Volunteers are wonderful and often bring a variety of tools, skills and expertise to the organisation they choose to support. So let’s see just what volunteers keep in their toolbox both figuratively and literally!
Volunteers are invariably the cog in the machine that is your organisation. They often take up a minor role within it, but if they weren’t there how would you function? If you rely on volunteers to provide a service and they aren’t there for some reason this can mean a drop in service and disappointed clients
Many volunteers are campaigners, challenging inequalities or injustice and putting a spanner in the works! Look at the volunteers who start petitions etc. to organise others into objecting to building on a greenbelt area, a social injustice etc.
Other volunteers quite literally get stuck in with a spanner e.g. volunteering for a cycle recycling project, helping rejuvenate old or damaged bicycles to give to a child or young person who could not afford one otherwise.
Volunteers will often hammer a point home to encourage others to join a cause or raise awareness. Volunteering for one of the many charities supporting health related conditions such as fibromyalgia or dementia means they make have to challenge misconceptions and spread accurate information.
Helping at a repair café and mending broken or damaged chairs etc. is a practical use of this volunteer tool.
Service users are often asked to step in on a voluntary basis to see if services measure up e.g. accessibility, inclusivity etc.
Volunteers can also use their measuring skills helping to bake cakes for a fundraiser or helping with sewing group.
Volunteers living in particular areas may identify local issues in communities, researching what’s happening and drilling down to the causes, before they start tackling them e.g. lack of skills, lack of awareness, people not working together to tackle problems etc.
In practical terms a volunteer with a drill could be a lifesaver for someone vulnerable or elderly, who does not want workmen in their home. Local Age UK have DIY small tasks volunteers who can call on an older person by prior arrangement and assist by putting up smoke alarms, changing door handles etc.
Volunteers with social media skills are in high demand as they can help to paint a picture of an organisation and tell their stories. This will help to raise an organisation’s profile and potentially attract more volunteers or clients.
People with painting sills are always in demand. Teams of staff from companies are often keen to help a not-for-profit with some decorating. A team of willing volunteers wielding a paintbrush can soon freshen up a tired looking space.
Everyone knows that volunteers invariably bring enthusiasm in spades and new volunteers joining an existing team can help bring fresh skills and ideas which will benefit the organisation.
In practical terms there are plenty of gardening and environmental projects who could benefit from this enthusiasm and a volunteer who’s handing with a spade!
If you would like to see how local people are giving their time to help develop creative spaces in Dudley, why not visit Gather Dudley’s page to see just what tools they are using?
Ok so you are now wondering what on earth currency has to do with volunteering, but bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this. I promise I’m not talking about Brexit, politics or international business, just the currencies that are exclusive to volunteers.
I recently lost a friend Steve, who had volunteered for 30+ years in the same place and had more recently come to me for support to look at other options as he was not being treated well by the management of his long-term placement, and his motivations to volunteer were being called into question. He actually ended up volunteering for me with my annual Operation Santa appeal and spent 6 happy weeks wrapping and sorting donations, and his final role was helping to entertain 60 children and their parents at a Christmas party, making everyone laugh and smile.
This lovely volunteer when asked about why he volunteered said he was paid in smiles, so that was his volunteer currency – a smile. So how did he gather his currency? Steve volunteered on a children’s ward, so loved to approach a child or young person who had recently been admitted and was in pain, feeling miserable or at times in tears. His approach varied from child to child and his first step was often to invite them to meet his teddy friend, who invariably end up in bed with the child. With a sulky teenager he would have a different approach and his tenacity was amazing as he always got them to talk to him, even if they wouldn’t talk to anyone else. Steve was never happy until he’d managed to get a smile, even if it was a weak one it was a start! That was his payment 🙂 He also collected wishes from the children on the ward and did his best to fulfil these. This amazing volunteer gave hours of his own time over 3 decades and made 551 local children’s dreams come true. Everything from riding in a helicopter or a Ferrari, to meeting a celebrity or smashing gnomes! He even arranged a full prom for a young patient who couldn’t get to her school one.
