When many organisations and managers are asked about the advantages of recruiting and hiring volunteers, the usual reaction is cautious interest. There are clear benefits to having skilled and experienced people in your team.
You hope and expect anyone new to fit neatly into the culture and effectively contribute to your goals and objectives. You look out for people with the right skills base and the right personality, expect to invest in some form of training and development, and assume that this investment will be worthwhile in the short- and long-term for everyone.
That is the standard template for such things in organisations large and small, profit-based and public sector. Normally, we expect things to go well, on the whole, without too many mismatched expectations from both sides – employer and employee.
Yet with volunteer management, a lot can go wrong and a lot does
go wrong. At the same time, of course, much can go right. Nevertheless, managing volunteers is said to present challenges all of its own, compared with the 'mainstream' recruitment and induction of full- and part-time paid employees.
Recent years have seen large increases in volunteering, above all in the charity sector. Improved healthcare, greater mobility, and effective occupational pension arrangements have encouraged many older (and some younger) men and women to volunteer. The benefits to the potential volunteer are substantial – interest, social contacts, satisfaction of a life ambition, links with hobbies, motivation to give something back and do something worthwhile for the community. For volunteers still looking for paid employment, the hope is to use volunteer contacts and experience as a launch-pad for it.
Lockdown has changed the ground rules in many ways, and the effects of furlough and the end of it have yet to be seen clearly. The neat fit between those out of work and jobs on offer is one invented by the politicians. Even without this and the labour realignment consequence of Brexit, inflation and changes in national insurance and hikes in fuel costs have accelerated the need for many people to look to paid employment (even several awkwardly slotted together) rather than being a volunteer.
'No-one can afford to work for nothing' is a slogan with a new resonance today. Yet volunteers by definition are expected to do so – the benefits come in the form of purposeful work, good company, useful networking, saving the planet, and good citizenship. More than ever, charities like Oxfam, British Heart Foundation, the RNLI, Shelter, and the many other smaller ones need volunteer help – and donations – more than ever. They need us, we need money to live: a resolvable dilemma?
There are many happy marriages in volunteer management – where the volunteer finds headroom to develop in the work role and
the organisation flourishes as a result of their productive, focused and imaginative input. On the other hand, there are more than a few times when this happy match falls short, where the organisation expects too much (or provides too little clarity or support for what they expect), and where the volunteer putting themselves forward imagines unrealistic things about what their work will involve.
Professional people, for instance, are very useful to managers trying to recruit talented staff. Such people bring knowledge and training with them and, ideally, need only moderate training to hit the ground running. Very cost-effective, offering the professional person (perhaps fresh in retirement) the opportunity to go on growing professionally and intellectually. And good for the company in injecting relevant theoretical and workplace experience into team activities and decision-making, even up to strategic level.
At the same time, there can be a crash of gears as mutual expectations turn out to be incompatible. Volunteer appointments, above all those at higher levels, can be unrealistic – wanting a volunteer to come in, for instance, as lead for marketing of an active local charity, and in truth expecting them to carry out a £30K a year job for free. Such jobs continue to attract because many professional people are phasing down their full-time work and looking for pastures new during the transition.
Other potential applicants look at such expectations in a more cautious spirit – that level of work, travelling, a five-day week just like before: is that what I really want? Even those fortunate enough to be able to control their work-life balance in this way are likely to look at such volunteer post offers with caution.
Expectations of other kinds may be in the mix as well. The volunteer loves cats, wants a wider perspective, joins the Cat Protection League. The volunteer loves books, knows a lot about them, finds a happy berth in the local Oxfam shop. The volunteer is a talented musician and joins Music in Hospitals or the sing-alongs run by Alzheimer Scotland for people with early-stage dementia. Volunteering can open up scope and opportunities to develop an interest, perhaps a hobby like photography or bird watching previously only squeezed into a busy working and family life.
More and more, this busy family life is taking on new importance, too, especially as many older men and women are obliged for family reasons to mind grand-children, or choose to do so. Younger partnerships with young children, and a large number of single-parents, rely on relatives to do this work, precluding many potential volunteers from entering the market.
