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.