Volunteering is heading for an iceberg

The Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) has recently produced an excellent and readable report into micro-volunteering. In the section on risks to organisations, beneficiaries and volunteers, it observes that micro-volunteering “was felt to be riskier because organisations have less control over participants” and “there may be risks to the organisation surrounding reputation and image associated with a reduction in direct control over volunteers”. 

I think IVR’s observations about control shine a spotlight on organisations’ attitudes to the volunteers they involve. Many organisations still see volunteers as nice-to-haves, complementing and supplementing paid staff and providing (mainly) non-essential work. They see volunteers as inherently risky – people who will more than likely damage their reputation given half the chance; people who need to be controlled and tightly managed.

Micro-volunteering challenges that. People want to get involved on their own terms, in their own ways and on their own timetable. They want to use their skills, experience and abilities to make a real difference – not just a contribution – to the causes that matter to them. They want to to make decisions for themselves about how to go about their volunteering, not be directed and micro-managed because someone on the paid staff thinks they might pose a risk.

In this sense micro-volunteering is perhaps the tip of an iceberg that is heading for the good ship volunteering – a growing threat looming ever closer that could hole some organisations below the waterline and do permanent damage if they don’t change course.

You see, volunteers in general are increasingly wanting control and empowerment. Baby boomers and the generations coming behind them will not engage in the way many organisations’ traditional volunteers have. Organisations are going to have to face up to the need to cease having the control they want to have over volunteers if they are going to engage these new generations as volunteers.

This is going to require a lot of change.

It’s going to mean volunteer managers relaxing their grip on systems and processes that make volunteering regimented and bureaucratic.

It’s going to require paid staff in general to have a new default view of volunteers, seeing them as a valuable resource,  not as a threat to their livelihoods. We’re going to need a more grown-up debate about how paid staff and volunteers work together, not just ducking the issue by talking about job substitution.

Senior managers and trustees will need to reconsider what volunteers can contribute, recognise their skills and talents and stop simply viewing them as good for stuffing envelopes,  or whatever the 21st century equivalent is.

The end of 2013 sees yet another year pass where these changes have been slow. The new year of 2014 presents another opportunity to grasp the nettle. I hope many organisations wake up and choose to do so; if they don’t, that iceberg will be another 12 months closer and the risk of the ship being damaged or even sunk will be even bigger.

6 Responses to “Volunteering is heading for an iceberg”

  1. stephen moreton

    Some helpful observations here…

    I would suggest that it’s ‘volunteer-involving’ organisations that are “heading for an iceberg” as Rob puts it.

    ‘Volunteer led and run’ organisations have been delegating responsibility, authority and accountability to volunteers for decades, and essentially are very good at it. The IVR piece by Hill and Stevens (2011) emphasised that “the high level of skills and experience of volunteer managers in volunteer-led organisations should be acknowledged”.

    These organisations don’t sail on the oceans of life – they navigate the white-water rapids of inland rivers. All hands to the paddles, navigating the rocks, and doing their darnedest to keep everyone aboard!

    Encouragingly for the sector, 85% of charities in the UK are ‘volunteer-led and run’. Whilst many operate in the backwaters of the community, this suggests a fruitful future for the ‘voluntary sector’…

  2. Wally Harbert

    You are right Rob but, fortunately, volunteering is not a ship – it is an armada. Some organisations – especially the big ones that are slow and cumbersome, will hit the iceberg because they are too slow to change course. Their volunteers will join the lifeboats.The more nimble organisations that actually listen to their volunteers will survive intact and be stronger.

  3. James Renton

    “Encouragingly for the sector, 85% of charities in the UK are ‘volunteer-led and run’. Whilst many operate in the backwaters of the community, this suggests a fruitful future for the ‘voluntary sector”. Stephen it reminds me of the fact that 99.9% of businesses are small or medium sized enterprises and yet government policy is entirely designed for the 0.01%.

  4. Stephen Dale

    When considering the question of whether to involve volunteers in certain areas of hospice work I have recently heard: ‘what about patient confidentiality?’ – an assumption being made that volunteers are more likely to be indiscreet with friends and neighbours about whom they have seen the hospice and what was wrong with them. I’m struggling to define exactly what quality is lacking in a volunteer that a staff member – by virtue of being paid – somehow possesses. Can anyone help me?

    In our hospice, volunteers are involved in most aspects of our work. The reality is many of our volunteers have been affected by life-limiting illnesses and have suffered bereavements of their own. They are drawn to hospice work to help others who are experiencing distress. Many have given years to the organisation. What would possess them to undermine the reputation of the organisation?

    The demand for hospice care is going to rise dramatically over the coming years and the nature of that care will become more complex. The Commission into the Future of Hospice Care recently concluded that hospices will need to ‘significantly increase the extent and scope of end of life services’. Volunteers are, in turn, ‘essential to any hospice strategy for extending reach and impact’.

    So, time to invest a little more trust in our unpaid workers.

    • Rob Jackson

      Hi Steve. Yes, its a common assumption. Volunteers are unreliable and untrustworthy. Pay people and they instantly become, reliable, trustworthy, honest and considerably more competent. Because we’ve never worked alongside incompetent, unreliable paid staff have we? 😉

  5. Kirsty McDowell

    As Stephen Dale’s example shows, this issue is not purely associated with micro-volunteering. Many organisations that have for many years (sometimes decades) delegated huge responsibility to volunteers with only minimal supervision (e.g. as local ‘field’ workers in national organisations, running self-managing groups, working long-term with clients etc.) have actually been clawing responsibility back and increasing their desire for control over volunteers in recent years. Part of this has grown up from our increasing culture of litigation in the UK, which means trustees and boards can see a real risk of being sued for something they perhaps didn’t even know was happening.

    I agree with everyone here that this could be very damaging for the some organisations within the sector (in fact for some organisations there have already been negative repercussions). To succeed, I think volunteer-involving organisations have to find a balance between knowing what volunteers are doing (and supporting and empowering them to be able to do good things) and not controlling or micro-managing their activities. For larger charities with paid staff, I think it will be the ones that get this balance right that thrive in the future.


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