Ten things we’ve learnt about volunteering

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Power to Change recently commissioned a study on the value that volunteers contributed to community businesses. In this blog, Sarah Thelwall describes some of the findings that might be useful for community businesses.

By Sarah Thelwall, MyCake.

Volunteers can be fundamental to the running of a community business. For most community businesses their volunteers are a key anchor for them in their community.

Volunteers are also the reason behind some community organisations, and their activities are driven by the ideas and vision of their volunteers: if the volunteers don’t want to do something, then it most likely doesn’t get done. The two-way relationship between organisation and volunteers (as representatives of the community that the organisations serve) is fundamental to the running of many of the community businesses we spoke to.

 

1. Starting up

We talked to dedicated, committed trustees and members of their community businesses’ board. Most had worked with their organisations since the start. The longevity of commitment was impressive. One thing that they told us was that it took a lot of time, concentration, hard work and focus to get their organisation set up in the first place.

This start up time is often all ‘funded’ by volunteer. To get help, find an organisation like yours that can mentor you.

2. Thinking about volunteers

As organisations that grow, consolidate and become more secure they tend to recruit permanent members of staff. There was a strong relationship between employed staff and the age of the community business. There was a less strong relationship between the age of the organisation and an increase in volunteers. So, we’d suggest at the same time as thinking about employing more staff ALSO think about how you can better utilise and expand your volunteer workforce to help carry you through funding gaps or cashflow crises.

3. Engage through events

You’ll get people turning up as they can identify with an immediate and specific goal and it’s a great way to introduce people to your organisation.

We suggest: getting your community engaged by giving them plenty of notice about what you’re going to do and when. Set a date, be specific about what’s expected and communicate widely through social media, flyers and word of mouth. 

4. What volunteers do

Although community businesses are as varied as the communities they serve, we found there was consistency in the way that all those we spoke to worked with volunteers – they said that focusing on how the volunteers wanted to engage was key to making it work both for their organisations and for the volunteers themselves, and we found that organisations used volunteers in five broad roles:

  • Founder members
  • Trustees & Board
  • ‘Regular’ volunteers with agreed roles/positions
  • ‘Walk-in’ volunteers
  • ‘Event’ or ‘functional’ volunteers

5. Drop-in jobs

Some volunteers drop in and ask if they could help, but wouldn’t want to commit to regular volunteering.

We suggest: making sure you have a readily available list of jobs for ‘drop in‘ volunteer work – on the front desk or somewhere handy for one of your ‘senior’ volunteers or volunteer manager if you have.

6. Engage your WHOLE community

All communities are different. Yours may be urban or rural, diverse or reasonably homogenous, spread out or very compact. On the whole, the more diverse the community the more diverse the volunteers.

We suggest: doing a volunteer audit. Is your group of volunteers representative of the age range, diversity and experience in your community?

7. Finding volunteers

By far the most common way our organisations found more volunteers was by word of mouth or through current volunteers but businesses also advertised for specific roles.

We suggest: If you need particular skills, don’t be afraid to ask for them, and ask your current volunteers to ask their own contacts and friends.

8. Dedicate time to managing your volunteers

Research showed that having someone dedicated to volunteer recruitment and management means that you will attract more volunteers, and everyone gets more out of the relationship.

Managing volunteers is not the same as managing paid staff so be prepared for the difference.

We suggest: making the relationship with your volunteers more efficient and effective by having clear job descriptions.

9. You can have too many volunteers as well as too few

Part of the research looked at the number of volunteers that an organisation could retain. For those organisations without any kind of volunteer management, this was a really small number.

10. Outdoor or practical work utilises the largest numbers of volunteers

In the community businesses we researched it became clear that the greatest volume of volunteer-delivered activity could be termed ‘practical work’. The organisations which maintain the largest volunteer workforce tend to deploy them in a shop, café or garden. If you’ve got a large estate that needs gardeners or painting and decorating, people in the local community are often interested in helping out.

If you are using a large volunteer workforce we suggest that understanding what drives people to participate will be helpful in shaping volunteer roles and retaining your volunteer base in future.