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Could A Robot Do the Job of A Volunteer Manager?

Could A Robot Do the Job of A Volunteer Manager?


Back in September, the BBC in the UK ran a series of news stories and articles looking at the development of robotics. They were following up a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte that predicted about 35 percent of current jobs in the UK are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. The BBC wanted to know whether the advances meant that certain jobs could be done in the future not by humans but by robots. As a bit of fun the BBC asked, “Will a robot take your job?” and provided an online tool to help us answer this question. It takes data from Michael Osborne and Carl Frey of Oxford University’s Martin School and indicates how likely it is that a robot (or computer) could do certain roles.

Rob Takes the Test

I had a play about with this online tool for a few minutes. Unsurprisingly, Volunteer Manager (or any variant thereof) did not appear in the list of available jobs to select from. So I chose Welfare Professional (Other). This had a 4 percent chance of automation, making it a pretty safe career choice. Apparently the test determines that if a job involves negotiation, helping/assisting others, and coming up with original ideas, it is less likely to be replaced by a robot.

Next I took a look at Human Resource Manager (kind of close to Volunteer Manager). This came in with a 32 percent chance of automation. That felt a little high but maybe speaks volumes about how little of modern HR practice involves negotiation, helping/assisting others, and coming up with original ideas?

Then I noticed I could choose Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Officer. I assumed that in layman’s terms this meant ”non-profit” and therefore might also be a valid comparator with Volunteer Manager. Imagine my surprise when NGO Officer resulted in a 97 percent chance of automation! What do Oxford University’s Martin School think charity workers do that involves no or little negotiation, helping /assisting others, and coming up with original ideas?

Volunteer managers are often frustrated that their role isn’t understood by executives, colleagues, or the public. So few seem to understand what someone in our position actually does all day. We therefore decided to posit what the reasoning might be behind a yes or no answer to the question, “Could a robot do volunteer management?” See what you think.

Susan says YES

At the risk of being chased by an angry mob of colleagues, I’ll answer this question from the perspective of what too many organizations expect of their designated leader of volunteers. Without any vision about the potential of volunteer engagement, the job descriptions that many volunteer managers have accepted hardly imply much more than the need to:

  • Keep records of who volunteers, at what, for how many hours—and report that data sporadically without bothersome explanatory text.
  • Post vacant volunteer positions into online registries that allow the public to search for volunteer work (thank goodness there is no more need for what we used to call “recruitment techniques”!).
  • Submit applicant information for all the required background checks.
  • Distribute the organization’s volunteer “handbook” and explain the rules.
  • Schedule volunteers, who are largely interchangeable sets of hands, into weekly time slots.
  • Wait for requests from the staff to supply unpaid help as and when needed (even if they ask on Friday at 4:59 p.m. for 15 volunteers to appear on Monday morning at 8:30 a.m.).
  • Monitor safety procedures and keep volunteers in line.
  • Plan lovely annual parties to show appreciation to volunteers, produce a list of the names of every volunteer to distribute, and insert those names on certificates of appreciation (with the same wording for every volunteer).
  • Defer to any type of behavior from staff and managers in how they treat  volunteers.
  • Choose from a list of friendly greetings and versions of “thank you” to say to volunteers at random.
  • Do all the work with a tiny bit of money and almost no authority.

Well, automation could probably accomplish all of the above. And let’s be honest, most organizations wish volunteers were robots already! Then they truly could be ordered about, kept in a dark room until someone pushed their “on” button to activate them into tireless service, and without need for all that time-consuming staff “support” humans want. So is it a surprise that the leader of volunteers could also be a robot? Maybe with a greater RAM to process the data records more quickly.

If your job description sounds a lot like the cut-and-dry, largely clerical tasks I’ve just listed, robotic replacement could be in your future. What? You say that you do so much more than this? Then why can’t your employer identify the true scope of your activities and see volunteer management as more than cheerful scheduling?

Rob says NO

If Susan’s comments accurately reflect the kind of view people have of volunteer managers, then it’s unsurprising that we could be replaced by robots. If all we do is implement and monitor systems and processes then perhaps a sophisticated 3D printer of the future could generate those fifteen volunteers for Monday morning.

But that isn’t what volunteer management is about. It’s much more complex and nuanced than that. It’s a role that requires skills and abilities which mark out great leaders. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner say in the introduction to their book, The Leadership Challenge:

To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers—especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay.

So it’s not ticking off boxes on a management to-do list that creates productivity; it’s the manner and tone of interacting with workers that matter the most. Let’s go back to the limited ‘boxes’ in Susan’s list of volunteer management tasks above and re-word them to meet the requirements of the Martin School’s test of negotiating, helping/assisting others, and coming up with original ideas.

A successful Volunteer Manager:

  • Collects data that reveals the diversity of volunteers involved and explains the work they accomplish and the value of their contributions—and then reports those findings to a range of stakeholders (volunteers, clients, staff colleagues, management, board, funders, government agencies, the public etc.).
  • Conducts community outreach, promotion, marketing and ‘sales’ activities in order to find the ideal people to fill volunteer roles, inspire and encourage them to give time, and then re-recruit them every day to keep them enthusiastically coming back.
  • Interviews prospective volunteers to assure that there is a solid match between the applicant and the work to be done, and then conducts a range of screening activities such as criminal record checks and obtaining references in order to keep the agency, its clients and volunteers safe.
  • Sets the vision for volunteer engagement, develop volunteering strategy and policies which integrate with the wider organization (so volunteers deliver on the core purpose of the agency)—then sells this into paid staff teams across the organisation, encouraging them to comply with good practice (without any line management ‘control’ over these people).
  • Manages and adapts to the frequently changing availabilities, interests and motivations of volunteers, ensuring the right people are available to fulfill the work set for them and to calm and placate aggrieved volunteers when they turn up and paid staff haven’t prepared for their arrival.
  • Works with colleagues across the organisation—again, with no line management ‘control’—to continually develop a range of interesting and meaningful volunteer roles that deliver for the agency and its clients whilst also fitting the needs of 21st century volunteers.
  • Delivers meaningful recognition for a diverse range of individuals, many of whom say they don’t want to be thanked but would quickly leave if left unappreciated— and simultaneously recognizing the role paid staff play (avoiding the common reaction of ‘it’s always the volunteers who get thanked, what about us employees?’).
  • Defuses (and prevents) the tensions that often arise between paid staff and volunteers, both of whom can wrongly presume things about the other and need training to work as a team.
  • Prepares paid staff for their key role in bringing out the best in volunteers.
  • Manages to do everything with a tiny budget and minimal support, respect or appreciation from colleagues and senior management (who rarely think about volunteers)—all on a paltry salary that fails to recognize the complexity of the role and skills involved in leading volunteers.

Enough complexity and creative thinking implied here to scare off a robot?

Job Security for Human Volunteer Managers

So, could volunteer management be done by robots? Neither of us thinks so, based on what our work really is about. But we have much more to do to convince people (especially our senior managers) otherwise and demonstrate not only our skills but how they mark us out as some of the most valuable people in the sector workforce.

Maybe the lesson here is to revisit and revise your job description so that it reflects the professional nature of the work rather than advanced recordkeeping. Make sure your senior managers really understand the level of skill demanded of this role every day.

To add or view comments

Fri, 01/22/2016
Susan and Rob, Thanks for outlining what could and couldn't be done by robots! While the robot volunteer manager description is basic, the human volunteer manager description sounds like a miracle-worker, more than mere human. Kudos to all of our colleagues who strive to be super-human!