Harnessing the potential of a new wave of volunteers

Natasha Ereira- Guyer

Francesca Godfrey

16 June 2020

Communities across the country have been leaning on the charity and social sector for essential support and services during the Covid-19 crisis, which means volunteers are needed now more than ever.

As of June, more than one in four workers in the UK are in the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (some 8.9 million). This is potentially an untapped resource for organisations and community groups needing extra help as they swoop in to assist the vulnerable.

Many furloughed workers are prohibited from taking on paid work. And some of them have already turned to volunteering to offer their newfound time and skills to support others during this challenging time. Initiatives such as Furlonteer and Furlough Go have been created to match volunteers’ skills and interests with organisations — either working remotely or in person within social distancing rules.

With the scheme now extended to October, the time is now to forge these new relationships that could alleviate strain on your organisation, whilst at the same time enabling workers to reclaim the sense of structure and purpose they may have gotten from the workplace.

However, the on-boarding of new volunteers under these conditions is not without its obstacles. It’s hard to integrate volunteers successfully into your organisation. Training volunteers virtually is one hurdle, coordinating them is another. What’s more, keeping volunteers engaged and feeling that their contribution is worthwhile takes concerted effort and a considered approach.

Nevertheless, we believe it’s value-for-struggle. And we’ve come up with five practical tips for getting the best out of a furloughed worker-turned volunteer.

1. Ensure ‘The Reward Factor’

Sometimes volunteers are engaged in online support for an organisation, but cannot enjoy ‘The Reward Factor’ of seeing the positive impact their work is having, or meeting the people they are helping. This can lead to a loss of motivation and what you might call ‘volunteering fatigue’.

To overcome this, ask volunteers to share updates of the skills they have learnt and how far they have come at weekly Zoom meetings – or however works best for your organisation. It’s good to keep this brief, but it can make a real psychological difference.

Organisations can also reassure their volunteers of the positive impact of their contributions. This doesn’t have to be a formal process; it can be done by simply reporting back to the volunteer on organisational progress or sharing success stories. When you do, remember to emphasise the role of volunteers in these achievements. And be specific! In some cases, you might even be able to ask their direct beneficiaries to produce a short video or text message, saying what has been positive about the support they have received. This will boost the connection volunteers may have forged with beneficiaries themselves.

2. Give extra support for first-timers

For many furloughed workers, this may be the first time they are volunteering. It will help first-timers if they have some contextualisation of the ways of the sector, how volunteering feels, and how it may differ from the workplaces they’re used to. Much of this is informal knowledge-sharing! Therefore, first-time volunteers can be paired up with an existing volunteer who is well versed in the organisation, facilities, and those accessing the services. This will enable volunteers to learn in a hands-on way. At the same time, it takes pressure off organisers having to deliver lengthy inductions and training programmes when there’s no time to lose! It’s also likely to blossom into a friendship and social connection, which can be a game-changer.

3. Keep the community alive

Create an online community using WhatsApp, or a similar platform. Include organisers, volunteers, (and even those accessing the services, if appropriate!) Enabling people to stay in touch in the absence of a physical space, and exchange info freely and light-heartedly, will help maintain the social aspect of volunteering. Social connection is a pull factor for many potential volunteers, and creates the ‘The Reward Factor’ as volunteers build relationships and see the positive impact of their work on people. A WhatsApp group can also serve as an immediate platform to keep volunteers in the loop and to coordinate activities swiftly – to make your life easier too! Do, however, beware not to overload or confuse volunteers with multiple communication channels!

4. Re-organise carefully

Assign furloughed workers defined roles to ensure they are complementing existing staff and long-term volunteers, rather than simply plugging staff shortages within the organisation. This is a structural thing, not a ‘quick fix’. The result will be proactive volunteers, who feel valued and are motivated by a clear sense of purpose.

What’s more, furloughed volunteers are not available indefinitely so it’s best if your organisation does not become too dependent on them. This is another reason to avoid giving them the same responsibilities as permanent staff and will ease the transition back to ‘business as usual’ if they are called back to their regular jobs. As we move into the second half of the furlough scheme, this could happen with little warning.

5. Give volunteers ownership and responsibility, but be flexible

Volunteers will shine when they have ownership over what they are doing: position volunteers as ‘Ambassadors’ if you canshow them that you also care about their development.

A sustainable volunteering experience shouldn’t be too intense, but if volunteers feel their skills are being valued and used in the right way an organisation may be able to solicit more commitment and time from them. Number one: find out what the volunteer wants to get out of the experience. This will lay the foundations for a committed and mutually beneficial relationship. Number two: furloughed volunteers may be keen to contribute their professional skills; or looking to learn something new in a new field. Tailoring roles will optimise your team. Number three: volunteering should be enjoyable, not onerous. With volunteers likely to be juggling their own responsibilities and commitments, it’s important to establish clear guidelines of how much work or time is expected.