The basics of managing volunteers

Volunteers are amazing – they are dedicated, passionate and give up their time for free. Without volunteers most museums and charities would not be able to function. However, managing volunteers can be challenging in ways that are different to managing employed staff. Being able to recruit, retain and manage volunteers is essential to help your organisation perform to the best that it can.

What is volunteering?

Volunteering is defined as “an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives”.

Why do People Volunteer?

Understanding why people volunteer will help you to recruit and retain volunteers:

  • The volunteer may have an affiliation with the organisation;
  • They may have been asked personally to help through friends or family, or because they have a specific skill;
  • They enjoy a specific type of ‘work’ e.g. research, helping the public;
  • Making life changes e.g. getting out more, keeping active in retirement;
  • Personal commitment or connection to your organisation’s cause;
  • They want to learn new skills;
  • They want to meet new people.

Understanding why someone volunteers and what motivates them are key to both the museum and the volunteer getting the most out of the relationship. Without getting too technical, McClellands Theory of Motivation states that “every person has one of three main driving motivators: the needs for achievement, affiliation, or power”:

  • Power: these volunteers like to impact and influence others, are happy to work alone or group, and respond to needs of people or projects;
  • Achievement: working towards goals, seeking responsibility, and completing tasks motivate this group of volunteers;
  • Affiliation: the need for personal interaction and making friends.

It’s important to make sure that you balance the needs of the volunteers with the needs of visitors and the goals of the museum. This can present a challenge to a good manager with difficult decisions needing to be made.

What Skills Should a Good Volunteer Manager Have?

  • Be confident and assertive;
  • Good at leading and building teams;
  • Credible and able to build trust;
  • Sensitive to cultural needs and differences;
  • An effective mentor good listener;
  • Effective networker;
  • Be persuasive and influential;
  • Proactive;
  • Self-aware;
  • A skilled Communicator.


Goethe said “treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

Share This