Professionalisation of volunteering

There is an increasing movement towards the professionalisation of the voluntary sector.  Volunteering itself is becoming increasingly professional with widespread development of training, volunteer job descriptions and personalised volunteer programmes. On top of this there has been a rise in qualified 'professionals' volunteering for charity in light of the economic downturn. The emergence of volunteer management and coordination as a career field has increased formalisation and professionalisation. Risk aversion and a fear of being sued have also increased the formalisation of certain volunteering roles.

However, at the same time some forms of volunteering are becoming less formalised and professional, driven by the rise in collaborative consumption and micro-volunteering (see trends in volunteering).

What are the implications?

  • Volunteering may be increasingly perceived as a means of developing skills and a career, especially for young people.
  • Increase in numbers of volunteers of working age looking for career development opportunities.
  • Increase in qualified out of work professionals looking for ways to develop their skills through volunteer work while staying active, motivated and giving something back.
  • Organisations becoming more professional in their work may make it increasingly difficult for volunteers to understand how they can adequately contribute.
  • Older or vulnerable volunteers may be discouraged from ‘professional’ volunteering, causing a decrease in numbers of volunteers.
  • Rigid structures may discourage those who would prefer a less formalised approach.
  • Increased levels of complexity for organisations and particularly volunteer managers.
  • Increasing numbers of support structures for volunteer managers.
  • Risk that innovation and spontaneity between volunteers and organisations are stifled.

Moving forward

Volunteering is a means of people gaining skills and contacts that make them more employable.

  • What variety of skills can volunteers develop within your organisation?
  • As the economic downturn evolves and government cuts take hold there is likely to be a continued trend in skilled professionals seeking to stay active by volunteering.  Are there gaps in your organisations work plan that would benefit from this group and how can you communicate the opportunities to this potential talent pool?
  • Could your organisation do more to recognise the wide variety of skills needed to manage volunteers? Could your organisation invest in some training to develop these? Do you know about the different support structures available for volunteer managers?
  • Are your organisation's volunteering and internship opportunities accessible to people from low-income backgrounds who may not be able to afford to work unpaid? See the Social mobility driver.

A more formalised approach to volunteering may mean there is a bigger focus on the risks involved in volunteering.

  • Do you know what risks arise from involving volunteers?
  • Do you have policies in place to ensure your organisation is covered against potential risks?
  • What strategies can you put in place to manage risk without stifling innovation? Can you help others (e.g. your funders or your volunteers) to increase their appetite for risk by clearly communicating the risks, but also the benefits of the work that you do?

A more professional approach to work within some organisations can lead to volunteers feeling like they have less of an impact.

  • Can you structure volunteer roles in a way that makes people feel they are actively participating and contributing to your organisations aims?
  • Are there roles for qualified volunteers to get involved with aspects fundamental to the running of your organisation as well as purely service provision?

Some volunteers may be put off by the increased regulation and complexity now involved with volunteering:

  • How can your organisation help encourage people to volunteer despite this increased complexity and regulation?

Want to know more?

What’s wrong with incentives anyway?

Published by: Association of Volunteer Managers

Date: 2008

Format: Web page

What is it? Transcript of a speech debating incentives to volunteer by Volunteer England’s 2008 AGM

How useful is this? This short speech examines the impact offering incentives could have on volunteering.  It briefly looks at people’s reasons for volunteering, and thereby examines how incentives could affect this and the sector in general.  A useful start to thinking about the debate of volunteer incentives, which was carried on by Third Sector magazine in this article.

Other comments: The Association of Volunteer Managers’ blog offers opinions into different aspects of volunteer management and volunteering in general. 

Volunteering: ‘It’s a marketing challenge’

Published by: ThirdSector

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? An article looking at the change in attitudes and expectations of volunteers within the UK.

How useful is this? This article discusses changing patterns in volunteering.  The current choice-driven and technology focussed society has meant that volunteers have become increasingly scrupulous in deciding how they spend their time.  In tandem with this volunteering itself has become increasingly professionalised. The article goes on to examine the increasing expectations volunteers possess and how organisations are responding to these as part of a general trend towards professionalisation.

Future Focus 2: What will our volunteers be like in 5 years’ time?

Published by: NCVO Foresight

Date: 2009

Format: PDF

What is it? An NCVO Foresight publication examining the main trends in volunteering and how these may impact upon organisations.

