BBC Radio Four’s long-running show, The Archers, is a much-loved British institution. In this guest post, fellow Volunteer Engagement Professional Annie Bethell shares the story of when The Archers chose to focus on volunteer management.

Like many people, I have a morning routine. I get up and start the day with a walk around the river by my home. Crucially, I take this quick morning time out to catch up on a pastime that I never thought would fully form in my life – listening to last night’s episode of The Archers.

I tune in eagerly to hear what’s been happening to some of England’s best-known (if under-appreciated) characters. And over the years, the Archers have done a wonderful job of addressing some of the most current, emotive and important topics – with more recent stories including abortion, modern slavery and coercive control.

So, imagine my absolute delight when earlier this year, The Archers chose to start talking in earnest about volunteer management – yes! Fantastic. As we all know, the heady heights of volunteer leadership don’t come up anywhere very often, especially not as its very own storyline.

I listened intently, giving a critique and messaged a couple of pals from the sector about it. It wasn’t until I saw a post on LinkedIn from friend and sector colleague, Alice Chadwick about it (and the reaction on Twitter — which in itself is fascinating and deserves a thorough read!) that I realised how many of us really do listen to the Archers — and the surrounding conversation that followed.

It’s led me to a couple of questions.

First of all, was it accurate? And second of all, what advice would I be giving to the two (yes two!) leaders of volunteers involved!

Sadly, it’s been so long since I made my initial notes that you can’t catch up on the episodes, so I am hoping my descriptions live up to some incredibly talented scriptwriters (sorry)!

The story followed two leaders of volunteers:

  • Susan Carter, Postmistress in the local Community Shop and absolutely legendary gossip, who works with a group of shop volunteers. Along with volunteer Jim “The Prof” Lloyd, Susan was looking to recruit some new volunteers.
  • Freddie Pargetter, heir to the local stately home, Lower Loxley, who has done a great job of becoming quite a lovable character through his journey to rehabilitate his character locally after serving a prison sentence for drug dealing and newly crowned Temporary Volunteer Coordinator by his mother who manages the estate, as a response to his request for more management experience.

Now, both of these stories have so many moments I could talk about here, but I want to look at four (with a view to this not taking all day to read).

Not a real job

To start with, Freddie is pretty appalled that his management experience is as a Volunteer Coordinator and describes it as not a real job (more in relation to the fact a job has been created on the spot than specifically to the profession, but I’m going to run with this!).

“I’m a volunteer manager”

“What, you don’t get paid?”

Has anyone had that conversation before? I bet you have! For as long as I have been a volunteering specialist, we have struggled to have ourselves recognised as a proper profession. There has been some incredible work done by AVM, amongst others, to move this conversation along. Volunteer leaders are a skilled bunch, with huge amounts of expertise and transferable skills, and it’s an incredible way to develop your management experience (as well as experience in a very wide variety of other skills.

The Importance of blending process, flexibility, and clarity

Both Susan and Freddie needed to recruit volunteers, Freddie was determined to recruit some younger volunteers to the team (and this my friends is a WHOLE OTHER BLOG POST!) and Susan was just determined to get someone in, as long as it wasn’t Joy (Joy is just too chatty for Susan’s taste — which given that Susan is the village notice board, is a little bit rich!). But despite both having good-sized volunteer programmes, they seemed to be making it up as they went along.

Now we all know the importance of a good solid process, transparency and clarity, but because in both cases, they were trying to use smoke and mirrors to turn down a potential volunteer in the process, they tripped themselves up hugely.

Freddie recruited Chelsea Horrobin – who would have made an incredible guide and I would love to see her in our Shout Out Loud team at English Heritage, but she wasn’t aware she was applying for a voluntary rather than a paid role. Meanwhile, Susan recruited, local business-man and never-doing-anything-to-benefit-anyone-but-himself, Justin Elliot – and we now know he was just doing it to be nominated as a Business Angel!

I’m doing this, and this is why!

For me, rule one of volunteering is to provide great refreshments. Rule two is tell people what you are doing and, more importantly, why. This was (mostly) well demonstrated by the curious case of Oliver and Neil. Two new guides at Lower Loxley, they decided that the positions they had been given in the house were a bit boring, and they were definitely perfectly capable of delivering a booked tour for a group from the local nursing home, they just couldn’t see why Freddie couldn’t understand that…and they would show him! So, Oliver persuaded two more experienced guides delivering the tour to swap……

Well, it wasn’t a nursing home, but a school visit and the education officer had also got stuck in traffic and so needed the volunteers to cover. So, two untrained volunteers were stuck with a school group. Elizabeth Pargetter pointed out that it was all their fault, and they just needed to get on with it.

Thankfully it went off without a hitch, and they were well received by the children, but blimey, it’s like a textbook site nightmare!

  • Much of this could have been pre-empted with a good induction which outlines what training you need to undertake to do certain parts of the role and why
  • A decent morning site brief to all people off-site would help deal with any issues
  • Don’t station a volunteer guide in one place all day – it’s enough to drive anyone to mischief! When you do have guides in spaces, think about what else you could train them to do in that space, so they don’t get bored.
  • No Elizabeth, dealing with your accountant, was not the most critical thing for you to do that day – and it might not be your job, but it certainly wasn’t the role of two untrained volunteers to “just do your best”
  • Yes, Elizabeth, Oliver, and Neil were in the wrong, but speaking to them like the muck on your shoe, isn’t doing your job (and it really gets you a bad rep on Twitter!)

Making use of people’s skills

It always amazes me how often folk think volunteers come to us as a crash test dummy-esque blank person. As if by applying to volunteer, they have been cleansed of all of their previous experiences and have become people who will automatically make bad choices no matter what.

Instead, Susan (after some persuasion) let Justin make use of his business acumen around upselling to great success and once Joy joined the team, realised that her previous experience in retail was also incredibly useful.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, some want to use existing skills, others want to develop new ones. What’s important is talking to them and finding out – you are most likely to learn something yourself!

Now to come back to my original questions… Was it accurate? Absolutely. Volunteer leadership is a hard job – often done my people who are doing it as part of another role, like Susan, without training. Did Freddie and Susan get some stuff wrong – 100%, but I am pretty confident that every volunteer leader out there has got it wrong before now. Does it highlight some really critical things for people in our profession and managing volunteer leaders – you bet it does!

For now, the conversation on the Archers has shifted its focus to representations of the transatlantic slave trade, but it really was amazing to hear the stories of volunteer leaders in popular culture – let’s have more of it please. And if anyone writing a script needs an adviser from the sector – there are an awful lot of us around (and thankfully more appearing), and we’re a pretty knowledgeable and friendly bunch, drop us a line and say hi.

Annie Bethell is the Volunteering and People Development Manager at English Heritage, where she leads a team of incredible volunteering, participation and community specialists, who work with over 4,500 volunteers. She has previously held posts at the National Trust, Alzheimer’s Society and Workers Education Association.

Annie lives in Belfast and is currently volunteering with Another World Belfast in her spare time.

You can contact Annie via Twitter or email.

You can find out more about volunteering with English Heritage on their website.

Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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