As National Volunteers’ Week rolls along, I want to join in the celebrating of volunteers for all the great work they do, using their own time and resources to make a difference in the communities of which they are a part; communities that  they are passionate about.

Well done you!

Volunteers Week Logo Web - Compact version

Having worked as a volunteer formally and informally over the years, from my observation of organisations that use volunteers and fellow volunteers and what they have shared, I’ve been mulling over the pluses and pitfalls of the volunteering experience; and exploring the promise of this unique relationship.

The Pluses
In no particular order of significance, the reasons individuals volunteer – work for no financial remuneration – include:

  • Gives structure to an otherwise fluid week
  • Gives the volunteer a sense of purpose
  • Gives the volunteer a sense of being part of something they are passionate about, something bigger than themselves; a sense of community
  • Gives the volunteer opportunities to develop further skills and utilise (latent) talents and resources

For the organisation, some of the pluses of using volunteers include:

  • Increases its capacity at minimal costs
  • Increases the quality and reach of its services, again at minimal costs
  • Increases its diversity and talent pool
  • Creates a bridge between the organisation and the community it serves

The Pitfalls
Sometimes the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation doesn’t always go as smoothly as anticipated and either or both parties could come away from an experience/encounter feeling disappointed, bruised and/or used. This generally happens when:

Expectations and realities are too greatly disproportionate.  So, for instance, the volunteer may have expected to have been an integral part of the team, but finds out after a while they were still on the outside looking in, doing tasks that were peripheral but not being allowed to really sink their teeth into anything meaty, and so ends up disgruntled.

For the organisation, the intention may have been to have the volunteer fully on board but did not compute how much time it would need to fully train and support them in fulfilling that role in the first instance; they may be concerned about allowing a volunteer to carry a high level of responsibility such that certain tasks are carried out only to a point, and must gain the approval of a paid staff (who might already be reeling from other competing priorities) before being progressed, which again could add to the volunteer’s discontent – not being allowed to see tasks through to their logical conclusion.

Feeling undervalued.  When working for a wage, if nothing else, your payslip at the end of the week/month is something tangible to hold on to when the question arises, ‘why am I doing this?’ For the volunteer, there is none of that. And even the travel costs that are reimbursed have to be claimed for formally – which necessary though that is, can sometimes be an inconvenience…  When faced with some of the challenges and inconveniences of the experience, it isn’t always easy to remember the reasons they may have signed up to volunteer in the first place!

Feeling taken for granted – both sides can easily feel this way. For the volunteer, it could be that the role has become amorphous and not what they had wanted or were doing at the outset. For the organisation’s management, they could feel that they cannot commit to a volunteer who appears to come and go as they please and do not seem to show the commitment of paid staff (although most volunteers do).

The Promise
The best of human relationships seem to need the vital ingredients of communication, honesty and openness to work well. The relationship between an organisation and its volunteers is no different. However, before it can engage in an honest open communication with its volunteers, it must do so with itself.

That is, the organisation and its management needs to be clear to itself what it is they want from volunteers, what it is they have to offer volunteers realistically and how they intend to manage the relationship to ensure the best possible outcome for all concerned (including service users). They also need to ask practical questions like, where is the volunteer going to be working from? If from an office, for instance, is there desk space? If on a shop floor, is there a locker for them to keep their bag safely? Is there enough room in the fridge for them to take in a packed lunch safely rather than having to eat out or risk food poisoning?

They need to have answers to questions like who will looking after the volunteer’s welfare while they are working here? Who should the volunteer report to if they have any concerns? Who is checking up on them intermittently to be sure that expectations on both sides are being met or at least being adjusted in line with reality? Who is remembering to tell them ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’?

The volunteer, of course, needs to also have a chat with themselves as to why they are volunteering, what they are willing to do, and the extent of their time commitment (which of course can always be reviewed). They need to be as clear as possible what their maximum time commitments are and only agree to take on more because they can and want to, and not just because there is a gap and they are feeling the pressure  to plug it as that soon leads to resentment.

Having come away from their respective reflections, documented where necessary ( the organisation certainly should have something in writing for easy reference later on and to be sure that everyone is on board with the plan), the organisation and the volunteer are now in a good and healthy position to have a meaningful and honest conversation. It would be best to have this at regular intervals rather than as a firefighting measure. But even if things had fallen apart before the process began, carefully managed, the relationship could still be salvaged and both sides can continue working in a healthy partnership for the benefit of the community which both sides care passionately about.

Volunteers make the world go round. At a formal level, volunteering wouldn’t exist without the organisations that offer the opportunities.

So, as we celebrate national volunteering week, I say ‘well done’ to both parties! Keep up the good work, minimizing the pitfalls while enjoying the pluses and the promise of a great relationship for the greatest benefit to your service users.

Happy volunteering!