Viewpoint: Power to the volunteers

Many charities are wasting a huge potential resource by restricting their volunteers to envelope stuffing instead of harnessing their management potential, says Denise Murphy, director of CSV's Retired and Senior Volunteers Programme.

Many charities underestimate the role volunteers can play in taking their organisation forward. Too many see them as cannon fodder – someone to make the tea or help with stuffing envelopes. But I think that can be such a waste of talent.

With a ratio of 400 volunteers to every member of staff, RSVP provides a blueprint for how volunteers can take the lead in a voluntary organisation. Our volunteer organisers are involved in all aspects of the charity. They not only create projects to support isolated older people or improve the literacy rates of children, but are also involved in the decision-making process that shapes the whole future of the organisation. With policy, for example, we have a panel of 11 volunteers involved in high-level strategic thinking and looking at where we want to be in five to 10 years’ time.

A voluntary organisation has to be willing to transfer power to its volunteers. If our volunteers raise money, we let them have a say in how the money will be spent. I know for a fact many organisations wouldn’t give up that kind of control.

An additional benefit of passing on so much responsibility is that the organiser role attracts high-flyers with bags of experience. I really believe that we have the best managers in the whole of the voluntary sector. Some have been senior civil servants and we have former mangers of Shell and IBM. The fact is that we couldn't afford their expertise, so it is fantastic that they are willing to give it to us for free.
So why are volunteer organisers keen to give up so much of their time to run RSVP? Certainly, they are all committed to proving that older people can play an important role in society, and it also gives them – as one put it to me recently – “something to get out of bed for”.

Indeed, with such energetic volunteers, one of the jobs of RSVP staff is to make sure they don't over-extend themselves. We always tell people to do only what they can in the time they have available, and to pace themselves. Although this sometimes falls on deaf ears, it is important to look out for warning signs to make sure volunteers aren't taking on too much.

In fact, even RSVP staff themselves sometimes have to be protected from the zeal of volunteers. Some of our volunteers don't understand why a member of staff isn’t available 24/7. They are so passionate about RSVP that they forget paid staff like to get away from work from time to time.

Of course, volunteers able to draw upon a lifetime of experience are more likely than most to have the skills to successfully run a charity.

However, this volunteer-led model works even with people yet to get a foot on the career ladder. CSV runs Cathedral Camps where volunteer camp leaders in their early twenties coordinate the efforts of other young volunteers to help maintain and restore cathedrals and other symbols of our nation’s heritage. This peer led approach will also feature this year in Community Catalysts, a scheme supported by Tesco and youth volunteering charity v that has recruited 20 full-time volunteers aged 16 to 25 to gather 12,000 young people to take part in environmental and urban regeneration projects.

The role of charities should be about empowering people, no matter what their age, to take action for themselves.

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