Volunteer Coordinator – Tough Job

I wanted to write a blog post acknowledging the hard work of Volunteer Coordinators and the confusion that exists surrounding the role.

For a start, there’s generally a lot of confusion surrounding ‘volunteering’ as a concept. Take a look at our post ‘volunteers and the phrase do-gooder’. I cringe constantly through many national newspaper articles. Being a journalist doesn’t make you an expert on volunteering and whilst you can research volunteering, it’s harder to research an appropriate attitude towards it, appropriate terminology and to know what is offensive, which often results in these articles being generally inappropriate.

These massively differing views on ‘volunteering’ don’t create a great foundation for the role of ‘Volunteer Coordinator’. The role is extremely ambiguous, commanding anything from minimum wage to a very competitive salary. This is often because organisations just want someone to ‘deal with’ their volunteers but they don’t really know what that entails. They may therefore consider the role to be admin-based – or they may view it as a strategic role that can be instrumental in an organisation’s sustainability and growth.

If an organisation isn’t sure what’s involved in volunteer coordination / management, what to advertise for, where a role sits within the organisation, what salary is appropriate, etc. how can they expect to attract and recruit the right person, and then line-manage and support that individual? How will the individual know what’s expected of them? This lack of clarity makes an already difficult role all the more difficult.

There are two solutions to this. Organisations need to learn about what’s involved in volunteer coordination / management or recruit someone who knows and then listen to them.

The role is heavily administrative, massively strategic and a whole lot more. It’s about balance – in many different ways. Balancing the needs of the organisation with the needs of the volunteers. Balancing ‘give’ and ‘take’ – i.e. creating a mutually beneficial arrangement. Balancing sustainability and growth with an ethical approach to managing volunteers. And in practical terms, balancing important tasks that require a ‘head-down’ focus with giving your time to volunteers, i.e. treating them in a way that maximises retention. As usual we could go on.

Balance is a difficult thing to, well, balance. Balance means compromise, which means you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so it’s not always a role that makes you everybody’s best friend: you sometimes have to say ‘no’ because something’s not ethical, best practice, or even legal! You have to have the foresight to know what actions may open a can of worms and put procedures in place to manage it – but better still prevent it, which can sometimes be seen as obstructive. You must give volunteers your time (it doesn’t look great if you can’t when they contribute theirs so freely) but drinking tea and chatting with volunteers doesn’t always go down well with senior staff or peers because it doesn’t look like ‘work’.

Ironically, the role is made less challenging if an organisation recognises it to be challenging; one of the biggest challenges in a Volunteer Coordinator’s role is often not the volunteers – it’s the staff! For example, if staff understand that giving volunteers your time aids retention and therefore accept that it’s important, the Volunteer Coordinator is able to spend more time doing their job and achieving results rather than explaining, justifying and defending, which many Volunteer Coordinators spend a lot of time doing. If the staff team is supportive of the role, it can be a very fulfilling and rewarding role.

We’re not suggesting that they have a harder job than anyone else or that they should be pitied but it’s a role that really benefits from the support of their colleagues for so many reasons.

Finders Keepers feel very strongly that it takes an entire organisation to execute a successful volunteering programme. An individual can put procedures in place but if the rest of the organisation doesn’t reflect them it’s a waste of time – and salary.

Staff may innocently make inappropriate demands on volunteers or may talk to them inappropriately because they’re not experts in volunteer management – and obviously we can’t expect everyone to be. But that is why you recruit someone who is – so that they can set the tone for the organisation and ensure volunteers, who are under no ‘contract’ and essentially have nothing to lose, reflect the organisation in a positive light.

People often believe that volunteers are queuing up to help and if staff want to recruit 10 volunteers they will expect Volunteer Coordinators to deliver quickly. People are rarely queuing up to volunteer and you can’t magic willing people up out of thin air. Volunteers need to know about an organisation, develop an interest and then a passion for that organisation before they will consider giving their time to it, therefore a Volunteer Coordinator relies on some substantial foundations being in place before they are able to deliver on demands. It relies on other members of the team doing their bit to attract volunteers; for example, if there’s no publicity about an organisation, how can even the best Volunteer Coordinator realistically attract volunteers to it?

If a Volunteer Coordinator is expected to boost the profile of an organisation themselves to enable them to attract volunteers, you’re already asking them to go above and beyond. You’re asking someone who specialises in managing volunteers to market your organisation. It’s rare for the role to be a discreet one; it often drifts into marketing, fundraising, finance, hr, meaning that the individual has to be extremely flexible and to know a little about a lot – or even a lot about a lot – or they need to have a good team around them who appreciate that everyone in the organisation needs to play a part in volunteer recruitment and retention.

