The importance of volunteering with the National Trust

The National Trust is supported by over 60,000 volunteers who gift their time, energy and skills in many different ways. From toad patrollers to trainers, room guides to rangers, our volunteering roles benefit both the individual and the organisation, and they all have one thing in common – an effective volunteer manager.   The way that we involve, support and manage volunteers directly impacts on their ability to support and champion our cause.

Keely, VMT trainee, and volunteer team at Fan Bay, White Cliffs of Dover © NT Images
Keely, VMT trainee, and volunteer team at Fan Bay, White Cliffs of Dover © NT Images

It’s vital therefore that we are constantly investing in the development of our volunteer managers –usually paid staff, although sometimes this role is carried out by volunteers as well. 40% (approximately 4,500) of our staff manage volunteers, usually as part of a wider role. Part of our investment in this area was the ‘Volunteer Management Traineeship Project’, which tested the merits of a structured, accredited, training programme for volunteer managers. Between 2013 and 2017, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future’ Programme, we hosted 17 full time, paid trainees in volunteer management.  

An entry level programme, trainees spent 18 months at a variety of National Trust places around the country, including historic properties like Tyntesfield and outdoor places like the White Cliffs of Dover.   Each trainee followed an ILM level 3 qualification in the Management of Volunteers. We learnt a huge amount about volunteer management through this programme which is useful for the sector as a whole. This is what we found:

Dedicated volunteer managers have a positive impact

The project gathered data about the impact of having a dedicated volunteer management role within the team, rather than as an add-on or as part of a wider role. As you might expect, paid staff were in support: “Having someone dedicated to volunteer management at a property made a huge difference to what we were able to achieve, and really improved communications between staff”.

Volunteer Urban Rangers from the Green Academies Project  © NT Images
Volunteer Urban Rangers from the Green Academies Project © NT Images

What was perhaps more surprising (given the often-held assumption that volunteers don’t want or need to be ‘managed’) was that 67% of volunteers at the places with a trainee felt that the role improved their volunteering experience. 589 volunteers, across 16 places, took part in the survey.

Furthermore, performance indicators at participating places demonstrated the value of a dedicated volunteer management role, with key drivers such as leadership, engagement, communication and staff confidence in managing volunteers all increasing over the lifetime of the project.

On-the-job experience is more important than accreditation

The project tested the value of accredited training for volunteer managers. All 17 trainees successfully completed their qualification; however it was the framework for the training that provided the biggest benefit, rather than the accreditation itself. Combining regular classroom training days, one day a week for paid study, a cohort learning pathway and on-the-job experience proved a winning formula for the trainees, all of whom moved on to related employment.

Volunteers pull ragwort at Trevose Head, Trevose, North Cornwall  © NT Images
Volunteers pull ragwort at Trevose Head, Trevose, North Cornwall © NT Images

Leadership matters

We selected host places based on their support for the traineeship to it to be a success. Where this leadership remained consistently in support of the importance of volunteer management, trainees and volunteers rated their experience as more positive.   As the manager at one participating site put it: “the role of the leader can make or break the success of the volunteer culture, and of the way volunteering is seen”. It’s crucial that those in leadership roles have support and training to enable them to understand the volunteering culture of the organisation, and empower their teams to make great volunteering happen. Including volunteer management in the induction for leaders is key, and volunteer managers on site can play an important role in communicating this aspect to new leaders.

Volunteers at a summer school, Birmingham Back to Backs  © NT Images
Volunteers at a summer school, Birmingham Back to Backs © NT Images

Support networks are beneficial

The trainees were well supported, with a line manager, a local buddy to provide pastoral care and advice, and a mentor. Volunteer management is often hugely fulfilling, enjoyable and rewarding, but, like any role, can have its ups and downs. Encouraging support networks can provide much needed advice, especially when a volunteer manager might be the only person in that role within

a team. The network was hugely valuable to the trainees, but also provided development for the mentor, and is certainly a transferable model to other discipline areas. Within this project, 38% of the mentors were external to the National Trust, offering valuable alternative perspectives and providing links into other organisations for the trainees.  

Investing time in recruitment pays dividends

Spending time planning a recruitment strategy is time well spent, especially if you are looking to appeal to staff and volunteers from under-represented groups. The project aimed to ensure recruitment was inclusive, suitable for entry level roles, and reflected the local population. The recruitment window was long at 6 weeks, and we worked with and through partners to ensure we reached a large number of people. Getting the images and wording right on the advert was key – 50% of applicants were attracted by the ‘no experience necessary’ angle and representative imagery ensured that 61% of applicants were from either BAME backgrounds or within the 16-25 age range. The application and selection process used creative methods too, to encourage a wide range of people to apply - not just those with academic talents. Applicants could submit a short film or visual presentation alongside their written statement, and selection days were designed around group activities.

To find out more about the project and to download resources, including role profiles, recruitment tips, training plans, mentoring guides and more, go to

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with the National Trust on 12 February 2018