Rob Jackson: A quick test on volunteering for charity leaders

Our correspondent outlines the best ways for you to make your volunteer manager's life a misery

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Dear charity chief executive/board chair/leader,

I suspect you don’t normally read my column. It’s all about volunteering, and that probably isn’t a priority for you. This month please make an exception. You see, I’ve written something just for you – a leader in a volunteer-involving organisation where someone else has responsibility for the volunteers.

You might have noticed that sometimes your volunteer manager complains. Those of us who work in volunteer management know we can sometimes be seen a serial whiners. Typically, that complaining comes from frustration because your volunteer manager isn’t able to do the best job they can. Most want to give excellent support to the volunteers and thus help the organisation deliver its mission in the most effective way.

Some charity leaders are great – they get the power and potential of volunteering. Too many aren’t that great, though, and volunteering comes way down their list of priorities. I want to help you see which category you fit into.

Just to be a bit different, here are three things you can do (maybe you already are) to make your volunteer manager's life a nightmare:

1. Don’t properly resource volunteer engagement. Work on the assumption that volunteering is free. Don’t reimburse volunteer expenses. Don’t give your volunteer manager a budget, but do expect them to achieve great things. Continue to believe that volunteers are easy to attract and will put up with poor support and unfulfilling roles despite the evidence to the contrary. Absolutely do not invest in anything that might make volunteer engagement more effective, such as a good volunteer-management system.

2. Only let volunteers do menial, non-essential work. Remember that, because they don’t get paid, they are by definition less competent than paid staff. Don’t let them near anything that requires real skill or brain power. If anyone slips through the cracks and ends up working unpaid in such a significant role, never refer to them as a volunteer. Terms such as "trustee" and "pro-bono" can help here. And always talk about using volunteers, because it shows how much you value them.

3. Measure success by how many volunteers you have and/or how many hours they give. Don’t show any interest in what volunteers achieve, the difference they make, the impact they have. Give your volunteer manager ever-increasing recruitment targets to hit with no consideration for the quality of the volunteering experience your organisation offers. Be satisfied with that revolving door of more and more recruitment and don’t worry about what those unhappy ex-volunteers say about you to their friends and family, and on social media. Ignore the evidence that exists through established tools such as the Volunteer Investment and Value Audit or the Volunteer Impact Assessment Toolkit, which demonstrate the amazing return on investment volunteering can bring.

If you’ve read those and don’t think they describe you – great. If it’s got you worried that you might not be doing the best by your volunteers and volunteer manager, then come back next month for the other side of the coin: "Three things to do to make your manager of volunteers happy."

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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