Rob Jackson: It's vital to find the right place for your volunteer manager

Volunteers are engaged across an organisation, so consider carefully where you place their manager in the organisational hierarchy

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Human resources? Fundraising? Finance? Service delivery? Where should volunteer management sit within an organisation’s structure?

The simple answer is that there is no "correct" place for the volunteer manager on the organisational chart. Each setting is different, affected by things such as department structures, operational priorities, the kinds of roles volunteers fill and other concerns.

What’s important is that whoever supervises the volunteer manager recognises that volunteers are engaged across an organisation, not just in one department. For example, if you place the volunteer manager in the fundraising team, will their manager be willing and able to support and assist the facilitation of volunteering in the organisation’s service delivery work?

Conversely, if the volunteer manager is placed in a service function, will their manager be supportive of enabling volunteer fundraising efforts?

This inter-departmental tension is one reason why volunteer managers end up in human resources (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). But think carefully about aligning volunteer engagement with HR. Here are some things to consider:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers are likely to be given lower priority than employees.
  • If the HR culture is one of rule-following and enforcement, rather than supporting and enabling people to flourish at work, then volunteering will not be a good fit.
  • The volunteer manager might be much more involved in a range of day-to-day activities across the organisation than HR colleagues who support paid staff.
  • There are some big differences between HR and volunteer management. Here are three examples: 

- HR takes job descriptions designed by others and tries to fill those slots with the best people, rejecting the rest. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactive in suggesting ways volunteers can support all teams across the organisation, be much more creative in finding people with expertise and be adaptive to those who unexpectedly offer useful talents.
- HR can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary, but volunteer managers can engage talent in the community without a budget to pay them, giving them much more freedom and flexibility.
- HR deals with people of working age, whereas volunteer managers deal with people beyond both ends of this age range, perhaps from five to 95 years of age. This raises different issues than those encountered when working with paid staff aged from 18 to 70.

In reality, the volunteer manager is a separate, independent department head with responsibilities substantially different from all other departments. They are responsible for a large group of people – usually far more than the paid staff – and work across the organisation in a way almost nobody else does, except the chief executive.

So should the volunteer manager report to the chief executive? This would convey to everyone that volunteers are important, a subject of daily interest to senior management and a key strategic priority.

Yes, I know, in some organisations the chief executive might already line-manage multiple staff and taking on the volunteer manager as well might not be an option. This means the volunteer manager might have to report to another senior manager.

As we’ve seen, who that is and what they are responsible for will have a bearing on how volunteering is viewed across the organisation, so consider who else answers to the same senior manager and assess whether there is an evident rationale for placing the volunteer manager alongside these other teams.

Above all, avoid implying that volunteers are a miscellaneous, nice-to-have, non-essential resource. They deserve so much more.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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