Steve said himself:
“As a volunteer of course you don’t get paid for what you do not in financial terms, but to see that smile how can you put a price on that? Then of course you’ve got the day itself when you meet up and you see them lift off in that helicopter, or set off in that car so you get another smile, and you get a smile from the family and that’s a very fulfilling it’s very rewarding.”
However, this post isn’t simply a eulogy to a much loved volunteer, but a recognition that although volunteers may not receive anything in financial terms, they do get other rewards and I believe that’s what keeps them giving their time and skills to help others. So what other currencies are exclusive to volunteers and pardon the pun, something that money can’t buy?
What keeps a volunteer coming back to a role every week? Perhaps their role is helping out at a day centre, chatting to people with disabilities who may not get much chance to socialise and doing activities with them to promote their independence. A smile when you arrive and people wanting to chat to you makes you feel appreciated and realise that they value you giving your time. That’s a powerful currency feeling appreciated let’s be honest. When did you last feel appreciated? Didn’t it make you feel great?
I always encourage organisations to treat paid staff and volunteers in the same way to avoid volunteers feel less valued. I met a volunteer whom I had signposted to an organisation who was regaling me with their adventures since they started volunteering there and apparently the volunteers were treated better than the paid staff! Customers were much kinder and politer to the volunteers than the paid staff, telling them how wonderful they were and selfless for giving up their time to help the isolated and disabled. This is wonderful, but not very fair on the paid staff who are no doubt doing a sterling job in difficult circumstances! These kind words from customers are a wonderful motivational thing for volunteers wherever they may give their time, even the simplest things such as being thanked makes you feel better and know that you are doing a great thing by volunteering.
This is an area which tends to divide both volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations. Is it right to celebrate and recognise a single volunteer when you have lots of them? How do you choose who to recognise? This dilemma is a common one and maybe the simplest way to decide what’s best is to know your volunteers well. You will have the volunteers who want to operate under the radar and a simple ‘thank you’ is sufficient for them to feel valued and appreciated, whereas you will have other volunteers who love the spotlight and need to be told constantly that they are wonderful. Nominating volunteers for awards is always a conundrum isn’t it? Do you single out a volunteer or nominate a team? If they receive an award will they attend the event? Some will arrive dressed up to the nines and a speech prepared just in case, whereas others are far happier avoiding all the fuss, at home on the sofa in their pj’s! So tailored recognition is important and you should celebrate your volunteers as this makes them feel valued and reassures them that they are doing a great job, another currency of volunteering.
Feeling they’ve made a difference
Volunteering is all about making a difference let’s be honest, so this is yet another currency. You could be the only person someone sees in a week or talks to, particularly with a vulnerable older person. That hour every week is probably life-changing for them and that’s a powerful emotion isn’t it? Perhaps you are a sighted guide for someone who’s lost their sight and your weekly stroll to the shops is the highlight of their week, or befriend a single parent giving them a grown up to talk to, or someone to look after their children whilst they grab a bath and a little time to themselves. That’s the essence of volunteering isn’t it? Giving your time to make a difference to someone?
When did you last feel elated in your everyday life or feel you had achieved something? Volunteers must often experience this feeling. They could be the volunteer who set up a social group for people with dementia and their carers in a local church hall, helping both carers and those they care far have someone to talk to, discuss and share common problems, whilst those they are caring for enjoy some social activities. Or the volunteer leader who has supported and encouraged their young beavers to achieve their first badge. Imagine the elation and pride you would feel when they were presented and the smiles on their faces. Volunteers get a real kick from this particular currency.
Leaving a legacy
When volunteers move on for whatever reason – a new challenge, paid work, moving away from the area or even ill-health, knowing they’ve left a legacy is a powerful currency. The volunteer who’s developed a new service for clients, who’s fundraised £’s for a cause or like my dear friend Steve, granted wishes to 550+ poorly children. This is yet another currency that’s unique to volunteering, where someone investing their time can change lives and leave a lifelong legacy.
