NCVO’s Chief Executive talks about the importance of Volunteer Management

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, raised the importance of Volunteer Managers and great volunteer leadership and management skills to make certain volunteers are properly valued and supported in all charities. This was a key part of Sir Stuart’s State of the Sector Address, where an audience of over 1,000 Chief Executives, Directors and Trustees heard an overview of the big issues and key areas for the voluntary sector, as part of the Evolve Summit on Monday 17 June 2013.

During the speech multiple references were made to how more can be done to harness the power of volunteering. About inspiring a new group of volunteers and organisations to create high quality opportunities and recognising the importance of ensuring great volunteer management practice and leadership.

During the day volunteering and good volunteer management was a theme running through all the main speakers with Boris Johnson and Veronica Wadley talking about Volunteering in the Age of Austerity, the Olympics and Team London. Jon Cruddas MP talking about Labour’s vision for ‘rebuilding Britain’ and their alternative to the Big Society. Dame Barbara Stocking, former CEO of Oxfam, talking about the contributions of volunteers and empowering volunteers to campaign. Nick Hurd MP talking about Big Society; and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson also spoke about the importance of volunteers and volunteer management.

NCVO kindly supported two AVM volunteer Directors to attend, represent AVM and the emergent field of professional volunteer management. NCVO, following its merger with VE, wants to focus more on volunteering and work together with AVM.

We know that volunteer leadership is about maximising the opportunities presented by people’s time and talents. Professional volunteer leadership is vital to deliver organisational aims and this message came across really strongly throughout the day.

Response to Third Sector Article Reporting Francis Maude’s Speech

Please find below AVM’s letter in response to the Third Sector article on Francis Maude’s speech last week.



The Association of Volunteer Managers notes that Francis Maude MP has some perception of the issues facing managers of volunteers and volunteers, and welcomes any ideas he might have for enhancing and facilitating the involvement of volunteers through volunteer management. However, from the context in which his speech was reported in Third Sector (30 June 11), it appears that he believes increasing the number of managers of volunteers would mean that more volunteers are able to be involved. This seems similar to the previous Government’s belief that more volunteers equals better and more effective services provided by volunteer involving organisations. Involving volunteers effectively is however far more complex than simply a numbers game.

Mr Maude identified the need for training as key for any public sector workers wishing to become managers of volunteers. As with any profession, training is key to learning the necessary skills to be able to work in that profession, however it seems that Mr Maude fails to take into account that the need for practical experience is as much, if not more, needed in mastering a profession.

There seems to be a perception that managing volunteers is easy and that anyone with even the smallest amount of management experience can do it. If Mr Maude’s remarks as reported are indeed accurate and represent the views of the Coalition Government it would seem that (as with the previous Government) they still have much to learn about both volunteering and volunteer management.

While up-skilling potential and existing managers of volunteers is vital in developing the effectiveness of volunteer involvement it can only be realised through good governance and proper resourcing. If Mr Maude and the Coalition Government are serious about supporting volunteering and realising the Big Society, their focus should be in encouraging the senior management teams and trustee boards of volunteer involving organisations to invest accordingly and in proportion to the vital nature of volunteer support and involvement..

Yours faithfully,

Sean Cobley

Chair, Association of Volunteer Managers

Managing the future of volunteering

Nick Hurd speaking at AVM's conference 2012, Sean Cobley (left) AVM Chair

Nick Hurd speaking at AVM’s conference 2012, Sean Cobley (left) AVM Chair

The Association of Volunteer Managers had its inaugural conference today (9th March 2011) focussing on volunteer management and the Big Society. Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society addressed the conference setting how he saw the role of volunteer management in the Big Society. He came armed with as many questions as answers, but the fact that he was there at all was surely testament to the recognition of volunteer management’s value to the Government’s current policy agenda.

A short synopsis of what Hurd shared: Big Society is about cultural change, it’s a long process and it’s going to be difficult.

Interestingly, given the audience of professionals working in volunteering- he chose to underline the notion that Big Society is “more than volunteering”. That this point needs to be made at all, signals an underlying sense of how critical volunteering is to the Big Society. Volunteering may not be the be all and end all of the Big Society, but when all’s said and done it’s the idea of volunteering that people keep coming back to to explain the Big Society to an often confused and baffled public.

