Wally Harbert: The volunteers that walk away

They may cite bad health and family commitments, but poor management and a lack of resources are the main reasons why volunteers call it a day, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Poor health and family commitments are the most common explanations volunteers proffer for resigning. But these can be excuses to avoid unpleasantness. Even perceptive exit interviewers can be deceived. Apart from genuine changes in personal circumstances, there are two basic reasons why volunteers walk away.

Firstly, there may be a mismatch between available resources and the tasks to be performed. A workforce cannot be at ease if it does not have the means to accomplish the task it is set. As football managers know, team members are less forgiving of one another’s peccadilloes when they are on the losing side. Clashes of personality and disagreements arise. Unless a solution is in sight, volunteers lose heart and leave.
Ironically, the mismatch might, in some cases, be resolved by increasing the responsibilities of volunteers. Nothing is more frustrating than being confronted by a problem that could be solved if only you had the necessary authority. Many of us have been there at some point in our lives.
The second reason for discontent is that, unless the activities assigned to volunteers broadly match their competence and interests, they may feel overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon them or, conversely, belittled and dispirited by the lack of a challenge.
There are dangers that occur when volunteers accept responsibilities beyond their capabilities, but by far the biggest waste happens when talents are underused and disillusioned volunteers leave quietly with no one in the organisation understanding why.
Organisations may fail volunteers because they offer them a narrow range of tasks in the mistaken belief that volunteers are unable to accept responsibility for complex assignments. By underrating them, organisations may over-manage volunteers, leading to unnecessary costs and deterring some very able people. The absence of experienced volunteer managers at senior levels in an organisation makes this problem more likely.
Some managers have difficulty supervising volunteers who have more life experience or a wider range of skills than themselves. This is a greater source of tension than generally realised, particularly with older volunteers who may have had experience of controlling a workforce and a substantial budget. Such volunteers have nothing to prove and no job to lose, so the power that managers usually wield over a workforce do not apply. Knowledgeable volunteers can appear formidable to young managers with no professional training.
Competent managers, who are secure in their own abilities and see their role as unlocking the potential of volunteers, welcome these nonconformists. They make full use of the volunteers' talents, and allow themselves to learn from them. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to find that, having demonstrated their value, competent volunteers are then sidelined by a new manager who feels uncomfortable about delegating responsibilities.
No other single act that would benefit third sector services more than the introduction of professional training for volunteer managers. The government’s action in training a cadre of facilitators to promote its Big Society agenda shows what can be achieved by organisations that have the ear of government. It is time to piggy-back on that. 

Wally Harbert’s book about older volunteers, Baby boomers and the big society, was published in 2012

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