Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Working with Volunteers

I have been on (another) course for the past two days, hence the lack of posting.

This time I was learning about Working with Volunteers, which was interesting, given I have been working with them for the best part of a decade now. Still, I can always learn something new – usually from my peers over coffee or lunch.

The segment on Recruitment and Selection was entertaining. There is a wealth of useful, practical help and advice for how to target your potential volunteers, what legislation you should be aware of, how to select wisely. The reality is a little more basic. We are always desperately short of volunteers and never have enough bodies from which to actually make a selection. It tends to be a case of “Hurrah! You turned up! Here’s your badge, the kettle’s over there”.

Then there was the section on induction. Which made me muse on our own volunteer induction process, part of which involves learning to use the two-way radios. The premise is simple – press the button on the side of the walkie-talkie to transmit, speak, then release the button again, or no one else can transmit in reply. No matter how often I go through it, there will always be a few who forget the “release the button again” bit. So, you will always know, immediately, that it is a volunteer on the end of the radio when you hear the following transmission:

“……hello?........Hello!.......There’s nobody there……..hello!.......tsk!....They never answer!....”

And all the time you’re shouting at your radio “Take your thumb off the button!”

Even better than that though are the pagers that some volunteers in larger houses have. These are pendant style devices with a big red button to press that they wear around their neck. The person in charge that day carries the receiver, so they can respond in an instant when it beeps. They are designed for emergency use only – say if a visitor keels over with a heart attack, or someone gets caught trying to steal the silverware. False alarms occur on a regular basis. The beeper beeps and you rush to the indicated room – the volunteer on duty doesn’t appear to be on fire or anything, so you ask “Is everything OK?”


“Only you paged me”.

“Did I?”

“Yes. So…?”

“How odd. I don’t remember pressing the button…..”

They have usually either taken the pendant off and sat on it, or have clasped their folder to their chest and inadvertently summoned emergency assistance. The deliberate pagings are just as exciting, with emergencies ranging from needing a new travel claim form to wanting to open a window. My all time favourite was when a colleague of mine was paged because they were out of teaspoons in the volunteer room. “I had to stir my tea with a knife,” was the outraged cry.

And finally, we covered Dealing with Difficult Situations. I don’t know of anyone who has not encountered a Difficult Situation with their volunteers at some stage. Whether your colleagues are paid or voluntary, you will always have the inevitable clashes of temperament and personalities from time to time. Where we differ somewhat with our volunteers is that they tend to be of a certain age. There is a common scenario where you have a very elderly and infirm volunteer, who can no longer adequately fulfil their role, but who you simply can not ask not to come in again. It would be like kicking your granny. An example is a lovely old lady whose failing eyesight eventually left her effectively blind. She couldn’t see, but, perversely, she loved to be on the front door. “Oh, I love it here,” she would say. “It’s my life!” How can you possibly respond to that with “perhaps the time has come to call it a day”? No. Instead we used to arrange for another, fully-sighted volunteer to work alongside her, checking admission cards and tickets and steering her to wherever she needed to go. This kind of thing is happening at properties nationwide. Elderly volunteers who can no longer stand will be found jobs where they can be seated. I heard of one property who had a problem with a volunteer who was clearly suffering from some form of dementia. They would not turn up for duty when scheduled, arriving and departing at random, surprising, intervals. If they did turn up you’d start them off in one room and find them in another. Or find that they’d gone home a couple of hours ago, leaving the Precious Things abandoned. I remember one chap who would go to his assigned room, sit down, fall immediately into a deep and untroubled sleep, and visitors would be tiptoeing past so as not to disturb him. To my great delight in these cynical, commercial times, these volunteers will still be kept on the books. We, as an organisation, just tend to work around them. We take great care of all our old treasures.


Boz said...

Was there a special section on which cakes to bake for which volunteers, and the current rates of bribery?

One Victoria sponge = half a day volunteering etc.

Doris said...

Sadly no, but I really think there ought to have been!

Gareth said...

Fairy cakes could be used to pay by the hour.

I love the idea of keeping on slightly useless volunteers. It's so heartwarmingly british.