I think I started identifying myself as a Volunteer Manager long before I even knew what one was! My first experience as a volunteer was in my late teens. I had the opportunity to help out at the school my mum was working in at the time which was for children with a range of disabilities. It was the most amazing thing that I have ever done. Giving my time to bring a little bit of sunshine in to their lives was incredibly rewarding. Come rain or shine, through my own health problems, I was in the classroom day after day for weeks until the end of term came around and the school closed for summer. During that time, I learnt so much about these inspiring kids but also a lot about myself. I spent a lot of time thinking about my motivations for volunteering and what exactly it was that was getting me out of bed in the morning. I was making a difference.
Careers advice at school wasn't great. The majority of young teens don't know the answer to the question “what do you want to be?” or “what do you want to do?” and when I was at school I don’t think volunteer managers even existed! It certainly wasn’t a recognised career path and people who worked with volunteers were seen as cardigan wearing do-gooders who didn’t really understand what professionalism was. Thank goodness things have changed!
Today, I find myself managing volunteers from all walks of life. Each volunteer I have the pleasure of working with has chosen to volunteer for their own reasons and my motivations for being involved with volunteers haven’t actually changed all that much. The reason I do what I do is because I care. I care about individuals and I like to think that in some small way I can make their world, our world, a better place. We all have a responsibility to leave a legacy regardless of who we are, where we are from or what we do. This can be profound, such as the incredible achievements of some of our Olympic heroes or something as simple as smiling at a stranger and making their day.
All too often, this legacy is measured in financial terms or in how high someone can climb the career ladder, what car they drive or how big their house is. Take all this away and what are you left with? A simple soul. That’s why I think volunteering is so powerful, such an inspiring, exciting, fulfilling activity that enables any, every, simple soul to leave their legacy and in my career I am in the privileged position of being able to support others to do this to the very best of their ability
Until fairly recently, although I suppose I have had a recognised job title, I have found it really hard to identify myself as a ‘professional’ with a career, even though I have grown more and more passionate about professionalism as the years have passed. I considered myself a failure academically as I didn’t go to university and in many ways a failure professionally because I had predominately ‘just’ worked with volunteers in the voluntary sector whilst my school friends had gone on to travel the world and have seemingly glittering careers and fantastic lives. But managing volunteers well and working with them to make their difference takes a whole heap of skills and personal qualities that take time, effort and practice. It takes dedication and willingness, strength and patience. I learn every day and if all of this doesn’t make me a professional then what does?!
Yes, I get extremely frustrated at the hoops we all have to jump through. The paperwork and procedures, the way volunteering is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the press, the way it falls in and out of fashion depending on who is residing at Number 10. But what keeps me coming back for more are the volunteers I get to meet as I travel my journey of volunteer management.
I have recently worked with a volunteer who has decided to completely rethink her life. She has a well paid job in the city with a well respected company but has had enough of the continual stress and unrelenting pressure to chase profit all day long. It gladdened my heart to know that she had had such a positive experience and her words made me beam: “Isn't it strange how something so simple as volunteering to do data entry can trigger a change in life's course? But I guess that's what makes life so interesting”
As we know, each volunteer has a different reason for giving their time and it is part of our role as good volunteer managers to understand these motivations but I think sometimes we need to take a step back, look in the mirror and remind ourselves of our own journey. Our numbers are now growing and we have resources, networks and qualifications. We have a voice. But what gives us a reason for being is all the amazing people out there who want to make a difference. This is what makes me get up day after day and it is volunteers themselves who inspire me to be a better person and be better at what I do.
Kate James is a happy, Hertfordshire based Volunteer Manager who has been working with volunteers for over 10 years. Kate has worked in the fields of mental health and disability and is currently supporting volunteers across the UK for a national charity. You can contact Kate by email or via her Twitter account.