A rumour from ground control: volunteer management at light speed

On 17 January 2016 ‘Starman: a David Bowie tribute’ was held in Union Chapel, Islington.

I was struck by the speed with which this took place. David Bowie’s passing had only taken place a week earlier when most of us had woken up on an icy cold Monday morning to hear the news.

In the same London borough, where NCVO and Voluntary Action Islington’s Volunteer Centre are based, an event marking Bowie’s music, artistry and fashion was produced with such pride and passion, it compelled me to write this blog post!

Absolute beginners

Starman, a tribute to Bowie, Union Chapel, Islington, 17 January, doors 16.00, advance ticket only
Flyer designed for the event. Original artwork by Patrice Murciano. Additional work by Christina Mikelis.

What followed the news of Bowie’s passing was a flurry of Facebook activity, with people posting RIP and thank you messages and videos. We shared social media moments about a man who we’d never met personally but traded a little story or memory about his music.

On that Monday, Stefan Simanowitz, a friend and someone who used to work at NCVO decided he was going to hold a tribute event. Within a day of his Facebook post, a flyer had been designed and Stefan had called a meeting for volunteers to join ‘Team Bowie’.

Modern Love

900 tickets sold out in two hours. Union Chapel generously donated the venue, thousands
of pounds worth of sound production equipment was donated for the tribute and £1,367 was raised for Macmillan Cancer. However that didn’t include:

  • the volunteer time
  • running costs
  • equipment
  • venue
  • travel costs of people coming from across England and even overseas to perform or be part of the production team to make the tribute a reality.

An array of producers, performers, musicians, playwrights and even David Baddiel (31 acts shot professionally from seven different cameras in total) were standing in Union Chapel a week after Bowie’s passing; singing, playing us a tune on a harp (and even a saw) – showing us how he had touched their lives.


Volunteers who joined Team Bowie to help bring the event together were given a specific thank you, but I thought everyone involved in putting the tribute on were all volunteers. Including:

  • the minister of Union Chapel, Karen Stallard – who gave a poetry reading she had written for Bowie
  • the techie man – who transported all his PA equipment, amplifiers and speakers, and loaned it to the tribute for the evening, then took it back home again
  • the performers and backstage support.

I was dazzled by this en masse volunteer effort, who gave a 900-strong audience a beautiful evening to remember. But it left me thinking: what are the kind of skills a volunteer manager needs to have in order to pull together a volunteer-led event at short notice?

Volunteer manager skills

1. The time is now

A great volunteer manager recognises an opportunity and grabs it. Catapulted into action by life-changing news; there’s no waiting!

2. What’s the bright idea?

Getting people to rally to a cause (in this case, to celebrate Bowie’s life and defy cancer) requires a brilliant event or action to back it. What’s your bright idea?

3. Emotional association

Some will have Bowie’s music as a marker for coming of age. Milestones like: falling in love, first break up, wedding day, moving out of home or going to a first gig, stay with people forever. Emotional association acts as powerful motivators for why people volunteer.

4. Be an outstanding organiser

A great volunteer manager knows what is going to make a difference and how to focus people to the best of their abilities.

5. Experience in mobilising people at short notice

Stefan has been running campaigns for over two decades and has been helping to coordinate the FiSahara film festival since 2010. When Lou Reed passed away in 2013, he held a smaller tribute gig in a chapel in Hackney, so he did not organise the Bowie tribute out of the blue. Hard earned and learned experience with mistakes and missed opportunities sit behind what we see as success.

6. Networks, contacts, connections

Who do you know in the media and how can you use social media to get your messages out to recruit volunteers to support your cause? Stefan cited the event page at Union Chapel, Facebook and Twitter as the quickest ways to garner support.

7. Power of persuasion

Have oodles of charm, be difficult to say ‘no’ to. Volunteer managers are expert at getting people to say, ‘yes’ when ordinarily they would say no.

8. Work full time and work your socks off

Often volunteer management is an out-of-hours job and may not respect boundaries of work-life balance but if you love what you’re doing, you’ll transcend those boundaries and it will feel like an achievement.

9. Set the very best example of positivity

If you’re inspired by what you are doing, you will be the eternal optimist with enduring cheer. Believe in your volunteer team and in their talents.

10. The secret to helping others is having the ability and humility to ask for help yourself

Don’t do what someone else can do better than you; let them do it.

“I’m stuck with a valuable friend, I’m happy, hope you’re happy too….”

Finally say thanks to those around you and to yourself. Take stock and acknowledge what you’ve achieved together. Good volunteer management is about happy and healthy collaboration and compromise, which wonderfully nourishes the spirit.


New adventures in social action

Find out more about different approaches to social action and volunteering in our Annual Conference workshop where you can also see how to make initiatives work in your organisation.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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Avatar photo Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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