Help! What do I do with Unpaid Workers?

8 Strategies for Successfully Managing Volunteers

Whatever you choose to call them – volunteers, interns, work experience students, or helpers – at some point most organisations will have unpaid workers on the premises and need to think about volunteer management. For example:

  • Schools – parent helpers on trips out or special events such as school discos.
  • Religious organisations – the ladies and gentlemen who help out at the refectory after service and tidy the place of worship.
  • Youth organisations – your child’s Saturday morning football or coach or match referee, or their Sunday School leaders.
  • And most businesses these days will provide work experience and internships for people interested in a new career, with some choosing to utilise their services more than others.

How to Manage Volunteers by Mary Donné

Why do People Volunteer?

Voluntary workers are the lifeblood of most charities and social enterprises with an estimated 14m+ people formally volunteering in 2016.  

People choose to work for free for all sorts of different reasons.  Some just have time on their hands and want to make good use of their skills and knowledge. Retired people, long term sick, and new parents taking time out of paid employment usually fall into this bracket.  This group also often enjoy volunteering to socialise and to meet new people.

Other volunteers become involved with a particular charity or cause which is genuinely close to their heart, and because they passionately believe in what the charity is trying to achieve.  

Many just fall into it after being asked to help out with something.  I’ve met more than a few parents who became school governors, Sunday School leaders, and/or football coaches this way!  Others may be looking build work experience, or gain new experience with the long term goal of a career shift.

So not all volunteers are the same.  They may all choose to give up their spare time, but their reasons for doing so are varied.  

How is Managing a Volunteer different from Managing Employees?

How does an organisation go about managing volunteers?  And actually, do they even need managing? If they’re not employees does it really matter?  Because if they’re not happy they’ll just let us know, right?  Possibly – but probably not.   

Further, while volunteers do not necessarily have employment rights, they can expect to have other legal protections, some of which may not be obvious.   This can be a complicated area of law so if you regularly utilise unpaid staff, it is worth taking some qualified advice from an employment specialist.  

As we’ve established, someone who chooses to give up their time for free has entirely different motivations for being on the premises than someone who needs to be there to get paid.  They may already want to be there, but will still almost certainly need direction, guidance, and support. 

Even in a voluntary capacity, most people are reluctant to have a confrontation about something they’re unhappy with, and even less so if it’s an informal arrangement and they have the option of just leaving or dropping off the radar.  If your organisation relies on volunteers, and this seems to happen a lot, then you may wish to think about setting down some formal training in managing volunteers for your department leads or, at the very least, having a designated volunteer manager and some clear policies in place.

But even if you don’t regularly rely on volunteers, and just accept the occasional work experience student, any HR professional will confirm that it’s good practice to have a procedure in place. To paraphrase an experienced colleague, there is a tendency for organisations to deal with unpaid workers by either, ‘rolling out the red carpet in gratitude, or making them feel like a bit of a third wheel’.  Neither is a good approach. Not least of all, volunteers may not be staff but you should consider that in the eyes of public they are representing your organisation and you will be judged on what they say and do.

8 Active Strategies for Successful Volunteer Management

Here are some strategies to help manage volunteers, and build a successful and rewarding volunteer relationship:

  • Decide what you want from your volunteer and what you, in turn, can offer them. Remember, this is a two way process and you both need to be clear and confident about what you are taking on.  If you are approached by someone who is long-term sick or disabled, what adjustments if any will you need in place to support them? The Equality Act 2010, applies to charities and voluntary and community organisations as well as the for-profit sector.
  • Begin with a proper interview process.  Where volunteers are concerned, this is sometimes thought of as unnecessary or superfluous.  As we set out above, however, people have different reasons for volunteering. What is this person’s reason, and does it align with what you can provide?  For example, if someone is volunteering because they wish to gain experience in marketing, and you already have two or three people dealing with marketing, you may wish to suggest they try somewhere else.  Or, if you are an organisation with particular views on a legal or moral matter, you may wish to tactfully establish if your volunteer is sympathetic to these views (you would be surprised how often people volunteer for charities without thinking this one through properly!)  
  • Everyone needs a base, and it is helpful to have a designated volunteer coordinator or manager to whom your volunteer can report into, and who is responsible for their development and can address any concerns.  If your organisation deals with very sensitive work (e.g. child welfare) then it is particularly important that your volunteer has someone they can talk to about anything upsetting they may have dealt with.
  • Ensure that your volunteer is aware of the legal framework in which your organisation operates e.g. rules relating to confidentiality, disclosures, GDPR, etc.  Are they likely to come into contact with any sensitive information and, if so, could this be a potential problem?
  • Think about what sort of training you could put in place.  If the volunteer is performing a customer-facing role particularly in a challenging environment, maybe some training in assertiveness, or dealing with non-English speakers, or sign language, might be useful depending on what the role is.  Providing good training is a great incentive for volunteers. I was with the Citizens Advice Bureau for two years and they are well known for the quality of both their volunteer training and their volunteer workers – the two clearly go hand in hand.  
  • Try and spend a little time introducing the volunteer to their co-workers (paid and unpaid), give them a name-badge/tee-shirt/lanyard the same as everyone else is wearing. The offer of a cup of tea or coffee sets a friendly tone.  Make sure your regular staff know what the volunteer is there to do and for how long e.g. is this an ongoing arrangement or is it just for two weeks?  This helps your regular staff feel involved with the volunteer process and encourages them to include the volunteer in any coffee runs or water-cooler chat. 
  • Set aside a regular time for a catch up with your volunteer.  Have an agenda which includes asking if there is anything they are unhappy with or think could be improved.  In this regard, volunteers can be a great source of information as to how your organisation is perceived by outsiders.  Often they see things that regular workers don’t and are more in a position to tell you about them.
  • Finally, the single biggest thing that all volunteers want is to feel valued.  Do not forget that they are usually giving up their time help your organisation (and for parent volunteers time is a very precious commodity).  If they do not feel valued, or as though their work is being appreciated, they will simply leave. As with paid staff, sometimes a genuine, ‘thanks”, can go a long way.

Have you ever volunteered or worked with volunteers?  Does any of the above ring true?






Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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