Rob Jackson: 'Can I speak to the manager please?'

The sector values the people who manage volunteers, so this should be reflected in their job titles, writes our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Could the job titles we give to those who manage volunteers be hampering their ability to recruit them?

I’d been on the phone for ages and was getting nowhere. All I wanted was to update my policy. The customer service assistant I was speaking to couldn’t cope with any deviation from their script. It was a 'computer says no' experience. There was only one course of action left.

"Can I speak to your manager please?"

I’m sure we’ve all had a situation like that. We’ve had to go over someone’s head to speak to a person with the authority to get things done. That got me thinking.

I’ve written an article recently about where leadership of volunteering should sit in an organisation's structure. But I didn’t explore at what level responsibility for volunteering should sit. How much authority should the leader of volunteers have?

In my experience, most jobs responsible for volunteers include the words "assistant", "coordinator" or "administrator" in their titles. These suggest a low pay grade and little authority. It is unusual for me to come across a "director of volunteers" or a "senior volunteering executive". In fact, the most senior title I usually encounter is that of "manager" of volunteers.

This could be a problem, as an American colleague, Barry Altland, remarked on LinkedIn recently: "What has also baffled me is the careless use of words to describe the role. Even 'manager' denotes a certain function within a typical corporate-equivalent structure, and the term 'coordinator' carries even less juice. These two titles mean, to many volunteers who bring any corporate exposure, that the person in whose care they reside is just another cog in the machine, not a major player. All this has an impact on the ability of the leader of volunteers to fully equip, guide, support and inspire the volunteers who choose to serve."

Volunteers increasingly come with a lifetime of skills and abilities that they want to use to help good causes. Sadly, their experiences aren’t always positive. Those working with volunteers often have low status in an organisation and can’t do much to change things for the better. Volunteers might get angry and frustrated at having to deal with someone so junior. The next step is inevitable.

"Can I speak to your manager please?"

That’s not what we want talented potential volunteers to say. That doesn’t give people confidence we will make the most of their time, that we will value them.

It’s about time we gave those who lead volunteering the authority to effect real change and give them job titles that convey this.

To quote a frustrated volunteer who recently wrote about their experience for The Guardian: "It’s a charity’s job to ensure that both potential and existing volunteers feel valued, recognised and useful. In a climate where charities need all the help they can get, finding and keeping enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers should be a priority."

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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