How to Manage Volunteers

Managing volunteers does not require any specialist knowledge. Mainly, you need common sense and the ability to put yourself in the position of a volunteer and ask yourself how you would you like to be treated.

As a result, this guide aims to give you simple guidelines and practical information so that your group can successfully manage volunteers.

This guide is about managing volunteers once you have already planned for their involvement and recruited the volunteers you need.

If you haven’t already planned for volunteer involvement and recruited the volunteers you need, please see our Involving Volunteers: Planning and Background guide and our Recruiting and Welcoming Volunteers guide.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is useful for any organisation that is considering either involving volunteers for the first time or evaluating how it manages volunteers.

Navigate the guide

1. Before you start
2. Volunteer Support
3. Volunteer Supervision
4. Strike the Right Balance
5. Balancing Organisational and Volunteer Needs
6. Managing Volunteers with Additional Needs
7. Volunteer Expenses
8. Keeping Volunteers Motivated
9. Identifying Volunteer Performance Issues
10. Addressing Volunteer Performance Issues
11. Quality Assurance
12. Resources and Support

1. Before you start

Before you start managing your volunteers you should:

    • Remind yourself what motivates people to volunteer
    • Ensure you understand the laws which apply to volunteers and how they might affect your group
    • Review your involving volunteers policy or plan
    • Make sure you have clear role descriptions for each of your volunteers
    • Ensure you have a well defined induction process that each of your volunteers has already gone through
    • If you haven’t done all of the above, our Involving Volunteers: Planning and Background guide and our Recruiting and Welcoming Volunteers guide can help you get ready to manage volunteers.

2. Volunteer Support

Because volunteers are not paid, they will stay only if they feel enthusiastic and motivated.

Providing appropriate support and supervision will keep your volunteers happy while helping to ensure that your volunteers’ energy and enthusiasm is harnessed to benefit your organisation.

You should have clearly defined, highly visible methods of volunteer support as volunteers don’t tend to respond to vague offers of support.

If you expect volunteers to attend support sessions as a requirement of their volunteering, then it should be made clear when a volunteer first offers their time.

What support achieves

Support is largely about encouragement and reassurance of your volunteers. It should:

    • Focus on the volunteer as a person
    • Create an environment where volunteers can express themselves
    • Reassure where necessary
    • Ensure the volunteer feels that their work is valued
    • Alert you to possible changes or personal issues affecting the volunteer
    • Provide an opportunity for both positive and negative feedback
    • Pick up on any concerns or problems the volunteer has with their work and deal with them before they become more serious
    • Assess training needs and facilitate personal development

How to support volunteers

Methods of support for volunteers vary from one agency to the next and many groups use multiple support methods. Some of the most frequently used are:

    • ‘Open door’ support where the volunteer coordinator is always available to volunteers
    • Regular telephone calls or e-mails. This is an especially useful method for volunteers who don’t work in the office
    • Specific session times when the coordinator is available to volunteers
    • Regular, one-to-one supervision sessions
    • Group meetings for volunteers
    • Meetings of staff and volunteers
    • A volunteer newsletter, social media group or notice board
    • Regular social events or training

Choosing the right support method

Each of these methods has their own merits and pitfalls.

For instance, an open door policy is very convenient for volunteers, but makes it difficult for the volunteer coordinator to manage their time. It also introduces the risk that that a few vocal volunteers dominate the coordinator’s time while other, more quiet volunteers won’t want to be a bother. Problems can also arise if several volunteers arrive at the same time.

Group meetings allow volunteers to share ideas and opinions, but can be dominated by a minority and may not be appropriate for volunteers who have individual or personal issues to raise.

Regular, one-to-one supervision is the best way of making sure all volunteers are supported properly but can take up a lot of time and you may need to make sure volunteers do not find the idea daunting.

Ultimately how you choose to support your volunteers depends on your organsiational capacity, how much responsibility your volunteers have and each individual volunteer’s support needs.

3. Volunteer Supervision

Good supervision is about finding an effective balance between the needs of the volunteer and the needs of the organisation. You need to provide feedback and give the volunteer the opportunity to air concerns without intimidating volunteers.

What is supervision?

Supervision is largely concerned with the volunteer’s tasks and encouraging the volunteer to be effective in their role.

When approaching supervision, always put the volunteer at ease and select the venue carefully. Meeting in public spaces or non-confidential areas will tend to limit the conversation.

