My mini-manifesto for volunteer management and other posts

A selection of posts by John Ramsey – originally posted on his blog on

A few years ago the Commission on the Future of Volunteering (in England) was set up to debate the future of volunteering. Like most things in life, some of it was great, some of it was good and some could have been better.

My disappointment though was it’s approach. For me, it should have started by being much more explicit in saying that if we want an effective volunteering culture in our society then this is what the volunteering landscape needs to look like, and then looked at how we could work towards it. Instead it seemed to go for more of a sticking plaster approach.

So for my mini-manifesto I want to start by laying down some key descriptors for what I think the volunteer management landscape should look like, from the macro to the micro:

  • It is intrinsically understood by all that successful effective volunteering relies on successful, effective volunteer management. And successful, effective volunteering means more and better services for clients.
  • The debate on volunteering policy and the development of volunteering, at all levels, involves volunteer managers as a matter of course.
  • That there is a volunteer management career structure.
  • That we have a professional association who we belong to. Who consults with us. Who speaks for us. Who inspires us. Who, through our consent, leads on volunteer management.
  • Volunteer management is a core part of what an organisation, that is largely reliant on volunteers, does. It is not an ‘add-on’ to another job. It is not a role that is simply funded when there is project funding. And there is parity of pay and responsibility.
  • Volunteering and by extension volunteer management is a standing item on a board’s agenda just as finance is.

Now I’m not going to put together an action plan on what we need to do but here are some of the key actions I think we must take if we are to move volunteer management forward:

  1. Don’t isolate what we do. Whenever we talk about volunteer management we should always be talking about its role in delivering more for our clients because that is what we’re about; making sure that the clients get the best from the services volunteers deliver.
  2. Sort out what we are – when we talk about ‘volunteer managers’ we are broadly talking about two different roles: the person who directly manages the volunteers and the person who leads the development of volunteering. We need to be clear about the different levels of ‘volunteer management’.
  3. Sort out what we are called – as Susan Ellis has pointed out before, the problem with volunteer manager’ is that volunteer is both a noun and an adjective. And there’s so many titles out there.. with a common name comes a common identity.
  4. Speak with one voice – If your country has an association for volunteer managers, join it. If it doesn’t, form one. And this applies to local networks, subject-specific networks etc. The ability to influence, the ability to change, comes from making links with each other, sharing knowledge and ideas, and debating them. And with numbers come respect and the ability to speak out.
  5. Measure our success – my continuing rant is the volunteering movement’s failure to measure what it does. Debra Allcock Tyler wrote in Third Sector magazine about the ‘evidence of the bleeding obvious’ Whilst I love the phrase I think she’s completely wrong. There is no such thing as the ‘bleedin obvious’, you just have to spend a few minutes googling to see some of the stuff people believe. And it’s not just about showing something works. It’s about showing the value of it. In the real world resources are competed over. Funders (whether govt, commissioners, the CEO, your manager) aren’t necessarily saying you/your project doesn’t work, they’re saying something else works better. And yes quite often those decisions can be made on gut instinct, but if you don’t have the evidence do you really want to be relying on that? We need to prove that skilled and supported volunteer management works, and most pertinently works for our clients.
  6. Be accredited – In one breath we’re saying that volunteer management is a skilled role and yet in the other saying we don’t asses the people who do it. That’s just crazy. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. How can we expect other people to value what we do if we can’t demonstrate the skills that are needed.

Finally and perhaps most importantly…

We need to decide if this is what we as ‘volunteer managers’ want. This is not something a small group of people can do. Aside from the practical capacity issues it needs to have legitimacy. But where is the mass rising up of volunteer managers? Quite often I hear the same old reasons: I don’t have time, I’m not sure if I’ll still be here in 6 months etc etc. There’s a reason for this. It’s because volunteer management is not valued and so it becomes a vicious circle. We need to break that circle and to do that requires sacrifice, commitment and belief.

@JamieT I should have said I was referring to ‘formal’ volunteering. I think there’s a growing awareness that there’s all manner of ways in which people can engage with their community and which we have yet to understand how it relates to more traditional volunteering, and how organisations such as mine can benefit from. For me, just as volunteering is a very flexible beast so is volunteer management. And just as people themselves would not identify themselves as volunteers so people who organise it would not identify themselves as volunteer managers. The interesting thing in relation to the clean up is that groups of people were inspired to turn up and help out only to realise they weren’t needed – and we’ve seen the same thing happen in some of the recent global natural disasters. If we can establish a professional core of volunteer management then it can then spread out and adapt to the challenges that different types of volunteering provide.

