Rob Jackson: Beware of the robot volunteer managers

Experts warn that many jobs in the future could be done by robots. Our columnist doesn't think that supporting volunteers is one of them

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Last month the BBC spent some time focusing on the development of robots and artificial intelligence because, according to a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte, about 35 per cent of jobs in the UK are at high risk of computerisation over the next 20 years.

As a bit of fun the BBC asked "Will a robot take your job?" and provided an online tool to help us answer this question. It takes data from Michael Osborne and Carl Frey of the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School and indicates how likely it is a computer or robot could do particular roles.

I had a play about with this online tool for a few minutes. Unsurprisingly, volunteer manager (or any variant thereof) did not appear in the list of available jobs to select from. So I chose welfare professional (other). This had a 4 per cent chance of becoming automated. Apparently (and fairly obviously) if a job involves negotiation, helping and assisting others and coming up with original ideas, it is less likely to be replaced by a computer or a robot.

Human resources manager (kind of close to volunteer manager) came in at a 32 per cent chance of automation. That felt a little high. Then I noticed I could choose non-governmental organisation officer (charity/non-profit worker to you and me). That came back as a 97 per cent chance of automation.

I was surprised, to say the least. What does Martin School think charity workers do that involves no or little negotiation, helping and assisting others and/or coming up with original ideas?

That got me thinking about people who lead, organise and manage volunteers and volunteering. Volunteer managers are often frustrated that their role isn’t understood by senior managers, colleagues and the wider sector. They get vexed when paid staff think they can magic 15 volunteers out of thin air for that event on Monday morning, and it is now 5pm on Friday.

If that’s the kind of view people have of volunteer managers, it’s unsurprising that they could be replaced by robots. If all volunteer managers do is implement and monitor systems and processes, then perhaps before too long someone could simply 3D print those 15 volunteers for Monday morning.

But that isn’t what volunteer management is about – it's much more complex and nuanced than that. It’s a role requiring skills and abilities that mark out great leaders. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner say in the introduction to their book, The Leadership Challenge: "To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers – especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay."

So could volunteer management be done by robots? No, I don’t think so. But I do think that we have much work to do to convince people otherwise and demonstrate not only our skills but how they mark us out as some of the most valuable people in the sector workforce.

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