How do I know if offering flexible volunteering is right for my organisation?
At the July volunteer coordinator network meeting, we examined how increasing the level of flexibility in volunteering can be a good thing for organisations, volunteers and beneficiaries. The Community First Yorkshire volunteer support team are often asked how particular aspects of good volunteer practice can practically work or be implemented in a specific organisation. So drawing on my own experiences as a volunteer manager I hope the following will give you some idea of whether or not increased flexibility may be a good thing for your organisation.
Firstly it depends on a number of factors, but it boils down to knowing your organisation, your volunteering ask, what your volunteers or beneficiaries need or expect from your service, and an appreciation for any impact or consequence of making changes to the way you support volunteering.
Flexibility in volunteering is viewed as a good thing with good reason. There are a number of ways to incorporate flexibility into a volunteering offer; but it is important to recognise that it is not always appropriate. I have worked as a volunteer manager at two different charities, both at either end of the spectrum in relation to the flexibility of volunteer roles. One charity could only offer very strictly structured volunteering and the other had no choice but to offer hyper-flexible roles.
The first was a small national children’s literacy charity, I coordinated over 100 volunteers for their West Yorkshire branch. Local people from across Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield volunteered to go into a school twice a week to read with primary aged children. The children the volunteers read with lived in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country. Most had very complicated home lives, and many came from homes with little or no food – let alone books. The programme was not just about improving literacy skills. It was also about building confidence and providing positive role models. To do this successfully it was essential that a good relationship was built between the children and the volunteer, and the key to this was consistency.
Other volunteer managers that I spoke to at the time were often surprised by the level of commitment we asked of the volunteers. Over one year volunteers committed to reading with the same three children for half an hour twice a week, every week. It was a big commitment and we had a rigorous recruitment and selection process. The dropout rate at the interview stage was huge. On average for every five applications, only three would make it to the interview and only one of them would eventually make it as a volunteer. There was absolutely no flexibility with this role in terms of the time, place, frequency, length or person volunteering, and I became very adept at signposting potential volunteers to other charities.
The benefit of this approach was the change seen in the children. For many children, it was life-changing. Schools saw improvement across all subjects not just reading and literacy and the children were more confident and happy at school. This charity has been working in schools for nearly 40 years and they have a wealth of evidence that this approach works and numerous testimonies from children, schools and volunteers about the difference this approach makes. The common thread is the importance of seeing the same volunteer week in week out.
Nearly ten years later and again I was working as a volunteer manager at another small national charity. This time supporting the families of children with a high level of additional need. One of the most important aspects of the work was advocacy and creating a space for families to share their own experiences in their own words. In this sector we all know the importance of lived experience, hearing directly from someone who has been there and got the t-shirt, can carry real power. Because of this, it was decided very early on that the volunteers who supported the charity should all have lived experience.
This meant that the vast majority of volunteers were parents or carers of children with very complex needs. They were incredibly passionate about the cause and dedicated to giving back; however, family life meant that they were usually time-poor and that their circumstances could change very quickly and often very dramatically. Therefore any volunteering had to be flexible.
This was done by creating three separate volunteer roles, which in a time before Covid could be undertaken virtually, from home or in person. They could all happen at a time of the volunteers choosing and they all had a degree of individual choice as to how the task or role was accomplished.
The first was an online supporter – blogging, sharing messages, linking with influencers and using the volunteer’s knowledge of navigating online to reach people who either needed the support of the charities services or who may be in a position to support the charity. The second was a fundraiser; this was probably my favourite role to support volunteers with, as there were some really inventive approaches. With some guidelines, remote support and resources from staff, it was then completely up to the volunteers when, where and how they fundraised. We had skydivers, sponsored challenges, bake sales, volunteers asking schools to make us the charity of the year, fancy dress and everything in between. The third role was parent ambassador and primarily involved raising awareness of the help and support the charity could provide in their local area. This could be sharing leaflets and posters, talking at local events and meetings, meeting with GPs, schools and other statutory bodies and these could all be done in person or virtually and at a time that was convenient for the volunteer.
Where can I find out more?
These are two extreme examples and most volunteering will fall somewhere in between, lots of organisations are or could introduce a degree of flexibility to some aspects of their volunteering offer. What is most important is communicating clearly with your volunteer so that you both know what the other is hoping to gain from volunteering.
To find out how you can incorporate flexibility into your volunteering offer please read our flexible volunteering fact sheet.
You can find out more information on the importance of flexibility in the NCVO Time Well Spent national report on volunteering.
For support with all aspects of volunteer management please visit www.communityfirstyorkshire.org.uk/what-we-do/volunteering or contact our volunteer support team email@example.com or 01904 7041177.
Further support and information
Volunteer recruitment – if you have new volunteer opportunities to share, add them for free on our online database, Volunteering in North Yorkshire.
New enquiries – if you need support with any aspect of volunteer management please complete a New Enquiry Form and one of our developments officers will be in touch to support you.
General info – for general information, guidance, templates, online training and resources please visit our dedicated website, which includes 15 factsheets that cover many aspects of volunteer management e.g. recruitment, supervisions and template policies etc.
Volunteer co-ordinator network meetings – a network meeting for volunteer co-ordinators and those in a charity with responsibility for volunteers across North Yorkshire to network and share information, advice, tips and thoughts on all aspects of volunteer management, see here for more information.
Facebook group – if you have not already done so you may like to join our closed Facebook group for V-Net. The group now has over 100 members. The group is for people to share their thoughts, actions and questions on all aspects of volunteer management. You will need a Facebook account to join, please contact us if you need guidance on this. If you already have a Facebook account please click here to join.
Volunteer Charter – we have recently launched a new Volunteering Charter for organisations involving volunteers in North Yorkshire. Our Charter highlights twelve areas a good organisation considers when it involves volunteers and makes a commitment to supporting them. Why not sign up, raise the profile of your volunteering locally and demonstrate to your existing and potential volunteers that you are committed to good practice and providing safe and rewarding roles. Further details are available here