So volunteer currency has the feel-good factor, which can’t be said for traditional currencies. It is unique, international and accepted everywhere. It’s doesn’t devalue due to conflicting markets, war or political issues, in fact it’s a growing currency as more people choose to give their time as volunteers and enjoy it for themselves. Maybe we now need to capture this and encourage non-volunteers to buy into our single currency – volunteering 🙂
Much of the recommended volunteer management guidance focusses around good practice rather than legal requirements and ensuring you have these good practice measures in place helps minimise risk to both your organisation and the volunteers who support you.
Do volunteers have rights?
A few years ago the Volunteer Managers Network in Dudley were asked to write a Volunteering Compact to work across Dudley borough and we felt it was important to create a Volunteer Charter, which outlined both a volunteer’s rights and their responsibilities to the organisations they supported. This, we felt, would form the basis of a volunteer management programme for any volunteer-involving group. To help I have marked where the various ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ are good practice or a legal requirement.
|To be given a clear idea of their tasks and responsibilities within the organisation.||
|To be given the name of someone in the organisation who will look after their interests and who will offer them appropriate support, and supervision on a regular basis.||
|To be assured that any information shared with the organisation is kept confidential. [Data Protection]||
|To be given the same protection under health & safety regulations and public liability as paid employees. [Health and Safety]||
|To be offered opportunities for training and skills development, appropriate for the voluntary tasks involved.||yes|
|To have a complementary relationship with paid staff, who should be fully aware of the role and responsibilities of a volunteer.||yes|
|To have access i.e. through volunteer meetings etc., and to play a part in the decision-making process of the organisation/project.||
|To be informed about the agency’s policies relevant to the volunteer i.e. health & safety, grievance and disciplinary procedures.||
|To be provided with appropriate equipment, tools and materials associated to their tasks.||yes|
|Volunteers may join a trade union relevant to the work in which they are involved. NUPE, MSF and UNISON currently welcome volunteers into their membership.||yes|
|To be supported when things go wrong and to be encouraged to learn from their mistakes or difficulties.||
|Volunteers should not: –|
| Be used to replace paid workers [if they do so they may have employment rights]||
| Have unfair demands made on their time||
| Be asked to do something which is against their principles or beliefs||yes|
| Be subject to any discrimination e.g. on the basis of race, sexuality, age, gender||yes|
| Be out of pocket through undertaking voluntary work – travel and other expenses should be reimbursed||yes|
|To support and embrace the organisation’s aims and objectives.||yes|
|To do what is reasonably requested of them, to the best of their ability.||yes|
|To recognise the right of the organisation to expect quality of service from all its volunteers.||yes|
|To recognise that they represent the organisation and therefore need to act in an appropriate manner at all times.||yes|
|To honour any commitment made to the best of their abilities, notifying the organisation in good time should they be unable to keep that commitment e.g. for holidays.||yes|
|To be willing to undertake appropriate training with respect to health & safety issues, insurance liability and general good practice as necessary for the voluntary work undertaken. [volunteers need to understand they are responsible for their own health and safety and to raise any health and safety issues they observe with the appropriate person]||yes||yes|
|To abide by any relevant policies and procedures.||yes|
|To offer suggestions for changes/improvements in working practices to the Volunteer Co-ordinator/Project Officer.||yes|
When it goes wrong …
Good practice procedures around volunteer involvement are essential and should cover all elements of involving volunteers. If a volunteer feels unfairly treated and the organisation does not have robust, transparent procedures in place to deal with problem solving around their volunteers, they may be tempted to attempt to go to an employment tribunal.
“I’ve been volunteering for XXXX for three years and receive a set sum every week for expenses to make sure that I am not out of pocket. We also receive this when we do not come in due to being not well or away on holidays with our families. I had to commit to work 12 hours per week as a ‘volunteer’ and receive £25 per week (subsequently increased to £40) ‘to cover expenses’. When I became pregnant I was dismissed. I have taken the organisation to court to claim sex discrimination and unfair dismissal due to sex.”
So has this volunteer been treated unfairly? The tribunal had to decide whether she was working under a contract of employment in order to claim unfair dismissal. It’s quite clear that the organisation had unwittingly created an employment contract, so she was in fact considered an employee by the fact that she received a fixed payment for volunteering, which was even paid when she was on holiday or off sick, plus she was volunteering for a fixed commitment of 12 hours per week. She thus had rights to claim unfair dismissal.
