Volunteer – What’s in a Name?

At a recent training session, one of the participants asked if there were any alternatives to the name ‘volunteer’? He asked because he felt it had negative associations, akin to being labelled a ‘mug’. No doubt he based it on his own experience. I have seen funding applications that blithely specify a number of volunteers who will apparently undertake all sorts of onerous tasks that the person crafting the application would turn down flat if they were asked to do them. That is not sustainable.

The woman sitting next to me was very surprised at his attitude, explaining that she felt valued as a volunteer, and was happy to be described as one. Several others agreed, they were satisfied with the name, as volunteering had always been a positive experience for them. I demurred, because I have had both kinds of experiences. It certainly helps if the volunteer manager has had personal experience of being a volunteer, and is empathic. It is also useful to have protocols in place to support the process, such as an induction questionnaire and where appropriate, supervision meetings. A knowledge of where the boundaries are in regard to the volunteer’s role is vital for the sake of both parties. And it is imperative to have a support network to assist anyone using volunteers in their organisation.

Luckily, in Greenwich there is a thriving volunteer landscape. This is especially important, as the voluntary sector has a certain amount of ‘flakiness’ built in, owing to time-limited funding, leading to turbulence in staffing, and the nature of service users mitigating against immediate ‘successful outcomes’. However it is also true that there is a substantial part of the population that can’t be reached in any other way, either through government or local authority interventions. The ‘flakiness’ allows for flexibility, which is a strength. The proper recruitment and retention of volunteers is of the utmost importance. Managed properly, it can be rewarding to volunteers as well as service users.


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