Wednesday 5th December was apparently International Volunteer Day (UN, 2018). I am currently volunteering for five different organisations, mostly charities, all of which work for a number of other organisations, and yet International Volunteer Day passed me by. During that week, in a voluntary capacity: I chopped down and burnt gorse bushes; I advised on project management; I did administration associated with project delivery; and I helped develop a marketing campaign.
In hindsight, cutting and burning gorse bushes felt like it had the greatest impact. A group of volunteers cleared a large area of heath creating habitat for ground nesting birds, butterflies and reptiles. We saved the charity the costs of employing contractors and we did the work more sensitively than would have been the case with machinery. I recognise that contractors would have cleared the area much faster, and having volunteers doing the same work as the charity’s paid staff could be seen as de-valuing the work of those staff.
During that week I also witnessed a charity cancelling a volunteer work party because they were unable to find suitable work for the volunteers, and I saw the impact of a professional mentoring event weakened by charities dropping out at short notice. I have been inspired to finish this post by three instances, in the first weeks of 2019, of local authorities de-motivating their volunteers. This is not good enough — organisations that use volunteers must treat them better.
I have managed volunteers in the past and arguably I am managing them in two of my current roles. I recognise that it can be frustrating to manage volunteers, particularly when it does not appear to be part of your day to day job. However, volunteers can help you deliver more, they can bring freshness and fun to your work, and they will help you change your perspective.
As I researched this post, I was asked two questions: is there a difference between volunteering and working for free; and is there a difference when volunteers are providing their professional skills (i.e. skills they that they would normally be paid to provide)?
Volunteering is defined as doing something, unpaid, that benefits other people, groups or the environment, where the volunteer is not closely related to the recipients (NCVO, 2018). This feels like working for free, but ultimately the volunteer is in control. They will decide what they do and don’t want to do, and they are expecting to get something back. Volunteers are likely to be motivated by the desire to give something back, companionship, exercise, fresh air, etc. Hence, my conclusion is that there isn’t really a difference between volunteering and working for free, the volunteer is just looking to be rewarded in a non-financial way.
One implication of this is that organisations using volunteers need to be extra careful not to annoy their volunteers. It is much easier for a badly managed volunteer to walk away, than a badly managed employee. I have been trying to volunteer for three different organisations recently where I am repeatedly chasing staff for the information that I need to perform my agreed voluntary role. There is a danger that these organisations are not just missing out on potential volunteer’s skills and capacity, they may lose other forms of support. I am a member of one of these organisations and my experience has made me reconsider renewing my annual subscription. Worse still, some grants are only available to organisations that can demonstrate that they use volunteers effectively.
Most of the people that I volunteer with are retired, or semi-retired, professionals. I work regularly with an accountant, a lawyer, a senior HR person, a marketer, a pharmacist, project managers, and several IT experts. The majority of these people are not using their professional skills in their voluntary roles. Those that are still in employment are comfortable to have a clear divide between their work and their volunteering. However, if the conditions were right, I am increasingly convinced that most of us would be prepared to volunteer our professional skills. I am working with one organisation where the volunteers are doing exactly that, and collaborative-working tools are being used to harness these skills, and deliver projects, wherever the volunteers are located.
Working with that organisation has helped me realise just how many other organisations there are that are trying to get us to volunteer our professional skills. It feels like the time is ripe for some rationalisation of these organisations.
If you are volunteering, remember that you are in control. If you are not happy with the role that you are being asked to do then discuss it with whoever is managing you. If they are not able to help, then vote with your feet. Challenge yourself to get a greater return on the investment that you are making with your time. Some of the most effective volunteers that I am working with are developing their skills, constructively challenging working practices, and learning about the impact of the work that they are doing.
If you are considering volunteering, then test out the organisations that you are considering volunteering for. If they don’t respond to your queries in a timely and helpful manner then consider volunteering for someone else. Make sure that you are clear why you want to volunteer and what you are expecting to get out of it (this might help — https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=201). Organisations that are good at working with volunteers will offer some form of induction and will help you achieve the aims that you set for your volunteering.
If you are using volunteers, or thinking about it, then make sure that you have the processes in place to attract, manage and retain them. Encourage your staff to adapt what they do, and how they work, to accommodate and get the most out of the volunteers. Make sure that the contributions of volunteers are recognised, and that staff are rewarded for working well with volunteers. You can find more guidance at www.ncvo.org.uk.
I’d also like to see organisations getting better at sharing volunteers, and the equipment and other resources that they need. I am familiar with some of the barriers to making this happen such as insurance, lack of management skills, and accessibility. However, I am convinced that these barriers can be overcome as demonstrated by the success of initiatives like Back from the Brink (https://naturebftb.co.uk/).
This post develops some of the ideas that I wrote about in Conservation Volunteering . I am more convinced than ever that volunteers will play a key role in saving the nature that I love, but that organisations that use volunteers need to use those volunteers more effectively. I am happy to discuss the ideas in this post and help out organisations that are struggling to use volunteers to deliver nature conservation effectively.
NCVO, 2018. Volunteering. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/ncvo-volunteering [Accessed 11th January 2019].
UN, 2018. International Volunteer Day. [Online] Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/volunteerday/ [Accessed 11th January 2019].
About the author
Originally written by Mike Coker, please connect with him here for more stories about his latest endeavours in conservation.
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