Changes in volunteering over CJS's 25 years

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Logo: CJS

By Kerryn Humphreys, Owner, Editor

In the many years that Countryside Jobs Service (CJS) has been advertising jobs we've seen many changes not least to the voluntary opportunities.

Initially CJS was only published as a paper edition - there was no internet (gasp, horror, I know how did we ever manage?) so space was limited and in other publications very expensive which meant that only the jobs that absolutely had to be advertised appeared in the mainstream, traditional press. Voluntary roles were more usually advertised locally, often by posters on notice boards which would be seen by people visiting the reserve or site and come back to offer a helping hand. Details of longer term placements were circulated through the careers services of schools and colleges. As word spread that CJS offered free advertising many more unpaid vacancies were sent our way. Initially only the full time, long term, (six month or longer) placements but over the years many more roles in many different guises.

So, what changes have we seen in our 25 years (so far and counting!).

More vacancies in general

When people contacted us asking how to get a job in the countryside we used to advise them to see which organisations were in their area and then go to ask (politely) if they needed any help or request a shadow day, which is still good advice. Now many more organisations are advertising their volunteer requirements and recently this has included some private companies offering training in return for 'bodies on the ground'.

Some well-known popular larger organisations like our local National Park, the North York Moors, used to have waiting lists for people to join their volunteer ranger teams, however as budgets are cut and the volume of work required increases more volunteers are needed to ensure these bodies meet their statutory duties and as a direct result there are more countryside and similar roles available.

In the early days volunteering used to be limited to certain organisations. We always used to refer people to BTCV (TCV now) or Groundwork but now virtually all charities have voluntary opportunities and lots have volunteer co-ordinators suggesting they can pay for (or get grants for) a post to recruit and oversee volunteering and community involvement but don't have enough cash to pay for the jobs to be done on a paid post basis - or sometimes that the tasks are short term / limited and change frequently.

Type of work

There's been a change in types of role on offer as well. We see a lot more requirement for administrative support in part-time voluntary roles. Often placement type vacancies include some element of managing social media - which we envisage is making use of the younger volunteers to bring in skills either lacking or not current in existing paid (frequently older) staff.

Environmental Education is a slightly unusual one, risk assessments and health and safety have decreased the child (participant) to adult ratio therefore more responsible adults are needed which has increased the number of roles, however child safeguarding, DBS and similar safety check schemes mean, quite rightly, that organisations need to be sure volunteers are suitable to be working with children or vulnerable adults and consequently organisers are keen to keep already checked volunteers. We have noticed a slight reduction in the numbers of these roles in the last year or two which we think may be down to the DBS requirement, getting your DBS can be time consuming and costly.

There have always been 'odd' jobs advertised, when certain unusual skills are needed on an occasional basis, every year we advertise for canoe safari guides for Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust which involves taking visitors out in canoes and kayaks around the bodies of water to see the waterfowl in their natural habitat. Many sites need photographs for publications, notice boards, press releases and of course social media and frequently now advertise for an occasional photographer, either to document a specific project or to call in occasionally to create a record of the changing seasons; one Wildlife Trust asked for an underwater photographer - now that's a real specialism and a great one to add to your CV.

One really big change we've witnessed is the increase in occasional volunteering either on a regular or one off basis. National Trust properties often need gardeners to help keep them looking spic and span, no experience necessary just a willingness to help and pull up the weeds, or trim the edges. Many places need friendly faces to welcome visitors and guide them around pointing out all the highlights. Sometimes charitable organisations, like RSPB, advertise for people to distribute and check collection boxes. Previously there was no need to advertise other than at the site itself or in their own promotional material.

Changes to volunteer offer

There has been a significant increase in the support offered to people on longer / full time placements to help get paid work and start their careers. Adverts carry more details of training packages offered and more are paying for full certification courses not just in-house training.

Some are quite specific in level of expenses offered (I assume someone's tried it on at some point!). Conversely we are seeing fewer adverts that say "any other tasks that may be requested" I think organisations are having to be more specific, having to create a full job profile, job description and consequently advert. We're not sure if that's to do with H&S, insurance or that volunteers are more 'demanding' probably a combination of all three.

Volunteer numbers

CJS run regular surveys to keep tabs on how things are going, both for us and across the sector in general. The last couple of advertisers surveys have both reported a decrease in number of applicants and a decrease in interest - that goes for paid posts too. There are many possible reasons for this but the most likely are: people can't afford to volunteer, there are more posts so the same numbers are now spread across more vacancies, people are being more picky.

Type of volunteers

There does seem to be a bit more recruitment of retired people - less chance of them moving on perhaps, in the early days all volunteer roles were aimed at those looking to get started in the sector (either graduates or career changers) also a change in slant to things that can be done alongside another job elsewhere - the pay it back / forward, work-life balance perhaps? Microvolunteering is a series of easy tasks that can be done anytime, anywhere, on your own terms, it can involve anything from signing a petition or retweeting a message a few seconds each to helping out with citizen science by reporting sightings (5-10 minutes) or taking an hour to count birds in your garden in activities such as the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. None of these represent a long term commitment beyond completing the task in hand but all add to the wealth of volunteering carried on everyday across the country, in all sectors not just the countryside and wildlife ones. In 1994 microvolunteering had never been dreamt of and there were very few part time roles, what 'time off' was permitted was for DSS interviews or similar.

All in all volunteering has changed hugely over our 25 years, it is still one of the best ways to start a life-time career in the countryside sector and today our volunteers, full time, part time and occasional helping hands are all ever more needed and provide vital support.

To see volunteer opportunities with CJS click through to

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 10 Febraury 2020. Read the full issue here

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