What is ‘volunteering culture’?

In the first of a series of exclusive blogs in the run up to AVM’s “Embedding a Volunteer Culture Within an Organisation” Networking Day on 8 July our guest blogger Lynn Blackadder explores volunteering culture and the factors that can influence it.

I have often asked new clients: ‘What is the volunteering culture like here?’

Sometimes people look a bit vague, so I then ask: ‘Is it a pro-volunteering culture?’. Thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I’m asking with these questions: are paid staff pro-volunteering; or is the organisation a place where volunteering flourishes; or are these the same thing?

It’s not just about how staff feel. Volunteering culture is also shaped by volunteers themselves, and they operate at different levels and in different ways: in charities, at the most senior/responsible level as the Board of Trustees (usually unpaid); at another level, delivering services on the front line; and sometimes, increasingly, at all levels in between – advising, facilitating, influencing.

Volunteers can also operate in a way that one might call ‘political’. ‘Office politics’ is not the domain of paid staff alone.

‘The way things are done around here’ is often how organisational culture is described: a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs that govern how people behave within an organisational structure.

In my experience, rarely are values shared in a negative culture. And volunteers are as likely as staff to become entrenched – perpetuating long established, outdated and undermining ways of working (occasionally with Machiavellian fervour!), influencing through conscious or unconscious bias. Some volunteers can also have a very strong – often inappropriate – sense of entitlement based on the fact that they are not paid and therefore not contracted (‘you can’t tell me what to do’), whilst others assume a subservient role (‘I’m just a volunteer’).

Organisational structure can also negatively set and influence culture – rigidity, bureaucracy and inefficiency. And it’s difficult to implement change when we rely operationally on large numbers of people who are against it.

What does a ‘pro-volunteering’ culture look like? It’s not as simple as there being lots of volunteers around, or finding something for everyone to do who wishes to turn up.

The ‘gift’ of time/expertise has no value if it doesn’t benefit both parties. Staff and volunteers will soon become dissatisfied, disgruntled and ineffective if there isn’t real, meaningful work to be done, in a mutually beneficial way. Customers and beneficiaries are the first to pick up on this negative cultural vibe.

A pro-volunteering culture is a bit like Blackpool Rock: it’s visible at the top and the bottom, and runs in a rich, consistent seam throughout.

Volunteering is more than a means to an end: volunteers are ‘in with the bricks’, influencing and underpinning the organisational vision, aims and plans. Paid staff aren’t afraid of unpaid colleagues – their motivations and abilities. The culture is one of equality, team work, shared values and respect for standards – behaviours and performance. It is one where everyone’s contribution is valued and people celebrate together. There is no volunteer ‘program’: the human resources function leads and develops paid and unpaid people in the same way, whilst sensitive to contractual requirements and individual motivations.

Volunteering is not an ‘add on’, and volunteer leadership and management are recognised as professional skills – not ‘extra’, but essential key tasks in job descriptions. Staff working alongside, rather than directly supervising volunteers, are also trained to understand why people volunteer and how to get the best out of working relationships.

A key test is to ask why staff would want to have their own celebrations without volunteers, e.g. at Christmas time. We don’t always get on with our colleagues, but if staff are more likely to get on better with other staff than volunteers, you’ve got volunteer recruitment wrong at the very least.

This guest blog is by Lynn Blackadder, a coach and consultant with 22 years’ experience of helping organisations involve volunteers. Lynn will be writing several blogs in the run up to AVM’s event on 8 July, exploring volunteering culture and the factors that can influence it.
lynn@lynnblackadder.com , @lynnblackadder )

To book a space on AVM’s “Embedding a Volunteer Culture Within an Organisation” Networking Day click here

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2 thoughts on “What is ‘volunteering culture’?

  1. Thank you, good post.
    I think there’s also a difference between a well-intentioned pro-volunteering culture… and an action-based pro-volunteering culture – a gap I sometimes saw when assessing organisations for Investing in Volunteers.

  2. I’m intrigued by this idea of staff marking celebrations separately from volunteers. I’ve been at an organisation where it was notable that staff had one Christmas party, while volunteers were invited to a separate event at Christmas. This was an organisation where paid and unpaid team members worked alongside within an office on a day-to-day basis. While it confused me at the time, I still find myself thinking about it in a rather uncomfortable way today.

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