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Managing volunteer engagement in the not for profit sector

August 9, 2010

Creating and maintaining engagement among employees is one thing; managing engagement among volunteers is quite another. That's one of the elements of a major survey Employee Feedback has been commissioned to conduct for one of Britain's leading charities.

The organisation concerned is undertaking a policy review which, potentially, has big implications for the engagement of its four thousand volunteers.

Because the potential consequences of this change were so considerable, it was agreed that we should undertake a series of focus groups with a cross-section of volunteers from across the whole of the UK. We were then to report back with a summary of the issues raised and an overview of the themes which emerged from the discussions.

The research findings were not of the kind anticipated. Unexpected issues emerged which related to the difficulty of managing those who volunteer their services and are not employees. The data highlighted the fact that managing volunteers calls for considerable skill and sensitivity, for very clear reasons.

People who are employed, and are therefore paid to do what they do, can ultimately be required to perform, or leave the organisation. No such incentive - or sanction - exists for volunteers, who are always free to choose whether or not to deliver.

Local management is one factor in this process of choice-making; another, equally if not more important element, is the way the organisation behaves corporately and thereby earn loyalty and commitment. It became clear that the consultation process - of which our survey is a central part - is a vital part of managing change in the not for profit sector

So we and the client realised that the proposed survey should be a communication and consultation mechanism as well as a data gathering exercise.

The research highlighted the value of pre-survey research. It informed the design of the questionnaire in ways which would not have been possible based on existing knowledge of volunteer opinion.

This questionnaire, which all four thousand volunteers are being invited to complete, has become a vehicle for a major consultation and communication exercise.

When available, the survey findings will not only provide the evidence for change: they will help to explain the reasons why it is to be undertaken. And hence they will help the organisation to retain the commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers, the very people it will affect most.

As Marshall McLuhan pointed out almost fifty years ago, the medium is the message.

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