6 lessons learned from volunteer management

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

I didn't really think much about volunteer management as a concept, let alone a responsibility, when I started training to be an RDA coach. This is ironic in two ways: firstly, because I (like all coaches) had started out as a volunteer, and had ideas of my own about how I wanted to be supported and managed by existing coaches and yard staff. Secondly, because volunteer management is one of the most universally transferable skills I have gained from my eight years of involvement with RDA. This week, I'd like to share the top six lessons I've learned as a volunteer managing other volunteers.

1. Mutual respect and clearly defined leadership are the starting point for everything

For a productive relationship between me and any of the volunteers I manage, we need to respect each other and the fact that we are both happy to give our time to the group. That's a pretty powerful thing to have in common. I've discovered increasingly over the past couple of years that it is really important to make my own volunteer status clear to newcomers; I've been surprised by how many new helpers (or their parents) have been surprised that RDA isn't my full time job. I've also learnt the importance of clear leadership: it just makes everyone's lives easier to signpost responsibilities as belonging to coach, volunteer, yard staff, or all three from the off. Mutual respect means that there is a place for all volunteers in a group; clear leadership (which is often the responsibility of more than one person) means that volunteers can be mobilised efficiently to help said group.

2. Non-horsey volunteers are a non-problem

I've said this before in a blog post, but a dyed-in-the-wool horsey volunteer with years of experience and a herd of their own is not the only type of volunteer worth having, nor can it be invariably assumed that they will be the best volunteers. Without making any sweeping generalisations, I have learned to prize willingness to learn, initiative, and communication skills above more traditional horse knowledge. A volunteer may well bring all three of these things alongside a sound understanding of how to handle a pony. That's great, and means that we can canter through their green card training. It may be, however, that those attributes help a volunteer with less (or no) equestrian experience power through a slightly longer training period. I have had a number of outstanding volunteers over the years who start with nothing and end up being incredible assets to our group, happy to lead any horse in a lesson or out to the field, and willing to work with the most challenging of riders. RDA is unusual in its ability to offer so many opportunities to learn about horses at low or no cost. There is a place for both types of volunteer, and everyone somewhere in between: being willing to learn, having initiative, and communicating well will never cease to be the most important things for all of them.

3. Support good partnerships where possible

Progress in RDA is built on partnerships (trusting partnerships...), and I think it is too easy to think first of partnerships between rider and horse or rider and coach. A volunteer leading, side walking, or accompanying a rider for the duration of a lesson is singularly focused on a rider in a way that a coach in a group lesson can't be, and often gets more of a chance to chat, share a joke, and answer quick questions. It's a great environment for beautiful partnerships to grow, and I think that it benefits all parties for a coach to spot these as they bloom and support them.

Matilda (pictured above, riding Jasper) has forged a wonderful bond with Leo (left) over the past few months: to the extent that she tells her mum that they are "going to see horses and Leo" on a Saturday morning! Matilda is deaf and has cochlear implants, and has made fantastic progress in how she understands and communicates during her riding lessons. I know that I owe a lot to Leo, who is her most regular helper, because she is able to walk every step next to Matilda and continually work out how best to transmit, reinforce, and encourage. I can only really give credit to myself for allowing them the space to work that out during sessions. Not every combination of volunteer and rider will be a perfect match, but when it does work it can be a huge boost for everyone involved, including parents when they get to see someone "click" with their child. It's got to be good for volunteer retention to know that a rider gets a real kick out of having your (specifically your) help during their lesson.

