Managing volunteers

Caroline Mboijana. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • How you manage volunteers is different from managing paid staff, though some principles you use are applicable to both.

Dear Caroline,

I work for an NGO that has recently set up a volunteer unit with a view to employee volunteers as full-time staff. I have managed a team before but never volunteered. Is this any different from managing paid staff? I need some guidance on how I go about setting up the unit. What advice can you give me as I start this project? Mercy

Hello Mercy, this is an exciting project that you have been asked to undertake and while it may look easy, it is very difficult.  How you manage volunteers is different from managing paid staff, though some principles you use are applicable to both.

In setting up the unit there are some basics you will need to think about. Volunteers are a valuable resource and if managed correctly they can help you deliver amazing work. As you set up the team, the first thing you must ensure is that your purpose for the volunteer project is clear and that everyone who is involved in the project start-up understands the purpose.  Your purpose will define how you recruit the volunteers and will also help you ensure you select the right volunteers.

The number one rule is that your volunteers must be truly passionate about the volunteer work. It is important that your selection process selects people who have aligned values and passion. I would adopt practices and principles from HR that speak to making sure that you look for and select members who fit the project vision. Because volunteers are not paid for their services, you need to make sure they are rewarded in some shape or form that is not monetary. In principle, public appreciation and recognition work but it must be meaningful. Celebrating success is critical and must be consistent. 

Before you start, also make sure your systems, procedures and ways of working are in place and that these are clearly communicated. Having systems allows you to structure and organise your work. Like everyone, volunteers will find disorganisation off-putting and frustrating. If everyone understands them, then they are willing to work within them. You need to remember that volunteers also have other things that they do so it is important that they are not burnt out “volunteering for you”.

Burnout is exhausting and if volunteers get burnt out, their work does not get done. Work with them and agree on when they should work and what they need to deliver. This approach ensures that there is an agreement on when they do their own work and when they do volunteer work. The last thing you need to think about is how are you going to retain them?

Once you have built a team of volunteers whom you have skilled and developed, you need to retain them. Start the project with an open mind, be ready to do things differently and be flexible to adjust to changes. Good luck.

Caroline Mboijana,

Managing Director, The Leadership Team (U)  [email protected]