'How do you maintain motivation? In particular, how do you communicate direction and ensure quality without the discipline of a pay-related reward system? The answer, of course, is by employing all the other elements of good managerial practice. First and foremost, treat the volunteers as customers as much as a workforce; they must feel they are receiving the support they deserve from a full-time staff'.
How much would you pay someone with the skill, motivation and responsibility to take a £1.5 million lifeboat to any position 50 miles from the shore, quite often in darkness and sometimes in weather which is causing other vessels to run for shelter? How much would you charge for saving the lives of others at sea? And having promised that you will provide this crucial emergency service 365 days a year around the entire coast of the UK and Ireland, how much would you ask the Government to contribute?
If you are familiar with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), you will know that the answer to each of these questions is 'nothing'.
You may also know that in spite of this apparent absence of money changing hands, we raise and spend in excess of £60 million every year. With this money the following is achieved each year: over 1,600 lives saved and 7,000 distress calls answered with a 5-6% per annum increase in demand on our services over the past 15 years.
Of the annual total spend, 83% goes directly to the business of running, maintaining and renewing a fleet of 427 lifeboats, the rest towards further income generation and administration.
In any business, a well motivated workforce should never be taken for granted. Staff opinion surveys will reveal time and again that pay is seldom the single most important contributor to high morale. In the RNLI pay has no part to play so all the other motivating elements must and do come into their own.
There are roughly 4,000 lifeboat men and women in the RNLI, all of whom are ready to stop work or leave their homes the instant their radio pager calls them away for an unknown number of hours at sea. In addition they devote a high proportion of their free time to perfecting their skills in an increasing hi-tech environment. The only tangible return for their commitment is a few pounds to compensate for expenses and lost earnings while they are at sea. Meanwhile, ashore there are plenty of other station volunteers, many of whom sacrifice just as much time providing administrative and practical back-up to the crews.
Equally motivated are those who volunteer to raise funds for the RNLI.
The network of 1,800 financial branches throughout the UK and Ireland is the envy of many of our fellow charities. The actual number of people involved in RNLI fund-raising in the field runs to tens of thousands. Ask them why they do it and they will all include a deep admiration for the lifeboat crews among their reasons. But they also need enjoyment and fulfilment to carry on and, above all, a belief that the millions they contribute every year really do end up helping the crews to save lives.
But all of the elements which motivate our crews, shore helpers and fund-raising volunteers would very soon evaporate if they did not feel their efforts were producing satisfactory results. This is where the 750 permanent staff of the RNLI come in. It is ultimately their role to harness the skill and enthusiasm of volunteers into a smooth-running and effective, life-saving vehicle.
How do you maintain motivation? In particular, how do you communicate direction and ensure quality without the discipline of a pay-related reward system? The answer, of course, is by employing all the other recognised elements of good managerial practice. First and foremost, treat the volunteers as customers as much as a workforce; they must feel they are receiving the support they deserve from a full-time staff. There must be a friendly and sympathetic ear to listen to concerns. Responses need to be prompt and not necessarily governed by a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 routine.
To that end a central operations information room is manned 24-hours a day to provide immediate back-up and support for any station at any time. Similarly our full-time coast staff of inspectors, surveyors and engineers often work in the evenings and at weekends, times which suit the volunteers rather than the staff.
Fund-raising volunteers are no different in the support they require, and full-time, fund-raising field staff have to be there to give good back-up at unconventional working hours.
In fact the coast and field staff have a pivotal role in the business of motivating volunteers. While providing a service they must also see that RNLI procedures are followed, standards are maintained and that the RNLI's objectives are met in an economic and effective way. A divisional lifeboat inspector must employ firmness as well as friendliness if his crews are to attain the high standards we expect. There is a great skill required in achieving this sense of pride in excellence. It exists all round the coast and is reflected as much in the way crews maintain their lifeboats as it does in the way they use them.
Of course, providing the right tools for the job and appropriate training is another key motivating element. Lifeboat crews will only appreciate a high-performance boat if they have the skill and confidence to make full use of it. Less people go to sea these days to earn a living and the RNLI has increasingly to build expertise from within rather that relying on skills gained elsewhere. Once all training was done at the station during inspectors' visits; now crew members volunteer to take a whole week away from work and home to follow a boat-handling or navigational course. There is nothing like learning new skills to give you satisfaction in your job.
And finally, there must be recognition of what is achieved by volunteers and supporters alike. Occasionally a crew member is given a bravery award and any volunteer can qualify for official recognition of long and distinguished service. Much more important, though, is adequate communication of the collective achievements of a lifeboat station or a group of fund-raisers.
At a time when business people are debating better ways to motivate staff, they could do worse than take a hard look at the way in which charities such as the RNLI achieve their motivational goals. We provide a lifeboat service which is the envy of the world, because of the volunteers, not in spite of them. Not only do they inspire the public to provide the funding without recourse to the state, they offer a reliable 24-hour service - and all without a penny in their pay packet.