Whatever the link between volunteering and the Big Society in the minds of policy makers, Nick Hurd insisted that volunteer management was a crucial part of the equation. He pointed to the funding that the Office of Civil Society (OCS) is going to make available through the European Year of the Volunteer specifically for volunteer management as just one example.

He shared a short anecdote about an encounter he had had with Baroness Julia Neuberger at the time of her work on the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. When he asked her for one thing that’s crucial to the future of volunteering she responded simply: “volunteer managers”. This was a Minister keen to build bridges.

He addressed questions from delegates where Government policy seemed to run counter to this expressed support for volunteering in the Big Society at the Cabinet Office. For example:

  • Budget cuts to the voluntary sector including infrastructure will result in making it harder, not easier for volunteer managers to do their job
  • By making public service reform such a prominent aspect of the Big Society public perception now is that the Government is asking volunteers to step into fill gaps left by the retrenchment of the state. This perception whether or not it is founded in fact is making it harder, not easier, to recruit volunteers
  • Mandatory work activity (JSA reform) runs counter to the ethos of volunteering and the voluntary sector. As a result, work programmes previously run on a voluntary basis with those out of work- would no longer make sense in the voluntary sector if they became mandatory. Again, this policy may lead to less volunteering, not more.

Nick Hurd’s response to the issue of budget cuts seemed to be: we know it’s painful, but it is temporary adjustment. It will be worth it in the long run.

His response to the public service reform was to say that this public perception will change over time – and insisted that Government had a role to play in leading this change in perceptions and culture. In fact, he gave the impression that a large part of the Government’s approach to volunteering was in how it could be a vehicle for changing social attitudes to giving and social action. There are a number of policies designed to change the attitudes from the National Citizen Service that’s aimed at the attitudes of the nation’s 16 year olds, through to the “civic service” initiative which challenges civil servants to rethink their relationship to the communities they work with.

In terms of contradictions in Government policy – at one stage Nick Hurd joked, “Welcome to Government”. But he did not accept the point about mandatory work activity and suggested this contradiction was more semantic, than actual, and could be overcome.
In terms of the Government’s role in fostering a vibrant and efficient infrastructure for volunteering in this country, Nick Hurd told delegates “he didn’t need any lectures on the importance of volunteering infrastructure”.

He agreed it was important, but was not clear on how it could be funded in the future. It should involve Central Government to a degree, but also the Big Lottery Fund and local authorities had to play their part.

Interestingly, he also floated the idea that longer term umbrella organisations should receive much more of their funding direct from their members or “customers”. If this could be achieved, then Hurd believed infrastructure bodies would become much more efficient than they are today.

At the moment the complex and fragmented system of funding is too thinly spread to make it effective and that too much of volunteer managers’ time is spent fundraising to make it efficient. This issue of infrastructure was one of the big questions that Nick Hurd came with which was: what kind of infrastructure do we need to be able to improve and shape the quality of volunteering experiences?

Another strand of the Government’s approach included more effectively leveraging the links between local businesses and the communities in which they’re present. He spoke about a new initiative to develop “business connectors” who could help establish fruitful relationships for both the voluntary sector and local businesses. This was separate from, but could run in parallel with, the idea to train community organisers to do the same kind of work forging links across communities.

Hurd made reference to the support the Government has given to Chris White’s Private Member’s Bill that aims to make social impact and value a key requirement in the commissioning process in future. It will be interesting to see whether these kinds of measures will effectively open up the space necessary for volunteering and volunteer management to play a role in service provision that can compete with private sector providers. Some delegates flagged up concerns that services built on volunteer management models would not be able to compete on private sector bids for contracts on price alone.

When challenged Hurd accepted the development of volunteer management required nudging organisations to change their behaviour, and that it could not all be resolved by establishing the right kind of infrastructure. On the issue of professionalization of volunteer management, Hurd somewhat baldly stated that he had no interest in this agenda and this should not be the agenda of any Government. This [professionalization], he said, was a matter for volunteer managers themselves.

There were no huge surprises in Hurd’s words, but it was refreshing to have a discussion that centred on how the Government understands what role volunteer management can play in the Big Society agenda. It formed the basis for what was a really informative and productive discussion on the future of the role of volunteer management. Long may this dialogue and discussion with volunteer managers continue.

