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Celebrating 40 Years of Volunteer Spirit: Balancing Structure and Flexibility in Volunteer Management

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Celebrating 40 Years of Volunteer Spirit: Balancing Structure and Flexibility in Volunteer Management


With the 40th anniversary of Volunteers Week within the UK in the first week of June, culminating in a weekend of The Big Help Out, this is the time of year when we all, not just those within the volunteering team, turn our thoughts to the importance and value of volunteering and volunteers and say, ‘thank you.’

It’s important to recognise that volunteer involvement, including that which isn’t carried out through an organisation, doesn’t simply just happen. Some forms of framework, structure and organising are essential to support it. Because there needs to be some enabling infrastructure. This needs to be flexible enough to not get in the way of the self-organising and led aspect of volunteering.

This is the path which volunteer management tries to straddle – the formality of a structure which supports and enables volunteering - with the informality of ensuring people can use their own assets to fix what is needed within their own lives and communities.

I suspect that we are culturally used to viewing people giving their time through one lens; what we might think of as ‘traditional volunteering’, generally limited to pre-determined functions and selected for specific tasks; but to do this means that we are moving away from people’s motivations and interests and solely valuing the transactional and that which is carried out through an organisation – which is a barrier to those people who come forward because they want to just do something

The power of volunteering is one which comes to the fore when it is free to explore alternative answers to problems; not to be seen as an option which fits into a pre-determined solution.

Being able to think flexibly about roles and what people can offer is often a struggle for many volunteer involving organisations, though. It is easier to fit people into existing opportunities than to see what someone can offer and work creatively to develop or adapt a role.

One of the difficulties with being creative and flexible is that an organisations’ need to ensure that consistency, fairness, and safeguarding is maintained, can lead to slipping towards a ‘workplace’ model, which can be off-putting to potential volunteers.

So, we need to keep the balance between an efficient, safe, and supportive system with a personal, responsive, and adaptable relationship. How do we do this?

One way is to be clearer about where volunteer management is different from HR. Particularly as the 2024 update of Time Well Spent research from NCVO (The National Council for Voluntary Organisations) on the experience of volunteers showed that around a quarter (26%) of the respondents were concerned that volunteering is becoming too much like ‘paid work’. This has gone up from 19% in the original study from 2019. 24% of volunteers from the research also agreed ‘the group, club or organisation has unreasonable expectations in terms of how much I do’ (increased from 17% in 2019)


Volunteer management needs to be less about telling and more about facilitating.

For volunteering to thrive it needs to not be solely viewed through the lens of either service delivery or human resource – and volunteer management as a profession is well placed to ensure that the supporting infrastructure is one which can align appropriately with these - but also to do so with community development approaches and we need to be developing skills at enabling social action.

Those who involve volunteers owe it to them – giving their time, energy, and experience – to make this gift as effective as possible. And for me, volunteer management is the foundation that means that people giving their time are engaged, supported, and motivated all year round. Ensuring that volunteer management is recognised as a skill and a valued profession is essential to the continued flourishing of volunteers and indeed volunteering.

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