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Volunteer Managers – Time to Take Us Seriously

12 May 2015 at 10:30 am
Xavier Smerdon
The role of volunteer managers is often under-valued, under-resourced and under-paid but it’s time to change this and show that they are skilled people in project management, communication and recruitment skills, writes manager Sharon Walsh.

Xavier Smerdon | 12 May 2015 at 10:30 am


Volunteer Managers – Time to Take Us Seriously
12 May 2015 at 10:30 am

The role of volunteer managers is often under-valued, under-resourced and under-paid but it’s time to change this and show that they are skilled people in project management, communication and recruitment skills, writes manager Sharon Walsh.

I am a Manager of Volunteers and when friends and colleagues ask me what I do they are often surprised at the answer that I provide.  They are expecting me to say that my job is made up of a little bit of paperwork and enjoying cups of tea with volunteers. Maybe that is what you were thinking too?

In fact, my job as a Manager of Volunteers is far from that.  I manage the volunteer program for Bendigo Health where we are lucky to have just over 300 volunteers assisting in more than thirty areas of our health service.  Our volunteers help us to provide care to our community and without them our service would not be as vibrant or as robust.   

There are considerations that must be made about each individual volunteer –the “what’s in it for me factor”.  

Volunteers now expect to get something back for what they do – this may simply include a thank you, or knowing that they have done something good but for many more want this and a reference for a job, experience, to change the world, to prevent themselves being socially isolated and to make friends, to learn new skills, to practice their spoken English, to mark off community service for school, to get them out and about.  This is a positive change, there should be  a “What’s in it for me factor” because if they aren’t getting out of it what they want out of their volunteer experience then why do it – they will likely leave.  The flip side is that for managers of volunteers this makes recruiting and supporting volunteers’ complex.

I am lucky because in my organisation I am well supported by CEO, Board, Exec and staff.  I am provided opportunities to develop and grow the program and am encouraged to develop my management skills.  However, for many other Managers of Volunteers this is not the case.

I am at times frustrated at the lack of knowledge that organisations, community and Government have about managing volunteers.  

Managing volunteers is very different to managing paid staff and there are many reasons for this;

  • Reason 1 – they aren’t getting paid they are choosing to be with your organisations;
  • Reason 2 – they all have different reasons for wanting to volunteer;
  • Reason 3 – they all have different needs;
  • Reason 4 – they all have different skills, interests and abilities, and;
  • Reason 5 – they all have varying time availability

The varying reasons volunteers want to give their time i.e. because they want to help in the community, some because they see the need, others want to get a reference for future work, and points for their university degrees and some have a direct relationship with your organisation.   This means taking into account each individual and why they are coming to your organisation over another.  Regardless of why they come, we have to try and assist them – whether that is to try and place them within our organisations or to try and send them to another more suitable organisation.

Volunteers all have different needs.  Some volunteers may require more attention and support than others.  As in life, our volunteers needs change – they may get sick, or now be caring for a loved one, perhaps they now help with the grand children, they may need to return to work or move house, they may lose people they love.  Sometimes the volunteer has a need to do something that may not match you or your organisation’s need to have it done.  

Likewise our needs may no longer meet the need of the volunteer.  In my organisation, we have volunteers with physical and mental disability, we have volunteers that need to gain experience for a job, or some volunteers who have been very isolated and need to be around people while others have skills and knowledge that they need to share.  All of these needs are valid and therefore managers of volunteers need to manage how all these needs will impact on the services and on the community that is our volunteers.

For managers and coordinators it is about getting the balance right and ensuring that the appropriate and best suited volunteer is helping in the right area and is capable of doing the job in a safe and appropriate way.

So, as you can see – recruiting and maintaining volunteers is quite different to someone who applies for a job as a skilled person and is given a salary every week – compared to someone who wants and needs to be there helping the community and their payment is a smile and a pat on the back!!

I have been in volunteer management for more than 15 years – for the first five years I was learning the role and that five years doesn’t make me a slow learner – it just means that there are many elements to understanding the complexities of managing volunteers.  My second five years was spent honing skills and professionalising the programs and supports to ensure that greatest impact for all stakeholders and ensuring that the volunteer program matched strategic directions and supported patient care.

Managers of volunteers need many skills and qualities to do this work.  On any given day I can be writing advertisements, interviewing, reference checking, police checking, training, developing programs and speaking to various stakeholders, speaking to community groups about volunteering, presenting at forums and conferences, supporting other volunteer engaging organisations, providing counselling to volunteers, dealing with incidents, arranging functions, marketing via radio or newspapers, writing nominations for awards and the list goes on and on and on.  This is part of the fun of the role, I love my job and it is interesting every day of the week but I do want you to know it is rarely an easy job.

Volunteer managers and coordinators are serious all-rounders, innovators and strategic leaders and we have communications skills that enable us to gather and lead people as we go in a way that supports the volunteer, the staff, the organisation and most importantly the community.

The expectations of volunteers have changed and the requirements of organisations utilising volunteers has also changed.  We now have legislation and accreditation standards that include volunteers  – as managers of volunteers we need to ensure the roles our volunteers are doing are meaningful for each individual to keep them coming back and supporting our organisations – and all of this without paying them a cent!!   Managers of volunteers are innovators and creative thinkers and change management experts to ensure we are always two steps ahead.

The role of volunteer managers and coordinators is often under-valued, under resourced and under paid.  For many managers and coordinators of volunteers in the community are asked opinions about volunteers before major decisions are made reinforcing our expert opinions and experience simply don’t matter.  

I would also like  the volunteer sector to consider what we can do to change this situation – to show other industry that we are skilled in people and project management, that our communication and recruitment skills are second to none, that we are risk managers and innovation specialist, AND that we do this on the smell of an oily rag!!!  I’m not sure that too many other industries could claim the same.

I believe that leadership and innovation are the way forward for the volunteer sector – in the past we haven’t been too good at celebrating and promoting ourselves – but it is actually what we need to do to ensure that our programs and our volunteers are better supported.

As a founding member of the Leaders in Health Volunteering network, a network that was established to support managers and coordinators of health volunteers, we are wanting to promote leadership for managers and coordinators of volunteers – we have just completed our third sector benchmark about health volunteer programs and we are the first to do this in Australia.  

We have established positive working relationships with our peak bodies which is providing us a voice to discuss changes and trends in volunteering.  We share with each other our successes and failures so that we can learn from each other and this has resulted in several  individuals winning quality awards for our programs within our own organisations, AND through this network came the idea for a conference.  

So, on Friday 28th August 2015 Barwon Health together with Bendigo Health will be hosting the first ever Australian Conference on Leadership in Health Volunteering.  The theme of the conference is Identity, Innovation and Influence.  This one day is aimed to have volunteer managers look past the everyday management of their programs to move into leadership so that we can promote our volunteers, our roles and the sector.  2015 Leadership in Health Volunteering Invitation.pdf – I hope to see you there??

About the author: Sharon Walsh, is the Manager of Volunteer Services at Bendigo Health in Victoria.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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