Opinion: Volunteer organisers need structure and training

I was asked the other day which of all jobs I would least like to do. I think I was expected to say something like stacking shelves in Tesco.

Julia Neuberger
Julia Neuberger

But would that be as difficult or potentially as soul destroying as being a volunteer organiser for a large, or not so large, voluntary organisation?

Picture the scenario. You are in your late 20s. You want to improve the lot of, say, people with severe mental illness. You work for a big third sector mental health organisation. You are promoted - yes, you get a bit more money for this - to volunteer organiser. You have 300 volunteers and there is only you. Half of them are service users and therefore somewhat unpredictable in their availability. The other half are a mixed bunch - students, family members of people with severe mental illnesses, a few retired people, a couple of people from a local black church - and you need to organise rotas so that all activities for which volunteers are needed are covered. It is Tuesday. You seem to have 150 volunteers turning up today, but most have told you they cannot cover Friday, which is your busiest day. Though they are volunteers, they have no volunteer contract with you - something you are going to sort out when you have time to sort the important from the urgent. And you have three day centres to cover on Friday and no staff. You put your head in your hands. Which would you rather do? Stack shelves in Tesco, or feel that your work is impossible and that you cannot get a grip on the volunteers, because... well, because they are volunteers? Tesco would be easier and, arguably, when things get rough, more satisfying.

I paint this picture because the more I look at the evidence, the more convinced I am that we need to encourage and support volunteering, at least in part by supporting the volunteer organisers and making that role into part of a third sector career structure. You shouldn't be able to get to be chief executive if you haven't been a volunteer organiser. You should need two stints as a volunteer organiser, with support and training, before you can get to senior management, and so on. The third sector is not as structured as this, and we need to do something to support, train and recognise volunteer organisers, or our whole push to involve more volunteers and to make volunteering the ‘heart' of our society will not work. Over the next year or more, I shall be looking hard at what is happening to those who support, train and organise volunteers across our society.

This is my last weekly column for Third Sector. I have loved the responses from readers, and the occasional angry riposte, and I have learned a huge amount. But my new role as the Government's champion for volunteering will take time and will make this more difficult. I hope the editor will ask me back some time, but meanwhile a large thank you is due to all my readers, and please keep writing to me about volunteering.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer, chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering and the Government's champion for volunteering

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