How managing volunteers taught me about risk and value.

May 20, 2020

Social enterprises rely on volunteers and a well-managed volunteer program can be a cost effective way to address a vital community need. Don’t neglect this human resource or treat it as a “free” resource. Nothing is free in life and like all human resources, volunteers must create value for the organisation.

Here are three vital steps to improve your volunteer workforce;

1.    Understand your strategic need, understand your volunteer workforce skills and intrinsic motivators. Ineffective human resource management may create unintentional risks for the health and safety of volunteers and the community.

2.    Identify the high-risk areas for the current volunteer workforce and implement mitigation strategies. Without intervention, workforce risks have implications for insurance coverage and the organisation’s reputation.

3.    Ensure your change management is supportive and has appropriate resources such as procedures and measures to ensure good quality service is being provided.

Recently I was speaking with a CEO in the “for purpose” sector about the volunteer workforce he had inherited. Over many decades, the volunteer workforce had grown to thousands of people across the country, with some volunteers aged in their 90’s. Not understanding the volunteer workforce and managing change in a structured way is high risk to your volunteers, your consumers and your reputation.

Investing in your workforce and creating a system to mitigate risks to results in mutually beneficial outcomes. As reported in a Harvard Medical School Special report (2014); Simple Changes, Big Rewards, the London School of Economics found that the more people volunteered the happier they were. Doing it right means your volunteer workforce is happy and productive. A well – managed volunteer workforce creates enormous value in the community, and for the volunteers themselves.

Managing volunteers has taught me many vital lessons in managing human resources. One of my first significant career roles was managing a volunteer workforce of 75 people and ensuring they delivered some pretty important community services.

My work force was a diverse range of volunteers aged from teenagers to those in their eighties. This team had a range of lived experiences too, some volunteers were retirees with a professional background, some where people on a career-break and some were community service volunteers as part of a suspended sentence. (for a recent crime).

The learning experience from my first gig taught me to understand the intrinsic motives of my workforce. I have also learnt the value of setting boundaries, mitigating risk and investing time in managing my volunteers, including performance measures. And Yes, I have even had to dismiss volunteers.

As Simon Sinek often says – “The leaders who get the most of their people are the leaders who care about their people.” As a leader you need to care for both the emotional well being of your team and be clear about expectations. Be the type of leader they want to work with.

Bottom line – Volunteers are not free; like all human resources they require support and management. By creating supportive environments, with clear expectations, and boundaries, you enable your workforce and your organisation to be its best.

I now head up my own consultancy, supporting organisations manage their operations, and human resources (including volunteers). I love working with clients who value their workforce and want to create an improved culture and in turn a better customer experience.