What should supervision cover?

During supervision you should:

    • Offer the volunteer the opportunity to raise any issues they’ve encountered
    • Check how the volunteer’s relationship with other staff, volunteers, clients and management is going
    • Cover any practical problems such as expenses or health and safety concerns
    • Discuss any training that might benefit the volunteer
    • Ask for comments on the way the organisation works
    • Provide an opportunity for the volunteer to provide personal feedback
    • Provide feedback to the volunteer on their work. It’s best to begin with positive feedback about specific things they have done well. If there is anything critical which needs to be addressed, it is important that it is specific, based on their behaviour or practice, and constructive.

Record keeping

You should consider how you will record supervision sessions. It is a matter for each organisation to decide whether they will keep records of supervision sessions, where any records will be kept and who will have access to these records.

4. Strike the Right Balance

Volunteers are more likely to feel valued, accepted and satisfied with their roles if your organisation provides adequate support and supervision.

Getting the balance right gives volunteers the opportunity to offload problems, gain feedback and learn from the experiences of other volunteers and staff. This makes it easier for volunteers to cope with their tasks and ultimately allows them to add value to your organisation.

How to balance support and supervision

The level and formality of supervision required of volunteers, support offered and how closely you manage volunteers will depend on many factors. These include:

    • How many volunteers you involve
    • How experienced the volunteer is and how long they have been with you
    • The role of the volunteer and the level of responsibility they have
    • The potential for things to go wrong and how serious the problems could be
    • Whether volunteers are doing work that needs to be monitored or which has to meet organisational targets
    • The personal circumstances of the volunteer
    • How often you are in contact with the volunteer and whether this contact is in person or by phone or e-mail
    • What type of work they do and where (on-site, at a distance or in the community)
    • How a volunteer feels about their volunteering

You should take all of these factors into account when considering how much support to offer, how supervisions should be conducted and how closely you’ll need to manage your volunteers.

A person-centred approach

The methods you use to supervise staff doing similar work may vary from person to person.

Some volunteers will be full of confidence and may not need very much support. Others may need more encouragement or reassurance. Volunteers’ needs may change over time as they become more experienced, take on new roles, or if their personal circumstances change.

The support and supervision you offer should evolve with your volunteers. Don’t be afraid to make a change if it’s needed.

5. Balancing Organisational and Volunteer Needs

As you support volunteers, be sure to keep an eye on your organisation’s needs as well.

As a matter of principle, it is important that all volunteers have equal access to a basic level of support.

While you may want to commit some extra support to those volunteers who may otherwise not consider volunteering or who are experiencing a difficult time, you also need to set boundaries.

Volunteers will inevitably want to share their problems with someone they know and trust, but spending too much time supporting one volunteer means that less time is available to other volunteers.

It is important to discuss support with volunteers, and to be realistic if you do not have time to provide the kind of support a volunteer needs.

6. Managing Volunteers with Additional Needs

When involving volunteers with additional needs, there are several key topics to keep in mind.

Use respectful language

It is very important to be aware of the impact of the language and words used in relation to social issues such as homelessness, crime, addiction, immigration and disability. Nobody likes to be labeled and language can be both discriminating and disempowering.

When it comes to language and volunteers with additional needs you should:

Ask Don’t be afraid to ask the individual how you should refer to their disability or support need. A volunteer may prefer a psychiatric disability to be referred to as a ‘challenge’, while another volunteer living in supported housing may prefer not to be labeled as ‘homeless’.

Asking for the volunteer’s opinion is the first step in developing an inclusive volunteering environment.

Put the person first – Use language which puts the individual first and their disability or support need second. For example, there is a big difference between saying ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘the disabled’.

When using a label to describe a volunteer’s support need, avoid suggesting that they are the support need. For example, use the phrase “he has a drug addiction” instead of “he is a drug addict”.

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake – Saying the wrong thing or doing something foolish is a common concern for people when it comes to discussing sensitive issues with potential or current volunteers. Respectful language is extremely important. However, not knowing the politically correct terminology can prevent people from addressing sensitive issues at all, thus adding to fear and ignorance.

Don’t let fear of making a mistake stop your conversation with your volunteers. Listen well and notice when what you say isn’t quite right for the individual.

