Wally Harbert: Volunteers need respect and a sense of ownership

They are all too often depicted as shadowy figures who merit no more than a collective thank-you at the end of an annual report, says our guest columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Should volunteering be cherished for its impact on services or for the benefits it bestows on volunteers? If we conclude that both are important, how do we resolve conflicts of interest? The answers are not simple. 

Most volunteers work to further the cause of an organisation that has a purpose entirely separate from volunteering. This might relate to children, disabled people, preserving our heritage or a thousand other things. The organisation raises money for its cause and spends some of it recruiting and deploying volunteers. It judges whether volunteering provides value for money by how well it helps the organisation achieve its objectives.

But this is not the whole story. Unless the volunteering experience meets the needs of volunteers as well as the organisation, recruitment will be impeded and abilities might not be fully utilised. The impact of volunteering on volunteers cannot be ignored in any debate about value for money, even though financial sponsorship relates almost wholly to the services that volunteers provide.

Inevitably, when volunteers work as part of an organisation their values must sit within those of the host organisation and volunteer managers must accept direction from people whose expertise lies outside volunteering. Their performance might be judged by criteria they find alien, providing fertile ground for conflict.

But there are other models of volunteering where volunteer management and volunteering are fused together. For example, numerous small neighbourhood groups of volunteers tackle local needs with little or no organisational support. The Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme is a national organisation of 17,000 volunteers over the age of 50. It provided services to local communities and is largely organised and led by volunteers, with a staff to volunteer ratio of about 1:450.

Community engagement is at the heart of these organisations. Studying how they operate and how power is distributed within them provides an insight into the values that best attract, motivate and sustain volunteering.

Proven managers from other sectors do not necessarily thrive if they are placed in charge of volunteers. Not everyone has the temperament to be a sailor or a bus driver, and not everyone can be a successful volunteer manager.

Volunteering is underpinned not by processes, systems or codes of practice, but by a set of values. It shares many of these values with other services, but there are four that, taken together, are essential to effective volunteering:

1. Promoting quality services

It is in no one’s interests to provide poor quality services. Volunteering is a sham unless it places quality at the top of its priorities. It is not acceptable to provide inferior services because "we are only volunteers", and it is sometimes necessary to curb ambitions to make sure that they are achievable within available resources.

2. Promoting civic engagement

Organisations must recognise and build on the powerful human drive to be needed and to be of service to others. This drive is a precious commodity to be nurtured and, sometimes, tamed. Volunteers should never be uncertain about the value and importance of their commitment. They work best when they have a sense of ownership of projects in which they work. This has implications for the relationship between volunteers and staff.

3. Promoting respect

Volunteering must be inclusive and reflect the diversity of the community being served. Volunteers need to know that those in control respect them and value them as individuals – not just for the work they do. This requires that their aspirations are recognised and that, where possible, they are offered choices about what they will do and how they do it.

The tasks volunteers perform must be commensurate with their abilities. This can be difficult to arrange in small organisations, but structures can be changed and responsibilities rearranged to permit more volunteers to find a niche that suits them and the organisation.

4. Promoting the fullest use of skills and talents

Volunteering provides opportunities for creative activity that might previously have been unavailable for some volunteers. It can unlock skills and talents by promoting personal development and maximising opportunities for volunteers to accept responsibility for their own work and that of others. Without such a commitment there is a danger that volunteering becomes cheap labour and exploitation. 

Research suggests that professionalisation of services is excluding more volunteers from decision-making roles. This might be inevitable, but volunteers will vote with their feet unless other ways are found to provide challenges to those who need them.

Some organisations that deploy volunteers appear ambivalent about them. Volunteers are too often depicted in policy statements as shadowy, even marginal figures who merit no more than a collective thank you at the end of an annual report. It is as though there is some shame attached to admitting that volunteers play an important role in the work. They are frequently described as "assisting" and "supplementing" the work of staff. They are seldom portrayed as central figures, initiators, innovators or equal partners with other stakeholders.

Where volunteer managers embrace these values and apply them consistently to managerial tasks, not only is the volunteer experience enhanced, but volunteers play a more important part in realising the objectives of the organisation.

It is usually impossible to detect from policy statements how organisations exercise power over their staff and volunteers. The application of these values hinges on personal beliefs about power and control and on the capacity of leaders and managers to develop relationships that fulfil and empower others and help them to grow. They also depend on a willingness to take calculated risks. But not everyone is comfortable being part of an organisation that decentralises power and diffuses control. Again, conflict can arise with the host organisation, which must have procedures for resolving conflict.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing


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