Volunteers were the heroes of the London tube strike: London Zoo could do better

I was very impressed by the work of volunteers during the tube strike in London yesterday.
I set off on my morning commute expecting chaos. But at both Victoria and Earl’s Court stations, there were plenty of cheery, easy-to-find, orange vest-clad Transport for London volunteers advising travellers how to reach their destinations.
I didn’t have to wait long to speak to one, and neither did the other commuters, none of whom seemed stressed. Perhaps the strike triggered good old-fashioned British stoicism. But the volunteers definitely played their part in keeping what could have been a reputational disaster for TFL under control. 
But volunteers don’t always work wonders for the reputations of companies and charities. A few weeks ago, I went to the London Zoo’s Zoo Lates event, at which hundreds of people spent the evening drinking Pimm’s, eating burgers and wandering around the animal enclosures – a brilliant fundraising event for the zoo.
As my friend and I strolled through the monkey enclosure, we noticed an over-zealous volunteer marshalling the crowds.
“Stand back from that tree!” she shouted at one couple. “It’s the monkey’s space!” Another group of visitors was told off for spending too long looking at some baby monkeys.
The response was interesting. “Ignore her,” one visitor said. “She’s only a volunteer and she’s getting hung up on her own power.”
The zoo volunteer was obviously not working the wonders for the zoo’s reputation that the Tube volunteers were working for TFL’s. My instinctive reaction was that it came down to volunteer management – shouldn’t organisations vet their volunteers properly before they let them speak directly to the public on their behalf?
But perhaps that would undermine the point of volunteering. Volunteers aren’t one-size-fits-all and they can’t be vetted and controlled in the way paid staff can. They enjoy making their own mark, and if they weren’t enjoying it they wouldn’t do it.
So perhaps charities – and other organisations that use volunteers – need to accept that alongside a reputational bonus, hiring volunteers involves a big reputational risk.