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Is volunteering too much hard work for charities?

Two weeks ago, at a round table hosted by the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving, I listened to a group of people working in the charity sector talking about the difficulties they faced using professional volunteers.

You would think this would be easy – get in an accountant, an IT expert, a designer, and get loads of professional experience for free. But these people’s experience was quite difference.

Making a specialist placement work needs a lot of effort from the charity concerned, I was told, both before and after they get the volunteer involved. They need to plan what services they are looking for, and understand that getting volunteers involved is not a replacement for work by paid staff.

I’ve got some personal experience of this. Years ago, I decided I would practise what I hear preached each week in Third Sector, and do some volunteering. And because I’d listened to volunteering experts, I decided I’d try using my professional skills.

I figured there must be plenty of charities keen to raise their media profile, looked around, and approached three different charities, through brokerage schemes and in person.

In all cases, I was asked to look at a charity’s media strategy and marketing materials, and make some suggestions. All cases produced varyingly dispiriting results. With one charity, I received no response of any sort after putting together a response. Another rang me, a month after I produced a detailed piece of work for them, to admit that they’d lost it.

Now the common factor in all of these situations was me, the volunteer, so I can’t rule out the possibility that my advice was unhelpful, or that I didn’t have the particular skills they needed, and that’s why these experiences were unsuccessful.

But it also seemed clear that many charities, while they wanted help, weren’t really set up for receiving it.

All three organisations I spoke to underestimated the time it would take them to deal with me. And none seemed keen on the idea that any help they received would lead to work they would have to carry on themselves.

What’s needed, according to the volunteering experts I met at the EAPG, is more brokerage, to ensure both sides know what they’re likely to be asked to do, and can ask for themselves.

This fits quite well with my own experience. My expectations were probably unrealistic, and so, I suspect, were those of the charities I tried to help. Some early hand-holding would have led to better results for both sides.

  • Chris Gelken

    Great post. In our spare time my wife and I provide voluntary video/photography to local non-profits and grassroots groups. And we could immediately identify with some of the points you raised!

  • Essi Lindstedt

    I’m sorry that Dave’s experience has been so negative. I’ve had both good and less good experiences of working with volunteers (and being a volunteer). I think one of the most important factors is being clear about what kind of commitment can be made. The best experiences came from both sides being clear about what they each need from the experience, i.e. what they can give in terms of skills, how much time, what ‘level’ (every business needs a mix of strategists and doers). It’s best if the volunteer is also clear about what they want to receive – for example it makes it easier to manage from the charity end if you know whether your volunteer is a budding trustee or a new arrival in the area who simply wants to integrate with a new group of people.