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Matching Volunteer Expectations at WWT

Logo: Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

One of the most inspiring aspects of conservation volunteering is the opportunity to volunteer in breath-taking environments.   This is true of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge, this wetland habitat has a pioneering story. "It's been described as the birthplace of modern conservation and I would support that, definitely," says Martin Spray, WWT's current chief executive.

Volunteers giving walk & talk at WWT (Barry Batchelor)
Volunteers giving walk & talk at WWT (Barry Batchelor)

Today the organisation flourishes with nine centres around the UK, encouraging visitors to get closer to nature. Our conservation programmes save wetlands for wildlife and people

 in the UK and internationally. Key to the organisation’s success is our team of over 750 volunteers, who contribute their time to every area of our organisation. It’s the variety of volunteer opportunities which makes my job as a Volunteering Development Officer exciting. People are often unsure of how to get their first step into conservation. Volunteer recruitment’s not a mystery - in practice it’s often people’s availability that makes all the difference to the choice of placement.

People often mention at the start of their placement why they are volunteering at WWT. Some people have brought up families and decide to volunteer as a first step back into the workplace. Recently retired people want to stay active and offer their skills and experience. Some want new experiences – having worked in an office for years and dreamed of being outdoors. Young people volunteer as a way of developing practical skills to kick start their careers.     My challenge is to match these keen new volunteers' skills, experience and motivations to the needs of the organisation.

WWT has an amazing choice of volunteer placements at WWT. Behind-the-scenes volunteers help to build new exhibits and gardens that demonstrate wetland-friendly designs. Others use their skills for wildlife surveys to gather and record research data, or assist with coordinating conferences and training.

Crane feeding in water (James Lees)
Crane feeding in water (James Lees)

There are also have short-term projects offering some most unusual opportunities; for example the Great Crane Project, a multi-agency partnership aimed at reintroducing this iconic bird into the south west after a gap of 400 years. Crane chick legs grow at a rate of 1cm per day and it’s vital that they develop their leg muscles, therefore, this summer we recruited volunteers to help with the daily crane walking. One volunteer described the responsibility he felt for ensuring the crane chick’s safety when it took its first steps outdoors.

Recognizing our volunteers’ contribution is really important, from simply saying thank you at the end of the day, to our socials where as many as a hundred volunteers get together from different teams to catch up over a delicious meal.

What I enjoy most about volunteer recruitment is following the volunteers’ personal journeys and seeing them flourish. Everyone’s different. It’s only when you stop to listen to people you find out what’s motivating them, what their challenges are, what their dreams are. I’ve seen people’s faces light up when they are given the opportunity to try something they’ve always wanted to do, and they’re usually a little daunted too, now they’ve finally got the chance.   We work as a team and give people the training and support they need.

We have the volunteer recruitment processes in place to ensure the volunteers, staff and the organization benefits from the experience. We create role descriptions for the various opportunities and these are posted on our volunteering webpage. We’ve found this is the best way to match expectations. In my experience, the more you invest in setting up the placement, the more likely it will be a success. We ask people to say which role interests them when they apply to volunteer, as this helps us to match people to the opportunities. For people working behind-the-scenes in volunteering there are best practice guidelines on volunteer recruitment and writing role descriptions at NCVO. BIAZA has an excellent Volunteer Coordinators Forum. Countryside Jobs Service offers a great way to reach people that want to get involved in conservation. To find out more about our volunteering opportunities visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/support/volunteer-with-wwt/  

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 15 September 2014