Use appropriate actions

Actions are as important as language. Here are a few important points to remember when meeting with volunteers with additional support needs:

    • Speak directly to the person, not to their support worker or companion
    • Don’t treat people as your intellectual inferiors
    • Don’t gush, pity, patronise, over-praise or fuss
    • Ask if you can help if it looks like help is needed, but do not feel offended if your offer of help is turned down
    • Remember that not all additional support needs are obvious

7. Volunteer Expenses

Not every volunteer will want or need to claim expenses, but for people who are unemployed or live on a fixed income, expenses can be a real issue. Even quite small expenses, such as bus fare, can make volunteering too expensive for some.

What expenses should you pay?

Expenses that organisations can legitimately offer to volunteers include:

    • Travel expenses to and from the place of volunteering
    • Travel expenses in the course of volunteering. This can be a mileage rate for volunteers who use their own car or the cost of bus, rail or taxi fares
    • The cost of meals or refreshments purchased while volunteering.
    • The cost of specialist clothing or materials required to volunteer.
    • Childcare costs or, if the volunteer is a carer, the cost of the care of adult dependents while the carer is volunteering.
    • Volunteers should be reimbursed the actual cost of their expenses, with documentary evidence to back this up. Evidence can include a receipt, bus ticket or mileage record.

Risks of improperly paying expenses

You may inadvertently create a contract of employment, which can lead to legal difficulties, if you:

    • Offer ‘flat rate’ expenses of any amount no matter how small
    • Pay volunteers more than the actual cost of expenses. This includes ‘rounding up’ the amount you reimburse volunteers
    • Explicitly offer volunteers perks with a monetary value in exchange for a certain number of hours work
    • These practices can also create problems for volunteers on welfare benefits.

If you are unsure whether or not you’re paying expenses properly, contact us for guidance.

Expenses, process and culture

If you are able to pay expenses, you need to make sure that there is an organisational culture that encourages volunteers to claim expenses without feeling guilty or uncomfortable.

You also need a clear process that volunteers should follow for claiming expenses.

Some organisations, particularly sports clubs, small voluntary organisations and community groups, will not have the resources to pay expenses. As a result, some volunteers will choose another organisation, so you might want to include volunteer expenses as a budget item in funding applications.

8. Keeping Volunteers Motivated

Volunteers are more likely to stay if they:

    • Feel appreciated and recognised by your organisation
    • Are used effectively and can see that their work is needed
    • Feel that they are doing something worthwhile and that they make a difference
    • Have the flexibility to be able to change or develop their role or commitment if they want to do so
    • Have opportunities to learn, develop skills and grow on a personal level
    • Feel confident that they can handle the tasks they are asked to do
    • Are adequately supported and supervised
    • Have a sense of belonging, being part of a team and have opportunities to socialise with others
    • Are consulted about their work and have the opportunity to contribute to policy and decision making
    • Are accepted and supported by other volunteers and paid staff
    • Feel that their personal needs and motivations are being met

Volunteers are likely to leave if they:

    • Are subject to changes without proper explanation or notice
    • Feel unappreciated or taken for granted
    • Have too many demands placed on them or on their time
    • Have lots of empty hours
    • Are asked to do things they don’t feel equipped or qualified to handle
    • Have unrealistic or unclear expectations of their role
    • End up out of pocket
    • Don’t enjoy what they do or feel that their work isn’t valuable
    • Feel that their time is being wasted or their work is badly organised
    • Feel isolated

9. Identifying Volunteer Performance Issues

The term ‘poor performance’ covers a wide range of behaviour that makes a volunteer unable to contribute to your organisation. Poor performance tends to be related to either behavioural or competence issues.

Common types of poor performance include:

    • Inappropriate behaviour towards staff, other volunteers or your service users
    • Poor timekeeping
    • Unreliability
    • Bad attitude
    • Lack of skills and/or an unwillingness to develop necessary skills

Avoiding poor performance

The best way to approach poor performance is to ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place. Here are a few key actions that can help avoid performance issues:

    • Ensure that your recruitment process matches the right volunteer with the right role. Poor performance often occurs when a volunteer is placed in a role that doesn’t suit them.
    • Establish volunteer specific policies and procedures that you’ll use to avoid poor performance and deal with issues. This can include grievance and disciplinary polices. Talk these polices through with prospective volunteers at induction.
    • Provide thorough induction and training so that volunteers know what’s expected of them and have the skills they need.
    • Provide ongoing support that provides opportunity for one to one discussion with volunteers. This allows you to address performance issues early on.

