Quality versus quantity – balancing the see-saw

I used to be the Volunteer Co-ordinator for a charity that had over 700 volunteers. It wasn’t a big charity according to other statistics (number of staff – 2 ½, regions covered – 1, number of service users – less than 200).

Nonetheless, whenever I met other volunteer co-ordinators or managers in passing and told them how many volunteers I supervised, their typical reaction would be to look at me with mild envy, before querying how I could cope with that number.

You can perhaps imagine their reaction when I told them that actually, we needed even more volunteers to guarantee our services! The reaction of our funders, who shall remain nameless, was somewhat different. As far as they were concerned, bums on seats in terms of volunteers was unequivocally a good thing.

Surely it automatically meant that more people would build their skills volunteering, while more service users would benefit from those volunteers’ efforts?

My feelings on the situation were somewhat different again. What I fretted about was the quality of volunteering experience I could offer to our existing and future volunteers.

Trying to balance the see-saw between the number of volunteers I was under pressure to recruit and manage, and the support that they could receive in terms of induction, training, supervision, recognition and reward, was something that literally gave me sleepless nights.

Did I get the balance right? Well, I was meeting the quantitative targets agreed with our funder, and we certainly had a large number of volunteers who were very motivated, enthused and empassioned by the cause.

Several of our trustees would ‘muck in’ on a regular basis too – not out of necessity, but because they enjoyed their volunteering experience.
Nonetheless, the continual need to recruit more volunteers every month indicated (and a database trawl confirmed) that other volunteers were quietly disengaging from us.

Matching what seemed right in theory with the practice of my role – that was the nub of the challenge. With that many volunteers to co-ordinate, could I measure the quality of their experiences in such a meaningful way that would prove to a funder that more resources were needed?

This experience, from a job that I left over five years ago, became fresh in my mind again when I joined AVM’s Board of Directors. AVM is an organisation that stands up for volunteer managers above any other, partly because we recognise that doing so has a positive domino effect for volunteers and volunteering in general.

So, can the need for more volunteers be a natural bedfellow alongside the need to provide those volunteers with high quality opportunities? I’m in the ‘yes’ camp, so long as the need for more volunteers is primarily driven by what your charity’s service users need, as opposed to what your funder would like.
As far as high quality opportunities go, striving to reach good practice is perhaps a natural stepping stone to the achievement of best practice in volunteer management.

Sure, life’s not that simple, because here you come across another see-saw – the need to balance funding criteria against the needs of your organisation.
When resources are low, it’s perhaps natural to favour the former over the latter. But let me leave you with a few qualitative thoughts on this subject. A perception exists in some quarters I think, that demonstrating quality volunteer management is harder than demonstrating quantity of volunteers, and that the extra effort required makes it unworthwhile. Au contraire!

Measuring volunteers as hard statistics can only be fun to a certain kind of person, but measuring quality and its ‘softer’ outcomes can be more fun, and worthwhile, than you may think.

For one thing, it’s not all about chasing up case studies, however empowering and evocative they may be. What about getting someone to mystery shop your volunteer experience? What works for Sainsbury’s won’t necessarily work for the Sally Army, (if I may be so colloquial), but it’s an innovative way of showing your funder that once you get volunteers; you keep them, for which a cost-effective case can be made.

YouthNet last year mystery shopped a sample of volunteering opportunities on Do-it. Informal discussion groups could be another way forward – they generate spontaneous feedback, enabling everyone to contribute in a time limited period.
Not always best to call them focus groups though, unless your volunteers are market researchers. You and your peers will be able to think of other ways to capture quality I’m sure.

Don’t forget the wealth of resources available to you – such as the AVM website, the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Volunteer Management, and so on and so forth.

So, returning to my see-saw analogy, you can achieve a balance between the need to demonstrate quality and quantity in volunteer management. It doesn’t have to be one versus the other, and even if you’re the only person with any responsibility for volunteers in your organisation, you don’t have to sit on the see-saw alone.

6 thoughts on “Quality versus quantity – balancing the see-saw

  1. Gosh Mike! I almost thought I had written this myself! How common is that experience amongst managers of volunteers – the pressure to recruit more and more can so often mean less time to ensuer a quality experience. It is a see saw – and is certainly one of the reasons I joined AVM – to ensure that no one needs to be a lone voice.I hope that the conference in March will be an opportunity for managers of volunteers to meet with one another and create some networks of mutual support.

