The ‘V’ Word – Volunteering

The Government has over the last few years, promoted and encouraged organisations to use volunteers to provide more and more of their services.  And the truth is, that volunteers have already being doing this, taking on the burden and much of the work of many organisations without being paid.

Most people who volunteer do so because they are passionate about a particular cause, idea or service.  Most volunteers do it because they want to help others achieve greater things in their own lives, careers, businesses, health or wellbeing.  There are many reasons why people volunteer and probably just as many reasons volunteers might give for the type and levels of satisfaction they receive for doing what they do.

In my culture volunteering is something I grew up with.  We all support each other, give to each other and help out where we can.  In the days of my youth we probably did not call it volunteering though.  However, what you can learn and become as an individual whilst volunteering, can at times, far outshine the contribution you feel you may have given.

I have been volunteering for so many years and in so many different sectors that it would take quite a while to share all of that experience with you, but volunteering is a part of my life that I have and still do enjoy it tremendously.

More and more organisations are using volunteers without really understanding the whole concept of volunteering.  Some organisations, particularly those that consider themselves membership organisations, through the volume of their membership, have access to a wealth of knowledge, experience, skill and information.   Some membership organisations have been using the resource of their membership for so long, they make the mistake of seeing their volunteers members almost as staff.

I think that both those who volunteer and those who use volunteers, members or not, need to be aware of some of the pitfalls that could occur in this relationship.

1.       What is a volunteer?

A volunteer is an unpaid helper.  This is, I agree a very limited description, but it is a very clear one.

This is a very important distinction to make because the organisation does not have the same influence or ‘power’ over a volunteer, that it might have over someone who is paid to work for it,  has signed a contract of employment and has agreed to work to a job description.

A volunteer is with you out of choice and can walk away at any time and there is nothing at all you can do about it.  You cannot hold them to ransom or insist they work out their notice.  Yes, you can ask them not to come back if you are unhappy with their contribution, but that is about the only real power you have.

2.       Volunteers are not your employees

Just because someone is willing to give you or your business their time, knowledge, information, experience, expertise and skill, does not make them your employee, no matter how long this may continue.   The term ‘unpaid’ restricts what control you have over this free help.

Many organisations quickly accept the help offered and then become confused when the volunteer does not wish to do what he or she is being asked to do, in the way or the speed required by the organisation.

Clearly there must be a purpose for the volunteer’s involvement and there must also be some reasonable outcome for the organisation from the volunteers’ involvement.  But both organisation and the volunteer need to be clear about what each is getting from the alliance.  And this should be properly and frequently reviewed to ensure that both are getting their intended value.

Many organisations fail to understand the two above points, the volunteer a) is not an employee and b) needs to get some personal benefit and satisfaction from making their contribution to your organisation.  Although in the case of b) the organisation does have to ensure that they are not providing the same or similar benefits to a volunteer as it would expect to give a paid member of their workforce.

Too many organisation make the mistake of relying on volunteers to take on and do jobs that their paid employees should be doing and secondly expert pressure on volunteers like their do thier employed staff.  Everyone should be treated with respect and consideration – going back to golden role – whether paid or not.

Both these mistakes create unhappiness, frustration and dissatisfaction for both parties.  The organisations reputation amongst its volunteer support weakens and they become seen as users and disrespectful of their volunteers.  No one wants to feel that are freely making a contribution to be mistreated in return.

3.       Volunteers need to get something out of itimageVs

From my many years of volunteering, working with volunteers and in particular, working with organisations who use volunteers, I can always tell those employers who have actually volunteered in their own lives from those who have not.

The latter are very often in a state of confusion about people who volunteer and a regular question you will hear from these people is ‘why do they do it?’ or ‘what do they get out of it?’.

When you have organisations run by people who have never actually volunteered themselves, this often times creates an underlying atmosphere of misunderstandings around this ‘why’ question.  Which will over time become a bigger problem of mistrust, feelings of disrespect and undervalue.  Those focused entirely on increasing profits at all cost, find it hard to understand those who give their expertise or assistance away for any other reason than money.

And the mistake that is all too frequently made by the ‘non-volunteer’ is to think that at best volunteers must be stupid and at worse, an easy target to be taken advantage of.   The lack of respect for volunteers can easily be seen by what an organisation expects a volunteer to do for free, the pressure they exert and how volunteers are treated by the organisation.  A final tell tail sign is a high turnover of volunteers.

Truly understanding why people choose to voluntary with organisations, groups or communities is for many organisations the missing link.  They can be so focused on using this wonderful free wealth of resource, looking at what and how the organisation can benefit, that they forget to realise that there is always two sides of a coin and it is just as important to ascertain, what your volunteers, at all levels want in return what they are prepared to bring to you, how will this be met, measured by you and how will they achieve or receive it.

Never fall into the trap, when and if you are brave enough to ask your volunteers that question, of accepting an answer that says ‘oh I don’t want anything, I’m just willing to give me time’.   You will find that the longer someone volunteers with you, the clearer their answer to that question will become.

Sometimes all an individual does want is to help others, maybe they just believe in your cause.  Others value the opportunity to gain new skills and others still want to spent time making a difference with like-minded people, but everyone has a reason.

I must admit that I dislike the term ‘giving back’ which is a well-used phrase these days, but to give back implies that you’ve taken already or you’ve taken too much.  Many volunteers don’t wish to ‘give back’ they just want to give freely whilst they learn and achieve something for others.  Something that society could not do without.