Having said that I do think there is a tendency to label anything that moves as volunteering which I’ll maybe blog about later

To follow up with @jackal, like you I know a number of skilled and experienced volunteer managers. What I struggle with is what is stopping them from shouting? When I got into the profession one of the first things I did was find out who else was doing what I did and what could I learn from them. I work for a large national charity with a strategic remit. What I’m constantly surprised by is people in a similar role to mine who don’t get involved in external debate, and who not only don’t get involved but don’t see the relevance to their organisation’s work. I think we all have an individual responsibility to be shouting, like you say, about volunteer management, and a group responsibility to be joining together in that shouting. And I would say to all volunteer managers to join AVM as @Debbieu mentioned so we can start that group shouting going. And as @JamieT and @suevjones mentioned an AVM group on here would be great.

I suspect I am as frustrated as @uncollectiveconsciousness at the lack of progress in many areas of volunteer management. @DJ has talked in his excellent blog at of ‘echo chambers’, of people talking about the same old things to the same old people. One of our problems is that up until recently it has been the same old people and this is where social media can play a part – to spread the message and get more people involved. The danger with social media is that much of it is transitory and lacks a collective memory. For example, in a few weeks time this blog will be but a distant message (although as @uncollectiveconsciousness suggests, I’ll put this in my diary to have a look at in a year’s time to see what progress we have made)

The challenge is for how people like AVM can capture this growing enthusiasm and involvement. Over to you @Debbieu!

Post by John Ramsey on ivo [ original post] – 5th September 2011

Responding to my mini-manifesto for volunteer management

Earlier this year I blogged my mini-manifesto for volunteer management.

In it I highlighted what I felt were some of the key actions that were needed to take forward the profession.

Over the next couple of months I will be taking each point and expanding my own thinking around them.

So, the first issue I want to deal with is ‘Sort out what we are called’.

I know some people feel we spend too much time navel-gazing about terminology, ignoring wider issues around leadership and direction in the sector. However, I think these issues are inter-linked. Without a common identity how can we have a common purpose? And without clarity amongst ourselves, how can there be clarity in the world we’re trying to influence?

Our failure to sort out these fundamentals means the message we’re promoting is being constantly undermined.

The three problems that I see are:

1. Firstly, the term ‘volunteer manager’. In the UK this is the generic term (along with volunteer management) that we use to describe what we do.

For many years this is what I did day in, day out. Now, though, I work on developing volunteering policy and strategy, I don’t actually manage a single volunteer. I’m not a volunteer manager in the strictest sense. And it’s not just me. I know a number of people who say the same. But volunteer management isn’t just the world I feel part of, it’s also the key that unlocks the power of volunteering. How can I not be a part of volunteer management if I am involved with volunteering?

2. Secondly, what are we called? There are so many different terms that it feel like organisations have access to a secret random generator: add volunteer/volunteers/volunteering to support/development/resource/services to officer/co-ordinator/manager/leader.

And that’s just those who have it in their job title. Not only is it confusing, but it means that comparisons can be meaningless. If I wanted to create division and disarray within a profession one of the things I would do is make sure people have a vast array of job titles to remove any sense of commonality or cohesion.

3. And thirdly, the term ‘volunteer’ (no, this isn’t another lengthy exposition about whether people are turned on/off by being called volunteers). The most commonly used term in job titles involves ‘volunteer’. But that just creates confusion to people not in our world. To them a volunteer manager is simply an unpaid manager. And to every person we can talk to and explain the difference, there’s a thousand we’ll never reach and will remain ignorant of what we do.

So what have we got?

We have a professional name that some people can’t relate to, a profession that has so many job titles it discourages consistency and unity, and a profession that doesn’t actually describe what it does to the rest of the world.

Does that sound like a profession ready to move forward?

That’s why I believe it’s imperative we sort this out.

So what to do?

Over time, I think this will start to partly resolve itself. As we start to think of volunteer management not just as a profession but also a career (which I’ll be blogging about next year) then I think by its very nature titles will have to be more structured.

But, that’s the easy way out, that’s just saying: here’s the problem – it may resolve itself – good, we don’t need to do anything about.

This is what we can do now. It’s not earth-shattering. It’s really quite simple. It involves just three letters I – N – G

I’m not a volunteer manager, but I am a volunteering manager.

It may not be the best answer but it seems the most straightforward. It will encourage consistency by having all job titles start with ‘volunteering’ and not a single person can confuse that with not being paid to do a job.

