Do volunteers get enough support from the bosses?

Some think charity chiefs could get more involved in volunteer management, writes Annette Rawstrone

Volunteers: do chief executives do enough?
Volunteers: do chief executives do enough?

Volunteers' Week at the beginning of June was an opportunity for chief executives to show their appreciation for the hard work that their volunteers do. But it raised the question of whether support from the top is demonstrated throughout the year.

Rob Jackson, a volunteer management consultant, says that input on volunteering by a chief executive is essential because they set the tone and ethos for how the organisation interacts with volunteers and whether they are regarded only as the people who stuff envelopes and make the tea.

"A good chief executive understands that volunteers have to be thought about and planned for strategically," he says. "The responsibility for volunteering should not rest only with volunteer managers. Chief executives can show they have bought into the importance of volunteering by including skilled volunteers in senior roles." He says he would like to see modules on working with volunteers included in leadership training courses.

Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, agrees that the support for and attitude to volunteers has to be led from the top, especially given that trustees are volunteers themselves. "I've worked directly and continually with volunteers in every role I've had for the past 30 years, and am a big believer in being a visible presence on the front line, being accessible and being open to challenge and discussion," she says. "I don't think there's a day when goes by that I don't meet, see or work with a volunteer for Battersea."

The charity increasingly uses volunteers, including those with professional skills, throughout the organisation. Volunteers work in every area of the charity, from front-line animal services to community outreach activities and internal support functions such as finance, communications and fundraising.

Horton says this demonstrates the value placed on volunteers. "They want to be at the heart of the charity, working in every part of the business, supporting and delivering services alongside the wider staff team, working as equals and bringing great networks and great value," she says.

Close connection

At Volunteering Matters – until recently called CSV – it is recognised that volunteers want to have a close connection with the charity and its beneficiaries. Advisory groups of volunteers are used to help guide the work of the organisation, although its chief executive, Oonagh Aitken, warns: "It is not always comfortable to hear what they think because some of them have very strong views." The charity focuses on the reciprocal impact on volunteers by aiming for them to get as much out of the experience as the people they help.

It is inevitable that a chief executive's contact with volunteers diminishes as a charity gets bigger, but leaders of large organisations can learn from smaller ones. Village By Village, a small international development charity, demonstrates the importance of volunteers by listing them alongside the beneficiaries at the top of its organisational structure on its website.

The chief executive, Neil Kerfoot, says that charity leaders should instil a positive volunteering ethos by ensuring that everyone understands the purpose of the work that volunteers are doing, giving them autonomy and enabling them to master their work by providing relevant training or experience.

Integral to success

Engineers Without Borders UK says volunteers are integral to operational success and involved in strategic decision-making as well as service delivery. The job descriptions of the charity's nine paid staff state that it is their responsibility to work with and manage volunteers; this is reinforced by the inclusion of volunteers on all recruitment panels, which can also provide a useful, different perspective.

"Recently we've been through a rebranding exercise, including the development of a new strapline," says Doug Harper, chief executive of EWB-UK. "We made sure that we had volunteers in each of the workshops and sessions with consultants so that they could contribute to the outcome.

Later in the year we will carry out a strategy review and make sure that we involve volunteers at all stages, not just the member consultation phase."

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