From ‘computer says no’ to ‘person says yes’

I was catching up with my email over my toast and coffee recently and noticed an advert on the Third Sector jobs page for a head of volunteering. I’m always interested to see how these roles are advertised and the salaries that are offered (that’s perhaps the topic for another blog post), and this one seemed to emphasise similar requirements to many others. 

Here are two excerpts:

• You will be responsible for establishing systems and contribute to the effective recording, collation and circulation of information relating to the use of volunteers (aargh, we use things not people!)

• You will ensure financial processes are properly adhered to.

Both are no doubt key elements of the job. But are they the most important? Are they the key defining factors that would get a good head of volunteering as opposed to a head of data management or head of finance?

You see, what was missing from the advert was anything about building relationships with volunteers. There were lines about building relationships with senior managers and other organisations, and it was great to see that that first point included –  I wish more organisations would do so – because the the role of the modern leader and manager of volunteers is often about influencing upwards; but there was nothing at all about a candidate’s ability to lead and engage with a diverse range of people giving their time without pay.

Over the last few years volunteer management has become more and more process- and systems-oriented, perhaps in an attempt to gain professional recognition by apeing HR colleagues. Not that there is anything wrong with good systems and processes (or good HR), but volunteer management sometimes seems to be all about processes and rarely about the people who volunteer. I occasionally joke that if you get a group of volunteer managers together they will default to talking about DBS checks, risk assessments, paperwork and the like and only get to dealing with people issues when it comes to talk of volunteers causing problems. Sadly it is often more true than funny.

I think this highlights a fundamental point. If we focused on the people first then we would most likely reduce the number of problems we have with troublesome behaviour. I’m not saying don’t have good systems and processes, I’m saying that we need to treat people as individuals, get to know them, engage them in a cause and have the systems and processes support that. We need to get away from a “computer says no” mentality to working with volunteers and, for want of a much better phrase, get back to a “person says yes/maybe” approach.

Coming back to that job advert: organisations recruiting people to volunteer leadership and management roles should also recognise this need to be people-focused and recruit staff who are skilled in that regard. That’s far more likely to net you a good head of volunteering than someone who can manage a budget and a database.

As John Seeley Brown once said, ‘Processes don’t work, people do”. We’d be well placed to remember that.

3 Responses to “From ‘computer says no’ to ‘person says yes’”

  1. Mark Atkinson

    This post raises a higher issue relating to poorly drafted job descriptions per se which are commonplace. Irrespective of the role, too many JD’s are simply cobbled together with very little thought as to what is actually required of the post holder and the linkages between the role and the achievement of departmental or organisational strategy. Spending a bit more time on getting the JD’s right inevitably reaps rewards when it comes to recruitment and subsequent performance management. The key point is don’t be a lazy drafter!

  2. Donna Price

    I agree with Mark. I see how it has happened though. Volunteer Management by it’s very nature is often misunderstood from above, and standard JDs are produced, which focus on safeguarding the organisation and all of its policies, rather than aiming for best practice in the eyes of the volunteers. There seems a complete absense in the JD mentioned above. There is a lot to be said for processes and how they help with large events and large databases, indeed I would not be able to cope without them. But the personal, friendly and approchable touch from someone who had not only the organisation and the broader volunteer programme in mind but also the people skills and community care is key.

  3. David Lewis

    Much of my work involves helping organisations have appropriate processes. In my view processes are important, both as a means of managing areas of risk and performance improvement.

    Having said that, processes are a tool and they are only truly effective if the people using them understand how they fit in to the big picture and “buy in” to them.

    Focusing on the person is essential -including having people focused processes.


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