Earlier this year, Catherine Wearden at Agenda Consulting wrote an interesting piece on their website entitled, “What are the differences between how employees and volunteers feel about your organisation?”. Great question!

In this article, I want to reflect on Agenda’s findings and what they might be telling us about volunteer engagement and Volunteer Involving Organisations.

So, before you go any further, I highly recommend reading Catherine’s Agenda Consulting piece here.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on whistleblowing

Catherine highlights that employees are 26% more positive than volunteers when asked if they know how to report poor practice.

I agree with her that this is worrying. Volunteers should know how to report issues, to whom, and they should feel supported in this.

Volunteers can sometimes be more objective than paid staff, and perhaps feel more free to raise concerns, not least because they may not be putting their main source of income at risk by raising an issue as a volunteer.

If volunteers aren’t able to raise concerns, organisations may be missing out on valuable learning opportunities, as well as key information to support effective safeguarding.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager action on poor performance

It doesn’t surprise me that employees feel more confident than volunteers that managers take prompt action if people’s performance falls below acceptable standards.

If an employee is performing or behaving poorly, we know something needs to be done. Nobody like doing it, but action will inevitably be taken.

Whilst most Volunteer Engagement Professionals would be clear that they need to act if volunteers are behaving or performing poorly, it is often other paid staff (or volunteers) who do the day-to-day management of volunteers

These people may feel they can’t challenge poor performance or behaviour by volunteers. Perhaps they lack the confidence to do this. Perhaps they lack the emotional literacy to deal with people who aren’t being paid. Perhaps they fear that volunteers will get angry and leave, not ideal if you are already short of volunteers. Perhaps they think that because volunteers are unpaid they cannot be held to standards of behaviour and performance — they are doing it for ‘free’, and out of the goodness of their heart, after all.

We need to be equipping those who work directly with volunteers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to act where it is needed. This is a good place to start.

Effective volunteer engagement is everyone’s job, not just the responsibility of the Volunteer Engagement Professional.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on receiving feedback

As Agenda Consulting put it:

“Volunteers are less likely to receive feedback from their managers, which they could find valuable in their development.”

To my mind, this is closely tied to the previous point. If we avoid having difficult conversations with volunteers, then perhaps we are also not giving volunteers timely and effective positive feedback. Given how important this is to retention and recognition of volunteers, we may be missing a big trick because of our fear about talking to volunteers when things aren’t going so well.

In saying this, I am aware that the opposite may be true — we may be happy to give good feedback to volunteers, it’s just the bad stuff we avoid — as we’ll see shortly.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager support with problem-solving

This is how Catherine puts it:

”Employees are also 18% more positive than volunteers on the question “My manager helps me find solutions to problems”. This indicates that volunteers are receiving less support from their managers than employees. Is this because line managers of volunteers typically have less time to devote to them? Or is it seen as less important to help a volunteer solve a problem than a paid employee?”

I’d say both of the questions Catherine asks are valid. I’d add another question too — is the work we are giving volunteers so basic and easy that they don’t need to solve problems along the way?

When a volunteer is tasked with envelope stuffing, tea making and filling, problem-solving isn’t really an issue.

When a volunteer is tasked with developing a new project, service or way of working, then problem-solving is far more likely.

But how often are volunteers given that kind of responsibility?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling valued

This is great news. 87% of volunteers gave a positive response to this question. It suggests that we are doing a great job of recognising the contribution volunteers make.

It is sad, however, that paid staff don’t feel as valued, and suggests that those managing paid staff in the sector might have a lot to learn from those of us who get the best out of people without paying them for their time.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on information sharing

As Agenda Consulting state:

“Volunteers are 16% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation is open, honest and shares information effectively”.”

This is interesting as anyone, whether employee or volunteers, needs accurate, timely and honest information to do their job.

Perhaps what the data is revealing is that organisations and managers are working harder to communicate with volunteers than paid staff. Perhaps they assume staff will pick things up from the endless stream of emails and Teams messages (because we all studiously read those, don’t we?), whereas they know they need to work harder to get information to volunteers who don’t have access to these forms of communication.

As with the previous point, whatever organisations are getting right with volunteers might be worth focusing on, so we do a better job for paid staff as well.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling cared for

It’s great that volunteers are reporting a positive experience here. Feeling valued, cared for and communicated with creates a strong bond with an organisation, so it’s good to see such efforts paying off with volunteers.

Once again, it seems more effort needs to be placed on doing the same things with employees, especially when remote and hybrid working has replaced the bonding that can come from working in an office together.

If volunteer managers are getting so much right, why aren’t HR colleagues learning from us?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on organisational values and ethics

I’ve nothing to add to this beyond what Catherine wrote:

”Volunteers are 15% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation has strong values and operates to high ethical standards”, with 91% positive on this question. It is difficult to say why this may be, although it is encouraging that volunteers tend to believe this. Perhaps volunteers have lower levels of access to “insider information” that could lead employees to be more sceptical on this.”


Those are my thoughts and reflections. Why do you think?

Leave a comment below to continue the conversation.


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