How to Manage Volunteers

Written by Adrian Furnham Monday 20 March 2017
Volunteers need good management just like any worker, but perception and emotional intelligence are even more important

A volunteer is worth ten conscripts. Some public sector institutions rely very heavily on volunteers. Consider the local hospital and the range of people giving freely of their time and expertise. The visitors, the hospital radio, the charity shop and many others.

Why do they do it? How can they be encouraged and managed? Busy-bodies, do-gooders and award-chasers or salt-of-the-earth, empathic, useful givers?

Where, when and how people volunteer may, in part, tell us why they are volunteers. The school governor is different from the charity shop attendant or the hospital radio announcer.

People volunteer to work in an organisation because they have some allegiance to it. Kindness to a relative or oneself in hospital may provoke a sense of giving back in thanks. A person may volunteer to be a school governor, on the other hand, to attempt to improve the school’s image, its facilities or its standing for their own children.

The latest trend in volunteering are interns. It works like this: young, eager, hopeful recruits volunteer to be an intern over the summer. Some call it “an experience placement”. Most interns are not paid but there, they say, to gain experience.

For the organisation it is free labour: if of course, they are not a burden and have enough skills and the right attitude to do some real work soon. They can be a liability if the work is specialised and there is no one to supervise them.

This is the implicit deal: the organisation gets a volunteer but also more importantly the opportunity to see how they really work. It is in fact a prolonged job interview. Most people can’t keep up a bluff or face for months. So they “short-circuit” the interview process: get in through the back door, not on CV but rather on showing what they can do.

Other mature volunteers may treat their ‘job’ as a hobby; as a place to meet people; as an opportunity to keep one’s hand in; or as a way of ‘getting out more’. They may be ‘volunteered’ by a spouse or encouraged by a friend. A rather oxymoronic form of volunteering.

But how does one manage voluntary workers or paid volunteers? What ‘advertisements’ do they respond to? And how can one manage them? Do you always have to ask volunteers if they will, want to or feel like doing tasks?

Can one or should one try to manage, as opposed to organise, volunteers? Is life in the voluntary sector widely different from that in the public or private sector? The essence of the concept of voluntary is free will and free choice – acting without compulsion or payment. “Of, subject to, and regulated by will” as the dictionary puts it.

Volunteers can down tools, walk out or throw their toys out of the pram quickly and with significant consequences. They may be no more temperamental than non-volunteers but need careful management. So how to do it?

First, find their primary motive for volunteering. Is it social, ethical, even physical? Bear this in mind when allocating work. But it can be complicated: some don’t want to be treated differently from non-volunteers while others want a lot of acknowledgement for their ‘selfless acts of giving’.

All work gives psychological benefits. It gives one a sense of purpose and an opportunity to exercise skills. It gives people a structure to their day, week and year. It gives them an identity. And often, most of all, it gives them social contacts both with other workers but also with customers and clients. Work, in short, is (often) good for you. But make sure you understand the benefits volunteers are deriving from it.

Second, have a more consultative and democratic style. Listen to volunteers’ ideas: many have useful experience. Respect their experience. But always be clear what your primary task of being a manager is: setting clear goals, giving support to attain them and consistent accurate feedback.

Third, remember that it is intrinsic, not extrinsic, rewards that are important. Volunteers may not be being paid but they are getting rewards. These rewards differ from individual to individual and most may not always be entirely able to tell you.

Fourth, don’t treat them differently – unless they very much want it. Integrate them into the workforce. Make sure they get a sense of community. Respect a sense of vocation – if they have one – but don’t highlight it in front of others.

Fifth, and this may sound contradictory, just practice good management. Set people clear tasks. Make them know what they should be doing (how, when and why) and give praise when it is done.

Could or should one have one of the government ordained Tzars – a Voluntary Sector Tzar? Perhaps but this could easily lead to revolution. The voluntary sector is highly heterogeneous. People are inspired by ideology (both religious and political), by personal experience and by a need to volunteer. There are also considerable differences within voluntary organisations as to why people are there.

They need, like everyone else, good management. But most of all they need perceptive managers. Managers with that conceptually elusive quality called emotional intelligence as well as good business savvy.