Supporting the Volunteering offer
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By Ruth Leonard, Chair of Association of Volunteer Managers
People have been long encouraged to volunteer as part of their wellbeing and increasing happiness. Linked to the increased recognition during the pandemic of the importance of being outside and the value of spending time in the countryside there is growing interest in volunteering within nature. There was a reference to this in this month’s edition of the popular Psychologies magazine!
But in order to support these initiatives and enable people to contribute effectively, it is vital to think about how to develop and provide the relevant set up. A key element of this infrastructure, I would argue, is having well-trained and well-supported people to provide the volunteer management. We are all familiar with the well-deserved accolade of volunteers. But in order to enable volunteers to offer the greatest value, we need to recognise that Volunteer Managers matter as well.
Volunteer involving organisations invest a lot of resources into the recruitment of volunteers but it is just as important to keep up their motivations and retain them.
Recruiting volunteers is the start of the journey; retaining volunteers is the key to future development. Focussing as much time on keeping volunteers as we do on recruiting new one’s turnover might decrease, which would take away the pressure of constant recruitment.
Volunteers, just like paid staff need:
- an investment of time for training and ongoing communication
- attention in terms of feedback and recognition
Just as paid staff do, volunteers need a strong strategic narrative from the organisation they choose to give their time to, so that they can understand where it’s going and how they fit in and it is important that they have a voice throughout the organisation. Effective training not only equips volunteers with the confidence and skills to carry out their role, but it also encourages a sense of commitment because it emphasises their value to you. Integral to volunteer retention is recognising and appreciating the time and effort they bring; volunteers who stay are the ones who feel they are making a significant impact; so celebrate all successes. Understand your volunteers’ motivations; and recognise that these change over time. Find out why they want to volunteer with you and how these motivations can be met through giving time to you?
Volunteers are your key stakeholders and we all need to think about how we communicate with them, so that they can hear messages in a consistent way no matter where they are or how they give their time. When someone does come on board give them welcome information and check with them how they want to be updated throughout their time with you. People’s priorities do change during their lives and by recognising that and letting them know they’re allowed to leave you’ll give a positive experience that ensures people are engaged and motivated. A leaving pack with a personalised thank you letter – and including an exit survey – is a nice way to show that they’re going on a positive note; which might mean they’ll come back or recommend volunteering with you to someone else.
Some people want to volunteer so that they can bring their experience and expertise to your organisation; others might get involved because they want to improve their skills or learn something new. Learning and development is an important contributor to increasing retention; giving as it does the support to a volunteer to carry out their role properly but also because it shows that you want to invest in them. Induction to your organisation is as important to volunteers as it is to paid staff. Induction doesn’t have to be delivered in the old-fashioned, time intensive ‘chalk and talk’ training methods. Think about peer-peer learning opportunities, because it’s clear that people do learn most through ‘on the job’ experiences, as it were – and things like buddying schemes will have the two-fold effect of valuing and developing the more senior volunteer who will be the buddy and free up the valuable time of the staff member who is probably having to meet their own quite challenging KPIs and objectives.
Acknowledging the contributions your volunteers make is vital, but it’s also important to find appropriate ways to do this. For some people the traditional glitzy awards ceremony is far from motivating and is a real turn off; though others of course love their chance in the limelight and the sense of occasion. Look at how to recognise and reward in more personal ways, responding to what individuals want. More important than the big gestures, such as an award ceremony, are the everyday things you do to make volunteers feel valued. We all know that a simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way.
Support and supervision is a key factor to keeping volunteers involved and is indispensable to a meaningful recognition scheme. Volunteers want to be sure that there is someone they can go to who will offer support and advice, who will respect their role and their needs. These are also the perfect time to say thank you and learn about what keeps them wanting to remain involved; and possibly to address any problems. Sadly, all too often support and supervision is the one area which is overlooked, because of time constraints and conflicting priorities; but being able to keep a volunteer because you’ve been able to build up that relationship with them and are staying aware of any problems or concerns may well be a better use of your time then constantly going through the revolving door of recruitment.
As I said earlier It’s important to concentrate as much on the experience and support of those who directly manage volunteers as on the journey of the volunteers themselves. It is the personal impact of those who involve volunteers that can make all the difference between a good experience and a poor one, regardless of the exemplary materials that may have been produced. All the retention tools organisations have created are great ways to help volunteers develop skills, experience new and exciting challenges, meet other people, recognise and reward participation, outstanding achievement, or long service. But these methods are only effective if the staff who manage volunteers are skilled, confident, and creative volunteer managers and know how to create and celebrate a range of approaches. For AVM volunteer managers means anyone and everyone who works with volunteers, not just paid staff members with that term in their job title. We know that for the majority of the people who involve volunteers, this is only a part of their role.
I recognise that many organisations and groups don’t have the skills to develop the resources which are needed in-house, In these cases, there is a wealth of experience in the sector to help people learn the essential skills. In the UK, this includes the membership organisation, the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) https://volunteermanagers.org.uk/
AVM is an independent body, run for and by volunteer managers, which provides information, advice, and training on a wide range of relevant subjects to people who manage volunteers regardless of field, discipline, or sector. We have pledged to “empower, enable, and amplify the voice of all volunteer managers across the UK.” A practical piece of advice for people interested in supporting or learning more about the professional development of volunteer managers would be to engage with these existing networks where you are and share resources and information. This benefits all volunteer managers – and ultimately the volunteers themselves.
First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in affiliation with the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) on 28 February 2022. Read the full issue here
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