Listening and learning about volunteer management

BBC Radio 4 recently produced a programme called Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy? It was a pleasure to be interviewed and bring across some of the things that will be all too familiar to those who manage volunteers. NCVO draws messages and experiences from the very people who support volunteers every day. To communicate what we hear to a much broader audience was an unmissable opportunity.

If you haven’t listened to it, you’ll find it earnestly crafted and heartfelt.  Claire Bolderson starts by asking the question: 20m people volunteer in the UK, taking on all sorts of tasks – how are they managed and who are the people managing them?

She talks to a volunteer manager from the RNLI against the backdrop of volunteers carrying out their weekly drill on the Thames in Teddington. Volunteer manager Pam at the Dalgarno Trust shares her insights about the highs and lows of managing volunteers, and we get a sense of the touching affinity that her volunteers have with her. Dr Jenna Ward’s research, at the University of Leicester, about volunteering in the National Trust’s places and spaces reveals the ‘emotional labour’ that goes into managing volunteers.

Over-burdened, under-resourced and unrecognised

Managing volunteers is both rewarding and challenging. But, why’s it viewed as something easy to do, requiring little skill and minimal knowledge? Does creating an efficient process for planning, recruiting, inducting, supporting, training and recognising unpaid people look easy to you? What about when that’s put into an organisational context where the prevalent mindset is, ‘anyone can manage volunteers’ and, ‘volunteers give their time for free, so it doesn’t cost anything’. The upshot being there is a failure to commit financial resource.

Time to Take Stock?

There’s been no sector wide research into the status of volunteer management since the last report in 2010, Valuing Volunteer Management Skills. The Association of Volunteer Managers carry out an annual survey on 5 November, timed with International Volunteer Managers Day on challenges and issues. Isn’t it time we took an in-depth look at the status of volunteer management, particularly as we know that communities continue to suffer the effects of austerity? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how demand for services delivered by volunteers has impacted volunteer management across all sectors? Those discoveries would almost certainly compel leadership teams to rethink how they view and what provisions they make for volunteer management.

If the only people that understand the complexities and intricacies of this are the people who manage volunteers, then we need to create more opportunities to share our experiences. NCVO runs A Day in the Life scheme where jobs swaps take place between central government and the voluntary sector, to learn about doing one another’s jobs. Learning opportunities like these, where people can take on the duties of or shadow a volunteer manager (why not? It’s easy!) can foster a new understanding and be the seed of change.

If you are a volunteer manager or if you are interested in understanding this world, join the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM). A great place to start is their forthcoming AVM annual conference on 17 October. Build your contacts and alliances to be that crucial voice for supporting volunteering. The timing couldn’t be better.


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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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