Identifying poor performance

If a volunteer starts to have issues, you should:

    • Find ways to witness performance, especially behaviour, first hand
    • Take into account comments or complaints from others and record these
    • Be objective, volunteers may have problems themselves, but this cannot cancel out the impact on service delivery
    • Be aware of volunteers’ personal situation and anything impacting on them. Poor performance may be temporary, simply requiring a little extra support.
    • Be aware of the way that organisational change impacts on volunteers
    • Be self-aware, consider any impact of your own attitude on the volunteer

10. Addressing Volunteer Performance Issues

Once you have identified poor performance, you need to address it.

Addressing Poor Performance

Minor performance issues can be picked up as part of your normal volunteer supervision processes. This offers you the chance to address issues before they escalate.

For more serious performance issues we recommend that you:

    • Arrange a one-to-one session with the volunteer. Clearly state the issues, the problems they cause and what needs to change.
    • Don’t delay. Do it sooner rather than later.
    • If the issue is competence, offer training
    • Consider the role and whether it is an appropriate match to the volunteer. If not consider the possibility of changing the task or finding another role for the volunteer.
    • If appropriate chat to the volunteer’s social or care worker
    • Offer a plan and a timescale for improvement, adhere to it and make sure the volunteer understands that if they don’t follow the schedule they will be asked to leave
    • Ensure that the volunteer’s performance is observed first hand and build in regular review
    • Ensure that you have proof or strong evidence of poor performance
    • Give the volunteer an opportunity to have their say and appeal as needed

Managing yourself

Telling a volunteer that their time is not wanted or required is one of the most challenging tasks a volunteer manager will face.

However, volunteer managers are invariably in post to ensure that a service is delivered and this shouldn’t be frustrated by difficult or demanding volunteers. Managers should prepare themselves so that they can manage an uncomfortable situation and leave the volunteer and themselves feeling as positive as possible.

Our top tips for managing yourself while dealing with volunteer performance issues include:

    • Remember that poor performance affects the whole organisation, impacts badly on other volunteers and demands more of your time and resources than is reasonable. This can negatively impact on other volunteers and your service users.
    • Pre-arrange the meeting with the volunteer
    • Meet somewhere quiet and out of earshot of others
    • Prepare what you will say by writing it down. This protects against backsliding and structures the conversation.
    • Be clear about why the volunteer cannot remain with the organisation
    • Use ‘I’ messages. For example, “I want to see . . .” rather than “We think . . .”.
    • Be firm, once you have made a decision to ask a volunteer to leave, stick to that course of action.
    • Offer suggestions about other types of volunteering that might be appropriate. You can refer volunteers to us as needed.
    • End by thanking the volunteer for the work contributed to the organisation
    • Offer references if appropriate
    • Write notes during or immediately after the meeting

11. Saying Goodbye

Volunteers leave for many reasons. They may have a change in their personal circumstances, take a paid job, move house or leave to pursue other interests or priorities.

In other cases, volunteers may leave because they’re bored or unhappy with their experience.

Keep track of why volunteers leave

It’s a good idea to have face-to-face chats, phone interview or provide a questionnaire when volunteers leave. This way you can keep track of why volunteers are leaving and spot any issues that volunteers may be experiencing.

Exit interviews also give you the opportunity to formally thank your volunteers and make them feel welcome to return.

Volunteers’ reasons for leaving and suggestions that they make should be recorded and evaluated at regular intervals. This way you can note any recurring themes and make sure they feed in to future plans or developments.

11. Quality Assurance

It is important to review your practice regularly.

Our Involving Volunteers Quality Check can help your group assess how you’re doing.

Quality Assurance Systems

There is also a national quality standard called Investors in Volunteers (IIV). Investors in Volunteers provides a well-thought out framework to use to measure the quality of your volunteer-involving practice.

Learn more about the Investors in Volunteers Quality Standard

If you’re interested in other quality assurance systems, our Quality Assurance guide can help.

12. Resources and Support

You may find the following guides useful when managing volunteers.

Our Involving Volunteers: Planning and Background guide will give you the information you need to successfully recruit and manage volunteers
Our How to Recruit and Welcome Volunteers guide can help you recruit and welcome the right volunteers for your organisation

Other useful websites

Learn more about the Investors in Volunteers Quality Standard

Start recruiting volunteers

When you’re ready, we can help you find the volunteers you need through our VAL Volunteering website.