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‘Can you get ‘your’ volunteers to do this for me?’

Logo: Canal & River Trust

A question that all Volunteering Managers and Coordinators will have heard at some stage. And how easy is it to ‘just get them to do this’ when people are volunteering their time for a wide range of reasons? Motivation determines why people give their time, just as much as if they’re asked to do something.

Towpath Taskforce on the Kennet & Avon Canal (Canal & River Trust)
Towpath Taskforce on the Kennet & Avon Canal (Canal & River Trust)

The question of who’s in charge of volunteers varies from organisation to organisation. In some cases, it’s the Volunteering Manager/Co-ordinator who’s responsible for all volunteers but, in many larger organisations, their role may be to support others within the organisation to engage volunteers rather than manage them directly themselves.

We all know that volunteer management has evolved greatly in the past couple of decades and continues to evolve.   Social action and micro volunteering opportunities are becoming more common phrases heard, countering the expectation of the more traditional relationships. Amongst other things, London 2012 served as a great profile raiser for volunteering and recognition is growing both within organisations and in general society. But what is the volunteer manager’s role?

For me, there’s a clear distinction between the volunteer manager (anyone managing volunteers) and a Volunteering Manager/Coordinator (those dedicated to supporting the management of volunteers, either through direct supervision or by supporting their colleagues in managing volunteers). Let’s call the latter Volunteering Managers for ease.

The Volunteering Manager has become a more crucial role as the professionalisation of the role has increased. They bring specialist knowledge and experience, can understand or develop the right processes and procedures, and can give support to those working directly with volunteers when they need it.

Office based volunteers in Leeds (Canal & River Trust)
Office based volunteers in Leeds (Canal & River Trust)

Support for colleagues is often needed to overcome barriers to developing volunteering. Support can be as simple as ‘yes, let’s do that’ or as complex as working through a challenging behaviour issue. Barriers to engaging more volunteers from colleagues’ points of view can include fear (threats to jobs, or finding a more competent volunteer than the employee etc.); a lack of confidence in their own management skills; a lack of understanding of what people could volunteer their time to do; and a lack of resources. Solutions to this can include working closely with employee representatives (Trade Unions etc.) and investing in a core of people dedicated to working with volunteers and supporting colleagues in volunteer management.

There can sometimes be an assumption made that people who line manage employees can manage volunteers.   Whilst this can very often be the case, there can be a lack of understanding amongst line managers of motivations to volunteer, which impedes their ability to manage them effectively.   Whilst a lot of employees may volunteer in their own time, they don’t necessarily see themselves as volunteers and this can colour their view when working with volunteers professionally rather than enhancing it. Equally for those who don’t volunteer, there are mixed perceptions of why people volunteer and how to engage them. It can feel uncomfortable asking people to give something for ‘nothing’ if you don’t appreciate what the volunteer is getting out of the activity. Over time, through experience and with support and communications, there is growing understanding of why people want to give their time freely and how it can be as valuable to the individual as those they volunteer for.   On the flip side, we have many people who are natural managers of volunteers, either as existing line managers themselves or just because of their natural approach. Part of this can be a passion for their role which helps them connect with someone who gives their time freely.


Dry stone walling at Rishton on the Leeds Liverpool Canal (Canal & River Trust)
Dry stone walling at Rishton on the Leeds Liverpool Canal (Canal & River Trust)

Development in the Canal & River Trust

Volunteer Lock Keepers at Braunston on the Grand Union Canal (Canal & River Trust)
Volunteer Lock Keepers at Braunston on the Grand Union Canal (Canal & River Trust)

In the past 6 years of the Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways), the amount of time given by volunteers has increased from 7,000 days to 51,000 days per year and the range of roles has developed equally dramatically. The Trust is now led by volunteer Trustees; has an army of over 400 volunteer lock keepers; and welcomes people in short and long term professionally skilled roles such as engineering, ecology and heritage conservation. The role I was given as National Volunteering Manager was the initial step in the change of the organisation, back when we were British Waterways.   It was a clear signal of intent both internally and externally that, rather than bolting Volunteer Manager onto a HR role or another management position, what was needed was a role dedicated to representing, supporting and guiding volunteering across the organisation. It was the start of building a dedicated team of Volunteering Managers to both supervise volunteers directly and, more importantly, support colleagues across the 2000 miles network of canals and rivers to work with volunteers. The incredible success that we’ve had has partly come from our own internal drive; partly from our willingness to say: ‘yes, let’s give it a try’; and partly from the enthusiasm, drive and knowledge of the existing and new volunteers who come forward to support us.

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 15 September 2014