International Volunteer Managers’ Day is on the 5th November and I’ve been reflecting on the skills that volunteer managers draw on to create and manage successful volunteer programmes. Volunteer programmes are powered by good relationships and many volunteer managers become highly skilled at relationship building. We are often relationship experts, and this ability to create positive connections means that we design and deliver programmes that attract and empower volunteers. So, in celebration of IVM day, I’m going to explore 5 reasons why our relationships work so well and ask: how can we apply these to raise the profile of volunteering within our organisations?
1. Understanding the wider context
Many volunteer managers are profoundly interested in people and are keen to find out more about what makes them tick. We want to understand how volunteering fits within the wider context of a person’s life and what has acted as the catalyst for them getting involved. We will ask about what they love doing in their free time, their other commitments, what skills do they bring from paid employment (and do they want to use these in their volunteering or try something totally new), have they volunteered in the past and what made that a valuable experience (or not!)? We’re not just asking all this out of nosiness. We understand that these other contexts will shape and impact on their volunteering with us; the commitment they can give, what will motivate them to stay involved and what role might be a good match. Understanding the context helps us to involve, motivate and manage our volunteers well.
2. Focussing on the positive
Focussing on the positive definitely doesn’t mean ignoring all the negatives (for example, if someone doesn’t have the skills for a role or would pose a risk to a service user). However, volunteer managers are on the lookout for strengths and positive qualities that an individual can share through volunteering, and that are also of benefit to the organisation or client group we work with. We create volunteer roles that offer opportunities for people to build on these strengths, and that will support them to further grow and develop. Starting off with pointing out what someone is unable to do, or what they are bad at, is not the route to go down if we want to engage people to give their precious time and energy to our organisation. Whilst we may have set volunteer roles, we try to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. We understand that roles may need to be tailored and tweaked a little for each individual volunteer; enabling people to share their skills and experience with us effectively.
3. Working together to find solutions
When things aren’t going so well, our starting point can be that people are probably doing the best they can in the circumstances they’re in. We then work together to unpick what’s happened and to find solutions. We talk with volunteers to explore the impact of their actions and to identify what they would do differently next time. We don’t rush into blaming when, for example, someone turns up late for their volunteering shift. Instead, we are keen to understand why, and how we can work together to make sure the same problem doesn’t keep happening. We know that, in the best relationships, there’s a healthy mixture of trust, responsibility and accountability. That’s why we work in a way that, over time, empowers volunteers to act with more autonomy and to come up with their own solutions. This doesn’t mean leaving them out on a limb. Volunteer managers understand that, even when someone is highly skilled and experienced, we still need to connect with that volunteer about how things are going and that this helps things stay on track.
4. Remembering why we’re here
This remembering isn’t just about saying thank you at one super-duper awards ceremony once a year. For many of us, it runs through all our daily interactions with volunteers – from sharing about the impact that they’ve made, to saying thank you at the end of a shift, to revisiting what brought people to volunteering, what keeps them with us and how we want to work together in the future. We create a culture where paid staff understand why we involve volunteers and know how to acknowledge and value their work. When our organisation produces its annual report, we make sure that the impact of volunteers is mentioned. We ask that volunteering is built into the business plan and we let volunteers know how their actions contribute to achieving the organisation’s vision and mission. We know that seeing the bigger picture often gets our relationships through the tough times and the daily niggles and that it’s crucial to keeping people motivated.
5. Letting go
A good volunteer manager doesn’t hold volunteers tightly to them. They understand that the whole organisation needs to be volunteer-friendly and that staff throughout need to feel confident about building great relationships with volunteers. We also know that people will grow, change, progress and move on. As Meridian Swift pointed out in her excellent article, this progression to other opportunities is a feature of a healthy, sustainable volunteer programme. Focussing on hoarding volunteers for our individual organisation, and keeping them there forever, isn’t necessarily that great for volunteers or for the wider world. What we do know is that just because someone moves on from volunteering, it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship. Many former-volunteers will give financially, take part in one-off volunteering, or re-engage in volunteering with us again in the future. They will share with others about their volunteering and encourage (depending on how that experience was!) them to get involved. In other words, they will carry on being ambassadors for our organisations, long after they cease volunteering with us. The volunteering may not last forever, but the relationship can be a lifelong one.
The next challenge - connecting upwards!
At the recent AVM conference, Vicky Browning, CEO of ACEVO, challenged volunteer managers to ‘stop whining’ and to “learn the secret of how to convince chief executives to take them seriously”. It got me thinking – if volunteer managers really are relationship experts, why do we often struggle to build relationships with the people in senior positions where we work? Do we try hard enough to understand the context they are operating within, their motivations and priorities, to speak their language, to focus on the positive, find solutions, and to share our knowledge about the impact of volunteering? We’ve had years of practice doing this with our volunteers. If we just shift the focus and apply the same principles, would it improve our relationships and increase our influence with the decision makers in our organisations?