They’re all people, right?

Helen Timbrell, Volunteering & Participation Director for the National Trust, reflects on research on the management of volunteers conducted by CROWE’s Dr Jenna Ward and Professor Anne-marie Greene.

 If, like me, you’ve worked in volunteer management and leadership for a long time you will no doubt have come across colleagues who are of the view that organisations should manage staff and volunteers in the same way, because “they’re all people, right?”.  I strongly disagree with that.  Really strongly.  I mean, obviously they ARE people, but I think the way we manage them needs to be different.  And now I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some research that confirms that is the case.

At the National Trust we’ve been working with researchers from De Montfort University to explore the extent to which the management of volunteers is similar or different to the management of paid staff.

My favourite sentence from the research report is this one:  “We can, with confidence, argue that in practice, the management of volunteers within the National Trust is significantly different to the management of paid staff”.    Cue my smug face.

But why does this matter?  If I knew that anyway, what’s the value of research to prove it?  Surely I didn’t just support a research project to prove myself right?   Well, no.  For me the real value of the research has been in identifying where and how it’s different, prompting us to think hard about whether we are providing enough of the right type of support and training for the people we ask to manage volunteers.

The research (which was based on interviews, observations and diaries of activities at two of our properties) identified five key areas of difference described as:

  • Performance Management
  • Communication
  • Task Differentiation
  • Trust and Fear v Autonomy and Creativity
  • Emotional Labour

Information on all five is available in the full report – email me if you’d like a copy – but three key things really resonated for me:


Misplaced protection of volunteers

Often staff spoke of not sharing all the information about developments at the property or in the Trust because they didn’t want to bore and/or burden the volunteers.  Similarly often they didn’t ask them to get involved in the jobs they really needed a hand with because they thought the volunteers wouldn’t like those jobs.  In contrast volunteers often talked about the frustration of being kept in the dark and/or of being able to see what needed to be done but not being able to get involved.  The evidence, and my experience, suggests we are less likely to make these well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful assumptions about paid staff: we are less hesitant in our communications and braver in our asks, perhaps because we feel we have a “right” to do so?


The need for real dialogue

This links to the need for regular, open dialogue between staff and volunteers.  Even where communication was happening it was often one way, with much less space to hear from volunteers or have a genuine dialogue.  One of the factors in this was the sheer size of the volunteer teams our managers are working with:  they spoke of a sense of an impossible task when faced with hundreds of volunteers, which feels very different from working with much smaller staff teams.  Perhaps another factor was assumptions about the quality of the dialogue they would be able to have with a volunteer: self-limiting thoughts about how much value a volunteer might really be able to add.


Working in the “unregulated emotional landscape”

Perhaps the most powerful findings were in relation to the way in which managing volunteers is a much more emotional experience than the management of paid staff.  Without the presence of a contract (and associated norms of deference, compliance and control/authority) the behaviour of volunteers was often less constrained, with more regular, open and strong expressions of feelings.  Often gloriously positive but sometimes negative “outbursts” arose as volunteers felt free to not think about biting their tongue or toeing the line.  These strong expressions of feelings coupled with the size of the volunteer team sometimes created incredibly emotionally charged working environments for volunteer managers, most of whom are managing volunteers as part of a much wider set of responsibilities.


All of this has made me think hard about how well we support and train our volunteer managers:  are we focussing on the right things?  Are we honest enough about what’s involved?  In the sector we run training on how to recruit and select volunteers, how to develop new forms of volunteering, how to attract a more diverse audience but do we really do enough to equip volunteer managers to operate confidently, in true partnership with volunteers, in the much more emotional landscape?


How much of our specific volunteer management training focusses on participatory ways of working, partnership and resilience?  How to deal with difficult situations not from a process perspective but as a human being, standing in front of another human being who is shouting at you in a room full of forty others?  Do we support our volunteer managers to think about how they use their body language, their tone of voice, their eye contact to respond in these situations?  Do we ensure the managers of our volunteer managers understand the demands they are under and in turn provide effective support?   In the National Trust right now I think the answer is no:  we do a lot of great things to support our volunteer managers but there is clearly so much more we can do.   And we need to lead that as a volunteering team, because they might be people, but it’s not the same.

Helen Timbrell

Volunteering & Participation Director

National Trust


DMU Research Team

Dr Jenna Ward @d20jat

Prof Anne-marie Greene @ProfGreeneDMU


This blog was originally posted on the Thoughtful Thursdays blog at

Join us on the 13th October 2016 live on Twitter #ttvolmgrs for more on why managing volunteers is different to managing paid staff


A link to the full research report can be found here