  2. I’ve worked with volunteers for more years than I care to disclose here, and in only one role was there no pressure to recruit more and ever more volunteers.  (The no pressure role was a befriending & respite scheme where the number of clients dictated the number of volunteers and the trustees wanted to keep the scheme small and beautiful).  And it’s not just funders – trustees and senior management are often beguiled by the idea of an ever expanding band of volunteers.  They may have little idea what is involved in managing them day to day.You just wouldn’t approach staff recruitment in that way, would you? eg “HR will evidence its success by doubling the number of employees by this time next year.”  Yet the ‘more is better’ attitude is prevalent.  In fact, I do happen to think that overall more is better, for all the reasons which I don’t need to spell out, BUT:volunteer recruitment planning should be based on need.  The volunteering strategy should reflect the aims of organisational strategy.  Strategy can mean a very simple plan in a small VIO, but it’s still good to have an idea where you’re headed.  The serendipitous exception to this is when an unsolicited enquiry comes in from someone with such useful skills/contacts/ideas that you just have to ease them into the organisation somehow.  You didn’t realise you needed them until they turned up!internal promotion of volunteering to colleagues should be an important part of volunteering staff jds.  We really have to raise our own profile and status as professionals, so that we are seen as experts who can resist mad recruitment targets based on the ‘more is better’ principle.  Have a look at VE’s campaign on Valuing Volunteer Management.sensible resourcing is needed to support and retain volunteers.  I’ve often felt that volunteers have stuck with an organisation through loyalty to clients and a strong sense of duty, rather than the volunteer management skills of the staff – essentially what Mike talks about, although he doesn’t mention the excellent Experts in Volunteering Project – managed by myself! – which you can find out about at http://www.expertsinvolunteering.org.uk 

  3. Many thanks to Debbie and Anne for their insightful thoughts on this ‘old chestnut’ of a topic! Nonetheless, balancing the pressure for quantitatively targeted volunteer programmes against the need for qualitative support is an issue that’s just as pertinent today, You could argue even more so, as over-subscribed funders are perhaps in more of a position to ‘call the shots’ regarding their funding priorities and who they support. To pick up on a couple of the resources mentioned by Debbie and Anne in their replies: You can find out more about Volunteering England’s Volunteer Management programme at http://www.volunteering.org.uk/volunteermanagement More information about AVM’s Volunteer Managers Conference (which Debbie mentioned) can be found in a post on the homepage of this website from my colleague Alan Murray. Hope to see you there! Mike GaleDirector, Association of Volunteer Managers

  4. Thanks for this article. Fascinating reading. For me, the struggle isn’t just quality of the work of volunteers but the quality of relationship we have. I have taken over an expanding network of volunteers and the biggest issue is volunteers feeling undervalued as systems have evolved to cope with bigger numbers of volunteers and also the fact that each volunteer is swimming in a bigger pond.

