The words ‘support’ and ‘supervision’ are often used almost interchangeably and, in practice, they are frequently delivered through the same activities or methods. However, they do in fact fulfil very distinct functions, and it is important to distinguish between them in order to achieve the balance mentioned above. It may be useful to think of support and supervision as a continuum with the needs of the volunteer at one end and the demands of the role at the other:
“The interest, understanding and care which is provided for volunteers, which keeps them going all the time and additionally in times of crisis and enables them to satisfy their needs and those of the organisation.”
“A way of monitoring a volunteer’s performance to help them benefit from their placement, to make sure they are carrying out tasks appropriately, encourage problem solving and provide guidance.”
In many cases some/ most of the functions of support and/or supervision are fulfilled by the Adult Resources manager, but most often than not this happens in an unstructured manner, not in a planned and systematic way. It is important that the needs of one particular level or structure in the NSA are correctly evaluated and the proper combination of support/supervision measures are delivered to the volunteers.
There are four key principles that will allow the support and supervision measures to be effective:
It is vital that you foster a climate that allows volunteers to ask for help. Volunteers have no monetary incentives and so will seek other rewards from their work. A clear message should be given to volunteers that they should ask for help if they need it. A point of contact for support should always be available, especially when a volunteer has just started, support needs to be accessible and carried out in a way that makes them feel it is ok to ask. Equally, supervision must be seen as part of the volunteering experience and not something that only happens when there is a problem.
Support and supervision must be provided at appropriate times and places for volunteers. Sometimes this means taking support to volunteers and offering it on their terms, even though this may mean making further demands on the resources of the organisation. This is particularly important in terms of developing an equal opportunities approach to volunteer management.
This is the ability to accommodate the needs of individual volunteers. It may suit the organisation to plan a highly structured system of support and supervision, but this may be quite inappropriate for some of its volunteers. It is a matter of offering a range of options to the volunteer and tailoring a system to that individual’s requirements.
The support given must bear some relationship to the work that volunteers are being asked to do as well as being obviously helpful to them. A balance should be maintained between the primary needs of the organisation for the completion of tasks and delivery of services (supervision) on the one hand, and on the other, the personal needs of the volunteer (support).
Volunteers can be supported in a formal manner (induction, trainings, group meetings, etc.) or informally (chatting, direct communication, active listening, etc.) and we can distinguish between a variety of types of support that may be offered through these and other activities.
Each category may amount to a ‘strategy’ for support for a particular volunteer in a specific work context. A good support system can accommodate any strategy or combination of strategies, and should use a variety of methods and activities for making that support available to volunteers. Consider the following issues in relation to how you provide support:
Group support can be difficult to do well, but it can be a very time-efficient way of providing support to a large number of volunteers. It can increase the uptake of support by providing the incentive of social contact with colleagues, but it may not be a suitable environment to address certain individual needs. A good support system combines both and will also address many of the functions of supervision for volunteers.
Volunteers can be facilitated in supporting each other through support group meetings or a buddy system. This can take some of the burden off you, the Volunteer Manager, although you should still monitor the effectiveness of such methods and be available to facilitate meetings when required. While peer support can tap into creative and varied ways of developing volunteers and dealing with problems, the responsibility for providing support to volunteers still lies ultimately with the Volunteer Manager.
It is not always possible to meet every volunteer face-to-face on a regular basis (e.g. when volunteers work at different locations or during different hours from you) but they still need support. In this situation, communication is vital and volunteers should receive regular and timely updates on issues affecting them and the wider organisation. Telephone contact allows direct discussion of the volunteer’s situation. If you have difficulty getting hold of a volunteer, contact him/her by email and if necessary schedule a ‘online meeting’. Volunteers who are based away from the main office may feel isolated or unrecognised, so try to get out to see them in their own environment occasionally and consider organising social get togethers for volunteers which will include those volunteers that tend to work ‘solo’.
Many volunteers feel they want to give to the organisation and don’t expect to get anything back. They may be reluctant to ask for support even when they face real difficulties. By having regular scheduled support opportunities, volunteers are encouraged to view support as part and parcel of their volunteering structure. However, difficulties don’t always arise just in time for the volunteer’s next support meeting, and experienced volunteers may not want to be tied to monthly meetings “whether they need it or not”. So you will also need to find ways of providing support on demand which fit with your own responsibilities and workload.
The factors discussed above are also relevant to supervision but, since supervision is one of the main ways in which you ensure that volunteers are working effectively for the organisation, it is usually appropriate to include some more structured methods in the wider support system for this purpose.
With regard to supervision ‘strategies’, Jacqui Long identified three broad approaches:
Volunteers need to fulfil the roles that have been assigned to them by the organisation and to do this in ways which the organisation considers appropriate. In supervision, the managerial function is about making sure the volunteer is doing what is expected of them. It may also involve exploring how they are balancing the sometimes conflicting expectations placed on them by the organisation, as well as their own standards and values.
This focuses on the development of the individual volunteer in their voluntary work. An important aspect of this will be giving feedback to enable people to reflect on particular situations in order to learn from them, identify strengths and weaknesses, and explore areas for development and training. This process will mainly focus on enabling the volunteer to draw insights from their experience, but may also include sharing of information by the supervisor in order to develop someone’s understanding or knowledge.
This is concerned with creating a safe space in which volunteers can talk about their feelings about their work and any problems or issues around it. It may also involve enabling someone to explore and deal with feelings in their personal life which are affecting their volunteering. The aim will not necessarily be to resolve these problems, but to identify ways of getting appropriate support. The other key aspect of the supportive function is giving recognition and encouragement, which helps a volunteer to feel valued and empowered.
It is important to remember that supervision is not the same as support, or having a friendly chat, nor is it ‘checking up’. Supervision is making sure that the needs and interests of the individual are being balanced with the need and interests of the organisation.
The following questions could help to ensure that you cover all these tasks: