4 more things volunteers think about volunteering.

The piece I didn’t write in the Guardian

Today I didn’t write a piece for the Guardian website. I didn’t set out “5 things volunteers hate about volunteering”. That was another Nick Booth, an eloquent and civically minded Nick Booth.  Not (as the site thought) this Nick Booth.

But it got me thinking about my own experience of volunteering.

One of the main ways we’ve been volunteering here at Podnosh (we are a commercial business) is through social media surgeries. It’s a curious thing, an idea that started as a one off event (based on something Pete Ashton was doing) and grew into a movement with nearly 400 surgeries so far run in 99 places.  I’m also on the board of a local charity and a local arts organisation plus on advisory board of two national ones and have been a school governor.  So here are some thoughts that develop or go beyond those of the other Nick Booth – the one who did write this for the Guardian.

We don’t want to do everything for free.

Just because a volunteer will help one person or group for free, it doesn’t mean they will help anyone. We come across this frequently with the social media surgeries.  Because we run the surgery in Central Birmingham on a voluntary basis it doesn’t mean that as individuals we also want to the run the surgery for Nether Wallop. I’ve had people confused and at times indignant that we won’t get on a train and run a similar thing for free in their town or city.

People often volunteer where they most feel an affinity – either with people or places. I’m certainly like that. My volunteering isn’t driven by what I want to do as much as who or where I want to help.  I have a friend who spent hours volunteering in a psychiatric ward. I really couldn’t do that. She loved it.

We also run paid for surgeries elsewhere. Lots of them.  That doesn’t make us bad – it just means we also have homes and families and we need to make a living.

Likewise not every volunteering organisation is funded.

At the moment the social media surgery movement isn’t – even though it manages to help more than 20oo volunteers coordinate the ways they help each other. Sometimes people treat us as if we have a duty to help them. Most quickly change once they understand it’s volunteer run, but not everyone does.

You might like bureacracy but we don’t.  Honestly, we dont! 

Many organisations that rely on volunteers are prone to produce a lot or paperwork around volunteers.  I know they don’t set out to do that, but by happenstance they develop a bureaucratic culture.  Such cultures often then expect people to give their own time and energy to feed a recording paper-mill, rather than make something better.

This is a big bugbear of mine.  I  dislike bureaucracy.

It’s why we asked Josh Hart (who shares my frustration) to create the website www.socialmediasurgery.com which massively simplifies how we measure outputs and outcomes from the volunteering that’s integral to social media surgeries.  It doesn’t do it later or put anything onerous on the volunteers – it has it all happen as the volunteering is happening. It’s also why we’re working with the Nominet Trust to develop our Impact Assessment Tool (see thoughts on our outreach monitor here) to make it easier for organisations  save time and money on measuring impact.  Doing this smoothly though does something just as important: it helps you keep good relationships with your volunteers.

Don’t think it’s always about your organisation. 

Dan Slee works in a local council comms department but has also volunteered as a social media surgeon and organiseing a local surgery. On his blog he wrote about winning a Big Society Award as part of the social media surgery movement.  He told someone he works  with about the recognition – because he was proud.  They said:

“Oh, so it wasn’t actually local government that won a prize for Social Media Surgeries? That’s a shame isn’t it?”

We don’t always volunteer for the benefit of your organisation – please understand our motives, don’t assume it’s about you.

Don’t treat us as if we are less skilled than those being paid. 

Good volunteering will often be filling gaps in an organisation.  It’s really import to listen to, understand and value the skills of volunteers – and trust them to be good at at what they do.  You have the added advantage that many are combining skills with passion – which might be a much more potent combination than skills with pay.

I don’t want to make out that I’m some super virtuous volunteer.  I’m not.  I do the best I can with the time and skills I have and I mostly do things that I know I will love.  Likewise I don’t want to sound grim about volunteering – the stuff I get to do is always a pleasure.

But I do feel better for getting this off my chest – so thank you the other Nick Booth – who you can find here: @OhThisBloodyPC


  1. Coral says:

    I recruited and managed volunteers for a local authority service area and believe me the policy document was 20 pages long, and was a barrier to recruit volunteers who would fill the gaps. Ireplaced it with a simple flow chart, and now the service embrace and value how volunteers can enhance the service. It is still bureaucratic, mostlynbeacuse many volunteers work with children and the whole CRB process makes it thus, but hope I made it less so! I’m also involved in social media surgeries and proud and privledged to be so. Everyone I have met who has given their time at one has been inspirational and certainly made me take a long hard look at how and why I worked. The support is amazing and no one claims to be an expert, as even experienced social media practitioners know that they are alway learning. A well written article, from the heart. You can give me the fiver when you see me!

  2. Lorna Prescott says:

    I love the idea of ‘the other Nick Booth’. It makes me smile. Oh and I also agree with what you say about volunteering. I find myself struggling more and more to differentiate what I do voluntarily and what constitutes the ‘day’ job (I have no idea what 9-5 feels like). Which I don’t mind at all, some blurring is good, if difficult to explain to people who don’t have the luxury of working and volunteering online and offline with amazing people.

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