4.     Volunteering and Age

Another very important point in considering what volunteer wants, is their age.  Millions of volunteer hours were given freely to organisation by baby-boomers and older generations, because this type of social and commercial contribution was a way of making contacts, networking, building reputation and finding information.

The dawn of the internet has provided a completely new and different way of satisfying those type of needs much more easily and quickly.  This is one of the reason that membership organisations have struggled with member attendance at face to face events in more recent the years.

People born after the baby boomer years, the so called X,Y and millennials are looking for something far different to what organisations have learnt to rely on.  These volunteers are looking for opportunities to learn, to lead and to make a different.  If they do not see that they can achieve these things with you, they will quickly move on.   The length of time younger volunteers stay in a volunteering position is much sorter than that of their parents and grandparents.  Two years is likely to be average.

Another point to consider is that those older generations who had the time to volunteer, because they were retired, are now more likely to be less in number.  Even when people are retired these days, they are far healthier, want to enjoy the time they have left and likely have had enough of working so hard for other people.

If they have not yet retired, maybe because their circumstances have changed and cannot yet afford to do so, then they are likely not to have the time for volunteering.  They may also be helping out with grandchildren as younger people are now finding their way in live, career and the universe.

5.       Persuasion not force

So if a volunteer is not your employee, how do you influence what thV2ey do and how you work together?

Like all good things preparation, discussion, trust building, openness, understand and values, should be the foundations that all relationships are built on and this one is no different.

From my experience the worse organisations focus entirely on what they can get out of volunteers, expect volunteers to start to deliver immediately and have limited place for trust and relationship building.

And more unfortunately, these same organisations neglect to provide a system for rewarding volunteers for their contributions, however small that might be. Volunteer contribution to organisations should be clearly noted, like anything else and shared/recognised across the wider field.  In doing this an organisation builds a sense of respect and appreciate for what is being given freely.

Some organisations have different levels of volunteers and tend focus on what those volunteering at a higher level, such as Trustees, Companions and etc., are doing, but those working at ground level, where the real work is done, receive no recognition at all.

Volunteers are people and people have different ways of measuring satisfaction and recognition.  So just like when dealing with anyone else, an organisation should work to find out what types of recognition their volunteers might appreciate and develop ways to ensure this is evident at all levels and by as wide a spectrum of people as possible.

Organisations that reward some levels of volunteering and neglect others are looking to create a disgruntled volunteer force who will use their passion and influence to share their negative experience.

The bottom line for keeping happy volunteers, as with keeping motivated staff, is ensuring they have a reason to come to make a contribution with you.  Treat them with respect and fairly, show them value for their contribution, don’t ask them to do what you should be getting your paid staff to do and remember they are with you by choice.

DSCF75096.       Creation and Ownership

The wonderful thing about having willing volunteers is that they will be happy to help you solve problems.  At many times they may even recognise a problem you may not have realised existed and then find a solution to deal with.  And I guess this is why most organisations love to use volunteers.

Having people there to give that objective view, unobstructed by internal political noise, free to reflect, consider and assess, without worrying about the need to do the right thing in order to keep their job, or brown-nose with the CEO, is truly invaluable.  That unhindered, thinking, unpaid help.

Okay, maybe I’m referring here to volunteering at more senior levels within organisations, but volunteers at shop front and other levels can also provide this objective view at times.

Really passionate volunteers will be happy to work on developing the solutions they come up with and allow the organisation to use and benefit from it.

However, here is where an organisation can again run into problems.  Where a volunteer develops a solution, ideal, product or service, even write a company’s annual report or a training programme, for example: anything that is considered copyright or intellectually property, it not the property of the organisation the volunteer is volunteering with.

The intellectual property and copyright belongs to the volunteer, unless there has been an signed agreement clearly stating that this will be handed over to the organisation.  And even here an organisation has to be careful that this agreement is not perceived by the Courts as fitting employment terms.

This may come as a shock to many organisations and even many volunteers, but this is what Intellectual Property Law in the UK states.  The volunteer is not your employee and not employed by you.  They are, as we mentioned before, unpaid help.  So without clearly written and signed agreements what they produce is not the property of the organisation.

Just as they can walk away from volunteering with you at any time they wish, they can also take away with them their product or service, their intellectual property, any time, they so wish.

Because many volunteers are unclear about their rights many have given over what they have developed or created to the organisations they were volunteering with, unaware of this fact.  Some organisations have been just as ignorant, whilst others clearly know the truth, but hope their volunteers do not and have taken advantage or tried to take advantage of this situation.

Read below and extract from what Volunteering England has to say about this matter

Copyright and volunteers Copyright normally belongs to the person or persons who created the work. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 states that material produced by employees belongs to their employer, but makes no mention of volunteers, so the copyright of their work remains with them, not their organisation. Therefore organisations should ask their volunteers to assign (transfer) copyright to them, or agree a licence whereby the organisation can use the work within agreed limits but copyright stays with the volunteer.

Volunteering England, by Mark Restall

Another very helpful source on this matter is the Intellectual Property Office website which provides quite a bit of information on this subject, as you would expect.


I have just touched the tip of the iceberg in relation to issues around the world of volunteering as I know it and there are many more facts to be aware of. The concern is that with the government pushing volunteering as way to balance its books, we may well find the whole issue being raised more frequently and it is paramount that both the volunteer, who is so readily wanting to give freely and organisation, voluntary groups and businesses so eager to accept, that both make themselves more clear about how this game is played.

The worse situation is that people find less reasons to volunteer or less satisfaction in volunteering and the benefit of their skills, knowledge and experience is lost to the wider public.

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