Why volunteer management and brain surgery are alike

For five weeks before Christmas I had to change my work routine. I normally work from home, but I’d sold my house and the new place wasn’t ready until the 19 December. So, while living with my future in-laws, I’d rented an office in the volunteer-run local museum in Grantham.

Working out of an office brought quite a few changes. I became a commuter again, albeit this time in a car battling through the congestion of a small market town where the roads aren’t designed for 21st century traffic.

I also had to re-adjust to the presence of co-workers, which brings me to the topic of this month’s blog. A few days into life in the new office, I met the boss of the company based a couple of doors down. We were chatting away and he asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I provided training, speaking and consulting services around strategic volunteer engagement – at which point the conversation took an all-too-familiar turn.

My neighbour promptly started to lecture me on working with volunteers and charities, based on his own experience of being a volunteer and giving to charity. As I sat and listened to my neighbour treat me like a beginner on a subject in which I have more than twenty years experience, I noted the clear assumption being made: “anyone can do volunteer management – how hard can it be?”

On one level, he’s right; anyone can be a leader and manager of volunteers. But to do it well requires skill, experience, training and practice. My US-based colleague and friend Susan Ellis once described the logic of my office neighbour as being equivalent to someone who has had brain surgery feeling that they are now qualified to conduct brain surgery: they could probably make an attempt, but it’s very doubtful it would be a success.

So what is it that makes someone an effective leader and manager of volunteers? It’s a question I’ve asked a few times over the years, and I’ve yet to hear anyone give a satisfactory answer.

Some refer to the formal, process-oriented mindset, as codified in the National Occupational Standards. Others suggest a more informal, person-centred approach that is harder to codify but, they say, more fundamental to the role. Some imply that in this age of social media and mobile communications, a more technology-focused approach is important.

• How would you describe the essentials of effective volunteer management? Please leave your comments at the end of this blog to help develop the conversation.

I think there is some truth in all of these positions. We have to be people-focused; we should apply processes proportionately & effectively to support our work with people; we need to embrace technology to help with that; and we have to balance a variety of needs while satisfying everyone involved. The challenge is how we identify and articulate what makes us effective so we can communicate it to others and advocate effectively for what we do.

The Association of Volunteer Managers has made a good start, but we have much work still to do. I hope that by January 2016 we will be closer to an answer that will move our profession forward and will show my office neighbour, and others like him, that they aren’t the experts they think they are.

4 Responses to “Why volunteer management and brain surgery are alike”

  1. Kevyn

    My mother used to co-ordinate the flower arrangers at our local church – it was one of the hardest management jobs in the country.

  2. Jamie Darwen

    I agree with all of this, but I think that what you say could apply to many roles and is not unique to volunteer managers. So what are the special skills required of volunteer managers that set us apart? For me, it’s about an ability to match the needs of communities or organisations with something that people actually want to do, and then to create the right space or environment for this to happen.
    Probably the nicest thing anyone has said to me in my work was to recognise the very special, and unsung, skill in creating the space and conditions in which other people can flourish, explore their ideas, and create new activities.

  3. Chris Reed

    Effective volunteer management isn’t just about martialing the amazing additional resource that is an individual’s gift of time and skills. It’s about ensuring the entire organisation recognises, celebrates and channels those gifts appropriately. As I seem to recall you mentioned in another blog Rob, Volunteer Managers (or what ever we happen to be called) often need to know an entire organisaiton inside out. Effective volunteer management is as much about working effectively with front line volunteers as it is with the CEO and strategic level volunteers (i.e. the Trustees) in order to ensure volunteering can happen in a meaningful way and that the volunteer, the organisation and beneficiaries all benefit from those amazing gifts of time and talents!

  4. Sass Boucher

    I think we need to care, really really care passionately, about the volunteer as a person, the organisation’s cause, and preferably both to a degree that potentially isn’t as necessary in such a personal way as a manager in a commercial environment. I agree with Jamie, I’ve always felt similar to a match maker, gathering as much information about the volunteer as possible, their motivator and interest in the organisation, and also with Chris, that an absolute knowledge of the organisation is essential if we are to match the volunteer effectively with a role and create an environment that doesn’t threaten any paid staff.


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