Wally Harbert: What is volunteer management?

Managers should unlock the potential of volunteers rather than bark orders at them, says our guest columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

What is the role of a volunteer manager? This is an important question because volunteer managers are clamouring for professional status, and that cannot be bestowed until there is general agreement about what they are paid to do and what skills they need.

It might be thought that Volunteering England’s weighty tome from 2008, A Manifesto for Change by the grandly titled Commission on the Future of Volunteering, would be the first place to look for a definition of volunteer management. But in a section headed "Managing Volunteers and Volunteering", it merely employs empty phrases about the need for good management without defining it.

Any definition of the skills required to manage volunteers must have universal application. This is the problem that confronted social work in the 1950s and 1960s. Was social work a single discipline or were there several disciplines depending on whether a practitioner worked with children, elderly people, unmarried mothers or homeless people? When there was wide agreement that the same basic training was required for every branch of the service, the way was open to create a unified profession with a common basic training. Investment in the education of social workers took off.

Without an agreed set of principles, volunteering is very much at the mercy of people who have little knowledge or understanding of the issues. Volunteers and their managers are deployed by a range of different organisations whose skills and interests extend over many specialist fields, none of which have to be volunteering. The organisations concerned may have expertise in working with children, with elderly people or the preservation of historic buildings, but volunteering tends to be bolted on as an extra, something that helps them to achieve a wider objective. The needs of volunteers can easily be overlooked – or exploited – and they can become uninviting places for volunteers to spend their time.

Again, the analogy of social work in the 1950s and 1960s comes to mind because social workers were required to do the bidding of doctors, housing managers and teachers. Only an independent professional status gave them a platform to develop their skills.

There can be no professionalism in volunteer management if its key task is to ensure that volunteers carry out the instructions of others. So we come back to my starting point and the crucial question on which everything else hangs: what is the role of a volunteer manager?

I am in no doubt that it is to identify and unlock the potential of volunteers so that they can fully contribute their skills and talents as they undertake the tasks in hand. The manager’s role is enabling and facilitating rather than directing and controlling. The skill lies in motivating volunteers and in managing situations, not people.

This model of management increasingly appeals to potential volunteers born since the war, who are less likely than their predecessors to accept instructions from others and are looking for an experience that is unlike that of paid employment. We simply do not know how many good potential volunteers are lost because of unimaginative volunteer management.

In time, the term volunteer management will be seen as inappropriate and misleading. But one thing at a time.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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