In search of the ‘perfect’ volunteer program manager

Andy Fryar July 1, 2004 3
In search of the ‘perfect’ volunteer program manager


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

This month’s hot topic has been inspired by Fraser Dyer – a colleague from the UK, who in his own monthly e-zine, recently examined how having a better understanding of our personality types can play a key role in the careers we choose and ultimately gain fulfilment from.

After giving this consideration, I began wondering exactly what the implications might be for volunteer program management.

For instance, over the years there has been much debate about the titles used within our profession.


* Many came to move away from the commonly accepted title of ‘volunteer coordinator’, arguing that our roles did so much more than simply ‘coordinate’.
* The commonly accepted term that replaced this was ‘volunteer manager’. This was soon replaced itself as ‘volunteer program manager’ came into vogue. This time the argument was often heard that we ‘ don’t manage people we manage programs’.
* Professional associations such as the AAVA and AVA have moved away from these terms altogether, preferring to use the phrase ‘administrator’ and its derivatives
* Today alternate and more generic titles such as ‘community involvement facilitator’ are becoming more and more common

I make reference to this because I believe it highlights the breadth of styles we use (and require) to lead volunteer groups.

For some groups, particularly in smaller less formal agencies, the term coordinator may be perfectly apt and acceptable, while other organisations such as large hospitals and national Associations may quite reasonably opt to use titles such as Manager or Director for the leader of their volunteer resources.

The same principle applies when selecting a suitable person to lead a volunteer program. In one agency, a ‘people person’, high on interpersonal skills but less skilled in administrative processes may be appropriate. In larger more established agencies, administration abilities may take more priority.

So in light of these complexities, I now ask the question of just what attributes the ‘perfect’ volunteer manager might have?

Indeed, is there any such thing as a ‘perfect’ leader of volunteers?

For me the short answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

I say yes, because regardless of the size, scope and nature of any volunteer program there are certain attributes I believe carry across any successful volunteer leadership roles you’ll find anywhere in the world. These include an ability to lead and motivate people, good communication skills and at least a rudimentary level of record keeping abilities.

I say ‘no’ because the huge variety of volunteer programs that exist do enable just about anyone with these basic skills to lead a team of volunteers of one type or another. In other words, there are no absolute ‘rights or wrongs’ when it comes to assessing the various styles of leading volunteer programs.

That’s not to say that the skills possessed by the coordinator of volunteers in a small rural environmental project are automatically transferable to the position of Director of Volunteers with a large national charity.

However, what it does suggest to me is that volunteer program management is a unique profession, with both a need and ability to employ a wide range of skills in order to meet an even wider range of program requirements.

Clearly there will be many who see this as being a key strength in our sector while others will invariably view this as one of volunteer management’s weaknesses.

So where does Fraser’s newsletter article fit in all of this?

It fits, because the point Fraser makes about our needing to understand our own personality and leadership styles is critical to understanding the way we lead our volunteer programs.

For instance, having a greater understanding of your own personality and leadership style can:
• Help you to acknowledge areas of strength and weakness in the way you lead volunteer groups
• Assist you in recruiting appropriate staff members (and volunteers) who can compliment your style and cover your deficiencies
• Aid in developing management strategies to help you deal with areas of your work in which you might not naturally be strong
• Identify areas of professional development you may need to concentrate on
• Teach you that you don’t need to be everything to everyone!

Ultimately, having a better understanding of your leadership traits can help you to be more in control of what you do – and ultimately that’s got to lead to healthier and happier volunteer management environments.

Now let me ask you all a few questions:
• Do you believe there is such a thing as a ‘perfect’ volunteer management style? If so what does it look like?
• What have you learnt about your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the leadership of volunteer groups?
• What strategies have you employed to build on your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses?
• Share the results of you’re your personality testing with us!


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Submitted on July 2, 2004 by Mary Beth Harrington, Director, Volunteer Center of Dallas County, Dallas, Texas, USA

    Just my two cents worth on Andy’s July Hot Topic…

    While I think the variance in volunteer management positions does not allow us to designate the “perfect” volunteer manager (coordinator, director, administrator etc….), through my experience as a volunteer manager and now as someone who supports volunteer managers, I see some definite traits that tend to embody those who are ultimately successful in our field.

    I agree the ability to lead and motivate individuals (staff as well as volunteers), good communication skills and record keeping abilities are critical to success, I also there are two additional critical abilities.

    1) The ability to be creative and (to use an overused phrase) “think out of the box” is really a trait that separates the good volunteer manager from the great ones. At least from my perspective, while we see the number of people volunteering increasing, the hours that they are volunteering is actually decreasing and so it is incumbent on the volunteer coordinator to develop methods for incorporating a more episodic volunteer into their program. This also means that they have to sell the staff on using these volunteers as well.

    2) Therefore, the other trait that I think is crucial to one’s success is the ability to sell. I often tell volunteer managers that “selling” volunteer opportunities is actually the hardest thing you can possibly do. Because after all, when you are asking someone for money (while difficult) they do have the ability to get more money. Yes it is hard and may even be illegal, but one has
    the ability to get more money. In contrast no matter who we are and what we do, we can never get more time. We each have 24 hours in a day and we cannot go to the store to buy more time. So in actuality, we are asking someone to give us something that they cannot ever get again.

    I think it is crucial for the success of our programs as well as the success of our industry that we embrace the need for creativity and the ability to sell as traits that we need to develop within our industry.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Submitted on July 2, 2004 by Greg Colby, Volunteer Services Manager UnitingCare Ageing – Hunter, Central Coast and New England, Australia

    I agree with Mary Beth whole heartedly. I think the days of the entrepreneurial volunteer manager have arrived. The ability to motivate and excite volunteers and organisations who utilise volunteer staff is a key factor in the success of any volunteer manager. The ability to manage change and work toward redefining organisational culture is also an element.

    In these days of more charities and less money I think volunteer managers who can come up with creative ways of funding their volunteer programs are goin to succeed as well. A case in point in Australia is the Lyell McEwin centre in Adelaide – where Andy has business areas that bring in money for his volunteer program.(

    Creativity + entrepreneurship + delegation + hard work + a whole heap of fun = success!

  3. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Submitted on July 2, 2004 by Rosanna Tarsiero, Volunteer Manager at, Italy

    I think the challenge and the beauty of this profession is that VPMs come to it from very different backgrounds. This implies that VPM educational programs *have* to be different and diverse, so to cover all the spectrum of needs that different persons have. Therefore eterogeneity is mandatory.

    I think that there are some “core competencies” that we all should have, aside from basic human contact predisposition.

    These competencies are:

    1) writing skills: some journalistic/writing background, so to be able to write appropriate job assignment as well as announcements as well as ads in newspapers.

    2) basic legal background: knowing which legal issues can arise (workplace legislation, copyright, privacy, confidentiality, sexual harrassment and health and disability issues) is not all that is there to know. We also need *some* basic ideas of how legal things work in our countries.

    3) IT skills: how to use a pc, how to use software (database, programs for writing, painting, making pdf files, anti-virus, firewall), internet searches, cyberculture.

    4) psychological skills: relatively to dyadic interactions, group dynamics, facilitation, moderation.

    5) management knowledge: organizational culture and communication, training skills, some coaching skills, management of teams plus all the basic of the 9 best practices of VM

    6) knowledge relative to the field our agency works into.

    I also think that only each of us knows what s/he lacks of, but we should be able to undergo to some form of “continuous education” basing on our honest assessment of our weaknesses.

    Thank you for this space

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