More than that, many 'volunteer' jobs are being professionalised, that is to say, so considerable is the skill required of the job and so intensive is appropriate training, that the only people who come forward are justifiably expecting to be paid for the work (well beyond mere expenses).
Some of these jobs are time-sensitive, as is the case of some NHS committees where volunteers can be expected to turn over reviews of documentation at record speed throughout the year. Simultaneous voice-over work in theatres, where the script is provided for people with sight deficit is another such field, one where people with experience tend to be paid for their work and want to keep it that way.
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that, at a time when volunteering is more needed in the community than ever, it is ever clearer that volunteers rub up against professionals (real and self-styled) when putting themselves forward. Counselling is a typical area where even volunteers with formal counselling qualifications have difficulty in competing in a market in which all too many compete for too few posts, and where supply outstrips demand.
Music is another such area. Often regarded as 'nice to have' rather than a 'must have' for community well-being and happiness, music has traditionally attracted amateurs of all kinds. Professional musicians are regularly undercut by offers from eager amateurs for scarce appointments, and yet, at the same time, most professionals are actively involved in teaching amateurs and do it enthusiastically.
In recent years, volunteer management has developed in another interesting way – that of attracting and recruiting professionals to manage volunteers. Such appointments are often part-time, and often carried out by people with skills from cognate fields (such as social work while managing volunteers in counselling or mainstream charity work, or retail management in organising local rotas for charity shops).
Many of these volunteer-management positions are paid, and many of them act with delegated responsibility for higher managers within the organisation, bringing (they hope) appropriate managerial skills to ensure effective volunteer delivery and performance.
On analysis, this presents a mixed picture because, while such professional inputs can help (for instance, financial or human resource skills currently absent in the organisation), they can (and sometimes do) transform the culture of the teams in unfortunate ways, expecting volunteers to behave like employees and doing this in hierarchical ways.
Volunteer management is different
Long ago, we used to say that 'books are different' – different products, say, from biscuits or tins of soup where, whatever their quality, all the batch are identical. It was an argument made by booksellers and publishers to reduce liability for tax and to enhance public lending right.
Stretching the analogy, volunteer management is different, too, from what we think we know as mainstream management, above all where people 'work for a firm' or 'are self-employed', work part- or full-time for pay or money, and work an exchange transaction in the form of their time and talent for financial reward.
Most of the time volunteers don't work for money. It can be difficult to refuse money in any form, even if it comes as a gift like a book token or an Amazon or theatre voucher (legally questionable for exemption). We've seen and we know what attracts volunteers to voluntary work, and beyond a reasonable point, they don't expect tangible rewards in any way.
One thing that emerges from many formal and informal surveys of volunteers over the years is the 'freedom' a post provides. They can come and go, within reason, as they like, take holidays, go to the dentist when they must, and fit in with childcare or part-time paid employment. Many start volunteering as a favour to friends and end up staying forever. Volunteers are usually very loyal creatures.
And yet, volunteers are cats and not dogs: they like to go their own way, they don't like to be or feel exploited or manipulated, and they don't expect to be asked to do unreasonable things. Donations to charity shops, for instance, pose hygiene and public health problems at times. Beach clear-ups, night-time deliveries, and many others present risks. Volunteers need to be street-wise and not allow idealism to cloud their judgement. Some jobs can be demeaning, others present conflicts of interest. Not just the work but the culture of the organisation looking for volunteers. We have suggested that professionalisation can be counter-productive for an organisation, especially one unsuccessful in getting the right mix of much-needed professional help but at the expense of bureaucratisation.
Another hazard can be ideological, where the organisation insists on particular beliefs, such as a religious faith or political allegiance, and employs it as a shibboleth so severely as to exclude much-needed skill and experience. Some faith-based volunteer management programmes shoot themselves in the foot by excluding on doctrinaire grounds.
Cats go their own way. They only pretend to love their owners. Their owners are merely the staff who provide the food and warmth. So perhaps volunteers are not
like cats. But then cats like love and food and warmth, company and friendship, recognition and reward. So perhaps volunteers are
like cats. Cats walk alone; they're not team players. Volunteers walk alone, although, with proper management, they can be persuaded to play well in teams. That is the challenge of volunteer management, one where I've seen lots of good practice and not a little bad.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a former chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School