Our time is now – seize the moment

Many volunteer managers I meet are frustrated. They see huge potential in the work of volunteers, potential that is held back because senior managers don’t support volunteering as enthusiastically as they do fundraising. That may be about to change!

Yesterday, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive at NCVO, issued a new year letter to the sector in which he called for fresh thinking about the role volunteering can play as we deal with the challenges British society faces.

I was heartened to read Sir Stuart’s letter as it echoed much of what I passionately believe. For example:

  • Volunteering is not a magic solution to all our ills but it can and does play a key role. This should be maximised rather than dismissed in the sector’s relentless pursuit of money as the only resource worth having.
  • Just because volunteers don’t get paid doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing meaningful, important and significant work. What we pay someone is not a measure of their competence.
  • The debates about job substitution need to move on. Society has and is changing and new ways of thinking and doing are needed.
  • We are underplaying the ways in which volunteering can benefit and enrich the lives of all of us, from innovating new solutions, to improving our nation’s health to creating the kind of society we want to live in.
  • None of this happens without investment in and support for effective leadership and management of volunteers and volunteering.

In all our diversity, Volunteer Managers need to be front and centre in responding to Sir Stuart’s call to be bold for volunteering. We need to make our voices heard and help shape the debate. If we don’t, it will be shaped for us, potentially by those who do not have the knowledge, skills and experience we do. Or worse, this moment will pass and nothing will change.

Everyone of us needs to take action. Here are just things you could do:

  • Share Sir Stuart’s letter widely within your organisation, especially amongst senior managers and your board.
  • Write a comment in response to Sir Stuart’s letter on the NCVO website. Say what you think about his ideas and make the case for Volunteer Managers to be heard and included.
  • Share the article with your volunteers and listen to what they think.
  • Contact your professional association of volunteer managers (e.g. AVM, AVSM, NAVSM, HVG etc.) and encourage them to respond to Sir Stuart’s call to action.
  • Bring up this issue at your local Volunteer Managers networking group. Don’t have one, start one! Share the results of the discussion with the likes of NCVO and your professional association.
  • Read up on the issues Sir Stuart raises so you can play an informed role in any discussions on the role of volunteers in public services and wider society. A list of my previous blog posts on relevant topics can be found at the end of this article.

You could do one, more or another action. But please do something.

We have a wonderful opportunity here to position volunteering as central to the success of our organisations, our sector and our society. Let’s make the most of it!


Previous articles I have written that might help you think through some of the issues Sir Stuart raises

Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?

One of the most common questions people ask me is where the volunteer management function should be located within an organisational structure. It’s a great question to ask, but giving a simple and concise answer isn’t easy – it’s a complex issue.

It is a question that Susan J Ellis and I seek to answer directly in our book, “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, which is aimed at Chief Executives and senior managers to help them think through how they create an effective strategy and culture of volunteer involvement.

Here’s how we address the question in chapter five.


Organisational Placement

Whatever management option you choose, to whom will the person in charge of volunteers report? This decision has an impact on your entire ‘chain of command’ and sends a message to all employees and volunteers. In a later chapter, we will consider more fully the question of supervising the leader of volunteers, but for now, recognise that where you place the head of this initiative implies and affects where – even whether – volunteers themselves are integrated into the organisation.

There is no ‘correct’ place for the volunteer manager on the organisational chart. Each setting is different, and parameters such as staff size and the job functions of other staff members will affect your decision. However, be aware that whoever supervises the volunteer manager must truly understand what makes that position unique1.

For example, if you place the volunteer programme under the public relations department, will the director of public relations be able to assist the volunteer manager in his or her responsibilities related to the agency’s daily service delivery? Generally, a public relations department does not contribute to in-house operations or activities. Conversely, if the volunteer manager is placed under, for example, the casework supervisor, will that person be supportive of volunteer-related public outreach efforts? Again, the casework supervisor would normally have few or no responsibilities requiring external work in the community, such as public speaking.

It is useful to consider the connection between the volunteer manager and the agency’s head of human resources or personnel (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). There are both similarities and differences between these two functions. Structurally, as already noted, both recruit workers and place them into your organisation. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify the expectations for paid and volunteer personnel. But think carefully if you are leaning towards placing the volunteer office within the human resources department. Here are some cautions:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers will always be given lower priority than employees—perhaps little attention at all.
  • Human resources staff take job descriptions designed by others in the organisation and try to fill those slots with the best people, who are then completely delegated to each department or team. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactively suggesting ways volunteers can support the work to be done, be much more creative in finding people with expertise or the potential to become experts, and find placements for people who unexpectedly offer useful talents (the human resources folks can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary).
  • The volunteer manager may also be much more involved in a range of day-to-day organisational activities and supervise some volunteers directly.

Some organisations place the volunteer office under the supporter-development or fundraising department. Again, there is overlap (especially if the department involves special events or fundraising volunteers), but fundraising staff commonly have no direct service or programme responsibilities, so who can support the volunteer manager in recruiting and placing volunteers for service-delivery roles? Also, putting volunteer resources into fundraising may imply an agenda to ask for money as well as time, with an emphasis on the former.

In reality, the volunteer manager is a separate, independent department head, in that she or he has responsibilities substantially different from, though linked to, all other departments and is responsible for a large cadre of workers, albeit volunteers. Ideally, the volunteer manager should answer directly to you or another senior manager. This also sends a message to the volunteers. It says that they have a direct line to the top decision makers. It conveys a similar message to all employees: volunteers are a subject of daily interest to senior management, much as paid staff are in most organisations with employees. When you consider that the volunteer component is the organisation’s non-salaried personnel department and that you, as chief executive, are responsible for the deployment of all human resources, the decision to place the volunteer manager directly under you is more than justifiable.

If you are the executive of a very large organisation, the volunteer manager may have to report to you through a deputy chief executive or some other senior manager. Again, recognise the messages you send to everyone through your choice of where to place the volunteer programme. Consider the other departments answering to the same senior manager and assess whether there is an evident rationale for placing the volunteer programme alongside these other teams—or whether the placement implies that volunteers are a ‘miscellaneous’ organisation function.


If you’d like to read more about how to embed a culture and structure to support effective volunteer engagement then you can buy a copy of From The Top Down – UK Edition from Amazon. It makes a perfect Christmas present for your CEO, Director, board chair or line manager!

  1. Something we cover in chapter four of the book.