Volunteering adding value to services taken away

There’s a mantra from volunteer management’s missing manual that’s often repeated. It goes something like this:

“the role of volunteering in public service delivery is to add value”

It comes with a caveat though: if no public service exists for volunteers to add value to, all bets are off. Up to now, that’s meant that volunteers that identify a social need (that no current public service meets), always have the last resort of mustering all the resources they can get their hands on and providing the service themselves.

New territory

This model of volunteering in public services built around adding value has developed over many years. In particular, the emphasis of adding value to established services seeks to avoid the spectre of volunteering roles substituting paid roles. Now with the Big Society we’re entering new territory. It’s a policy with the express aim of substituting public services that are publicly funded, with citizen-powered services that may be publicly and or privately funded.

As David Cameron restates in his recent defence of the Big Society:

“devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community”

Despite these kinds of references to how volunteering is at the heart of the Big Society project, it’s still not clear what it’s impact on volunteering will be. One defining feature of Big Society policy is how public service reform will impact on how we think about volunteering.

Too often this debate has been framed as two competing assumptions about whether volunteering and voluntary action are:

  • a ‘nice to have’ because they provide additional goods and services of public value; or,
  • a fundamental part of our society because they are the way we can access many public goods and services at all.

These competing visions of volunteering are nothing new, and actually aren’t really in competition at all. Despite how they’re often presented. Now with Big Society reform on the policy agenda it feels like there’s a new impetus to better understanding the tension between how these two visions intersect. Changing how these ways of approaching volunteering come together could mean a radically redefined sense of volunteering, not just in public service delivery, but beyond.

Volunteers complement and supplement

When I saw Janet Fleming citing the ‘adding value’ mantra in her post, “Placing a volunteer in a key role raises many issues” for the Voluntary Sector Network’s blog, it struck me just how this prevailing consensus about volunteering is being challenged by the current Big Society debate.

Fleming illustrated the thrust of her argument about volunteering at a senior level in an organisation by quoting the agreement between Volunteering England and the TUC:

  • The involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service;
  • The added value of volunteers should be highlighted as part of commissioning or grantmaking process but their involvement should not be used to reduce contract costs;

This agreement highlights why the mantra about volunteers adding value has featured so prominently in thinking and practice in the UK over the last decade: job substitution. For many years the emphasis has been on ‘involving volunteers’ in the delivery of public services. For example, in 2003 the National Centre for Volunteering produced a report typical of the time called “Changing the Face of Social Services“ Volunteers adding value in service delivery” (PDF). It provided guidance on good practice for involving volunteers in public services:

First of all, its important to decide if you actually want to involve volunteers. Try talking to peers and colleagues in other social services departments or NHS Trusts to help you make your decision. Youll need to ask:

  • Are there specific projects or departments youd like to involve volunteers in, and are there roles for them to complement your service?
  • How will they add value?
  • How will they help you to deliver your strategic plan and meet your objectives? [p.21]

In 2008, the Commission on the Future of Volunteering essentially reiterated this position, albeit in different tone, when it recommended that:

“…Where employers involve volunteers in their work, which many charities do as a matter of course. There is more scope for developing this in the public sector and, where it is delivering services on behalf of the state, the private sector (for example, care homes and prison services). The critical tests are that volunteers add genuine value and do not substitute for core service provision.” [p.11-12]

However, this position assumes we’re clear about what exactly ‘core service provision’ is. With Big Society and the very deliberate retrenchment of the state the official goal posts have moved. We’re now radically unclear about what current ‘core service provision’ is. In other words, where are the services and what future is there for the services that volunteers can add value to?

Big Society redefines volunteering

Big Society proponents appear to have another vision for the role of volunteers (otherwise known as citizens contributing to their community). Volunteers’ activity could well play a part in deciding where local communities draw the line between essential and non-essential services. Voluntary action may be both arbiter and agent- helping to decide what services exist and helping to carry them out too.

However, by giving volunteering such a double meaning risks politicising the act of volunteering to help with the delivery of local public services.

  • If I volunteer for a public service that’s no longer considered as ‘core service provision’ and has lost its funding, how will volunteering with the service impact on the professionalisation of that provision?
  • Will engagement of volunteers fill a short term gap in capacity to deliver a service? Or will volunteering with the service undermine the future case for scarce state funds?
  • Will the costs of volunteer management be recognised and met by local authorities contracting out services?

In such a highly charged atmosphere where the issue of what services are part of core provision is debated, the choice to volunteer may well have ramifications beyond the volunteering role itself.

Many proponents of the Big Society seemed remarkably relaxed about this fundamental change in our conception of volunteering in public services and its possible politicisation.

Lord (Nat) Wei, a recently appointed politician, seems more relaxed than most. His comment, “there is a myth that Big Society is all about volunteering” sought to downplay the significance of a key Big Society advisor within government cutting down on his own volunteering. His response to the furore surrounding the announcement about his new working arrangment, was symptomatic of the Big Society argument that we need to loosen certain established ideas about what volunteering is. Yet it’s striking just how little debate there is about what volunteering will be like in the Big Society given how fundamental it is to the policy.

Stakes are big

In Greater London Volunteering’s (GLV) Principles of Volunteering:

“Volunteer roles should enhance the activities of a charity or social enterprise, unless, and particularly in the case of wholly volunteer-led groups, it would otherwise fail to have sufficient staff resources to conduct its activities”.

This idea of volunteers either “adding value” to services or providing them as a last resort (volunteering to provide services that neither the public or private sector provide) needs to be joined up. How they’re joined is crucial because it reflects the delicate balance in the voluntary sector between empowering volunteers and fostering greater professionalisation. Badly managed volunteering can undercut the hard won and often fragile professional development of the voluntary sector’s workforce. The fine details of this issue seem lost on many Big Society proponents whose first reaction is to assume a professional voluntary sector is some kind of tautology brought about by misguided Big Governmentalists.

Public service reform

David Cameron insists that Big Society is not related to the cuts in public services. It may not be connected with the need to reduce the public deficit, but it seems a curious thing to argue that a reduction in funding for public services is not connected to the idea of the retrenchment of the state. The upshot of this retrenchment, cuts or no cuts, means that we’re entering a period where the Government is effectively changing the terms about which public services the citizen should expect the state to underwrite.

Public service reform is to be driven, in part, by voluntary organisations and charities involving volunteers and delivering services. To facilitate this, the Government back in December 2010 removed the Two-Tier Code on public sector service contracts:

“The Coalition Government has committed to opening up government procurement and reducing costs. It has also set itself the aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses.”

SME’s, social enterprises, charities, voluntary groups and staff owned mutual providers are all conceived of as potential providers of public services. With a Big Society Bank to help finance and capitalise new service providers. This bank will be funded by commercial banks on a commerical basis. Cameron has pledged that charities will be able to competitively bid for public service contracts.

Charities will have the opportunity to exchange grant-based income with contract-based income and commercial loans. It’s a process that would seem to encourage charities to view the volunteering they foster as a means to an end (delivery of the contract), rather than an end in itself. The story of the WRVS volunteer-run hospital tea-bar in St Albans Hospital (via Karl Wilding) that’s making way for a private franchise high street coffee shop, seems such a poignant example of this transformation in the way volunteering may well evolve in organisations that adopt more contract-based practices. Experience shows that when we lose sight of volunteering as an end in itself, all too often it becomes undervalued and expendable. Can the idea of volunteering as an end in itself persist against a backdrop of contracts?

Redrawing the line

The offering of service contracts is linked to the policy of ‘payment by results’. Core services funded by right will decline, replaced by services where providers are paid by the results they achieve. This means that there will be increasing uncertainty about the future of different public services. Libraries are a prominent and controversial example of the redrawing of that line.

The government was advised in a KMPG report (PDF) to implement “aggressively, consistently and systematically” a new policy of payment by results. When it comes to redrawing the line on what deserves public financial support, the report’s authors Alan Downey, Paul Kirby and Neil Sherlock, all KMPG partners, cited the example of public libraries:

“Local government should seek to devolve to the most local level possible and to encourage communities to take over services. One example would be libraries. Libraries face funding challenges – in that they are more discretionary than other services…”

The give away is that when the authors talk about “encouraging communities to take over services”, in the next breath they mention “funding challenges”. The retrenchment of the state is quite clearly about reducing the amount of money spent by the state. No bad thing. However, anyone in volunteer management knows it is a mistake to see volunteering as a cheap option. As Jayne Cravens has succinctly argued on her blog – volunteer empowerment can be about many things- but if the overriding driver is “saving money”, then volunteer-powered solutions are not the answer.

New perspectives on an old debate

And so this takes me to a final reflection about how those in volunteer management are often curiously polarised by this debate about added value. Whether volunteering should focus ‘adding value’ to already existing public services or whether volunteering’s real value is providing safety net services in the absence of other public services is a matter a considerable debate.

As the Big Society debate deepens and policy is enacted on the ground, the implications of this policy on volunteering come up against new questions.

  • Are we too locked into this view that volunteering is primarily about adding value when it comes to public service delivery?
  • Are we in danger of advocating volunteering for the sake of volunteering, rather than for the sake of service delivery?
  • To what extent is the Big Society forcing us to rethink the relationship between volunteers, voluntary sector professionals and public sector professionals?

Look forward to discussing these issues in the days, weeks and months ahead 🙂


Interesting link to report commissioned by the Community Development Foundation about volunteering in public roles (mapping civic activists to use their terminology) – it complemented the ongoing national evaluation of the Take Part pathfinder prog.

Volonteurope – Value of Volunteering

Supported by a number of its partners and European policy-makers, Volonteurope will be holding an afternoon seminar on the ‘Value of Volunteering’ on Thursday 3 March 2011 at Europe House, 14:00-16:30, in London.

Volonteurope is delighted to announce the following speakers for the seminar:

  • Marian Harkin MEP (ALDE – Ireland)
  • Richard Howitt MEP (S&D – UK)
  • Steve Moore, Director the Big Society Network
  • Conny Reuter, Secretary General, SOLIDAR
  • Faye Smith, Project Manager & Richard Squirrell, Beneficiary, Social Activation Model, Suffolk

If you are interested in attending, please send your name, organisation and contact details to Arda Esen on

Volonteurope is grateful to Europe House for providing the venue for this event.

17 Minutes of fame the Quality v Quantity debate



Ok, so in the popular parlance, lets do the “Math” here (I know, it grates with me also!)

Non-the-less, in the ongoing Quality v Quantity debate, lets look at the figures mentioned in the “Balancing the See-Saw” piece.

So we have a figure of 700 volunteers

Now, let us assume that each volunteer has “supervision” every six weeks

Let us also assume that the volunteer co-ordinator is full time 37.5 hours per week

(Giving maximum opportunity)

That’s 6 weeks x 37.5hrs

This makes a total of 225 available hours in a six week period, or 12,000 minutes

Now let’s divide those volunteer co-ordinator minutes by the number of volunteers 12,000 ÷ 700

This means that if all volunteers are treated equally, then each of the 700 volunteers has one-one interaction (supervision) with their volunteer co-ordinator, for a total of 17mins 14 seconds within a six week period.

That’s 17mins 14 seconds in six weeks, or to put it another way:

2 mins 8 seconds a week, or

25.6 seconds per volunteer day (based on 1 volunteer day in a 5 day week)

Or a grand total of  2 hours 25 minutes per volunteer per year

Yes that’s right folks 2 hours 25 mins per year

But it doesn’t end there

Because this also means that within that recurring six week period/cycle and in all the other chronological measures; a volunteer co-ordinator with 700 volunteers to manage, literally has no time to do anything else in relation to their role and its remit, i.e.

No time for Administration

No time for Recruitment and selection

No time for Training volunteers

No time for Networking

No time to be involved in wider aspects of volunteering

No time for their own personal and professional development (i.e. training, supervision)

No time to spend informal time with volunteers

No time for organising and running volunteer reward recognition events

No time for formal intervention with volunteers between supervisions

No time to answer emails, letters, telephones

No time for the many imponderables that often arise in dealing/answering the aforementioned.

Etc, etc, etc

In short, there just arent enough hours in the day, even to facilitate minimal supervision.

NB. This is of course without the volunteer co-ordinator ever being ill and off work.

It could be argued by a person “managing” such numbers, that others take on some of the responsibility of the volunteer co-ordinator through deligation.

I don’t have an issue with deligation per’sa, however the old maxim may well apply, in that delegation is in reality economy of effort, although i feel in this instance this would be more an indicator that the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer ratio just dosent work.

However, just as salient, is that many of us are trying to ensure greater professional recognition of our role, so in such “delegation” and in seemingly handing our role over to any Tom, Dick or Harriet who puts their hand up, or happens to be in the “right” place, at the right time; then what does this say about us, our awareness of self, and our abilities in respect of managing appropriate numbers of people?