Post by John Ramsey on ivo [ original post] – 16th December 2011

It’s time we came out of the closet

The reason why British Cycling is so successful is relatively simple. They identified their objectives – winning medals – and then invested in the best people, the best ideas, the best training and the best equipment to achieve that.

It’s easier said than done, of course – but it isn’t magic or sleight of hand. As in all areas of life, giving people the best tools, knowledge and opportunities to succeed invariably leads to the best outcomes.

And it’s no different in volunteering.

I will never tire of saying this: Volunteer management is about respecting our volunteers sufficiently that we properly invest in them to maximise their engagement and participation, and ensure the very best outcomes for our beneficiaries.

And yet volunteer management still remains a well-kept secret. An incredibly well-kept secret bearing in mind last year nearly 300,000 people on LinkedIn said they had ‘Volunteer Management’ as a skill. Really? Where are they? Because in the last 15 or so years I’ve been involved in volunteer management I’ve never seen or heard 300,000 volunteer managers at conferences, workshops, on message boards, tweeting, writing blogs, involved with International Volunteer Managers Appreciation day etc etc.

And this is one of the key problems. There are an incredible number of people who manage volunteers, but very few of them who are engaged with volunteer management outside of their day-to-day work.

In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking the profile of volunteer managers is the same as modern-day lighthouse keepers; just a handful of them who occasionally pop up to make sure the lights are flashing.

The vast majority of volunteer managers are invisible, which means their voices are left unheard. And everyone suffers as a result.

This is what we need to tackle – we need to encourage and enable more volunteer managers to be involved and engaged in the debate. Because, if we want to achieve anything, we need to achieve a critical mass of volunteer managers; a large cohort of active people who cannot be ignored or written off.

Getting Started

The hardest thing is, of course, getting started. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, but taking that first step – as every toddler learning to walk knows – can be very difficult.

So here are some things you can do…

1. Share other people’s blogs etc on Twitter and Facebook (or simply just ‘like’ them). Not only does this spread the message but it gives the writer confidence that people are actually reading what they are saying.

2. Reply to other people’s blogs and questions. There are a number of fora that you can do this on – here on ivo, UKVPMs (and its sister sites OZVPM and CyberVPM) and have a look at this collection of some of the best sites across the globe

3. Write your own blog. Your opinion is as valid as anybody else’s. See @BigDSmall’s great blog on ‘Getting thoughtful about VM blogging’

4. Tweet on Thoughtful Thursdays #ttvolmgrs

5. Attend a local VM network. If you’re not sure you have one then contact your local Volunteer Centre.

6. And if there isn’t one, set up your own VM network – and great kudos to @addammh for recently doing so in Manchester.

And most importantly of all, encourage a VM colleague to do any of the above.

None of us have the time to do it all, but by doing something it not only creates its own momentum but gives us all the confidence to do more.

Broadening our Horizons

Right. So far, so good. We’ve started talking to each other, swapping thoughts, challenging ideas. More volunteer managers are becoming engaged in the world of volunteer management. But, that’s just the starting point – simply talking to each other won’t change much. If we want to change the world we need to move outside our cozy VM comfort zone.

The big bad world can be very big and very bad. Being the lone voice can be very, very frightening. And that’s why it’s important we become more visible to our peers, so as a group we become stronger, more supportive and more confident.

Where to start, as ever, is the hardest point. Just remember three things:

  • If an issue is about volunteering, then invariably it’s about volunteer management.
  • Volunteering cuts across many boundaries, issues and sectors. I often look at Volunteering England’s policy statements to get a better understanding of the cross-cutting nature of volunteering.
  • One of the driving forces for the media is increasing readership. If an issue is getting more comments and hits then they will pay more attention to it.

So what can you do? Here are some of my ideas…

1. Comment on media articles and stories, raising the issue of volunteer management. Check out Third Sector, Guardian Voluntary Sector and Civil Society. And if you can’t comment , why not ‘like’ a story or comment. Most stories get a handful of comments at best – what do you imagine they’d think if they regularly got a large number of comments about volunteer management?

2. Respond to opinion pieces like Rob Jackson’s volunteering column in Third Sector.

3. Respond to sector questions and consultations. The big one at the moment is the VE/NCVO consultation. This is IMPORTANT. It’s a lot easier to shape a strategy and vision at the start than to change it. Make sure you tell them what they should do about volunteer management. Remember, your opinion is as valid as anybody else’s.

4. Become a member of the Association of Volunteer Managers. They are there to support and represent us. The more members they have, the more powerful they become.