“Myself and the other volunteers sign a written agreement and we are expected to attend monthly meetings and induction training. There is no minimum time commitment by volunteers and XXXX reimburse actual out of pocket expenses only. We claim we are employees.”
What do you think about this grievance? Do the volunteers have employment rights? In this case they don’t for the following reasons:
- “expected to attend” – means there is no obligation on the part of the volunteer to attend if they do not wish to
- “no minimum time commitment” – the volunteers are not signed up to volunteer for a fixed amount of time per week
- “reimburse actual out of pocket expenses only” – there are no fixed amounts
The organisation is clearly very careful to ensure they have good practice in place around involving volunteers, so do not create an employment contract with their volunteers.
Please don’t forget if you need any help or support I’m happy to help and that’s what I’m here for 🙂 Just contact me on email@example.com
This really sums up volunteer recognition in a nutshell doesn’t it? The simplest ways of appreciating what volunteers do are often the best way, but every volunteer is different and once you get to know them you will soon learn that there are those who want to operate under the radar, whereas others love to be in the spotlight!
“On the surface, saying thanks is easy – we all do it every day without thought. But saying thanks in an organisational context can be a very different prospect. Firstly, it can be easy just to forget. If, like many charities, your trustees and leadership team have an ambitious vision, then the pressure is on to always look forward, at the expense of reflection.
Or your charity may be characterised by a rigid hierarchy that doesn’t always encourage positive feedback to be filtered down. Because volunteers don’t get paid, you might think that we should naturally be more inclined to thank them. But it might be just as easy to take their generosity for granted, especially if they have been with you for some time. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the ill-judged thank you – too fleeting, insincere, or undeserved. At best it may fall flat; at worst it can anger and linger.
So how, how often, and to whom you demonstrate gratitude should be as integral to your volunteer management strategy as their recruitment, training and retention. “
NCVO – Quick guide to thanking volunteers
Let’s get thinking now about how you can show your volunteers you appreciate them, which in turn will lead to your volunteers staying with you as they will feel happy and valued. Retention is a talent volunteer managers need to cultivate!
A simple ‘thank you’ or ‘you’ve been a star’ is a great way to show your appreciation, but as it says above, you should mean it and it should never be a token gesture. Volunteers need to feel welcome, appreciated and part of the organisation and it needs to be an integral part of your volunteer management.
There’s also the question of who should thank volunteers. It would be great if it’s not just the person who looks after the volunteers on a day-to-day basis, but the Chairman or Chief Executive. You could put on an afternoon tea or coffee morning for your volunteers and invite the Chief Exec to present certificates.
In Dudley borough we are very fortunate as part of the Mayor’s role is to be Volunteering Champion for their year in office. Our lovely local Mayors are always delighted to host visits for teams of local volunteers, giving them a tour of the Council Chamber, fascinating insight into the local history and also a cuppa afterwards. They talk to every single invitee and are always happy to present certificates or say a few words of appreciation.
A nice gesture
“Every year we have a volunteer party and the Chairman gives us all a special certificate to show his appreciation for our efforts. I love volunteering and would do it anyway, but it’s lovely to feel valued as it makes you feel like you’ve made a difference. I really feel part of the team, we all do and it’s why we give our time every week.”
Celebrating your volunteers need not cost a fortune and you could design your own certificates in house, or contact the Volunteer Centre who have lots of templates on file and will happily print you some off in colour on white card. You could also have awards for length of service eg 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years etc.
To nominate or not to nominate – that is the question!
Nominating volunteers for local and national awards is a great way to recognise your volunteers, but not every volunteer is happy to be in the spotlight. You have some volunteers who just want to turn up and help, happy with their ‘thank you’ and attending a low key volunteer gathering, whereas others would love to be the centre of attention and have their evening dress/dinner suit on standby as soon as they receive an invitation to a volunteer awards event. They have probably prepared an acceptance speech too just in case! I’m sure you can identify volunteers you know from both these descriptions. Not everyone likes to stand out and over the years we have had some very shy volunteers receiving awards at Dudley Volunteer Awards, who are really not comfortable with taking to the stage. That’s human nature and that’s why we love our volunteers isn’t it, because they are all unique with different personalities?
