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When managing volunteers matters most

My first volunteering experience came about more than 10 years ago after I graduated. Not wanting to start work immediately, I had wanted to devote six months of my time to doing something meaningful.

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My first volunteering experience came about more than 10 years ago after I graduated. Not wanting to start work immediately, I had wanted to devote six months of my time to doing something meaningful.

That half-a-year exposure completely changed my life because it gave me an amazing and rare opportunity to work with 1,300 child soldiers in Myanmar through a non-government organisation. I and other volunteers were allowed in a highly restricted area to teach English to the soldiers, who ranged from six to 25 years of age.

What made my volunteering experience great? I think the key determinant was the dedicated volunteer manager who started me off on the right foot. Here I was, an eager beaver, clueless and without experience. He was extremely patient with me; he prepared me mentally and physically and made me feel compelled to give my all to the cause in a meaningful way. I realised the importance of being an informed volunteer.

According to the latest Individual Giving Survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), volunteerism in Singapore is high at 32.3 per cent — about 1.8 million volunteers. With an estimated 2,200 registered charities, this works out to an average of 820 volunteers per registered charity or non-profit organisation (NPO).

To the best of my knowledge, a number of NPOs do not have a dedicated volunteer coordinator or manager. Ironically, these are the very same organisations that lack manpower and resources and rely heavily on volunteers to help accomplish their missions.

And while many recognise the importance of having a stable pool of volunteers, many also fail to see why it is crucial to have a dedicated volunteer manager/coordinator to look after and motivate the volunteers — until a problem arises.


When I was working with Habitat for Humanity in 2006 as a volunteer manager, I recruited an avid volunteer who wanted to go overseas to help rebuild homes after the Asian tsunami. She did not meet all the listed basic requirements, such as having been on a humanitarian mission before; nor did she have much inkling of the extent of the work involved, like the profiling of community needs.

However, I sensed her conviction. She was very keen and willing to learn. I was glad I made an exception. This young lady — whose full-time job was with an aviation company — served her stint with passion and love. Afterwards, she managed to convince her company to grant all volunteers from Habitat for Humanity preferential-rate travel on their community-serving stints.

Habitat for Humanity was also named the company’s beneficiary at a charity gala event a year later. I would never have foreseen any of this resulting from engaging a volunteer who thought she had nothing to contribute except raw zeal and perseverance.

I am not suggesting charities and NPOs start recruiting volunteers like they are instant remedies or band-aids to organisational issues or gaps. Rather, look at volunteers as equal partners and contributors. With the right handling, they can be an organisation’s best donors and fund-raisers.

Volunteers, however, like any newbies on a job, need an orientation session. They need to be guided and equipped to do an assigned task well. They are often thought of as the “shakers” of society; to me, a volunteer manager is the “mover” who keeps the stable of volunteers engaged and motivated.

Like a human resource manager, a volunteer manager looks first into the needs and requisites of an organisation and then looks for volunteers to fill those roles — to help out in daily operations, spend time with beneficiaries, look for partnerships and so on.

We know there are plenty of volunteers willing to give time and expertise for a good cause. But many non-profits do not know how to engage them properly. A volunteer manager helps to put in place training and equipping sessions to keep volunteers coming back and nurture them into their roles.

He/she knows the volunteers by name and what each has put in for the cause. Many volunteers I know bring their friends and families back to volunteer because of the great experiences they have had and because they feel treasured and motivated and appreciated.

Last week, the NVPC marked International Volunteer Managers Day on Nov 5, I urge volunteers to thank their volunteer manager who tried to design a great experience for them. Leaders of NPOs, pen a note to thank your volunteer managers — trust me, it will make their day.


Hosea Lai is Head of the Volunteerism Division at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

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