With the obvious exceptions where large numbers of volunteers are appropriate i.e. the Olympic games. We MUST STOP seeing large numbers volunteers as being a good thing, it isn’t, nor is it impressive.(especially where other people removed from volunteering and volunteer managment have, often without appropriate consultation determined them, i.e. politicians for political aims and ideology)

The reality is that a trained chimp can get volunteers to volunteer in many of the popular fields. So it’s not big or clever to do so. The real skill is to recruit appropriatley with vision, and an appreciation of your own personal limits, and in the many imponderables and challenges that face us all.

Chasing numbers just does not add up (excuse the pun), a simple piece of Mathematics demonstrates that in chasing numbers quality, and importantly the quality of the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer interpersonal/intrapersonal relationship must by definition suffer, and does suffer. However, much we may try to convince and delude ourselves otherwise. 

Current climate

We are entering a critical phase where it is apparent that much like the tale of the Emperors new clothes; reality is distorted, “facts” figures and “best practice” are now being born out of submissive servitude, and/or through fear of job loss, redundancy, and/or ignorance, lack of self awareness, or in being seen as out of step with the “Big Society” (whatever that is!).

This means that less and less people are prepared to speak out and say NO, or take a step back and look at what is being demanded of us as individuals and the voluntary sector as a whole.

Importantly also, is why as volunteer co-ordinaotrs, we are still so damn light weight, fluffy, and polite. Often simpering our way through challenges like Golem from Lord of the Rings; and in the process surrendering our traditional volunteering values by instalments.

Its a tough world out there and we need to be tough in promoting quality environments for volunteers

For if we don’t learn to say no; then like high volume mass produced fast food, volunteers will more and more be seen as being convenient, cheap, and of little substance and value, only to be discarded half eaten when reality bites.

Personally, I have no desire to measure, or be measured by how many “burgers” (Volunteers) I can flip in any given year, and in meeting crude meaningless targets created by the many faceless bureaucrats, without any heart or passion for volunteers/volunteering, and which targets and measures are so often despised in other fields and disciplines, and as a result, police can’t police, and nurses can’t nurse, do we wish to collude where by through quantative evaluation, volunteer co-ordinators become ever more distant form the volunteers themselves?

So no I wont “flip burgers”, (Volunteers) but rather, I would wish to be and hopefully am; a volunteer co-ordinator that aims to provide a fine dinning quality volunteer experience, rahter than a greasy burger van.

And Finally

We are living and working in difficult times, the “Big Society” has attracted little new money, (let us not forget that the volunteer managers capacity builders program aka Strand “C” was reduced by many millions of £’s before it even got of the ground.

So do you really trust these people?

Many projects are concerned about their futures, and as a result many are foolishly chasing the numbers, and in my opinion selling their volunteering souls, in the hope that larger numbers will attract further funding; but as with everything at the moment there are no guarantees.

So I ask you all, my peers, my friends and my colleagues; as the people charged with ensuring volunteers are valued, represented, fully supported and appreciated.

Then as their co-ordinators, and managers.

I ask you, is it right, ethical and proper to chase the numbers/targets, only to run the risk in being told that the 100’s of volunteers you have taken on your books are no longer able to be supported (i.e. in respect of out of pocket expenses) and as such, some if not all will have to be told they will have to volunteer and be out of pocket also or will no longer be required/afforded, and in “affect/effect” make them redundant!

But at least in the short term at least, you will have met crude measurse and “targets” in respect of a volunteers subjective experience

And at least the volunteers will have had their 17mins of fame



Volunteer Management in the Big Society Conference


AVM is delighted to announce that our first ever conference is now fully booked – with still three weeks to go to the event itself. Fantastic.

We are delighted so many volunteer managers wanted to join us for a day discussing and debating the issues around Volunteer Management and the Big Society. Just shows how much we all want to engage with the current debate on this issue and ensure the voice of the volunteer manager is heard within that debate. For those who are attending we look forward to seeing you on the 9th of March.

If you were not able to get a place at the conference apologies and rest assured this will be the first, of what we hope, will be a regular AVM conference – especially now we know there is so much interest out there.

Thanks for your support.


Join the Association of Volunteer Managers for it’s first ever Conference on the 9th March 2011 – 10am to 4pm.

The key note address at the conference will be from Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society.

This one day conference will examine the current volunteering landscape for the Third Sector and will seek to answer key questions volunteer managers face such as:

  • What will volunteer management look like in a ‘Big Society’?
  • What impact will/should the Volunteer Rights Enquiry have on volunteer management?
  • What will volunteer managers need to do to adapt to the changing world of volunteering?
  • What will volunteer management look like going forward?