I’ve actually written a guide on this topic, which you will hopefully find helpful and get you thinking about how you can celebrate your amazing volunteers. A volunteer is for life, not just Volunteers Week!
Volunteers rarely give their time for the joy of recognition, but that doesn’t mean it won’t drive them to perform at higher levels or keep coming back to volunteer in the future.
In their own words …
Every year Dudley CVS run Dudley Volunteer Awards and this year’s #dva19 will celebrate and recognise amazing local people who give their time to make Dudley borough a better place to live. Anyone can nominate an individual or group of volunteers and we launch the awards in Volunteers Week each year, with the closing date in early September. Each volunteer who is nominated receives an invitation to this wonderful celebration and have their name called out on the night, so they can be presented with a certificate. Here are some lovely snippets from #dva18 so you can share the pride of these outstanding volunteers.
Please don’t forget if you need any help or support I’m happy to help and that’s what I’m here for 🙂 Just contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
A local organisation has offered us two printers, which need a little TLC but are free to a good home for a local not-for-profit. Please contact me if if you are interested.
- Epson XP322 – inkjet. This is a colour printer, scanner and photocopier. But the printheads need cleaning/adjusting as the print doesnt come out in line. Its ok if you are only using it for personal use, but not really suitable for proper use. Spare ink cartridges too that can go with the printer if taken.
- Samsung ML2240 Laser printer. This is just standard black printer, but is laser rather than inkjet. It works ok, except that it can sometime be temperamental in actually picking up the paper to print. so possibly may need something twiddling with or replacing to make it better for picking up the paper
Some volunteers will be happy to come in and carry out the same tasks week in and week out for years, but others may need a fresh challenge, or will have specific aims that they want to achieve through their volunteering. If you don’t take this into account your volunteers may end up leaving before they otherwise might, or at the very least will not be giving as much time and effort as they could. For many people the benefits that volunteering can bring around work experience, confidence building, learning new skills and trying new things are exactly what they are looking for, so it makes sense to highlight and enhance these aspects where appropriate. Ultimately, the more you put into volunteering, the more you will get out of it
However, not all volunteers want to develop their skills or attend training and I can attest to that as I have memories of trying to persuade two octogenarian volunteers that they needed to attend child protection training during one of my numerous volunteer roles. That’s the challenge though don’t you think? Striking a balance between essential training for a voluntary role, such as child protection, food hygiene, dementia awareness etc. and offering training which could be considered not relevant, possibly unwittingly creating a contract with your volunteers. You have to be careful with offering volunteers opportunity to develop beyond that which is relevant to their role for the same reason. I think the secret is possibly about managing expectations and offering appropriate development, and training should a volunteer require it.
I had a full skills analysis when I started my role
“As part of my induction I was encouraged to do a skills analysis myself, then discussed the results with the volunteer co-ordinator. It was a bit scary and I don’t think I have many skills, as I left school with poor grades and haven’t worked for years. Mark helped me identify skills I did not realise I had and also talk about new ones I would like to learn. The skills are a real mix and include things like dealing with telephone calls, learning how to use the photocopier and also personal things like feeling more confident about my own abilities. We have a plan which we’ve worked out together and I record what I’ve learnt in my volunteering journal. When we have support sessions we sit down together and see how I’m doing with my plan. There is no pressure and I can do as much or as little learning as I like, but I feel it’s really helping me identify the skills I need to get back into employment and push myself. This is really helping me with my self-esteem”
This sounds like a really good thing for a volunteer to do doesn’t it? It’s offering the volunteer the opportunity to go at their own pace and the journal is a great way to log what they have learnt, which in turn will help them with job applications. It’s also really clear that the organisation is offering tailored development and training opportunities. Unlike employees, volunteers should not be saddled with too great a burden. This is not meant to belittle the volunteers, but rather to present them with realistic goals. Provide volunteers with clear, accurate, and concise goals from the beginning so they have direction and can produce quality results from the start.
“Training means different things to different people and there are many ways that people learn. Volunteers may need less formal training than paid staff as they may be doing very specific roles for limited periods. However, it is important that they be given opportunities to get feedback on how they are doing in the role.