  5.  Ok, so in the popular parlance, lets do the “Math” here (I know, it grates with me also!)So we have a figure of 700 volunteersNow, let us assume that each volunteer has “supervision” every six weeksLet us also assume that the volunteer co-ordinator is full time 37.5 hours per week(Giving maximum opportunity)That’s 6 weeks x 37.5hrsThis makes a total of 225 available hours in a six week period, or 12,000 minutesNow let’s divide those volunteer co-ordinator minutes by the number of volunteers 12,000 ÷ 700This means that if all volunteers are treated equally, then each of the 700 volunteers has one-one interaction (supervision) with their volunteer co-ordinator, for a total of 17mins 14 seconds within a six week period.That’s 17mins 14 seconds in six weeks, or to put it another way:2 mins 8 seconds a week, or25.6 seconds per volunteer day (based on 1 volunteer day in a 5 day week)Or a grand total of  2 hours 25 minutes per volunteer per yearYes that’s right folks 2 hours 25 mins per year! But it doesn’t end thereBecause this also means that within that recurring six week period/cycle and in all the other chronological measures; a volunteer co-ordinator with 700 volunteers to manage, literally has no time to do anything else in relation to their role and its remit, i.e.No time for AdministrationNo time for Recruitment and selectionNo time for Training volunteersNo time for NetworkingNo time to be involved in wider aspects of volunteeringNo time for their own personal and professional development (i.e. training, supervision)No time to spend informal time with volunteersNo time for organising and running volunteer reward recognition eventsNo time for formal intervention with volunteers between supervisionsNo time to answer emails, letters, telephonesNo time for the many imponderables that often arise in dealing/answering the aforementioned.Etc, etc, etcIn short, there just arent enough hours in the day, even to facilitate minimal supervision.NB. This is of course without the volunteer co-ordinator ever being ill and off work.It could be argued by a person “managing” such numbers, that others take on some of the responsibility of the volunteer co-ordinator through deligation.I don’t have an issue with delegation per’s a, however the old maxim may well apply, in that delegation is in reality economy of effort, although i feel in this instance this would be more an indicator that the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer ratio just doesn’t work.However, just as salient, is that many of us are trying to ensure greater professional recognition of our role, so in such “delegation” and in seemingly handing our role over to any Tom, Dick or Harriet who puts their hand up, or happens to be in the “right” place, at the right time; then what does this say about us, our awareness of self, and our abilities in respect of managing appropriate numbers of people?With the obvious exceptions where large numbers of volunteers are appropriate i.e. the Olympic games. We MUST STOP seeing large numbers volunteers as being a good thing, it isn’t, nor is it impressive.(especially where other people removed from volunteering and volunteer management have, often without appropriate consultation determined them, i.e. politicians for political aims and ideology)The reality is that a trained chimp can get volunteers to volunteer in many of the popular fields. So it’s not big or clever to do so. The real skill is to recruit appropriately with vision, and an appreciation of your own personal limits, and in the many imponderables and challenges that face us all.Chasing numbers just does not add up (excuse the pun), a simple piece of Mathematics demonstrates that in chasing numbers quality, and importantly the quality of the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer interpersonal/intrapersonal relationship must by definition suffer, and does suffer. However, much we may try to convince and delude ourselves otherwise. Current climateWe are entering a critical phase where it is apparent that much like the tale of the Emperors new clothes; reality is distorted, “facts” figures and “best practice” are now being born out of submissive servitude, and/or through fear of job loss, redundancy, and/or ignorance, lack of self awareness, or in being seen as out of step with the “Big Society” (whatever that is!).This means that less and less people are prepared to speak out and say NO, or take a step back and look at what is being demanded of us as individuals and the voluntary sector as a whole.Importantly also, is why as volunteer co-ordinators, we are still so damn light weight, fluffy, and polite. Often simpering our way through challenges like Golem from Lord of the Rings; and in the process surrendering our traditional volunteering values by instalments.Its a tough world out there and we need to be tough in promoting quality environments for volunteersFor if we don’t learn to say no; then like high volume mass produced fast food, volunteers will more and more be seen as being convenient, cheap, and of little substance and value, only to be discarded half eaten when reality bites.Personally, I have no desire to measure, or be measured by how many “burgers” (Volunteers) I can flip in any given year, and in meeting crude meaningless targets created by the many faceless bureaucrats, without any heart or passion for volunteers/volunteering, and which targets and measures are so often despised in other fields and disciplines, and as a result, police can’t police, and nurses can’t nurse, do we wish to collude where by through quantative evaluation, volunteer co-ordinators become ever more distant form the volunteers themselves?So no I wont “flip burgers”, (Volunteers) but rather, I would wish to be and hopefully am; a volunteer co-ordinator that aims to provide a fine dinning quality volunteer experience, rather than a greasy burger van.And FinallyWe are living and working in difficult times, the “Big Society” has attracted little new money, (let us not forget that the volunteer managers capacity builders program aka Strand “C” was reduced by many millions of £’s before it even got of the ground.So do you really trust these people?Many projects are concerned about their futures, and as a result many are foolishly chasing the numbers, and in my opinion selling their volunteering souls, in the hope that larger numbers will attract further funding; but as with everything at the moment there are no guarantees.So I ask you all, my peers, my friends and my colleagues; as the people charged with ensuring volunteers are valued, represented, fully supported and appreciated. As their co-ordinators, and managers.I ask you, is it right, ethical, responsible, and proper to chase the numbers/targets, only to run the risk in being told that the 100’s of volunteers you have taken on your books are no longer able to be supported (i.e. in respect of out of pocket expenses) and as such, some if not all will have to be told they will have to volunteer and be out of pocket also or will no longer be required/afforded, and in “affect/effect” make them redundant!But at least in the short term, you will have met crude measures and imposed “targets” in respect of a volunteers “subjective experience”And at least the volunteers will have had their 17mins of fameQUALITY NOT QUANTITYEVERYTIME!

  6. As so often I entirely agree with N!The difficulty (one of many) is that we ae often lead by people who project fund volunteering, who set these targets to be achieved.At the 2009 AGM we worked with those who attended to look at what we think are the markers of good practice in volunteer management – needless to say ‘numbers of volunteers recruited’ did not appear on this list of criteria we came up with.Our challenge now is to get people – government, funders and CEOs within our organisations, to understand what volunteer managers consider to be “quality” in terms of volunteer management.AVM is the only organisation in England that is dedicated to doing this, and of course we do it all as volunteers, so thhink of this as a call to arms – the more members we have, and the more lively debate we have on our website (such as this one) the more likely our voice will be heard and taken note of.

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