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Rather than trying to address all problems at once, Valli Ponniah, Asia Pacific volunteering development manager for the IFRC, suggests that National Societies first take stock of where they are in the volunteer management cycle.

That’s what the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society did after the 2004 tsunami revealed the need to improve standards for managing, tracking and reimbursing volunteers. “The Red Cross brought in a focal person specifically for volunteering, and now they have a manual, a volunteer database, standards and regulations,” she says. “They were the first National Society to sign up for the global volunteer insurance policy.”

Pandora’s box

Insurance is a good example of how addressing volunteer needs can open a Pandora’s box of managerial issues. Accident insurance provides a sense of security for volunteers, especially for those responding to disasters. But when the IFRC first developed a volunteer insurance scheme for National Societies, no one signed up, says Ponniah.

The reason? Many National Societies didn’t have the management practices in place to make it work. Often, they didn’t know how many volunteers they actually had, let alone all their names.
Before an accurate list of volunteers can be created, however, National Societies face a variety of tasks including:
• defining who is a volunteer, a member or staff
• developing a spreadsheet or database to store and update information
• training branch staff on tracking volunteers and data entry
• designating a national focal person to oversee the process.

While it can be expensive and time-consuming, there are many benefits. If there’s a disaster, the National Society has up-to-date information on volunteer addresses, skills and experience. With this data, National Societies can more quickly deploy the volunteers. Tracking volunteers, and inviting them to join other programmes, helps retain them. Otherwise, when programmes end, they slip away.

Giving the ‘doers’ a voice

Such tracking and communicating is just one way National Societies can help their unpaid workforce feel rewarded and recognized. “Volunteers are often considered to be just the ‘doers’ and they’re called upon when there is something to do like distributing goods or doing health programmes,” notes Andreas Sandin, volunteering development coordinator in the IFRC’s Americas zone office. “But often they are not involved in the institutional life at branch and national levels.”

This is one reason why the New Zealand Red Cross aims, where possible, to treat its volunteers like staff, says Gillian Peacock, national people and capability manager. “Our induction programme for volunteers is the same as the one staff get,” she says. “And when we received scholarships from Outward Bound (an organization that promotes personal growth through outdoor experiences), half of them went to volunteers and half went to staff.”

The Peruvian Red Cross increasingly brings volunteers into its planning process, says Aguenda Aguilar García, coordinator of the National Society’s country support plan. This year, volunteers are helping to craft a new strategic plan by participating in national workshops.

In Nepal, the focus is to “create an environment so volunteers can express themselves and have their issues addressed”, according to Sudarshan Adhikiari, the Nepal Red Cross Society’s head of organizational development. Unfortunately, finding the long-term financial support needed to develop an integrated strategy at the national level and roll it out across all projects and locations has been difficult. “Organizational development is not a high priority for donors,” he notes. “They always want to fund the direct delivery instead.”

The recently released IFRC survey and report, The value of volunteers, underlines the need for better management systems to protect, promote and support volunteers. This is a good step. To make the most of this year’s focus on volunteering, we might also consider renaming 2011 ‘The Year of the Volunteer Management’, to focus the attention of National Societies, donors and the media on this less glamorous, but equally important, part of that contribution.

By Saundra Schimmelpfennig
Saundra Schimmelpfennig is a writer and humanitarian watchdog based in Utah, USA, where she authors the blog, Good intentions are not enough.

Author, volunteer and humanitarian watchdog Saundra Schimmelpfennig says our focus shouldn’t be on new volunteers, but on better managing the ones we have.

AS A VOLUNTEER MYSELF, and someone who has managed volunteers, I know how challenging it is to manage them well. Recruiting is the fun part and often gets the most attention. But that’s just the first step of the management cycle, which includes training, supervising, providing opportunities to learn and grow, recognizing volunteer contributions and ensuring that giving one’s time to help others does not become a financial burden.

As Dashdeleg Aleksandr, head of the Mongolian Red Cross Society’s operational department, explains, “Volunteers will leave if there are no activities, no capacity to manage them, no incentives to stay or no chance for promotion.”

“They’ve had a tough life and want to give back,” Aleksandr says of the Mongolian Red Cross’s volunteer corps. Unfortunately many only stay a year or two because “we don’t have things like insurance and incentives for the volunteers”. Funding for transportation costs and other expenses is also limited.


















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Volunteer values

Volunteers are central to the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s ability to improve health, reduce poverty, gain access to vulnerable communities and respond to emergencies. But exactly how many Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are there and how much value do they offer?

A recent IFRC survey, published in a report entitled The value of volunteers, provides answers. Roughly 13.1 million active Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers donated nearly US$ 6 billion worth of services that reached about 30 million people in 2009, according to the report, released in late January to mark the tenth anniversary of Year of the Volunteer.

Based on survey results from 107 National Societies, The value of volunteers quantifies the economic value of the volunteer workforce and describes the many social contributions they make in their communities. The IFRC will use the results in its efforts to protect, recognize and promote volunteer efforts.

Conducted by Dalberg Global Development Advisors and based on a methodology developed by the International Labour Organization and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, the study provides a baseline for tracking volunteer recruitment and retention.

It also paints a clearer image of the key areas to which volunteers contribute. While Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers work in many fields, the greatest number of volunteers engage in health promotion, treatment and services. This is followed by disaster preparedness, response and recovery, and then by general support services.

In addition, volunteers extend the paid workforce by a factor of between 1 and 2,000, with a median global average of 20 volunteers to every paid staff member. (In sub-Saharan Africa, the mean average ratio of volunteer to full-time equivalent staff is 327 to 1 and in South-East Asia, 432 to 1. In the United States and Canada, the ratio is 11 to 1, the lowest of all regions.)

What do all these numbers prove? To the IFRC, they show that investment in volunteer-based community development yields good returns. “The value of the IFRC volunteer network is that it offers an opportunity to invest more, not less, in tackling the root causes of suffering,” the report notes.

Breakdown of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers by field


Volunteering by the numbers:

US$ 6 billion: Approximate value of donated services provided in 2009 by Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers
13.1 million: Approximate number of volunteers worldwide
4: Minimum number of hours contributed per year to be counted as a volunteer
107: Number of National Societies that participated in IFRC’s value of volunteers
54: Percentage of volunteers who are women
46: Percentage of volunteers who are men
20 to 1: The average ratio of volunteers to paid National Society staff


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