Diversifying your volunteer cohort

30 August 2023
A group volunteers of all ages in bright blue tshirts, smiling at the camera.

What’s your approach to planning a day trip?

Do you set off without checking your fuel gauge, without a map or faintest idea where you’re going? Do you wing it?

Or do you check the car is roadworthy, have a map and an itinerary for the day? Have you checked the weather and got change for parking? Some like to just set off and see what happens, others like to consider all eventualities. Most of you will probably like a mix of both.

Volunteer recruitment is similar – you need to plan your recruitment campaign in advance but be reactive to changes where required. Asking the questions ‘what do we need, why and for how long?’ means you can outline the short, medium and long term requirements for your organisation. Not having a plan means you don’t know what you will likely need in terms of numbers and types of volunteers as well as budgets for marketing and training. It also means you are more likely to recruit similar volunteers from the same pool that you always have.

So, how do you diversify your pool of volunteers?

Setting specific targets with volunteer recruitment isn’t always conducive if you work in a community where diversity isn’t obvious – or is it?

What does diversity mean to you – how would you define it?

What could you do to improve the diversity of your volunteer cohort? Think back to what you need, why and for how long. It isn’t as simple as saying ‘we accept anyone’. You need to proactively reach out to those who aren’t ordinarily approaching you – but remember this shouldn’t be a tick box exercise.

When people from different backgrounds and life experiences work together they bring with them a variety of perspectives that can educate others – reaching new customers and unexplored areas of work. It is also a great opportunity to learn and improve understanding between genders, cultures and generations.

The added strengths that diverse volunteer recruitment brings

Remember why you want to involve volunteers. What will they bring to your organisation? Some will bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm whilst also complimenting the skills of your paid staff. They will bring new perspectives and may help you establish new or strengthen existing links with the local community. The added value that volunteers bring will help you and your organisation in more ways than can be accredited to salary savings.

Be aware of unconscious bias

When it comes to recruiting more diverse volunteers you may experience some unconscious bias. Be prepared to be challenged and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Analyse your behaviours and language and see how that affects people. Be prepared to change but acknowledge that we are only human and do make mistakes. It is important to own these mistakes and learn from them as you work towards a more inclusive way of working.

Consider the different skills that different age groups offer

Targeting people for skills and experience related to their occupation is one avenue but doesn’t mean only reaching out to those who are currently employed. Where are young people being trained in the skills you seek? If you produce a regular newsletter and publicity materials why not consider a graphic design student with desktop publishing skills? Contact your local university, college or 6th form and ask if you could display an advert on a communal notice board. Students can use the experience to build up a portfolio of work whilst also addressing an identified local need. It would likely be a short term placement but one which you could repeat with other students perhaps formalising it as a V-Inspired placement opportunity.

What about those who have recently retired or who are about to give up work? Some employers run pre-retirement courses for those who are about to give up work – the police being one example. Likewise a retired accountant may welcome an opportunity to be the bookkeeper or treasurer for a small charity or group – using their skills whilst also keeping up to date with current methods.

One of the most valuable aspects of having a diverse volunteer cohort is the chance to bring different viewpoints, experiences and insights together. It can strengthen a community by offering opportunities for sharing different skills and understandings.

Intergenerational volunteering can be powerful. Older volunteers who possess a lifetime of experiences can offer guidance and support. Younger volunteers, particularly young people, often have energy and fresh creative ideas that challenge historic preconceptions; particularly where change is seen as problematic and unnecessary. The mixing of ages can promote personal growth for everyone as well as support organisational sustainability.

Developing a fully inclusive culture in your organisation

Age isn’t the only protected characteristic – a starting point when exploring diversity. As well as the 9 listed, have you considered people with criminal convictions, refugees and asylum seekers applying for immigration status, trans, neurodiverse or foreign students? The world really is your oyster when it comes to the wealth of knowledge, skills and character of potential volunteers.

Like other minority groups the LGBTQIA+ community can face significant day-to-day barriers, including workplace conflict and harassment, in their quest to be their true selves in the workplace – whether as a volunteer or paid worker. The individual experience of LGBTQIA+ volunteers is rarely commented on but is one which should be addressed as part of your volunteer recruitment strategy. A fully inclusive culture where open conversations about people’s experiences are encouraged, and where discrimination is not accepted will showcase your organisation as a culturally diverse and supportive environment for all.

Many of us have been raised in monoculture environments – only becoming exposed to cultural diversity as students or adults. This could be challenging for those with little knowledge or understanding of the possible differences in communication and cultural expectations. In turn, this could cause misunderstandings when working with volunteers within your organisation or community. Being culturally aware can open up dialogue with those who may not ordinarily be within your reach.

You may need to adapt your recruiting to those who are available – adapting the role perhaps to suit a specific person or their availability. It is important to display your volunteer opportunities in a way which attracts those who may need a little more encouragement. When designing an advert don’t be put off making positive statements. If people with lived experiences would enhance the work that you offer in a community say this in your advert. Or if after conducting a volunteer audit you see that a group is under-presented say so in the advert. Be open and honest about what you are hoping to achieve with your recruitment.

National Inclusion Week 2023 takes place between 25 September and 1 October. This year’s theme is Take Action Make Impact. The aim is to get organisations thinking about what actions they can take and what impacts these actions could have for marginalised people working or volunteering for them.

Discussions around inclusion can often bring up uncomfortable feelings. Creating safe spaces for one another to have these discussions is just the starting point. Use National Inclusion Week as an opportunity to start having conversations and make positive changes.


Further resources you look at:

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