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A volunteer's perspective

With 20 years' experience of volunteering under her belt, Val Howard shares her insights into effective volunteer management.

Motivations to volunteer

Val was formerly a teacher at an inner-city school with many social and educational challenges. She left teaching to focus on raising her family and since then has had a highly varied voluntary career. Different factors have motivated each of her voluntary positions.

Primary school volunteer

Val's first volunteering role came about when her child's teacher asked for help. After four years away from teaching and at home full time, she felt a desire to get out of the house and "do something else”.

She explains: "I'd spent years studying and working in teaching, so I thought I might as well offer my skills. I was able to do a job I loved one afternoon a week, without the mountains of paperwork that comes with doing it on a paid basis. It was very easy to manage the voluntary work around my home and childcare commitments”.

Val was a volunteer at the school for around seven years and helped out with a whole range of subjects and activities, including painting, reading and science.

Volunteering at a children's charity

Val's second voluntary position was at a regional charity for life-limited children and their families. Her involvement started after a lunchtime visit to the charity. She says: "I came for lunch, watched the video, cried my eyes out and was hooked”.

As the organisation developed, Val's role as a volunteer changed too. She's taken on roles including housekeeping, lifeguarding at the hydrotherapy facility, fundraising and therapeutic massage. After more than a dozen years, she is still a committed volunteer for this charity.

Voluntary telephone counsellor

Val's third volunteering role was prompted by a speech made by a volunteer counsellor from a national children's telephone helpline, who spoke at a charity event. The counsellor put out a request for more volunteers and this “call to arms” resonated with Val. She says, "it seemed to have my name on it!" Val contacted the charity to find out how to apply. She undertook 10 weeks of intensive training and has now been volunteering for the charity for around two years, whilst maintaining her support for the children's charity that works with lime-limited children.

Volunteer assessment

Val has experienced the full spectrum of approaches to volunteer management, from the totally informal and unstructured, to intense recruitment, monitoring and assessment.

She believes that it is good that volunteering has “been tidied up a bit” and that volunteer management has become more professional. In her early experience as a primary school volunteer, she was aware of unqualified and sometimes even unsuitable volunteers, whose motivations were based on promoting the interests of their own child or grandchild rather than on a genuine interest in working with other people's children.

Val is an old hand at the regional children's charity and has been working there longer than most of the paid staff. Having been around when the first Volunteer Manager set up the programme, she has seen the organisation move from an informal 'pioneering' approach to volunteering, to a more structured and formal programme that befits a larger, more established organisation.

Val describes the application process for becoming a volunteer at the national telephone helpline for children as, “the most terrifying application interview process I have ever experienced”. At the helpline, volunteers deliver the front-line service and are therefore monitored, assessed and very well supported in what is an emotionally and stamina challenging role.

The rewards of volunteering

Val says that as a volunteer, “so much depends on who you work with”. In her two current roles, she gets along well with her work colleagues and is passionate about the benefits that each organisation gives to its service users. She describes her work at the regional children's charity as, “great fun with a lot of laughs, and it needs to be when you're spending four hours cleaning loos, hoovering or working in the kitchen!"

Val enjoys the opportunity to have a broad and varied role. "At the children's charity I could be doing housekeeping one minute and the next I'll be giving a relaxation massage to a distressed parent or even a life-limited child”.

She likes to be challenged in her work but to have access to back-up support. In her counselling role she finds herself, "totally out of my comfort zone, every time”, so the strong group dynamic and natural support network amongst the 16 volunteer counsellors is invaluable.

Advice for volunteer managers

With a wealth of experience as a volunteer, Val has the following suggestions to help organisations manage their volunteers effectively.

1) Engage your volunteers in change

Forewarn and where possible consult volunteers about the needs and reasons behind significant changes which affect their role. When organisations amalgamate and staff teams are fighting for territory, volunteers get caught up in the melee. Ensure they are included in change management programmes. "It’s not altogether convincing to be told periodically how valued you are when you are always 'bottom of the food chain in terms of information," says Val.

2) Listen to your volunteers

Periodic social activities are fun but sometimes a forum where your opinion will be heard is preferable to a pat on the back. Having a forum means you don't have to rely on an individual's initiative and preparedness to speak-up.

3) Define volunteer's roles and responsibilities

Give clear guidelines as to what the role entails and ensure that the individual is properly trained and updated. Provide clear and consistent messages about what is expected of volunteers and the boundaries and overlaps between volunteer and staff roles.

4) Get to know your volunteers

Take deliberate care to find out about individual volunteer's skills and strengths, to make them feel valued as individuals but also to access untapped skills and experience that can benefit the organisation.

5) Communicate with your volunteers

Maintain the personal touch, even in a growing or larger charity. Group emails are not engaging and are easy to ignore - this can result in volunteers feeling disengaged and disinclined to fill-in when cover is needed. Feeling like "just a name on a distribution list" is demoralising and could mean you end up losing volunteers, but the occasional phone call can stop this happening.

6) Develop your volunteers

Offer opportunities for the individual to develop their volunteer career path within the organisation. This can increase their feeling of being valued, enrich the talent within the organisation and reduce volunteer turnover.

7) Use a volunteer appraisal process

Develop an appropriate appraisal process, perhaps on a 360 degree basis. "Everyone hates the idea and is nervous about it beforehand but it's usually a positive process," says Val.

8) Make the most of volunteer training

Having spent the volunteer's time and the organisation's money on sometimes lengthy training, use the resulting skills effectively within the organisation.

Page last edited Apr 28, 2017

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