4. Delegation, delegation, delegation

It would be a lie say I'm not still working on this one; I've always been a bit of a "if you want the job done well, do it yourself" kind of person. This is a completely fine approach to take in many other contexts, but not in a volunteer management role where cooperation and personal development are important for everyone. Delegating to volunteers might mean that they have more opportunities to develop a fantastic partnership with a rider (see above), improve upon new skills faster, or even help to spark the interest of a potential future coach. This isn't a case of a coach getting volunteers to do their bidding for them, like an old fashioned yard-owning tyrant: it's making sure volunteers are occupied and engaged with their experience. It's my job to make sure that four or five horses are tacked up safely with appropriate tack (reins, stirrups etc are changed to suit) for their riders that session, but that doesn't mean I'm the only person on the yard who can actually do the tacking up.

A busy volunteer is, by and large, a happy volunteer. A good leader delegates. It's not so tricky to build a bridge connecting these two statements, and it's definitely a necessary build.

5. Don't be shy about recognition

You can't manage yourself, so it's difficult to know what you're actually like as a leader. One thing I really hope comes across to the volunteers I manage, however, is that when I think you're doing a good job, I will make sure you know. I don't want anybody to have to guess whether or not I'm impressed by their hard work, generosity, initiative, or anything else. Recognition is an important part of retaining good volunteers and making our groups a positive place for all. For the truly out-of-this-world, above-and-beyond sorts there are some seriously impressive accolades for which nominations can be made (like the annual RDA Gala Awards). I'd say it is just as important to acknowledge the smaller efforts, perhaps made by newer volunteers who haven't yet built up a long term relationship with the organisation, or by those who would be self deprecating about how their dedication to their RDA group "isn't much, really". I've found that as a general rule we aren't shy about praising our participants in RDA, for achievements big and small. Even if it's communicated differently, we need to be just as open about praising the efforts of our volunteers.

6. Awards schemes are the solution to few problems

I definitely need to preface this point with a couple of disclaimers: firstly, that I'm not saying that awards schemes are a bad thing, and secondly, that I have had (and still have!) some absolutely wonderful volunteers who have found themselves at my group as a result of one. I also believe pretty strongly that RDA offers a great, worthwhile volunteering experience for those embarking upon (for example) their Duke of Edinburgh awards: it's an organisation recommended directly by DofE for this very reason. I happily write up reports for long-term volunteers who have chosen to use RDA for the volunteering component of their DofE award(s); it's another way of (see above) recognising their skills and commitment which can mean a lot to them to have in writing, and as part of a larger award.

With that said, I don't think that awards schemes of any description are the best answer for the challenge of acknowledging, recruiting, or retaining volunteers: things which every RDA group and every other volunteer-run or assisted organisation always want to do more of. I wrote in this post on RDA in job and university applications about the importance of being able to talk specifically about what you learned and gained from an experience, rather than just saying "I did X" or "I received Y award". Sadly, I feel that a lot of discussion around awards schemes can be too focused on the end product of the award itself. If volunteering is part of the process, it is easy for it to become a box to tick to get that end product, rather than an experience which is inherently rewarding in its own right. The comparably short timescales required by awards schemes (e.g. 3 months, 20 hours) can also be difficult for those who train and manage volunteers if a new volunteer's main motivation is to "do the time".

I have had volunteers start off on a short term basis, fall in love with RDA, and stay "forever", which is wonderful for all involved. I have also, however, had volunteers call time ("I've got my hours now...") when they have scarcely got to know how we work. I coach on Saturdays, my group's most school-aged-volunteer-friendly day of the week, and have experienced periods of time when the turnover of short-term volunteers and training required for new ones has been borderline unsustainable. Is it a volunteer's right to show up for three or four months, then disappear? Absolutely (that's why the consensus amongst much of my group is that it would be unethical to say "no"). I do think, however, that there is a conversation to be had about the relationship between volunteers and the organisations they volunteer for, and how this does sometimes need to be prioritised above the requirements of an individual award scheme or work experience programme. RDA runs on a network of relationships: we have to be honest about how those relationships need to function for our groups to operate smoothly.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

This week's post is dedicated with grateful thanks to all of the volunteers who have listened to, supported and generally put up with me whilst I've been working out all of these points. I couldn't do any of it without you.