Volunteer management, Management & leadership

Leading for wellbeing #VolunteersWeek

Rob Jackson explores way in which you can put wellbeing at the forefront of your volunteer management.

We know that volunteering can have a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. We also know that it’s important for Volunteer Engagement Professionals to focus on their wellbeing. But did you know that research has shown how significant the behaviour of organisational leaders is in creating a positive impact on their staff’s mental health?

I discovered this recently via this article in Forbes magazine in January 2023, which got my attention in its two opening paragraphs:

“New data suggests that for almost 70% of people, their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor—and it’s equal to the impact of their partner. If you’re a leader, you’re right to find this data sobering.”

“The stakes for leadership have always been high, but knowing you’re affecting people that much, is cause for leaders to take stock and ensure they’re doing all they can to be their best and have their most positive impacts on people.”

The article discusses a study by the Workforce Institute at UKGwhich focused on paid staff and their managers. The findings and the analysis in Forbes resonated just as strongly for me when thinking about volunteers and those who lead and manage them.

This is perhaps because I had also recently read this powerful piece about how volunteering can be bad for mental health by Jayne Cravens. Jayne’s article should prompt us all to reflect on how we lead and manage volunteers, and about the impact on volunteers of how others in our organisation engage with and behave around them.

As I reflected on what Jayne wrote, the Forbes article landed in my inbox and I saw a connection in what we can do to deliver a volunteering experience that is positive for people’s wellbeing.

Here are four reflections from me:

Be accessible and responsive to volunteers

Make yourself available and accessible to volunteers. Make it clear how and when you can be contacted. Respond to them promptly when they do reach out.

This can be a challenge for Volunteer Engagement Professionals for fear that we will be inundated with requests from volunteers — we do tend to have far more volunteers than paid managers have employees to manage, after all — but making time to engage with them as people is an important part of our role.

We must find the time to be available and accessible to volunteers, ideally directly but, if that isn’t possible, perhaps through others. For example, a team of volunteers we might recruit to work alongside us whose specific role is to engage with other volunteers to answer questions, provide support, troubleshoot, gather feedback etc..

”When leaders are more present and accessible, it contributes to trust, positive culture and people’s sense of their importance in the organization.”

Understand motivations

This is a core part of a Volunteer Engagement Professional’s work. I think the fact that Forbes highlights this for managers of paid staff is another indication of how managing employees differs from leading volunteers differ. Still, it’s good advice to be reminded of.

What we hear in the recruitment stage of working with volunteers isn’t always the whole motivation picture for that person. And, just when we’ve grasped what truly drives someone to volunteer for us, those motivations can change, often due to life events that affect people. We have to remain attentive and flexible, adapting the role and the commitment to meet both our needs and the motivations of the volunteer.

”…do your best to match their desires with work that will add value within the organization”

Empower people with as much choice as possible in where, when and how they work

I hope this is becoming more commonplace following the changes in how, where and when people work (as employees and volunteers) that were brought on by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

We know that such changes have had a positive impact on many employees, so we should be extending them to volunteers as well, where possible. Do we enable volunteers to choose their schedule and workplace, or mandate this to them?

Sometimes we have no choice because of the nature of what they do. But where, such choice exists, do we trust and empower the volunteers to make those decisions themselves?

”Give them control over the projects they work on and the way they get things done…providing autonomy where it’s possible is a significant contributor to…wellbeing.”

Emphasise empathy

Making the effort to get to know people, to understand them and care about them is often overlooked in favour of the more systems and process-driven thinking that still dominates so much of volunteer management. Effective volunteer engagement is, however, foremost about people. As the research makes clear, aside from being the ‘right’ thing to do, it has positive impacts on innovation, engagement, and retention.

”Ask people how they’re doing, tune in when you see they may be out of sorts or when they may need support because they’re working on an especially challenging problem.”

I have been inspired by both Jayne’s article and the one in Forbes Magazine to think about how we can connect looking after our wellbeing as Volunteer Engagement Professionals with delivering a positive experience for volunteers. It’s an area I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered too.

If you’ve focused on this in your work, or have thoughts and reflections that you’d like to share, please leave a comment below.

This blog was originally published on Rob Jackson’s website, you can find it here.