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Why do people who manage volunteers not understand volunteers?

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I have been a volunteer in a number of different organisations over the years.

When my oldest child first went to primary school, I went to the first Parents and Citizens meeting of the year and was elected Secretary. Over the next seven years, I served in eleven years of executive office. I finally gave it away because the politics of the organisation seemed to outweigh the activity and the achievements.

When my sons were young teenagers, they joined the Australian Air League. Because I was a professional engineer, I volunteered to help with the technical training of the cadets. I was happy to give my time even after my sons left but I didn't want to be a uniformed officer. This arrangement continued for several years until a new Squadron Leader was appointed. He told me that I would have to wear a uniform. I said no I wouldn't but he persisted. I explained that while he had the authority to tell me to do anything, I had an alternative to doing something I didn't want to do which would cost me nothing, I could leave. He didn't get it so I left.

Later on, I joined the volunteers at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. My first job was to be one of two volunteers to man the office on two Sundays every month. I was surprised that there was no training provided but I managed to pick up most of what I needed to know by chatting with other volunteers. My efforts to get some response from the Office Manager, on whose behalf I was working, in answer to some problem I had encountered resulted in the brush off.

I eventually completed the training as a zoo guide and joined the team of volunteers working on the ground in the zoo on my two Sundays a month.

In due course I was promoted to shift leader and began to participate in the shift leaders meetings. I assumed that these meetings were intended both to solve any problems we had and to take advantage of any good ideas we had to improve the way the job was done.

I soon discovered that the concept of "good ideas" coming up from the workplace was beyond the comprehension of those for whom we worked.

I regularly came into conflict with the Volunteer Co-ordinator, who was a one time school teacher, because he always told us that he wanted a crew of "professional volunteers". When I argued that the term "professional volunteer" was an oxymoron his eyes would glaze over. I pointed out that the difference between "professional" or paid staff and volunteers was that volunteers have a cost free alternative to working for you, they can leave without having to forego the wages they would receive if they were "professionals".

My main point of difference with him was his demand that everyone must be prepared to do every task.

I believe, and I told him so many times, that the foremost requirement supervising volunteers is to ensure that no-one has to do any task they really don't want to do because if you make them unhappy they have the cost free alternative of not working for you.

This constraint clearly creates a problem if there are tasks that no-one wants to do or if there are people who only want to do their favourite task. The art of managing volunteers, in my view, is to ensure that the crew is comprised of people who are prepared to be part of the team even though they have their personal likes and dislikes and then to allocate tasks in such a way as to avoid making anyone unhappy.

My experience as shift leader had been that some people had a distinct aversion to some tasks. I was always able to accommodate their preferences and allocate those tasks to other people who were happy to do them. If there was a task that no-one wanted to do, I was always prepared to do it myself but that never happened on my shift. I am proud of the fact that my shift was both productive and happy.

The Co-ordinator never took my point and I eventually had to demonstrate what I meant by resigning rather than doing something I really didn't want to do.

The most outrageous example of unthinking volunteer management occurred at the zoo. One of my crew, a 75 year old pensioner, had been a good and dedicated volunteer for fifteen years. When the zoo introduced a uniform for volunteers he said he would be happy to wear one if the zoo provided it but that he couldn't afford to buy the uniforms himself. They wrote to him telling him that he must either wear a uniform or leave the job. He took the rational decision and left the job and we lost his skill, his talent, his effort and his company and he lost an opportunity to make a contribution and a social connection which was probably very important to him. I believe that the zoo thought that there were plenty of other people prepared to do the job so they didn't have to put up with disobedient people such as him.

I have talked to many other volunteers about these issues and everyone has agreed with my view. Most have their own horror stories, Many have been in the position of having to decide whether its worth continuing to work as a volunteer for an unthinking employer. All agree that when push come to shove, staying on in a volunteer job you don't enjoy is the one thing they can't make you do.

There are many very valuable volunteer work organisations today but, it seems, far fewer managers of volunteers who understand the difference between paid staff and volunteer staff. It may be an irrelevance but, in today's world, most people who manage volunteers are themselves paid staff.

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Created: 28.08.2004 and last revised 17/12/07
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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