What I’ve learned about looking after volunteers

In all of my jobs, I manage volunteers. In some of my roles, this management is more hands on than in others. Recently I was looking after (curating?) a team of around 100 volunteers for a charity that does a lot of work with museums, galleries and other cultural and heritage sites, helping them respond to the needs of families, children and young people. Although the organisation is based in London, it has volunteers up and down the UK. It was up to me to marshal the troops.

I’ve had to take a step back from that role to concentrate on other projects, so someone else is stepping in to my shoes. So, before I step away completely, I thought I would grab cup of tea and reflect on what I’ve learned from dealing with such a vast and spread out team. These thoughts draw on my experience over several roles and organisations. They were started on a train, scribbled in my notebook in green felt-tip pen. They have since been tidied, edited, formatted and edited once again for your reading pleasure.

What I have learned managing volunteers

  1. Know where to draw the line: Volunteers are not staff that you don’t pay. They are people who want to give their time: usually to give back or to gain experience. Whatever their motivation, you can’t expect them to take the place of staff.
  2. The 20:60:20 rule: No matter the size of your team, 20% will be highly engaged, 60% will be more or less engaged and 20% will be dormant. I have found this whenever I have dealt with volunteers. Pro tip: find a way of logging activity/engagement that works for you.Personally,  I’m a big fan of spreadsheets.
  3. The most active volunteers will be very busy people: Busy people like to be busy. Those with a passion for a sector/subject/field will be involved in any number of projects. Having both been a volunteer and managing them I’ve seen both sides of this coin. Working in museums, particularly in learning, many people have multiple jobs to make ends meet. My advice? Be mindful of these commitments.
  4. Volunteers are most engaged when they have something to do: I’m not talking busy work, or the unappealing tasks that no one likes but have to get done. In my experience, those who have clearly defined roles or tasks are the happiest and most productive. However, always bear in mind lesson #1.
  5. When to let go: Life happens. This is a fact. It might look great to have lots of volunteers on the database, but if only a handful are active, there’s a problem. Volunteers might have found employment or have another commitment that means they can’t be so generous with their time. Try to ‘reactivate’ them if it feels appropriate, if not, there’s nothing wrong in giving people the chance to move on, it’s OK to say goodbye.
  6. Provide opportunity for growth and development: To get the best out of volunteers, you need to give them the chance to grow and develop their skills.They are giving you their time, so this is a fair exchange. Some places see just providing the basic opportunity as doing this. I think that doesn’t go far enough. I’ve helped organise volunteer training days to cover topics like working with Early Years, how to network and a variety of other things in a variety of organisations. If there is no capacity to provide training in-house, or no budget, you can always sign post to other opportunities such as MOOCs.
  7. Regular contact is key: Talk to your volunteers, let them know what’s going on, help them feel part of the organisation. I initiated a weekly update for one of my groups of volunteers to keep them abreast of developments and to help those in the far flung corners of the UK know that the London office hadn’t forgotten about them. Contact needs to be about more than “Can any do task x?” Regular contact is also super helpful for identifying where people sit in the 20:60:20 spectrum.
  8. Say thank you! And say it regularly! One great way to do this is by putting your volunteers forward for awards. In the UK, and in the Museum sector here there are several big ones, like the Marsh Award,Marsh Award, the M+H Show Volunteer Award and a London Museum and Heritage Volunteer award. A Thank You Card can also work wonders.

Those are 8 things I’ve learned. Needless to say, there are plenty more lessons out there.

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