Wally Harbert: Managing volunteers - a personal journey of discovery

The House of Lords Select Committee on Charities should look beyond traditional philanthropic models of controlling volunteers, writes our columnist

The National Association for Mental Health (the forerunner of Mind), provided care for ex-service personnel returning from the Second World War. When its Midlands office closed in the 1950s, it was taken over by Birmingham City Council and I was appointed to help establish its new role.

I began by working with local mental hospitals where innovative drug treatments were controlling the florid symptoms of long-stay patients. With help, some, who had been incarcerated for up to thirty years, could be settled back into the community. They had lost work skills and many had tenuous connections with their families. My task was to rekindle old relationships so that patients could, once again, feel part of the world outside hospital.

Selected patients were sent home for weekends; if this was successful, longer stays were arranged that sometimes led to permanent discharge. Other patients were provided with work experience then found jobs, travelling to work daily from hospital until they could be discharged home, to lodgings or a hostel.

Not all staff and relatives were happy with this approach but, as patients began to take responsibility for their own lives, they responded positively, often achieving more than anyone had supposed possible. The care and compassion shown by employers, workmates and lodging-house keepers went far beyond the call of duty.

Much of my energy was spent allaying the fears of key players in patients’ lives, players who were determined to win through - whatever the obstacles. I had no authority over them; progress depended on developing understanding and trust. I was a facilitator, not a manager; they were, in effect, volunteers, free to walk away at any time.

Later in my career, I learned that many retirees who, in their working lives, had carried major responsibilities, are disappointed by the scarcity of challenging experiences when they volunteer. I also discovered that people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are reluctant to volunteer where this places them under the control of "outsiders". I helped to develop volunteering models based on community work that put volunteers in the driving seat.

More than a million unmanaged volunteering groups have turned their backs on philanthropic volunteering. In a commercial enterprise, this would indicate a failure of management but it is barely remarked upon by sector leaders and in national reports on volunteering. The work of millions of informal volunteers is largely unreported and unsung but it persists because, like my co-workers in the 1950s, it is a way of enjoying worthwhile experiences such as:

  • Having opportunities to relate directly to people in need, utilising inter-personal skills learnt over a lifetime
  • Accepting responsibility for overcoming challenges
  • Being guided, not directed
  • Enjoying the dignity of being viewed as an equal by associates

Some volunteer managers come close to this model but this can bring them into conflict with their employer; also, there can be dramatic and unpredictable shifts in management style when staff changes occur. Small, locally controlled, volunteer-led, self-help groups with flat organisational structures, consistently offer more freedom of expression, bigger challenges and greater opportunities for personal fulfilment.

Charities should recognise that a volunteer workforce that is unable to generate its own first-line management may be over-managed, be unnecessarily costly and, inadvertently, be unattractive to some very capable volunteers. Managers must constantly seek to enhance the experience of their volunteers. If there is not underlying tension between them and their employers they are probably not trying hard enough.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Charities now taking evidence, offers an opportunity to redefine charitable activity to meet 21st century challenges. The committee should study how charities make use of social capital and look beyond traditional philanthropic models of controlling volunteers. Its recommendations will be judged by how far they encourage volunteers and community activists to work towards cohesive and safe communities. This entails empowering local people, something which philanthropic charities have found problematic until now.

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

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