5. Become a member of NCVO and Volunteering England. As members you have a say in the direction of the organisation.

6. If you don’t like what those membership organisations are doing, don’t just moan about it, get more involved. Contact the CEO/trustee board directly, join working groups or apply to be a trustee.

7. Become a trustee for other voluntary organisations. The more VM-trustees, the more organisations that will understand the importance of volunteer management.

8. Directly raise issues with policy makers or influencers whether that be your local council, ACEVO or even the Cabinet Office. It’s never been easier to voice your opinion and gather supporters to join you. Even Nick Hurd has his own twitter address @minforcivsoc

I know for many people none of this is easy. But, once you dip your toe in you’ll never look back. And the field of volunteer management will be eternally grateful.

Please do add anything else you can do. Or are doing.

Post by John Ramsey on ivo [ original post] – 13th September 2012

So, how far have we come?

Two years ago I blogged my Mini-Manifesto for Volunteer Management as an attempt to look at how we can take volunteer management forward. As we approach the end of 2013 I wanted to look at how, if at all, volunteer management has developed. So what has happened?

Well some of the positives for me… The big one was the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Volunteering worked. It worked because it was owned, valued and celebrated at the highest levels within LOCOG; because proper investment was made in volunteering, and because volunteers weren’t just allowed to be themselves, they were positively encouraged to be themselves. Yes, it’s is obviously different in size, budget and awareness to all other volunteering programmes, but the underlying principles that lay behind its success are applicable to all organisations.

The merger of NCVO and Volunteering England feels like it has already given greater impetus to volunteering. Volunteering and Social Action is one of the four themes of Project 2015, Mike Locke recently gave great evidence on volunteering to the House of Lords Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Committee and they’ve appointed Kristen Stephenson as the new Management and Good Practice Manager.

Stephen Bubb of ACEVO has finally recognised that volunteering is freely given, but not cost free.

‘Third Sector’ now has a regular blog from robjconsulting on volunteering, and there are an increasing number of blogs here on volunteering and volunteer management.

suevjones and the VM Movement team have done great work on not just setting up Thoughtful Thursdays but keeping it going, getting guest bloggers and an increasing number of tweets.

Thanks to all the blogs and tweets we are having a much more constructive discussion around the evolution of volunteer management. And in particular debate around the role of volunteering in the wider participation agenda, and the relationship between management, engagement and leadership.

This year’s AVM’s conference looked at a number of important and fascinating issues such as Defining the Profession, the Value of Volunteer Managers, Connecting Learning and Sharing, Management vs Engagement, and Learning from Volunteers about Volunteer Management.

We’re seeing inspirational people like addammh, Emma_C_Shelter and emmamakarova setting up VM networks and get-togethers (and my apologies if I missed you out –please do mention it below).

This year’s IVMDay was the best ever.

But, but, but…

There was great lessons to be learned from Olympic and Paralympic Games but have they been widely disseminated, have they been shared, have they been learned? Err… no. The amazing impetus it could have given us has been lost.

There is still a lack of leadership at the top of most organisations. Volunteering is not their responsibility, it’s for the VM to ‘get on with’, despite volunteering being, in many cases integral to the organisation. The funding cuts that the sector has undergone can be seen as a litmus test for how far VM has advanced. And it many cases the test has been failed as organisations fall back on tired methods of trying to increase the giving of money rather than being innovative in encouraging new of ways of giving time to meet their objectives. (And there needs to be a real focus on ACEVO on how they’re going to follow up Stephen’s Bubb announcement with their members).

Our failure to press Government on distinguishing volunteering within their policy narrative has allowed a number of unintentional consequences (see robjconsulting excellent blog

Success is still generally measured in numbers and hours. We still have a collective and individual failure in articulating the real impact that volunteering and volunteer management has.

We still don’t understand our metrics. It is basic business-sense that you need to know what you are doing, who’s doing it, whether that’s working and whether you can continue doing it in the future.

We don’t know what a volunteer management career structure looks like, let alone have one.

We have no formal accreditation. I know this a controversial topic for many but how can we expect other people to value what we do if we can’t independently demonstrate the skills that are needed?

Despite the positives, the VM landscape is still very fragmented. We still haven’t drawn a line in the sand about Volunteer Management. Are we afraid to properly define Volunteer Management? To objectively analyse the skills, knowledge and experience needed? To do what most other respected, well-known professions do?

Because to me there’s one very simple question we have to resolve. And until we do, we have a long way to go…

Does the average person in the street know what a Volunteer Manager is?

Simple question. And a simple answer.


Post by John Ramsey on ivo [ original post] – 22nd November 2013

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