Without being too formal, supervision and support sessions can provide these opportunities. Volunteers can think about their work and how they contribute to the organisation’s objectives. Volunteers like to know about any changes coming that are likely to impact on them! “
Volunteers obviously need to be trained to carry out their role, but there is no reason for training to stop there. Opportunities for ongoing learning mean volunteers have the chance to grow and develop. This does not have to be whole day training courses – you could run short workshops as part of a volunteer meeting for example. Training must be relevant to the role however. Training that is merely offered as a perk and not to support or develop what the volunteer is doing could affect the legal status of the volunteer, giving them access to some employment rights. Ask the Volunteer Centre if you want to know more about this issue.
In Service or Core Training
Look at your organisation to see whether there are core elements which apply to all new volunteers, and which you do not think are currently included in your induction programme. Volunteers may require training in respect of their tasks, together with additional training in relation to:
- equal opportunities – everyone is entitled to expect equal treatment
- rights and responsibilities of volunteers
- basic listening skills (if in times of emergencies/busy periods, you require all volunteers to answer telephone enquiries)
- Health & safety, first aid etc.
What have I done? I’m now trapped with expectations I can’t manage!
“So I started volunteering for XXXXXX 2 months ago and when I first started I was told I could take my time to work through the various training modules I need to do to be a fully-fledged volunteer. Unfortunately I’ve now been told that I have to complete all 7 modules in my first 6 months and up by commitment from 4 hours a week, to 8! I can’t do that many hours as I work part-time and have caring commitments. It seems really unfair and they have also made me fill in a holiday form for when I need to take time off, plus I have to ring at 9:00 am to notify them if I can’t come in. Last week I was really poorly with a bad cold and they were texting me every morning, asking when I was coming back.”
Reading this through this voluntary role it’s starting to look like an employment contract – completing training in a fixed amount of time, having to make a fixed larger commitment and also having to fill in a holiday form – don’t you think? It sounds like the training and development goals set when the volunteer started have suddenly been changed without consulting the volunteer.
I was offered this great training but it’s been a disaster and I’ve now been slapped with a bill for £1200! Should have read the small print!
“I’ve wanted to be a counsellor for as long as I can remember but the training courses are quite expensive, so I could not believe my luck when I found a charity who offers a training course as part of the role for free. I had been on the induction, they had sent off my DBS Check and I had one more session to go on the training when we were told that if we did not commit to 250 hours of counselling support in the six months after qualifying, we were liable to repay the cost of the training – £1200! When I worked it out that’s 10 hours of counselling support a week and that does not include supervision for us, which we have to pay for ourselves! What am I going to do? I have two little ones and work three evenings a week.”
Sometimes things are too good to be true and some organisations are so desperate to recruit trained volunteers to support vulnerable clients that they unwittingly end up creating a contract with their volunteers. Insisting that volunteers have to offer 250 hours of counselling over a 6 month period, or have to repay their training costs, is creating a contract with any volunteer who commits to undertake the training, which could result in the organisation being sued for employment rights!
I’m moving on
“I’ve really grown whilst I’ve been volunteering with XXXXXX and I now feel confident enough to start applying for paid work again. The things I’ve learnt have all helped me grow as a person and the training I’ve attended such as listening skills, mental health awareness and basic first aid, means that I no longer have great gaps in my CV. I can’t thank them enough for giving me a chance to volunteer in the first place and I am more than happy to tell my story to help encourage others to volunteer there too.”
An argument against putting effort into volunteer development could be that you will lose some volunteers as they use their skills and confidence to find work. This is true, but it should be seen as a success, not a drawback. By their nature, volunteers come and go. If they leave having had a good experience, they will tell friends and family – good word of mouth is a valuable recruitment tool. In addition, they may still wish to support your organisation in future, through donations or one-off/occasional volunteering.
Developing volunteers is about helping them to achieve their aspirations, both personal ones about how they want to develop and mutual, where their development will help the organisation they volunteer for.
Please don’t forget if you need any help or support I’m happy to help and that’s what I’m here for 🙂 Just contact me on email@example.com