How useful is this? Driver 1 (Page 10-13) looks at the issue of “More ‘professional’ volunteering”. It highlights the issues that have contributed towards this movement as well as the implications that may arise from it.  It also poses questions for organisations to think about and consider surrounding the subject.

Other comments: The full set of Future Focus publications can be found here.

Professional Values

Published by: Exploring Volunteering - Blog

Date: 2010

Format: Web

What is it? An in depth blog piece examining definitions and ideas surrounding professionalism within society, with an emphasis on volunteering and the third sector as a whole.

How useful is this? This informative blog piece starts with an introduction to definitions and theories surrounding professionalism.  Around half way down it looks at professionalism within the third sector with emphasis on volunteering, volunteers, and the management of volunteers. 

Other comments: Patrick Daniels has written many interesting and topically diverse posts surrounding volunteering and the third sector, and they can all be found here


Last updated at 17:50 Wed 23/Feb/11.

Recent comments


Both trends in volunteering and the professionalism of volunteering are likely to impact on mental health service providers. A large proportion of service providers afford mental health service users and others with opportunities to volunteer and support service users securing volunteering: significant number of service providers rely on volunteers to support their services, for example gardening, eco-therapy, student placements in counselling services, lunch clubs, outings, etc.

Providers could see a considerable rise in the number of service users seeking to return to work or enter the workplace through volunteering. Changes in public spending levels and any resultant pressure on funding may also lead to providers wishing to make more use of volunteers. As anti stigma works leads to a positive impact it is likely mental health service providers may be able to attract volunteers from a larger pool.

It might be worth reviewing how support is given to people especially around one off or short term volunteering. Thinking about supporting those people with fluctuating needs in volunteering may also be useful.

Reviewing how your organisation attracts and retains volunteers is likely to be essential, as is reviewing risk management regularly.

Jess's picture


Third Sector Foresight

In recognition of increasing need for professionalism in this area, Volunteering England has recently launched this Volunteer Management Portal, helping volunteer managers gain access to information on support, training and development opportunities.

This seems to be one of the big tensions in the Big Society agenda, and one that we’ve yet to really see played out properly. The Government task force reviewing bureaucracy and regulation in the voluntary and community sector have been asked to review volunteering practices and examine how red tape is over-formalising volunteering by making charities more risk averse. There won’t be any easy answers to balancing the public’s expectation that risk be removed from their interactions with service or activity providers (particularly where children are concerned), with making it easier to recruit and retain volunteers.

And yet the voluntary and community sector is supposed to fill the gaps created by the roll back of the State and public financing of services, particularly discretionary ones. Will we manage to reconcile rolling back the regulation and legislation that has made volunteering so difficult to get into and keep pace with the reduction in public service staffing? Will the Government stand by its position when there is a scandal about standards or the protection of vulnerable people?

Rob's picture


First off, I think there needs to be a clear distinction made between professionalising volunteering and professionalising the management of volunteers. The two are not the same thing.

The professionalisation of volunteer management and leadership can be a good thing. I say 'can' because too often what people talk about in this respect is making it more formalised like HR/paid staff management. To me, this isn't professional volunteer management, it is applying the concepts of managing paid staff to managing volunteers. This so called work-place model of volunteer management has some value but fundamentally fails to recognise the differences between volunteering and paid work. It seeks equal treatment of employees and volunteers rather than striving for a parity of esteem that seeks to ensure fair treatment whilst recognising that the two are fundamentally different.

Good professional volunteer management acknowledge that volunteers are different from employees and seeks to lead and manage them differently. For example, whilst employees may be prepared to put up with bureaucracy in their work, volunteers may not. So professional volunteer managers seek to apply the necessary bureaucracy and keep volunteers away from that which is less important. In fact, the principles of such professional volunteer management and leadership are the essence of effective employee management, as Kouzes and Posner clearly assert in the introduction to their book The Leadership Challenge.

The professionalisation volunteering, however, is about volunteering becoming more like paid work in its responsibilities, commitments & nature etc.. There is a big (but not new) debate that arises from this, especially in light of the Big Society and the potential for more to be done locally by volunteers that might previously have been done by paid workers.

And this leads me to my final point, that in all off this we must be clear why we are using the term professional. In many instances it is used to imply competence - professional vs amateur for example. It is therefore critical to understand that volunteers can be as competent/professional as paid employees, if not more so. Just because they don't get paid does not mean they are less competent/professional.

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