Tuesday, 6 January 2015

How volunteer management can make you sick

Working as a leader and manager of volunteers can be an all consuming role. We get involved in the lives of our volunteers as well as the politics of our organisations as we constantly try to push water uphill in our efforts to get support and buy in to the volunteer programme. Our work can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. It can leave us wondering why we do it and feeling ill at the thought of another day.

Cheerful huh?

Sometimes we need a reminder of why this is one of the greatest jobs in the world. That's why I want
to look at why volunteer management can make us sick.

Working with volunteers can be highly rewarding. If we step out from behind the bureaucracy and paperwork that has come to define what we do, we can reconnect with the core essence of our role - dealing with people. As someone put it recent, working with volunteers is a contact sport.

Through the opportunities and support we provide we can see people changed. We can see confidence grow, personalities flourish, employment found, friendships made, lives turned around. And that's just the people who volunteer. There's all those who benefit from the work of volunteers too, often some of the most disadvantaged people at the edges of society.

nfpSynergy titled their recent report into volunteering in the 21st century The New Alchemy. Here's why:

"Volunteering takes that most universal of human resources, time. And it takes that universal resource, so often squandered, and makes it transformational of people’s lives. It takes a universal base asset and turns it into the human gold of changed lives."

For all those years alchemists toiled away to turn lead into gold and none succeeded. We have the privilege of seeing that success every day.

Getting people to give up their time and work for a good cause for no financial reward isn't easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it everywhere. Put simply, being a leader and manager of volunteers hones your skills at inspiring others. We get good at getting people to be there because they want to be, not because they have to be.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner summed this up well in the introduction to their excellent book The Leadership Challenge. The book is aimed at leaders in big business but this quote sums up why we Volunteer Managers are the very essence of inspirational leadership:
"To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers - especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay."
That quote still inspires me today, but probably not as much as you inspire your volunteers every day.

Ok, hands up how many of you have a multi-million budget for your volunteer programme? I thought so.

Managers of volunteers have to be some of the most creative people in an organisation. Consider just three examples:

  1. We have to take the limited resources we have and turn them into the gold our organisation needs. 
  2. We have to compete against marketing and advertising budgets many orders of magnitude beyond what we have if we are to get people to give us a small piece of their time instead of anything else they could be doing - spending time with family & friends, going to the movies, watching the match etc..
  3. We have to find new ways for people to contribute what little time they have available, in flexible ways, to help meet our organisations mission.

The ability to be creative and innovative is increasingly important in our modern world where the pace of change grows ever faster and new ideas come along like busses after a long wait. Leaders and managers of volunteers have such creativity in spades. We are often heads and shoulders above our colleagues who, when faced with rapidly shifting sands, fall back on old, outdated ways of doing things to try and succeed e.g. fundraising our way through a downturn until the good old days - that they have deluded themselves will return - come back.

Sure, we don't have all the answers but we could be a key part of the solution. Stand tall and be confident in your creative talents.

In her seminal book, From The Top Down, Susan Ellis talks about leaders of volunteers being the only people in an organisation, other than the CEO, who have an overview of almost everything that the agency does. We have to because we probably support the engagement of volunteers across the whole organisation (or does it just feel like that some days?).

In another of her excellent books, The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management, Susan (and co-author Katherine Noyes Campbell) list out in detail the scope of the role of a Volunteer Manager. It runs to multiple pages and illustrates clearly how we have to be Jacks (and Jills) of all trades and masters of many (if not all) too.

For anyone in a volunteer management role we should never underestimate how much skill, ability and knowledge we amass in our work. That's not to say we should be arrogant know-it-alls but we should revel in having and growing a breadth and depth of knowledge about working in the nonprofit world that few others will ever gain over many years of experience.

So there you have it, volunteer management can make you sick.

You can see success every day.

You can be inspirational to others.

You can be a creative genius.

You can be a hugely knowledgable asset to your organisation.

Next time you feel ground down by what you do, think on those four things and I hope you will regain some of your motivation and drive.


  1. Great article Rob – in fact one of the best I have read anywhere for quite some time! Your quote from the book Leadership Challenge blew me away too. I’ve been thinking that way for years. Ive even spoken to people high up in various organisations about utilising the skills of volunteer management to implement Staff reward and recognition programs! Now I want to go out and buy this book!

    I think what I loved most about the blog was your positivity “Stand tall and be confident in your creative talents!” Yes! Yes! Yes!

    I think the ‘How Volunteer management makes you sick “ Tagline needs to be taken very seriously and explored in greater depth. The Volunteer Management world takes on more and more with less resources in many cases. Are VMs burning out? Sure – it’s easy to talk about “Time Management” to help. But saying “You need to manage your time management better” to a stressed out over burdened over worked and under resourced VM can sometimes be akin to saying “You need to chill out” to a snowman during a hot day following a snowfall! We need to so look into the topic of Self Care for our profession. We need reflection, networking, blogs like yours and others, guidance, discussions and workshops on the topic provided by our professional associations of Volunteer Management. And we need a little humour thrown in too. And you can start with this. The next time someone in your organisation, who probably has no idea what your job entails, or anyone else asks, “so what do you do all day?” or “Are you busy?” or “I suppose you have no issues or challenges because you work with all those lovely Vollies?” Just calmly breathe…..then say with confidence… “ring ring..ring ring” pretend to pick up a phone and say “ Good afternoon, thank you for calling the Department of stupid questions. How may we help you?”

  2. Interesting concepts in this article. I'm especially connected to the Inspirational section. So many volunteers I've partnered with have and continue to inspire me. The most interesting concept is that of knowledgable. Would love to hear useful information and data that supports and ways to share this idea with nonprofit leadership/boards. It seems there is a trend to commit lessening resources to volunteer management/administration in nonprofits today.

    1. Hi and thanks for the comment. A good start point, given your interest in whether support for volunteer leadership is on the wane, is the work done by MAVA in the USA on the shifting environment for nonprofits and what role volunteering and Volunteer Managers can play. You can find this online at http://www.mavanetwork.org/shiftingenv

  3. Thanks Rob! A very timely and resonant article as I leave my Volunteer Development role (redundant post) to take up a new post as a CEO. I delivered a volunteer management workshop where a participant observed 'Volunteer management isn't different from good management - it's just tested more thoroughly because volunteers managed badly just leave. ' I'm glad of the transferable leadership skills and excited about having more power to exercise them whatever my job title.