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. 


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