty years ago. If volunteer management has evolved significantly in that time, as we believe, why are these barriers still there?

This has been brought into stark relief by the recession and the volunteering demand it has generated. Whilst undeniably there are capacity issues, there is also a lack of flexibility to respond to this upsurge.

Merging the management world of paid and unpaid hasn’t worked. It has damaged volunteering.

If we are to effectively involve the increasingly diverse ways people want to give their time to us we need to completely break from the workplace model of management and properly establish the identity, distinctiveness and independence of volunteer management.

One thought on “Breaking away from HR

  1. I find this topic can often be more unhelpful than helpful, and this appears to stem from an inaccurate assumption that HR is ‘people management’, whereas they are in fact are different things. People Management is essentially the responsibility of line managers and HR is a set of functions designed to support line managers in this role.We at ‘Attend’, have worked hard over recent years to develop an understanding of how the HR profession and the VM profession differ and overlap. We have sat on CIPD committees, attended Volunteer Management conferences and delivered professional development programmes in both these areas of people management. It has been important to get involved in both ‘camps’ so that we can address an issue, whilst being informed by theoretical models and a broad understanding of current practice rather than ‘taking the odd pot-shot’ at one or the other, based on anecdotal personal experience. Whilst it can be irritating for volunteer management when HR casts unqualified comment on volunteer management (e.g. “All you do is tea and sympathy”), conversely it is just as irritating for HR when their profession is belittled by uninformed generalisations on their work by unqualified others.All research and practice highlights that if HR is limited to being a “world of policies, procedures and bureaucracy governed by a legislative employment framework”, it is ineffective, and that effective HR empowers line managers in the management of people and creates opportunities for working relationships to flourish so that paid staff are able to contribute to the organisation’s goals, whilst at the same time find meaning and fulfilment in their work…..much like the role of the ‘Volunteer Resource’ function.As an aside, I think a more interesting question for VE to ask would be:’Should paid employees be managed in the same way as volunteers?’

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