How Many Volunteers Can One Person Manage at a Time?

21 August 2014

One of the comments we often hear during training courses is that volunteer managers don’t have time to communicate in person with their volunteers.

Jessica LghtfootWe all know this is best practice, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to engage with every volunteer on an individual basis. One person might coordinate 100 or more volunteers – so of course emails are bcc’d to everyone (which won’t reach anyone with a high level spam filter) and try as you might it’s hard to remember everyone’s name. It’s tricky enough when you see familiar faces on a weekly basis, but with increasing numbers of people volunteering more flexibly or remotely it can be a big challenge.

You can see how this could affect the volunteering experience. If someone thinks their manager doesn’t have time for them or doesn’t know their name, that they’re ‘just another volunteer’, they might feel their contribution is less valuable to the organisation – even if the volunteer knows how hard the manager is working and sees the challenges they face.

This might be a reason that we rely on rewards to sustain a volunteer’s involvement with the organisation, as ongoing recognition (literally recognising who’s who) can prove difficult. As a result, volunteers might ‘disappear’ when they’re no longer able to volunteer; if they haven’t received personal communication during their time with the organisation, they might be less likely to feel the need to say a personal goodbye.

We often talk about how communication is crucial to building effective relationships with volunteers and supporting them fully in their roles, but perhaps we need to talk about how many volunteers one person can manage at a time, to at least give volunteer managers a fair chance of being able to build those individual relationships and communicate effectively.

So how many people can one person manage? Interestingly, there’s not a lot of research into this area. It’s not straightforward; it depends on the type of organisation, how formal or informal the management structures are, and the various volunteering roles within the team. Volunteers that have a regular commitment and directly support vulnerable people perhaps need more ongoing personal contact than someone who is volunteering remotely or for a one-off task or event.

Aside from these extremes, however, I think it’s important to consider what we can realistically ask of a volunteer manager to enable them to do a good job of supporting all their people.

Some large organisations have created volunteer team leader roles to share the responsibility of communicating and engaging with volunteers, essentially creating smaller teams and giving each team leader fewer people to manage. From the line manager’s perspective this can really help to share the workload and enable people to engage on a personal level with all volunteers.

It’s important to clearly define these roles so that everyone is clear about who is responsible for what, from planning to recruitment to supporting and developing volunteers. It’s also important to monitor how much team leaders are being asked to do, to avoid asking them to manage increasing numbers of people. This is especially true if team leaders are also volunteering and will potentially be doing management tasks from home in their free time away from the organisation.

One thing I’ve learned from working in charities large and small is that relationship building is crucial for success in volunteer management. I’ve seen teams that have made time to engage with people as individuals and how this has resulted in volunteers feeling more part of the team and thus more likely to communicate with managers in return. This then eases the manger’s workload, for example no longer chasing people to fill rotas just to find those people are no longer active. It feels like a win-win situation.

There’s nothing new in this. We all feel more valued by anyone who shows an interest in us as an individual. Yet in order to manage volunteers in this way, there’s still the question of how many people one person can manage effectively. I know there won’t be an easy answer to this! Perhaps the first step is to recognise the challenge faced by many volunteer managers, to enable people who currently manage large numbers of volunteers to start thinking about how they might support their teams more effectively. Beyond that that first step, it feels like the discussion is waiting to happen.

What do you think? How do you manage large number of volunteers? Do you have team leaders or do you approach it a different way? We’d love to hear from you in our comments section below.

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