Moving to action – addressing inclusion and diversity in volunteering

In our latest AVM Bitesize, we chat with Dr Helen Timbrell and Hadji Singh about Helen’s recent research: “What the bloody hell are you doing here?” A comparative study of the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and White volunteers in four organisations

Improving the diversity of our volunteers and creating more inclusive, welcoming environments is top of the wish list for many volunteer managers. But how do we actually do this? How do we move from knowing there’s an issue around the lack of diversity in volunteering, as established frequently and most recently in NCVO’s Time Well Spent Report, to moving to purposeful action? 

Focusing on experiences 

“Some White volunteers were simply unable to conceive that the experience of a volunteer could be impacted by ethnicity or that their own experience would not be shared by others of a different ethnicity.” (report extract, page 16)

To move to a place of sustained, purposeful action we need to understand more about the actual experiences of volunteers within organisations. What is actually going on for people? Knowing this helps us to clarify where things are going well, so we can do more of that, and where things are tricky, so we can invest in targeted improvements. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing here?’, Dr Helen Timbrell’s recent research, which compares the experiences of BAME volunteers and White volunteers in four organisations, does exactly that.

In our latest AVM BiteSize, which we’re making available to all, we chat with Helen, and Hadji Singh, about the research. Hadji is a volunteer with the Witness Service at Citizens Advice, one of the organisations who participated in the research. To get a copy of the report, do email Helen at [email protected].

Where next? 

“Organisations need clear strategies for their work on equality, diversity and inclusion….those strategies must specifically focus on the role volunteering, volunteer managers and volunteers play in creating inclusive organisations”  (report extract, page 35)

Have a listen or read the BiteSize transcript, and/or read the report and then let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

This is important work helping all those involving volunteers to better understand where we could make a difference to developing an inclusive environment for BAME volunteers to feel they have a place and a voice.

At AVM we are acutely aware of the lack of visible diversity at our events and from those on behalf of our members and would value the opportunity to address this. From a practising volunteer manager’s point of view, we do try to ask what we are doing that’s adding to the problem, and this is an important question for the profession to grapple with – where is volunteer management itself getting in the way?

This is a scary question but with an open mind and an assumption of positive intent (if sometimes unintentionally clumsy practise), we believe we could begin to work in a more inclusive way where those who are seldom heard from can have a voice. This is, after all, the power and strength of volunteering

There is an obvious role for organisational leaders to create the environment for honest dialogue and reflection, and to introduce measures that drive results. As Helen talks about in the BiteSize, there is also a clear need for us, as volunteer managers, to build our own knowledge and skills around diversity and inclusion, in order to then support volunteers.

At the same time, as Hadji says, there is also a real fear of getting it wrong. Learning through doing is crucial here, and feeling a bit scared is usually a positive sign that you’re learning something new, but if people are too scared, and lack support, that’s not going to help.  So how might we, as a community of volunteer managers, support each other on our journey to develop purposeful inclusive practices that make a meaningful difference? As the report highlights, to be successful this will need to be focused on action, not just more discussion!  If you’re interested in joining in this important work please do get in touch [email protected]

BiteSize with Helen Timbrell and Hadji Singh

Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy?


Screenshot of BBC Radio 4 In Business: Managing Volunteers episode

When producer Beth Sagar-Fenton asked on Twitter for people to share tricky experiences of managing volunteers for an upcoming programme, I think many volunteer managers were a little apprehensive about the motivations. Volunteering and volunteer management can often have quite a narrow narrative – either 100% brilliant (an amazing army of awesomeness etc) or a set of lazy assumptions about how an unpaid workforce could possibly be managed effectively. With the tone of the crowdsourcing questions, I think we were all nervous about the picture that might be painted.

As it turns out we shouldn’t have worried – what followed was 30 minutes of well researched and thoughtful content, which accurately summed up the unique complexities of managing volunteers. True, there were some comments that irritated, as Sally says below:

Interesting piece – useful to shine a light on the role of Volunteer Managers. I did bristle at the comment around ‘use of volunteers’ we do not USE anybody, volunteers (and staff) are valued contributors to our missions, we involve, engage, support but we don’t use (rant over)

— Sally Seddon (@sallyseddonSI) August 30, 2019

Overall however this was a welcome overview.

Here are the programme highlights:

  1. Volunteer managers are unsung heroes. The phrase is cheesy, but this was a real acknowledgement from the start that the role of volunteer manager was important.
  2. We have some great insight and research to help us continue to design relevant and impactful volunteering experiences. The NCVO report into their survey of the volunteering experience can be found on their website.
  3. Volunteering is not a free resource – it requires careful management. Yes, I know WE all know that, but how many people outside of the non-profit sector or even just volunteer management know that? It’s great to see the issues covered by In Business in order to reach a wider audience.
  4. Volunteer management is distinctive to paid-staff management. Again, I think we all know that, but having this accessibly communicated to a wider audience is crucial. As the programme briefly touched on, volunteer manager roles are often the first to go when funds are tight, so raising awareness of this distinctiveness with decision makers who may not have direct volunteer management experience is useful.

    “Volunteer management is something quite distinctive” – Jarina talking about the “exceptional people skills” needed in volunteer management. Listen now to Jarina on @BBCRadio4

    — NCVO Volunteering (@NCVOvolunteers) August 29, 2019

  5. The exceptional people skills talked about by NCVO’s Jarina Choudhury include the ability to perform emotional labour; the ability to manage your own, and other people’s emotions. This was one of the key findings from the National Trust commissioned research into the differences between managing paid staff and managing volunteers. You can read the full report online.

    While many think volunteer managers can learn from managers, Dr Jenna Ward explains how the opposite is more true. Listen more on @BBCRadio4 https://t.co/wnqwIKW6yX

    — Shaun Delaney (@shaundelaney) August 29, 2019

  6. The programme concluded that there is much that the world of HR management can learn from volunteer management. A recent research briefing from NCVO reports that across all sectors, the ability to manage your own feelings, or handle the feelings of others, is the second biggest reported ‘soft’ skills gap, and the least improved skill over the past few years. Perhaps sharing our skills in emotional labour is our biggest lever?

Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy? was an insightful overview into the world of volunteer management. I know from colleagues it’s already being shared with non-volunteer manager colleagues to provide a compelling introduction. A useful resource now and in the future. 

BBC Radio 4 in Business ‘Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy?’ originally aired Thursday 29 August 2019. 


Listen again

Annabel Smith is an AVM Board member and Head of Volunteering and Participation Development at the National Trust.