The last word of 2016: Robey’s Christmas Voluntary

Our popular columnist, Robey Jenkins, HR Manager for Age UK Gloucestershire shares his weekly blog with us.  

This week, in our last post of 2016, Robey discusses the challenges of recruiting volunteers, something HR Managers working in the third sector know only too well.   

It’s been recruitment season again, here at Age UK Gloucestershire.  An odd time of year to do it, I’ll admit, but nevertheless it seems that scarcely a week passes lately that I’m not sitting down with candidates trying to sift wheat from chaff, gold from dross, cream from milk and scum from dregs.  No, not that last one.  Honest.

Whilst I don’t really enjoy interviewing (unlike being interviewed: forty-five minutes of talking about myself?  Yes, please!) I do sometimes spot trends and themes in people’s answers to questions that spark deeper thought about bigger issues, and something dropped out of our most recent round that has been nagging at me.


Why do people volunteer?

Charities, of course, rely in a large part upon volunteers to provide some of their core services and in all sorts of other important roles.  They are a pool of willing expertise and experience that we can draw upon, cost-free.  It’s one of the things that sets us apart from our profit-making colleagues in the world of business.  But when I asked this question, again and again, in recent interviews, I got the same answer back time after time: variations upon “they’re good people”.

And they are, don’t get me wrong.  The one thing that unites all volunteers is a willingness to go beyond the knee-jerk “something must be done” attitude of the bottom half of the Internet to “I must do something”.  And that decision takes a certain level of character and humanity that all volunteers share.  But it is a mistake to think that the only thing that matters to volunteers is the opportunity to do good.  Good, they may be.  Saints they are not.  And a troubled conscience goes only so far to sustaining a volunteer’s enthusiasm.


For HR practitioners, perhaps we should start by wondering what motivates paid workers.  Yes, of course, there’s money.  But whilst money makes a great advert, it is also a terrible motivator.  Once someone’s basic needs are met, money becomes little more than a way of keeping score, as we see in the ludicrous sums paid to FTSE400 executives.  Quick soapbox time: no employee should ever earn more than six figures per annum; it’s stupid, irrational and counter-productive.  Stop it.


However, if we know that money isn’t motivating our employees, what is?  Well, I’ll let you mull over that, because I’m sure you have some ideas.  The point is that money obviously isn’t motivating volunteers, so the question becomes even more important.  And just as the motivations of workers are complex, so are those of volunteers.  I will offer just some starting points to bear in mind:


  1. Compulsion. It needs to be said.  Some people are volunteering because they have to.  Employers are waking up to the benefits of volunteering and making it more or less mandatory for employees.  Sometime, even the nature of the work for which they volunteer is dictated.  But compulsion comes in many forms and whilst external compulsion is becoming more common, for others it is an internal compulsion: they are incapable of turning away from those in need without doing something.


The problem with both sorts of compulsion is that the drive is rarely towards your particular cause or organization.  These volunteers are there only as long as the compulsion lasts and will flee the moment it loosens for any reason unless you can provide other reasons to stay.


  1. Friendship. How many of your volunteers start volunteering because they knew someone else who was?  Or is sticking around because it’s a chance to spend time with people they like and admire?  Or because they find building social connections difficult and volunteering provides a structured context in which to develop a friend network?  Compulsion is a “push” against resistance.  But friendship is a “pull” against inertia.  It’s a powerful force.  But it relies upon the volunteer having the chance to continue working in a social team.  If you put such a volunteer into a solo role, they will rapidly become disconnected, and de-motivated and leave.


  1. Learning. One of the reasons that companies are keen on volunteering is that it represents free skills training in both hard and soft skills.  Increasingly we are also beginning to understand the benefits of lifelong learning, to the mind and to the body.  Volunteers who feel they are continuously learning new skills have a powerful motivation to stay, because the rewards that come from learning only build up over time.  Volunteers, meanwhile, who see paid workers being training and development being a thing reserved for paid workers will quickly begin to feel like second-class citizens, under-valued and unappreciated.


  1. CV Filling. Closely connected to learning, but with a more temporary mien, those who find themselves between jobs for whatever reason are a terrific resource for charities needing volunteers.  These volunteers get to fill awkward gaps in CVs with something meaningful and constructive.  They get a foot in the door of a new industry or sector.  They get fresh and ongoing training and opportunities.  And as soon as they get a new job, they’re off… unless the charity manages to offer them something more that will bind them in for the long term.


  1. Time Filling. Where would volunteer bodies be without the retired, the disabled or the home-makers with teenage children?  People whose lives bring them to a place when they either can’t or don’t need to work conventionally can find themselves with idle hands that they would rather not put to the Devil’s work and volunteering for them fills that space.  They are a fickle bunch, though, and liable to dash off after the next trendy cause unless they have found something more in your organization to keep them bound in and focussed.


  1. Personal Conviction. There are few motivators more powerful to a volunteer than a personal conviction that the charity’s cause is just.  Cancer survivors volunteer for cancer charities.  Those of faith volunteer for faith charities.  Older people are amongst the most impassioned volunteers for age-related charities.  There is, however, a risk to be acknowledged by those who use such volunteers: they really care about what you do, and they aren’t afraid of getting sacked and they don’t care about going over your head.  So don’t treat them like employees.  They need to have their voices heard.  They often have direct and valuable experience of your frontline that should be tapped into.  They have the resources to contribute in the most demanding of environments.


At a season when our thoughts turn to light, goodness and remembering our many blessings, many of us might be inclined to make volunteering a part of our New Year’s resolutions.  I’d encourage you to do it, for all sorts of reasons.  But volunteering isn’t just for Christmas.  Like adopting a puppy, it’s a commitment you need to know will be challenging, expensive and time-consuming.  But it’s worth it.

Happy Christmas everyone – we’ll be back on January 3rd!


Author: Editorial Team

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