Volunteering is recovering as we continue to emerge from the global Covid-19 pandemic. Like so much else, volunteering will not be unchanged from the experiences of the last two years. So, in this article, I want to pose five questions every Volunteer Involving Organisation should answer if they intend to be successful at engaging volunteers in the future.
1. Does everyone know why you involve volunteers?
Successful engagement of volunteers requires more than just a great leader of volunteer engagement. Everyone must be committed to giving volunteers a great experience that allows them to make a meaningful difference.
Just like the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole organisation to effectively involve volunteers. It’s no good having a brilliant recruitment campaign if the person who handles calls from prospective volunteers hates dealing with them.
Does everyone at your organisation understand why volunteers are important to your work? Do they know what volunteers bring that is different from paid staff? Do you have a clear vision for volunteer involvement that is widely shared and understood among staff, volunteers, senior leadership, the board etc.?
If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’ then you have work to do to gear everyone up to giving a great experience to volunteers so that they can positively impact your mission.
2. Are you using, involving or engaging volunteers?
Language matters. The words we choose and how we use them conveys much more than the simple assemblage of letters. That’s why for many years I have had an issue with organisations who say they ‘use’ volunteers.
”I feel very strongly that we should never talk about using volunteers but involving them. Volunteers are people, they take an active role in fulfilling our missions. They are…not used. I think the language we use around volunteers and volunteering speaks volumes about the way they are viewed, regarded and respected in our organisations. If we talk of using volunteers, putting them on a par with the office photocopier, then we should not be surprised if volunteers are seen as providing a far from meaningful contribution to our work. If, however, we talk about involving them then there is implied within that a much more constructive, positive and meaningful attitude to the contribution volunteers provide.”
Do you use volunteers, with all the negative connotations I outlined back in 2011?
Or, do you involve volunteers, giving them a stake in what you do, but perhaps not fully embracing their potential?
Or, do you engage volunteers as active and equal participants with a valuable contribution to make in realising the future your organisation exists to create?
How you think and talk about volunteers conveys a lot about how your culture really values them.
What words do you use? What words do others in your organisation use? How can you shift the language in a more positive direction?
3. Do you really need all that bureaucracy?
During the pandemic, and especially in those early lockdowns, it became surprisingly easy to volunteer. All we had to do was say ‘yes’ on a WhatsApp group, or join a Facebook or Nextdoor page. Even for big programmes like the NHS Volunteer responders scheme, application, and approval processes were smooth and speedy. I call it frictionless volunteering.
Now aspects of pre-Covid normality are returning, so too is the so-called Velcro volunteering of the before-times. Long application forms, Extensive references. Criminal record checks on anything that moves and breathes. Supervision and appraisals. You know the kind of thing.
Sometimes this is absolutely right and correct. We have a legal, moral and ethical duty to protect our clients, colleagues, and volunteers. Good screening is a vital part of that. We want to actively deter the ‘wrong’ people from volunteering.
Often, however, organisations erect these barriers to volunteering not because they fear for the safety of others, but because they seem to think that volunteers are high risk. I frequently see this thinking: volunteers are unreliable, untrustworthy, unpredictable and so need to be managed and contained lest they rock the boat or cause any trouble. When we take this approach, we can deter the ‘right’ people as well as the ‘wrong’ ones, harming our work.
As whatever normality returns in whatever way it looks in your setting, ask if the bureaucracy of old is really needed. With it gone during the pandemic, were people put at greater risk? If not, why bring it back?
Like it or not, volunteers have enjoyed the frictionless volunteering experience and are going to want volunteering to be more like that in future. Your challenge is matching that expectation with what’s really needed, and that means asking challenging questions about whether those barriers are necessary.
4. What is the appropriate balance of online and in-person activity for volunteers?
We’ve all lived and worked online so much since March 2020. It’s almost impossible to remember what working life was like when we could all get in a room together. Despite many a pre-Covid protestation, volunteers have embraced technology and online volunteering has boomed.
What we keep online and what returns to In Real Life (IRL) will be a juggling act every Volunteer Involving Organisation and every Volunteer Engagement Professional needs to embrace. There are pros and cons to both approaches, and a blend of the two will inevitably be the way forward for many.
But what’s the correct balance for volunteers?
We might see online activity as being something young people will continue to embrace. But NCVO’s Time Well Spent research (published in 2019) found that 18-34-year-olds were more likely than any other age group to say volunteering was important to them as a way of combatting social isolation. In light of that, is giving young people volunteer roles to be done online really the best thing to do?
If you don’t know what mix of IRL and online works for your volunteers, then you have some work to do to understand the kinds of volunteer experiences people will be attracted to.
5. Are volunteers making a contribution or a difference?
We’ve already seen the importance of language. And I want to end on another linguistic reflection.
For as long as I can recall, the phrase ‘make a difference’ has been synonymous with volunteering. We used to have Make A Difference Day. Many organisations will advertise for volunteers with a promise that the public will get to make a difference in their spare time. The phrase crops up a lot when you look for it.
Do we really let volunteers make a difference? Do we actually show them the impact of what they do? Are volunteers truly engaged in activity that tackles fundamental change and addresses inequality? Or are we really letting volunteers make a contribution? Are they only allowed to help with the nice but non-essential tasks?
Where does your organisation stand? Are your volunteers allowed on the pitch, scoring goals and moving you towards mission fulfilment success? Or are they on the sidelines, cheering on the real stars of the show?
This article was previously published on Rob Jackson’s website, see it here.
About Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson co-authored The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook with Mike Locke, Dr Eddy Hogg and Rick Lynch. This vital publication will help you get volunteering right by gaining from the knowledge and experience gathered by four of the most experienced experts on volunteering. Buy your copy today.