“Oh baby please give a little respect to-ooooooo meeeeeeeeee!”, a line from the brilliant 1988 electro-pop anthem A Little Respect from pop tour de force, Erasure. Over the years, I must have heard this song a million times! Recently it’s assumed a new relevance following an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit, but first a bit of background for you…

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I’m relatively new to volunteer management, having had a variety of other positions within the heritage and arts sector. For the past six months I’ve held two part time roles at different museums, with responsibility for around 130 volunteers. Throughout my career I’ve managed teams of paid staff, both large and small, but never such a large volume of people coming from all corners of our society. One of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career is become a volunteer manager (VM) and I have the privilege of working with an amazingly diverse and talented group of people. In my opinion, it is this diversity that’s central to a successful volunteering programme; the differences between us make us stop and think and often lead us to better ways of doing things whilst enriching our own personal learning and development.

Much of my time is spent ensuring that our volunteers are happy, well trained and feel supported in their roles whilst developing skills that will be useful to them in outside of the museum. I try my hardest, as do VMs everywhere, to treat everyone with professionalism, courtesy and respect. We have volunteer agreements in place which state what our organisations will do for the volunteer, and what in turn we can expect from them. Aside from the usual day-to-day niggles, this has been a positive and enriching experience. A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a frustrated and somewhat animated volunteer who made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that they were unhappy with a decision that I had made that day. The strong tone of voice and colourful choice of language used took me by surprise and I felt somewhat anxious and demotivated afterwards.

This incident really got me thinking about how we care for ourselves as volunteer managers; many of us work in organisations with limited resources and often we work in relative isolation. Most VMs appear to be extremely patient and resilient, but we do have our limits! I’ve since sat down with the individual involved, their passion and enthusiasm (two qualities that are to be applauded!) had run away with them. They were mortified that they had caused upset, things are now fine, and we’ve moved on. We are only human after all. I know I’m far from perfect, who is? However, it’s made me think about the relationships we have in the workplace and how we look after ourselves when things become challenging

In February, I attended AVM’s Ways to wellbeing and productivity for volunteer managers, the first event of its kind and a litmus test to gauge the appetite for this topic amongst the VM community. I found the productivity session, led by Rob Jackson, exceptionally useful and I’ve radically changed my relationship with email as a result (this is worthy of its own blog article and I digress slightly!). The other wonderful speakers presented us with some amazing tools, developed to deal with our internal response to difficult situations with guidance on how to adopt them in the workplace. We also received suggestions on how we can improve our overall resilience.

Managing difficult situations and adopting self-care comes with time and practice. This event certainly gave me pointers to help me navigate my way. However, one thing remains clear to me and that is give a little respect to me and I’ll certainly give it back to you.

Colin Chester is the Manager of East Grinstead Museum as well as the Volunteering and Training Manager at the London Canal Museum.