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How to manage volunteers within a social enterprise and how to make them grow within.

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

At many businesses you’ll hear the managing director or the CEO describe the business as ‘a family’ in an attempt to give it the appearance of a cohesive unit of employers and employees working together in harmony. But if we dig a little deeper into that cliché and question what a family really is in today’s modern society we realise that the answer depends on which member of the family you are asking and that each member will give very different answers, this is akin to each member of staff at your business telling a different story when it comes to describing their role and objectives in relation to just why they work for you and what it is they do.

What is a family?

First and foremost a family is your relatives, people that you had no choice in being connected to, whilst that may sound harsh, from a business perspective it is important to make that distinction, because in a social enterprise you do choose your volunteers.

Breaking a family down into its components you have the parents and the children, you can equate this to employers/employees or managers/volunteers, this is where in a business sense the cliché really begins to break down. A distinctive divide has already been created and an ‘us vs them’ dynamic is the last thing you want when building a social enterprise. Let’s look at the children as these are supposedly akin to your employees/volunteers; in cliché terms what does every family have?

The golden child – the model employee, can do no wrong, the employee you wish all your employees were like. But if we take a step back and question how does the golden child themselves describe their role, to them they feel an immense pressure, they carry other employees, they feel they do more work than the others but still get treated the same. (Because what will every parent tell you: ‘I treat all my children equally.’) This pressure and resentment towards fellow workers can create a toxic atmosphere, something no enterprise or business needs.

The quintessential middle child – The forgotten employee, probably has been at the company years, never promoted, never demoted, just part of the furniture. The apathetic employee, no longer has belief in the company to become more than it is. Apathy can be just as dangerous as toxicity, for a social enterprise to succeed you need the continued belief of your volunteers that you are achieving something and always moving forward.

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him”. (Forbes, 1972)

The black sheep – there are two kinds of black sheep a business can have, first we have the clever black sheep, not interested in what they can do for the company but interested in what the company can do for them. They’re not at the company to make friends or be a part of something special; they’re gaining experience or resources that they can then use for their own end goals. In a standard business model this can be an acceptable employee to take on, for a short period of time for mutual benefit, if the service they provide is good, however for a social enterprise you can’t have someone who isn’t there for the cause and to be a part of what you’re building. The second type of black sheep is the one that sucks up to the management, but treats their fellow employees/volunteers like second class citizens; this can be a common trait of second tier management employees. They keep their job because the management doesn’t see it, but it strengthens that ‘us vs. them’ divide, sows seeds of resentment between employee and employer. As a good manager of a social enterprise it is vital that you be on the lookout for this type of person. Take heed of the following quote:

The coaster – The employee careful enough to do the bare minimum, so they don’t get noticed for not working, but no interest in going above and beyond. This is the employee that turns up for the paycheck. Thankfully in the case of volunteers for a social enterprise this is not relevant but always good to be aware of.

The brutal reality is that whilst the idea of a family might, on the surface, give the impression of a great place to work a new employee/volunteer need only spend a few weeks in the business to realise the business is just as dysfunctional as the family they have at home.

So if we don’t want to manage/describe our social enterprise as a family, how do we want to envisage them?

We want a group of people with a common goal, we want loyalty and commitment. The most important job you have as leader of a social enterprise is convincing others to believe in the cause, to be as passionate about it as you are; otherwise you fail before you begin. So practice those rousing speeches now, believe it and mean it.

In books or film and television we come across many stories about bands of brothers, sisterhoods or fellowships who have united together to achieve something great. They volunteered their services and against all odds they were victorious. A social enterprise is very much the same, you are inviting people aboard your ship and offering them passage to the same destination you are trying to reach in return for them helping you to sail it.

The key part of the above metaphor is ‘the same destination’ if you want a social enterprise to work you have to make sure you understand the difference between people working for you and people working with you. In a social enterprise your volunteers are working with you, they get out of it what you get out of it. Your volunteers will not feel inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty, if they get the same out of it regardless of their efforts and if going above and beyond will only see benefits for the manager. You will encourage them to grow and develop if they can see that their efforts are making a difference for everyone and are bringing the whole ship closer to its mutual destination.

In managing volunteers it is crucial to treat them as individuals, know their talents, their traits, what they need to work on and what they are already good at.

If you were planning a heist, it would be no good to have six getaway drivers but no safe cracker, just like in any team you need to build the best crew, which means having people with a variety of strengths, pick apart the CVs of those applying to be a part of your enterprise, don’t just go for the best looking people on paper, make sure as a whole your crew tick all the boxes.

Whilst a social enterprise is built on a democratic model it is still important to have a hierarchical structure in place, as the leader of the social enterprise you are its Captain. You need to not just lead those around you but inspire them. A cornerstone of a successful social enterprise is respect, two-way respect. Don’t ask your crew to do anything you wouldn’t ask of yourself. Respect that there will be individuals on your crew that know more than you about certain aspects of your business, but that is why you hired them, don’t be afraid to let them know how integral they are, how much you rely on them. Make sure everyone knows their role, why they are important and what it is that they bring to the team. Encourage them to respect each other, and whilst there is a leadership structure in place it is to make the day to day running of the enterprise easier, it is not because anyone is more important than anyone else.

In summary, don’t treat a social enterprise like a family, it's more than that. It’s a group of people who have chosen to come together, to work together for a common goal. The key ingredients to managing volunteers, and making them grow as you build your enterprise, is to inspire them, lead from within and always treat them as your equals because without them you have no enterprise, you just have a dream.


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