Volunteer Management In The Next Decade

Karl Wilding continues our tenth anniversary blog series with thoughts on how Volunteer Management’s journey to date will shape the next ten years.

In the ten years since AVM was established, much has changed in the world around us that has impacted upon volunteering and therefore volunteer management. Some of this surprised us: a financial crisis, a decade of economic stagnation and social tensions, albeit punctuated by the highlight of volunteering during London 2012, and more recently the decision to leave the European Union. Some changes we saw coming: the demographic pressures and changing social attitudes of an ageing, more diverse and more atomised society. What we probably didn’t see was how quickly these changes would come about and the pressure they would place on our communities and the services we use. We probably also didn’t see how the opportunities that digital technology would deliver, or some of the social fractures it would deepen. Building bridges between communities of place and interest is more vital than ever, a tension that saw volunteer management hit (for the first time?) the front pages of our national newspapers recently.

We live in interesting times. It seems to me that these wider social, demographic and economic changes will continue to shape and reshape volunteering over the next decade, though only the most foolhardy venture to make predictions these days. What therefore might AVM members want to mull over as shaping the next 10 years?

For me, the slow burn of demographic change will reshape volunteering and how we think about how we work with those who want to engage in the communities (note the plural) around them. Public services are already being refashioned so as to involve service users more in their delivery. Boundaries between paid and unpaid staff will blur as we try and cope with pressures from a growing, but ageing, population. Note also the less flexible labour markets that many argue will result from the decision to leave the European Union.

Informal volunteering, such as acts of neighbourliness, especially seem important as reducing demand is seen as a way of helping public services better cope. The Royal Voluntary Service’s increased focus on social action might be indicative of the way forward here. Do we need to (re)think volunteer managers as convenors, catalysts, shapers of people who want to get involved in their communities? If so, is it a radical rethink or an evolution of change already afoot? Either way, it will be more important than ever that we build and strengthen the bonds of community. More people helping people.

But it’s about more than just individuals doing good things: bringing people together so that they are more than the sum of their parts, working out how best to involve businesses who feel a responsibility to the community, and working out how to work alongside our public services are all part of the emerging landscape. We’ve learnt over the last decade that volunteers don’t always just appear spontaneously; or even when they do, good organisation and infrastructure enables volunteers to make a bigger impact.

Effective, impactful volunteering needs good infrastructure and networks. As government and business become more interested in social action, the case for investment in volunteer management might become more apparent, based on experience. In turn this will inevitably lead to more thinking about value for money, greater calls for management information, and more data collection. That has to be a good thing, but for some it might be the less attractive side of continued professionalization. If that leads to less of the ‘let’s sprinkle some volunteers on the problem’ type thinking, then a more data-driven approach is OK by me.

The topic of data leads to a discussion of digital (aka #techforgood) and how that might shape the future of volunteering. This is the most difficult to call: AVM’s ten year anniversary coincides with the device that pretty much kicked off the smartphone revolution, the iPhone. Could anyone seriously have predicted the impact that would have on pretty much every aspect of life? Current trends might suggest an ever-more efficient brokering of people who want to get involved with opportunities that fit (based on the data that your phone now collects about you); more emphasis on place and opportunities based on where someone happens to be; and more mopping up of small bits of spare time as the smartphone facilitates activities such as mentoring, remotely. Finally, tech blogs are currently awash with discussions of AI and machine learning. I can’t even begin to understand how these will shape volunteer management – they will – but in terms of volunteering itself, volunteers are already helping machines to learn how to recognise patterns that have a social outcome, such as this project around slavery. A brave new world indeed.

Volunteer management will not stay static in the next decade. Nor should it. I look forward to AVM leading the discussion around what the brave new world of volunteer management could, and might, look like.


Karl Wilding speaks and writes widely on issues facing the voluntary sector. Karl is Director of Public Policy and Volunteering at NCVO, a trustee of both Creating the Future and St Albans CVS, and an advisor to Charity Bank.

regional volunteering strategies

Steve wrote recently on UKVPMs that he had advocated regional volunteer management strategies in his last post in a national organisation, but was looked at blankly.

I have recently been working in a national organisation with a centralised volunteering strategy role and certainly one of the things I thought was that if I were setting up a department from scratch there should be a regional element to it, fitting in with the way that the volunteering infrastructure has been organised as well as taking into consideration local needs as well as local opportunities for recruiting volunteers, other local organisations to work in partnership – and so much more.

But reading Steves post, and thinking of recent conversations at AVM board meetings as well as in the pub(!) I wondered if there was something else to consider. There is a common prevailing attitude that everyone in every volunteer involving organisation is an expert, and that the role of volunteer manager is not particularly complex and does not require much skill or expertise. This attitude is supported by the lack of high level independently accredited training, poor salary structure (how many Heads of Volunteering are paid a comparative salary to other Heads of within their organisations), poor positioning within organisations of volunteering (how many directors or executive directors of volunteers are there?) and an almost invisible career structure for those wanting to remain in the field (who of us is clear where to go next – what is a move up and what would be a move sideways – this is not always clearly reflected by salary alone).

Is it perhaps in the interest of people holding ths attitude to continue to reinforce their beliefs by not giving the suggestions made by professional experts any credence. Is it a way of saying "you are only a manager of volunteers – what do you know of strategic development?"

We need to work together as a community of professionals to get others to recognise our expertise, many things are different when engaging with volunteers, including how to develop strategy, we know this because we do it on a daily basis and we need to shout more and more loudly about it so others recognise that.

Now – go and recruit a colleague into AVM and strengthen our voice just a little bit more!


The rise and rise of consultants

Kate and I were having a coffee the other day (well term of expression – she was drinking herbal tea and I had a fruit juice). Anyway, she said that she has a concern about the rising trend of organisations engaging consultants to develop a volunteering strategy. It raised questions for me – do I agree with her or not? (Bearing in mind that as a consultant this is one of the things that I do?)

There is a part of me that says of course consultants should not be brought in to an organsiation that already has paid employees with a remit and expertise in volunteering. A paid external consultant would probably make similar recommendations to the exisiting staff member(s) and while it is true that the external consultant may have more perceived credibility because they are external, isn't that one of the driving forces of AVM – to ensure that managers of volunteers have respect and credibility within their organisations?

And then I thought… there is more going on here. Why, if an organisation has money to spare to throw at a consultant, and they recognise the need for someone with the skills, knowledge and experience to develop a volunteering strategy, why don't they look at their exisiting volunteer managers and just pay them more to do the additional, more complex work??

I am not sure that I approve of people on low salaries and lower down the hierarchy in any organsiation taking on senior responsibilities without proper reward (and am certain this was not what Kate was implying). But the truth is that many organisations bring in consultants that have little or no operational experience of managing volunteers to develop strategies that may be unworkable or unfeasible, and as a community of professionals perhaps we should be saying soemthing about that.

What do you think?