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Rob Jackson, Volunteering England and secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Enquiry.
  • Sean Cobley, Chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers.
  • Rachel Bayley, Director of RSVP.
  • Kate Bowgett, London Museums Hub Volunteer Management Advisor.

Look forward to seeing you at the conference.

Westminster Briefing: Volunteering and the Big Society

This post is the text of a presentation I did, on behalf of AVM, at a recent Westminster Briefing on “Volunteering and the Big Society”. Please add any comments, as we really would like to hear your views on this issue.

“Professor Mathew Hilton and his team at the University of Birmingham have been looking at the Big Society debate and they conclude that “as big government has got bigger, so has big society – they’re not alternatives”. I think they may have a point. Withdrawing national or local government support for communities will not, of itself. create the environment for a bigger and more cohesive society to develop. I hope to show that, in the world of civic engagement at least, the support, knowledge and guidance of suitable people “managing”, for want of a better word, that engagement – is an incredibly powerful enabler in the growth of community and voluntary action.

Government have been spending money on promoting volunteering for many years now but we see little effect in terms of the numbers of people volunteering. Various expensive schemes have come and gone, apparently meeting their targets and then quietly fading away. The problem is that heads are the easiest things to count – and so that is what we do. So we count a person who would have volunteered anyway, or who already does, or who will only do the few hours that the scheme requires – no more than a taster session really. After all the effort and expense – we see the latest Citizenship Survey figures falling to 24%, down 5% on last year, for people engaged in formal volunteering.

Volunteering is a valuable way to learn, and to demonstrate genuine work skills, but it does not exist for that purpose, nor should it. If funding is aimed at placing people in volunteering as a route back to work, third sector organisations may well provide it, but unless the work is real and meaningful, contributing to the work of charities and other NFPs it has no more value than digging a hole and filling it in again. The reason that volunteering is satisfying, valuable, and affirming – is that the contribution of my time, your time, volunteers’ time – achieves something, makes a difference to other people, benefits the environment or campaigns for justice and humanity in some way.

Volunteers are amazing. There is almost nothing that volunteers cannot do, but, with a few exceptions, volunteers are enabled to achieve more, deliver more and contribute more – through the support, guidance and expertise of volunteer managers. Volunteer managers, and, just to clarify, when I use this term I just mean people who manage volunteers, are the enablers that open up possibilities and use their knowledge and experience to guide volunteers. It has been clearly shown that volunteers are both more satisfied and more productive if they have the support of a volunteer manager. We are often flexible, multi-talented people, able to work strategically one minute and then to deal with a difficult personal situation the next. You might think that is boastful, but the reality is that no one else is going to say that for us. The way that volunteer managers, almost always, pass on all the credit for success, to the volunteers concerned, has contributed to our generally low profile.

Despite this, and the fact that we are employed in very small numbers, relative to the organisations we serve, we are often vulnerable in hard economic times, as boards of directors or trustees may not understand the impact that we make. I think we need to make a compelling case for volunteer managers to be recognised and valued appropriately. No organisation would disband its HR or Finance functions when funding is reduced and yet we have seen volunteer managers made redundant and Volunteering Departments drastically cut in recent times even though the charities concerned may be increasingly dependent on the contribution of their volunteers.

Volunteer Centres provide a support service to local volunteer managers and community organisations as well as being amongst the main sources of volunteering brokerage but their funding is piecemeal and still has no national backing despite all the money that has been spent on trying to increase the number of people involved in volunteering. Many Volunteer Centre staff will tell you that it is not volunteers that are in short supply; it is good quality volunteering opportunities that they need. And, in general, good volunteer managers are the source of the best role profiles and the highest quality volunteering experiences, wherever they are advertised. So I suggest that this is one place that support and funding could be used appropriately. Volunteer managers are well used to making money go a long way, so, by funding more volunteer managers, and investing in their development, a lasting and cost effective impression could be made on civil society in the UK. I suggest that both the government, and volunteer involving organisations, of all sectors, try properly resourced volunteer management, as a route to increased volunteer numbers, higher levels of satisfaction and more confident, “paid work ready” people.

