One of a series of papers on managing volunteers

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Managing Volunteers

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Written by John Berry on 25th August 2020. Revised 27th March 2024.

5 min read

Lifeboat Volunteers ian-barsby-fvJ9VGJ9xI0-unsplashIt’s often said by managers in voluntary organisations that their volunteers can’t be managed. And yet, if that is so, the organisation faces rudderless chaos. Under such a state, those making up the body of effort can do whatever they like. The direction in which the organisation travels, what it achieves and whether it has a future are therefore all in doubt.

In short, the situation is unacceptable. Volunteers must be managed for the good of the organisation.

Defining management

But before we plough into reasons why, we must define management. In the broadest of senses, management is the orchestration of the endeavour towards some goal. Management necessarily includes leadership and entrepreneurship.

Managers of volunteers always fear a deep-felt risk that their people will simply resign if not treated with kid-gloves. The result is that core activities like personal objective setting, review, training and maintenance of accreditations are neglected. And because managers are disinclined to talk to volunteers about anything other than the technicalities of the job, leadership and change management are absent.

So, what are senior managers to do?

First, we need to understand the volunteer.


A person volunteers (to re-home animals, to run a youth club or to staff a charity café or the likes) because they have a need. Simply, they need, or want, something from their volunteering. It’s why they do it.

A need is a biological desire in a person, which, if unmet, triggers unrest and action. There’s affiliation (the need to interract with others), growth (the need for personal development and career enhancement) and significance (the need to do something worthwhile in life). Those three needs are sometimes broken down further into subsidiary needs.

Needs exist at differing strengths in each of us, but given a strength, a need will bind a person to an organisation for as long as the need is present and it is satisfied in that organisation.

If there is balance, or indeed, if the volunteer feels they get more out of the deal than the organisation, the organisation will enjoy some ability to direct the volunteer’s efforts without upset.

Whilst an equilibrium is reached where need and provision are balanced in the organisation, managers of volunteers worry that any glitch will have the volunteer seek another place to which they might give their time and effort. They worry that any push too far will tip the balance against the organisation.

So, how should the manager progress?

P/E fit

Each person’s makeup comprises those three core needs. Add to those their personality, intelligence, preferences and competencies and you’ve a complex set of personal characteristics. Each person’s basket of characteristics is unique. Idiosyncratic. And each person’s basket of characteristics aligns with the demands of some particular job, role or activity. It’s called person-environment fit, or P-E fit, in the psychology world.

So, get the P-E fit right, and needs will be satisfied. Get the P-E fit right, and the volunteer will feel committed to the organisation. Get the P-E fit right and they'll potentially move on from being committed to being engaged or super-motivated.

Management of volunteers is therefore all about getting the right person in the right job - even if the manager of volunteers must design a new job to suit.

Volunteer agreement

The notion that both parties are getting something out of the relationship gives rise to a psychological 'contract'. Such a contract spells out the following unwritten deal: “In return for satisfaction of my needs, I undertake to a) come under your direction, and b) provide you with the effort you expect”.

Where such an agreement often goes wrong, is that a) is forgotten about. The manager is so overjoyed about getting effort, that they forget to outline all of the expectations that they have in the volunteer. They forget to say, for example, that safety training must be completed within three months. Or that after a period of settling in, the manager will be discussing objectives.

The result is that the person is enthusiastic, energetic, but out of control. Sometimes volunteers even say, when the manager attempts to remind them of those expectations, that “this wasn’t what I joined up for”.


So, management of volunteers is all about exchange. Properly set up and managed, exchange makes the relationship work over many years. But the deal must be set out in full from the outset. So long as the volunteer perceives that they are getting what they need, and are being supported so that this situation will persist, they will succumb to direction. But get the wrong person in the job, or somehow misjudge what the volunteer needs, and the relationship will break.

Those who say that volunteers can’t be managed, are wrong. Like management of salaried employees, the trick is to make sure that the total value of goods that are exchanged in the relationship are perceived to be real, meaningful and equal. On the volunteer side it’s satisfaction of needs. On the manager’s side it’s direction and magnitude of effort.

It’s why many organisations ask volunteers to enter a written agreement that sets mutual expectations from the outset.