What volunteers want (& how the Canal & River Trust tries to provide it)

Logo: Canal & River Trust

A happy volunteer is a productive volunteer.   An unhappy volunteer will often take their services elsewhere, or worse, stay resentfully and suck up lots of staff and volunteer time and enthusiasm. So, we all want to keep our volunteers happy, but how can we do it?

Volunteers ready a trip boat at National Waterway Museum, Ellesmere  Port (Canal & River Trust)
Volunteers ready a trip boat at National Waterway Museum, Ellesmere Port (Canal & River Trust)

At the Canal & River Trust we’ve had an amazing 5 years, building our volunteering from a few hundred volunteers delivering 205,000 hours in 2012 (our launch year) to todays’ 2,700 volunteers delivering 540,000 hours right across our charitable works, from crucial maintenance of towpaths and locks through keeping our customers happy to guiding our strategic development.

From the start we planned to keep them happy: providing uniform and equipment, paying expenses, investing in training and skills for both volunteers and the staff managing them.   As time has passed, we’ve rolled out more in response to demand – regular communications, social events like summer trips and Christmas parties, and closer integration with our staff teams.   There’s been some great local innovations, but not much consistency across the Trust, which has caused frustrations.  

A lot of feedback is informal, picked up via chats in the mess room, or shared on social media. So how do we make sure we’re getting an accurate picture of common problems and priorities for our volunteers? Since we started we have run regular surveys and reviews, generally on a local or team basis: ‘end of season’ reviews for our visitor-facing roles (like the iconic Volunteer Lock Keepers), and quarterly snapshots of random selections of volunteers. They’ve helped us identify some common problems such as communications, processing of expenses and distribution of equipment, and reassured us with good levels of retention and approval – a fairly steady 87% would tell friends and family to give volunteering with us a go.

Towpath Taskforce volunteers on the Monmouth & Brecon Canal  (Canal & River Trust)
Towpath Taskforce volunteers on the Monmouth & Brecon Canal (Canal & River Trust)

But this is only a small proportion of our volunteers, and crucially missing out some of our most diverse but distant groups, those from other organisations - such as parish councils, businesses and Scout groups. To reach everyone, in summer 2017 we did only our second ever survey with all of our volunteers, including the leaders of these groups.   We got a brilliant response of 1,240, 49% of our active volunteers. This was generally really positive, with 96% recommending the Trust as a place to donate time, 92% proud to volunteer for us, and 94% intending to continue volunteering. But there were some concerns, too: only 68% felt they had the resources needed, 51% felt safety suggestions were acted upon, and 56% that they were listened to and valued.

What are we doing to tackle these concerns, and build on the successes to date? A purely reactive approach, taking action when the clamour gets loud enough or the resources become available, can be popular but is rarely cost/effort effective, and is unlikely to tackle any systemic problems.   Our response is to pull together a ‘Volunteer Journey’: a plan to develop the best possible experience for our volunteers while they’re giving us their time, while making the most of the benefits for the Canal & River Trust. Within the plan there are 4 key outcomes:

Structure - Volunteering offers are structured, resourced effectively and consistently delivered

Communications – Effective Communication between us, our people and volunteers ensuring messaging is accurate, timely and relevant to support local and national decision making

Planning -   Volunteering opportunities are effectively planned for and delivered at a local and national level

Processes – Working processes and practices are consistent, high quality and accessible

Volunteers learning traditional brickwork techniques on a Caldon Canal  lengthsman’s hovel (Canal & River Trust)
Volunteers learning traditional brickwork techniques on a Caldon Canal lengthsman’s hovel (Canal & River Trust)

We've already started work in these areas.   First up, on structure: we’re more closely defining our volunteer manager roles and responsibilities more clearly with our staff teams; investing in training and development for our volunteering specialists; recruiting more volunteers to lead volunteers; and setting up a more consistent model for how we support groups ‘adopting’ a stretch of canal. Second, communications: making it easier to access opportunities on our website; setting up an annual volunteering conference; running regular newsletters for both our own volunteers and partner groups; and getting more interactive on social media.   Third, planning: pulling together training packages for our key volunteers; approving them to do skilled tasks such as boat helming and machinery operation; and building them into our works planning.   Finally, process: simplifying our safety paperwork, especially for partner groups; improving our induction sessions, especially for our more informal volunteers.

There’s lots more to do – we want to get better at providing feedback on ideas and complaints, get more consistent in how we use and support our volunteers, and crucially deliver on some of the projects we’re now developing. But we’re getting there, and it’s in no small part to the support of our volunteers. The Canal & River Trust simply couldn't continue to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, on Britain's canals and rivers, without the extraordinary commitment of our thousands of volunteers.   That’s enough to make everyone happy.

To find out more about volunteering at the Canal & River Trust, go to

Tom Freeland, Canal & River Trust

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

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