Volunteer managers are a collaborative and sharing bunch of people. We set up our own association (AVM) and we help each other via our website and peer to peer, to achieve and deliver more for the volunteers and organisations we serve. We have been active in influencing government, volunteering infrastructure organisations and charities, so that the benefits of the effective management and support of volunteers become more widely known. We have also been willing to contribute to consultations and inquiries, so that the interests of volunteers and volunteer involving organisations are made known. AVM has achieved a lot in our first 3 1/2 years, but we can and must do more. We recognise that, if there is to be a strong and credible volunteer management profession, meeting the needs of civil society, then it is volunteer managers that need to take a lead on developing our own profession. However, we are not the sole owners or guardians of volunteer management and volunteering and to ensure that the volunteer management profession, to use that hackneyed phrase, is ‘fit for purpose’ we also need the wider communities involved in volunteering to support our development.

A major element of the Big Society program is the recruitment and training of 5,000 “Community Organisers” and I suggest that they will need to have volunteer management skills, knowledge and experience in abundance, in order to be effective. They will need to be able to mobilise and motivate, enthuse and guide people in a complex environment. It seems remarkable that these people will not be paid, but expected to finance themselves, as they carry out this important function. Why is it that government think that people involved with the support and enabling of voluntary and community action will be happy to work for nothing? Were this a public service in another field, the idea of them being self supporting, would not even have been considered.

Big Society principles rightly acknowledge that grass roots action is the result of people reacting to need. This is an aspect of localism and self determination: the spirit that takes action rather than moaning that “someone should do something”. Volunteer managers admire and respect this too, but our “added value” is in our experience and our knowledge. We can help volunteers to channel their energy into positive action, rather than dissipating their effort by discovering, from bitter experience, all the hard ways, illegal ways, slow ways and inefficient ways to do things. Coordination, organisation, assessing and managing risk, planning and financing are not always skills that are readily available in any group of people united by the desire to get something done. Volunteer managers fill in the gaps, often by bringing in the right skills or knowing where information and help can be found.

We cannot expect that everything will fall into place if we remove or reduce control and regulation on one hand and resources and support on the other. That would be asking Big Society to grow in a vacuum. I am suggesting that a child as promising, but delicate and underdeveloped, as this, will need encouragement and nurturing in order to thrive and grow. I believe that effective and adequately resourced volunteer management should be a vital component in the Big Society’s development and success.”

Big volunteers, and even bigger volunteer managers

Just to put a few minds at rest following the ‘open to various interpretations’ article heading, what follows is not a perspective on levels of obesity in the voluntary sector! According to The Big Society Network, The Big Society is one in which ‘individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood’.

So, where does this leave volunteers, and volunteer managers? On The definition sounds good from a volunteers’ point of view, as The Big Society is described as though it will help them achieve some of the things a volunteer manager would help them to do. For sure, not all volunteers are motivated by the prospect of gaining influence, nor are all engaged in neighbourhood level roles. Nonetheless the definition will sound harmless enough to many, perhaps justifiably so.

From a volunteer managers’ perspective? The Big Society may instinctively sound supportive, although its tangibility may become clearer over time. After all, how many volunteer managers with a commitment to good, never mind best, practice, wouldn’t want their volunteers to feel supported and enabled, or be capable of creating change?

Might as well end the article here then by saying that the Big Society is a good thing. Only thing is, there’s still an element of doubt for some… surely such support is better provided by a physical person whose role it is to support you, rather than a centralised initiative whose reach will more often than not be virtual rather than physical?

Volunteers achieve great things for every cause out there, but their achievements are that much greater when a volunteer manager is there to support them. We as volunteer managers are seldom slow to express how great our volunteers are to the powers that be… have we weakened our profession in the process? After all, we’re all human beings – none of us wave magic wands enabling us to respond to every problem with a solution, whilst self-sustaining ourselves in all the ways we need.

In order to ensure that people have a positive experience of volunteering, including via Big Society programmes, greater investment in volunteer management would help. Let’s not forget the current economic climate is one that invites an increasing dependence on volunteers for some. Greater investment means the core funding of volunteer programmes, the recruitment of knowledgeable, passionate people who can drive volunteering within their organisations, and to fund training and support around volunteer management.
Achieve all of that, and we takes steps down the road to a society where more volunteers and their organisations and clients gain positive experiences, and there’s a more widely held understanding, acceptance of and involvement in what volunteering actually is. Or, to put it another way, a Big Society by our own definition?


Mike Gale
AVM Director and
Senior Officer, Inspiration and Legacy from the 2012 Games, Volunteering England