People Management: Sensitivity vital with voluntary staff

As the Year of the Volunteer begins, Indira Das-Gupta looks at styles of management.

A recent study by the Institute of Volunteering Research for Volunteering England found that many charity volunteers are unhappy with the way they are managed.

Since 2005 is the Year of the Volunteer, this issue will be in the minds of many charities over the coming 12 months as the Government seeks to boost volunteer numbers. According to Barbara Williams, director of volunteering partners for CSV, which deals with both full-time and part-time volunteers, good practice starts with recruitment.

She explains: "We try to process applications in two weeks, and we try to find out about a volunteer's likes and dislikes so we can give them the right placement."

Kathryn Dickie, an information officer for Volunteering England who co-wrote the organisation's guide to managing volunteers, agrees: "It's important not to mess people about at the initial contact stage because this could put them off altogether," she says. "Even charities with limited resources should make a courtesy call or send an email to acknowledge receipt of the application."

Because volunteers give their time for nothing, it is crucial they are not made to feel inferior to paid staff. Williams says: "The great thing about volunteers is that they do it because they want to. Those who are mentored say they appreciate the fact that volunteers are not paid to be their friends - they do it out of choice. That's why we apply the same principles to volunteers as to paid staff. They all want to be clear about their roles. They need to feel valued and should have support."

Dickie takes a different view. "Our research shows volunteers find it off-putting when they are treated like paid members of staff," she says. "They need more flexibility. Not everyone is in a position to do full-time volunteering, and charities should make allowances on those occasions when a volunteer is unable to attend."

But volunteers aren't only seeking flexibility with their time - they are also looking for it in the roles they fill, and in this respect, one size definitely does not fit all. Dickie adds: "In an ideal world, volunteers should really be able to select the things they want to do off a menu. It shouldn't be assumed that volunteers will always do the boring work."

Volunteering England runs a free helpline for charities seeking advice on volunteers. Call: 0800 028 3304.

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