Must volunteering always sit at the back of the tandem?

We must improve our understanding of why the cost of managing volunteers varies and how this affects the quality of their work, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Volunteering is probably the country’s most inefficient industry. There has been little attempt to understand why costs vary so enormously. The ratio of staff to volunteers is wildly inconsistent, even for projects with similar outcomes. Some volunteer managers feel overworked supervising 20 volunteers, whereas others cheerfully head up a volunteer workforce of 800. There is no yardstick for measuring whether volunteers are over or under-managed. Most managers work part-time at the job and have little or no relevant training.

We should not seek to achieve uniformity, because the work of volunteers and their capacity to self-manage varies. But we should improve our understanding of why practices and costs vary and how this affects volunteers and the quality of their work.

Much volunteering is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and many charities rely on volunteers to achieve their objectives. The skills, enthusiasm and achievements of volunteers are judged by how far they facilitate others to realise their ambitions; volunteers and their needs are on the back seat of the tandem, at the mercy of the driver. We do not know how much talent is unused or how efficiency could be improved.

From time to time, manuals of good practice are published. These seldom refer to previous manuals, so they do not build on the work of others. They happily reinvent the wheel without explaining whether, and in what way, it is different from previous wheels.

Not one of the manuals I have studied spells out the values on which it is based. Manuals commonly recognise learning as one-way traffic, from staff to volunteers, with managers directing and regulating rather than empowering or unlocking talents. Key tasks are commonly reserved for staff. In some organisations, while managers fret about the danger of volunteers having too much responsibility, volunteers claim their talents are not recognised. A frequent complaint of volunteer managers is that they cannot reconcile their values with the practices of their employers.

Because underlying values are seldom articulated, readers of manuals are not helped to consider the relationships between managers and volunteers. But the nature of those relationships is central to ensuring objectives are achieved and volunteering experiences are satisfactory. Reports on the future of volunteering tend not to refer to the training needs of managers.

Volunteering has two basic models: philanthropic, where objectives and policies are determined by a host organisation; and self-help, where volunteers determine them for their own communities. In the absence of informed literature, there is little or no cross-fertilisation of ideas between the two models. Much current literature is based on the assumption that volunteers are firmly strapped to the back seat of a tandem steered by inspired staff.

In a society that is increasingly and dangerously divided and where too many people feel they are outsiders looking in, volunteering should be at the forefront of attempts to build social cohesion. The government, together with third sector leaders, should identify and promote volunteering projects likely to build cohesion across cultural, racial and religious divides. Some of these projects will have atypical systems of governance and management from which we can all learn.

Wally Harbert’s book on older volunteers, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in 2012

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