The fact that volunteering is rarely an altruistic act, is often something that hasn’t crossed the minds of people who don’t work closely with volunteers. I carried out a ‘Reasons to Volunteer’ survey with volunteers and staff in one organisation and the results were very interesting. I asked volunteers to pick their top reason for volunteering and to give a second reason. I asked staff to do the same – to predict what volunteers would cite as their two top reasons for volunteering. Needless to say I wasn’t shocked by the results. Volunteers number one reason to volunteer was never, not once, an altruistic reason. ‘Give back to the community’ and other altruistic comments came a close second to things like ‘to boost my career’, ‘to boost my confidence’, ‘to meet people’.

Why was this an interesting and significant exercise? Because staff needed a reality check! If all volunteers were genuinely there to help the organisation and had no needs, objectives or personal reasons for being there, managing them would be entirely different, i.e. a lot easier than managing people with needs, objectives and personal reasons for giving their time. It’s obvious to (hopefully all) Volunteer Coordinators that this is the case but not necessarily to other staff in an organisation, so other staff in an organisation often don’t appreciate what’s involved in managing volunteers – they just think volunteers are so happy to be helping out and subsequently never present a problem.

Why do staff need to know this stuff? Because they need to know what is realistic and what isn’t. They need to know what is reasonable to expect the Volunteer Coordinator to deliver on and how they can all support the Volunteer Coordinator to maximise the potential of the volunteering programme.

The survey results were a shock to my team at the time and I am sure it changed the way they view working with volunteers for the better in the future. Some were a little disheartened by the results; it’s nice to think that volunteering is all give and no take but it’s simply unrealistic. Establishing people’s reasons to volunteer helps you to cater to objectives but essentially the reasons they give their time aren’t important so long as they do it! However, this exercise made the team realise that volunteering comes with many complex grey areas!

‘Volunteer Coordinator’ is such a strange role because despite the misunderstanding surrounding it, it’s a role that everyone else in the organisation seems to want a piece of! Perhaps because it’s more overarching and less tangible than, say, an accountant. You would never recruit an accountant to your organisation and then try to do their job for them or think you know better or question their expertise and their methods. Yet this is something we hear from Volunteer Coordinators on a regular basis. Granted, as consultants we hear more of the bad than the good but it’s a common complaint none-the-less.

Many organisations wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the support of volunteers therefore the person responsible for managing and coordinating them is extremely important and significant to your organisation’s success. We therefore recommend the following:

  1. Really think about the role of the Volunteer Coordinator and what it entails. What tasks are you going to fill a role description with and is this a Volunteer Coordinator role or do you in fact need an administrator? Do you need both?
  2. Choose wisely – have a strict and stringent recruitment process. Really think about what you want the role to be, where it will sit, what it will include and what attributes and skills the person needs to have in order to be successful in the role and to maximise the potential of volunteering within your organisation
  3. Pay well – sometimes you may get lucky and recruit somebody on a lower salary who excels at the role and operates beyond the reflection of their salary, but for the most-part you get what you pay for
  4. Acknowledge the key part this person can play in your organisation’s sustainability and growth; we’ll say it again – volunteers are key, therefore the person who manages them is (nearly!) as important!
  5. Support your Volunteer Coordinator well and acknowledge that it can be a very isolated role. Being the go-between for staff and volunteers can set you apart from belonging in any ‘team’
  6. Respect their views. Recruit someone who knows what they’re talking about and then listen to them
  7. Encourage prevention rather than cure. Don’t recruit a ‘fixer’, recruit an experienced and proactive individual who will set up processes to prevent issues and make things more time and cost effective in the long run
  8. Involve them in strategic plans for the future. Volunteers are key to an organisation’s future therefore the Volunteer Coordinator should be involved and included in any development plans
  9. Create a ‘Working with Volunteers’ Policy that every existing member of staff must read and incorporate it into inductions for new staff

 

How can Finders Keepers help with this?

  • We can help with all elements of recruitment for a Volunteer Coordinator
  • We can do the work of a Volunteer Coordinator on an ad-hoc basis, remotely
  • We can support a Volunteer Coordinator
  • We can create a strategic development plan for the role of Volunteer Coordinator
  • We can create a strategic development plan for the volunteer programme
  • We can deliver ‘Working with Volunteers’ training to your team
  • We can write a ‘Working with Volunteers’ Policy for your organisation
  • We can offer telephone support to any staff working with volunteers
  • We can create an entire volunteer programme

We can troubleshoot an existing volunteer programme