Rob Jackson: Volunteers should be visible all year round

We should be learning from volunteers and sharing that knowledge, rather than ignoring it

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Just a month ago we were celebrating Volunteers’ Week and the amazing contribution volunteers make across society. As the annual celebration of volunteering fades into memory, so volunteers become invisible once more, their vital service hidden from the public eye. More seriously, they go back to being invisible in the organisations that involve them, as Jo Gibney highlighted in a recent post on the Association of Volunteer Managers website.

She wrote: "When AVM surveyed volunteer managers for International Volunteer Managers’ Day 2017, we found one of the biggest challenges was lack of buy-in from their organisations for volunteering."

Consider this: it is embarrassingly rare for any non-profit management course, especially in academic settings, to include content on working with volunteers. Financial management, yes. Fundraising, yes. Human resources management (paid staff), yes. But outside of engaging with trustees, volunteering at best gets a passing mention, but more often doesn’t feature at all.

What is implied is that there is nothing we need to know if we we want to work well with volunteers. It suggests anyone can make the most of the contribution of volunteers to a charity or good cause.

And that’s simply not true.

To work effectively with volunteers requires skill, patience, an understanding of people and an aptitude for leadership. It’s no coincidence that, in their book The Leadership Challenges, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner say: "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. What conditions would need to exist for your staff to want to enlist in your ‘volunteer’ organisation? Under volunteer conditions, what would you need to do if you wanted people to perform at high levels? What would you need to do if you wanted them to remain loyal to your organisation?"

Put simply, the best leaders are those who can effectively lead volunteers. Shouldn’t we be learning from these people and sharing that knowledge rather than ignoring it?

Surely it is time for a change. Time to not let the potential of volunteers be squandered because we aren’t prepared to invest in doing it well. Time for the skills of leading and managing volunteers to be taken more seriously and taught to more people.

Only then will we raise the leaders we need; leaders who can lead our organisations successfully into the future. Leaders who will ensure that volunteers make the biggest impact. Leaders who will keep the profile and buy in to volunteering high all year round, and not just for an all too brief seven days in June.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant 

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