Volunteers building

Retaining and empowering volunteers through and beyond Covid-19

By Rose Anderson 15 April 2021 5 minute read

A recent seminar—run in partnership with the Clothworkers’ Company—explored what trustees are and should be doing to ensure their charity is harnessing the power of volunteers. The event was chaired by Lucy de Groot CBE, NPC trustee. Lucy was formerly the CEO of Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters. Our speakers included Tiger de Souza MBE, People Engagement Director at the National Trust; Nicola Steuer, a trustee of Help on Your Doorstep; and Paul Reddish, Chief Executive of Volunteering Matters.

Charities are looking to encourage and enable volunteering through and beyond Covid-19. Trustees are often volunteers themselves, so they have a stake in doing this well. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on volunteers. There is a sense that more people, and a wider range of people, are volunteering than ever before—but how true is this?

Has there been a surge in volunteering?

There has been a modest increase in volunteering during the pandemic, in terms of raw numbers. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Community Life Covid-19 Re-contact Survey found that 9% of respondents were new volunteers and 6% were already volunteering pre-pandemic and had increased how much they did.

But, as Paul Reddish stressed at our event, it can be difficult to compare the numbers of volunteers giving their time before and during the pandemic. We’ve heard so much about ‘new’ mutual aid groups, but in many cases these supposedly new organisations already existed before the pandemic and simply stepped up to help with the crisis. These volunteers would have already been active in their communities, volunteering in other settings.

So, what has changed?

If there has been a surge, it is not in the number of new volunteers but in the number of volunteers coming forward at the same time. Paul found that there was an immediate wave at the start of the pandemic of people wanting to offer support and this put a strain on charities’ infrastructure as they tried to get everyone involved.

A free army of volunteers doesn’t just pop up out of the blue—training, ongoing support and some surrounding infrastructure are crucial for them to be able to make a contribution.

Covid-19 has accelerated some trends that were already in progress before the pandemic, including an increase in engagement of young people with volunteering. At the National Trust, where the majority of volunteers are over 64 years old, Tiger de Souza has seen young people become more keen to engage with the trust, especially with its environmental-based volunteering.

How can you engage new volunteers?

One initial barrier to engaging new volunteers could be the language used—in particular, the implications surrounding the word ‘volunteering’. Nicola Steuer explained that at Help on Your Doorstep, people ‘help out’ rather than ‘volunteer’, because the latter word is seen as too formal. In addition, Paul noted that skilled volunteers, such as treasurers, are more likely to sign up if the role is described as ‘pro bono work’ rather than ‘volunteering’.

However, what matters more than language is the work that volunteers would be doing. At our event, we discussed how volunteers now have more ground-up, entrepreneurial reasons for wanting to get involved in their communities—as opposed to engaging with a top-down structure, whereby charities dictate roles to people and train them to carry out those roles in a specific way. For example, when volunteering, some people care less about brand loyalty and more about doing something to solve a particular problem. This suggests that, to engage new volunteers, charities ought to try to understand what matters to people and then support them to make it happen. That means giving volunteers more agency in how they support their cause and creating roles with more flexibility built into them.

In fact, flexibility was the key word that came out of our seminar. Ideally, there should be volunteering opportunities that allow people to dip in and out. As Tiger noted, people’s lifestyles are changing and the pressures they face can squeeze the time they have available to volunteer. If charities can create roles that work on the terms of the individual, rather than those of the organisation, then people will come away with a more positive impression of what it’s like to volunteer. Consequently, people are more likely not only to start volunteering, but to keep going in the medium and long term.

How can you support existing volunteers?

Retaining volunteers is a matter of considering their welfare and the support you make available to them. This is especially relevant during a pandemic, when people’s physical and mental health may be under more strain than usual.

Knowing who will and won’t be available to volunteer requires careful management on the part of the charity. There is some potential for technology to automate this process. Paul highlighted the GoodSAM app and SpareHand as examples. Both services can match volunteers to needs in their community, whereas before a volunteer manager would have to respond to emails or make phone calls to get volunteers in the right places. Automating certain processes can free up volunteer managers to build deeper relationships with volunteers, as opposed to only getting in touch to ask them to do things.

During the seminar, the possibility of ‘passporting’ was also discussed—essentially, people that volunteer in a certain area being able to take their skills from one organisation or scenario to another. This would not be without its challenges. It might increase the administrative burden on charities and the training that a volunteer has for one role may differ from the training they need for another. However, the general principle remains that charities owe it to volunteers to make volunteering as easy as possible and should be working to remove barriers that might prevent people from being able to give their time.

It is important to integrate volunteers with the rest of your team, but doing this can be challenging during a pandemic. Finding new ways to help volunteers settle in and understand how the charity works is vital. Safeguarding is also a key consideration. Charities must make sure they are equipping people with knowledge about safeguarding processes and where to go if they see something concerning.

Some promising moves are being made on inclusivity: people from ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to start volunteering for the first time between March 2020 and July 2020 than those from a white background (12% vs 8%). But, as Tiger explained, the current population of volunteers is still not the most diverse of groups. He suggested that charities might want to look at how they recognise and celebrate difference among their volunteers. Many people volunteer in the hope of connecting with others but if this is not handled well, it could become a barrier to other people volunteering.

Part of creating an inclusive environment is giving volunteers a voice. Nicola believes a good way for charities to support volunteers is to ask them where they want to go and where they believe they can add value. Ideally, volunteers should have a say in the decision-making process and be able to influence what the charity does.

It has often been assumed that the people that help out and the people who are helped are entirely different groups, but this old distinction between ‘volunteers’ and ‘beneficiaries’ is outdated. Some people can be both. Nicola sometimes sees people helping out in one session one day and participating in a different activity the next. Additionally, there is no reason why volunteers and beneficiaries cannot work together.

Recently, some charities have been working with volunteers at a heightened level of involvement, in part thanks to Covid-19 related funding issues. However, continuing to engage so deeply will require investment. Charities can’t take a half-hearted approach. As the vaccine rollout continues and we (hopefully) see more restrictions lifted, it’s vital for charities to stay aware of how their volunteers are feeling and to think about adapting their offer to them.

You can watch the full recording of this seminar here. We are also delighted to once again be in partnership with the Clothworkers’ Company for this year’s Charity Governance Awards. You can learn more about the charities on this year’s shortlist here.

Charities and trustees need to give volunteers more agency, create more flexible roles, and build deeper relationships with volunteers. Read this @NPCthinks blog on volunteering: Click To Tweet