We know that volunteering counts. It’s difficult to quantify the economic value, although the ONS estimates that formal volunteering produced just short of £24 billion of economic output in 2012 – equivalent to 1.5% of GDP, but away from the pound signs, the benefits are numerous. Volunteers bring in new energy to teams, increase community ownership and relationships, introduce new skills to teams and build capacity at little extra cost. All of this enables charities and organisations to deliver the best and most effective services. As one trainee said of his host organisation, they ‘like the majority of charities, could not function as it does without the reliable contribution of thousands of regular volunteers who undertake fundamental roles delivering core activities.’
The most effective volunteering programs organise themselves round the volunteers as well as the charity and its beneficiaries. An academic study posed six key reasons why people volunteer – to express important values, feel they are helping others, learn more about the world, enhance their career, meet new people (or be viewed positively by those they already know), to reduce guilt, and for personal growth and enhancement. By understanding motivation and connecting with the individuals who are supporting them, organisations can maximise the impact that volunteers have, both now and in the future.
By communicating effectively, recognising the value of social networks, offering flexibility of roles and increasing the responsibility that volunteers have, organisations can improve the experience of volunteering for all concerned. These four aspects are explained below:
Whilst the statistics for volunteering vary by report, there does seem to be a move to more episodic volunteering rather than long term commitment. A number of the pieces of research indicated that a lack of time and a reluctance to make a long term commitment was a key barrier to volunteering. Offering more one off opportunities that reflect and complement lifestyles will not only attract more people, but can result in longer term engagement. Simply reviewing activities of the organisation to see if any could be undertaken outside of working hours is an option. As one trainee states: ‘A new approach is required that starts with bite-size easy access action.’
Volunteers often feel that they are not given jobs where they can really make a difference. Charities must not be demanding too much of volunteers to do work that has a market value and should be paid for, but equally must make sure that the effect they can have is not limited by being tasked with mundane or low impact role. By providing individuals with projects that matter to them and that have a visible connection to the wider aims of the charity, and instilling a sense of ownership and responsibility, they are not only more likely to continue their support, but really deliver with passion and excellence. By offering opportunities that develop skills and experience relevant to the sector the experience of volunteering can act as an almost pipeline to a career in the sector. Organisations where the central focus on personal development and employability is crucial to their volunteering models have been successful in attracting and retaining volunteers. ‘Transaction vs transformation’ is how one trainee communicated it, with the move towards developing individuals and the organisation being of mutual benefit.
Communication and connection
This could be through networking opportunities and social events, regular newsletters, sharing good news stories, or simply a conversation. Qualitative work from one trainee revealed that recognition and verbal praise was ten times more important to people than events or some kind of physical reward. The best volunteers provide time, skills and support and acknowledgement of their contribution is hugely appreciated. It’s also important that individuals know enough about the charity and are able to connect their tasks to the wider aims, and allowing time for discussion and encouraging buddying systems are ways to offer an opportunity for volunteers to contextualise their work, discuss its wider significance and consider the result of their individual actions.
Interpersonal activity is a hugely motivating factor for engagement and success. Repeatedly the research projects showed that the opportunity to widen social circles and spend time with like minded people was not only a motivation in starting volunteering, but a crucial factor in continuing with a placement and engaging with a charity. One study found that 50% of young people cite social interactions as their primary motivator whilst another showed that the young volunteers who were delivering the best work were those who were excited by their role and told others about it. It became part of their identity and as such they became ambassadors for the charity and their role within it. Volunteering can bring people into contact with others, and recognising this does not make a contribution any less valid, but can in fact result in a more engaged and committed work force.