Volunteers’ Week 2020: What’s the point of a volunteer manager?… on furlough during Volunteers’ Week

AVM Director, Rachel Ball, shares her thoughts on what it’s like to be a volunteer manager on furlough during the annual Volunteers’ Week

Multi-coloured thought bubbles with question marks

It’s Volunteers’ Week and it’s a strange time. During this week volunteer managers around the country usually take the opportunity to say thank you through holding parties and events, share the stories of impact and difference their volunteers are making to their organisation and beneficiaries and take the opportunity to influence and advocate within their organisation for further investment in volunteering. 

This charge for celebration in England is usually led by our friends at NCVO, but they have had to withdraw their vocal championing, collation and sharing of information of organisation’s outputs so they can support charities with their most pressing and urgent needs. By some this was interpreted as they were cancelling the week… it wasn’t as it’s not something they can cancel. The week only exists because we as volunteer managers (VMs) champion, utilise and deliver it. 

It has been fantastic to see VMs across the country come together to create a national response to thanking volunteers. A richly deserved thanks. We’ve seen how people getting involved, giving their time and helping causes close to their hearts has been making a difference. This call out to VMs to get involved has helped them to think about what they could do this year and given them something to gather around, and feel a little less adrift from the norm.

However, for furloughed VMs this has brought mixed feelings about the week and what should and shouldn’t be happening. They can’t participate, no matter how much they want to. Some VMs may say they still could, but those I have been talking with don’t want to risk their own employment or their employers ability to claim back their salary and for their time being furloughed to be wasted. The chances of being accused of working by taking part is very slim but who wants to be the one that broke everything. Like everyone in this country, no one wants to be the one that makes things worse. 

Now some furloughed VMs know their organisation will be doing something because not all of their team has been furloughed (most likely not as grand or comprehensive as they had planned), for others, nothing will be happening. No one wants to miss out on an opportunity; they also don’t want to be seen as not caring or that their organisation doesn’t care; that isn’t the case but it is about priorities and it has made some of them question about how truly important volunteers are to the organisation and raised concerns about the impact this will have on the relationship with their volunteers.

As volunteer managers we fear Volunteers’ Week will be our only opportunity to thank our volunteers and celebrate their achievements. We fight for ways to squeeze in recognition on a daily, weekly and monthly basis throughout the year. So during our network calls we have been reminding ourselves that we may be missing out now, but we will have opportunities to do something when we return. If you need a formal hook to galvanise around, there is always International Volunteer’s Day on 5 December.

This year’s Volunteers’ Week message has changed from ‘celebrate’ to ‘thank you’ and at AVM we have decided to take the time to do a thank you on behalf of all our furloughed members because they cannot at this time. We also want to thank all those that coordinate volunteer contributions as volunteers themselves. To quote a commonly said phrase, we are all in it together! 

Happy Volunteers’ Week Everyone!

What’s the point of volunteer managers?

Here at AVM we believe that volunteer managers are vital in ensuring any volunteering effort is directed, efficient, effective and recognised, along with the person and people behind that volunteering effort. We believe that, as we often see, organisations don’t always pay attention to the volunteering relationship in the way they should. We’re here to help our members feel a little less lonely and a little more heard.

The title of this blog is quite provocative, depending on whether you read it in a positive or negative voice. I would say if you are reading this, you probably would be on the side of positivity.

During this crisis we’ve seen communities pull together and ‘volunteer’ to help their friends, families and neighbours – this isn’t new, but is always vital to any society.

We have also seen a call for organised and coordinated volunteering – that usually comes from an organisation backing. This has also been closely followed by an outcry of dismay from volunteers who have not been put to use (yet). It’s always hard to get this right from the get go, and it’s even harder to coordinate an approach when the services, infrastructure, organisations and charities you would coordinate with have been decimated, stretched and diversified. I think it is safe to say that it’s even harder to know when the future is unknown and organisations are having to focus on cash flow – they have furloughed as many staff as quickly as possible and for as long as possible, to ensure they can be here on the other side of this crisis. Unsurprisingly this has included volunteer managers. But how do volunteer managers come back from here?

It’s too early to tell if they have succeeded and that will all depend on what we think success should look like and will be very personal to each individual involved.

I have started to hold network calls with members who have been furloughed – we know those on the call are a fraction of who have been furloughed but they do come from the full cross section of sectors involving volunteers. It’s clear they feel in the dark; they understand the why but they are frustrated. They want to know that their organisation’s volunteers are being thought about during any decision making made by their organisation’s leaders (they aren’t confident they will be – but this isn’t new). If volunteers are still delivering activities on behalf of the organisation, they want to know they are getting the same care and attention they know is needed. Will the volunteering offer be the same on return and if so, will it still work? How does the volunteering offer and output continue if our volunteers aren’t willing to come back in the same way? When will volunteer managers be able to explore this and advise? What repairs to the relationship on behalf of their organisation will they need to do? Will they be heard when they make a recommendation? Will they get the support (time and money) they need? Will they be allowed to make their organisation stronger and more resilient in the future? How crucial are their volunteers in what their organisation does?

These are lots of questions, and there are very few answers at this time. Depending on the organisation and their raison d’etre, the VMs line manager and director(s) and the timeframe they are/will be working within will all play a part in what happens next.

This blog may not be the most linear in topic but then none of the conversations I am having at the moment are. We will continue to talk with and listen to our members and find ways to help them get through this unusual time.

Rachel Ball is a Director of AVM, and a volunteer manager. At time of writing, Rachel is on furlough due to impact of the coronavirus pandemic.