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Working in the voluntary sector
Working in the voluntary sector

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1.2 Formal and informal roles

In Activity 1 you may have noticed that some of your responsibilities or tasks involve formal activities (as listed in your job description), as well as more informal roles that you have taken on that are not adequately captured by your job description. As Figure 1 highlighted, role-sets involve both formal and informal roles and you will now look at both aspects.

It takes a bit of thinking to see things in terms of roles rather than just tasks. Activities such as:

  • answering the phone
  • providing advice to service users
  • interviewing some potential volunteers
  • writing a new marketing leaflet
  • completing a funding bid
  • sending an email to the council about a local issue

are probably easier to express than the roles, such as:

  • figurehead role (represented a group at a meeting or fundraising event)
  • interpersonal/teamworking role (resolved a disagreement between two volunteers or neighbours; helped a distressed service user)
  • negotiation or spokesperson role (summed up the key ideas and action points at a difficult meeting).

Activity 2 What’s your role?

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Look again at the activities you listed in Activity 1. Make a list of two columns. The first will be formal activities. These are part of a job description, that is, part of your formal role as, for example, a fundraiser, team leader, charity shop volunteer or trustee. If your example was not drawn from work or volunteering, think of the ‘formal’ part as what you do regularly or what you think is expected of you.

The second column will be the informal roles that you have taken on at work or with other people. For example, some people who are good with computers take on an ICT troubleshooting role; others are skilled at ‘peacemaking’ when working relationships become fraught, or providing a shoulder to cry on when others have problems; and still others are good at communicating generally.

Now look at your two columns and say which roles you are most and least comfortable with.

Lastly, if you had to delegate (give away) some of your activities to a colleague or a friend, would you find it more helpful to think in terms of avoiding or passing on certain roles (rather than tasks)?


Using the example of the garden volunteer in Activity 1, his two columns might look like this:

Table 2 Activities and roles
Formal activities (part of job description)Informal roles
Pruned trees and shrubsGeneral chatting with staff (joker/teamworker role)
Weeding, diggingTalk to colleague about some gardens research (not part of the job description but could be part of an informal advisory/educational role)
Helped move some boxesArranged and led a planning meeting about forthcoming open day (negotiation role)
Talked to passers-by about the front gardenListen to a fellow volunteer’s concerns about the new expenses system (interpersonal/teamworker role)
Measured up space for new shed

This example shows that people often take on roles beyond their job description. The garden volunteer is a good listener; so people often take their concerns or problems to him, which has led to him taking on an interpersonal role. ‘Listening to other people’s problems’ is obviously not listed in his job description as garden volunteer.

The point of this activity is to help you see whether you take on informal roles, which might be based on other work or volunteering experience, or on your qualities as; for example, a good listener or general troubleshooter. Sometimes you might be happy with these additional roles and they may be acknowledged by your organisation, perhaps in terms of when being interviewed for a promotion. For some people, however, these informal roles might become a burden in an already busy and stressful job.

If you work or volunteer, you may be fortunate enough to work for an organisation that acknowledges the importance of these different roles and has written job descriptions that incorporate them. In small voluntary organisations where resources are tight, however, people often have many different formal roles, as well as informal ones. This can lead to conflict and stress, although some people enjoy having lots of variety in their work and thrive under pressure.