In this economy, which has seen a number of retirees return to part-time work, just so that they can pay their bills, volunteers are becoming a bit of a rarity. There’s no wonder that charities grab onto them for dear life if someone shows an interest in donating their time and skills.
In some cases, the required checks and due diligence around new volunteers can be forgotten in the excitement that someone has offered to help out. For some charities, however, particularly those dealing with children and vulnerable people, this is a huge issue.
Because a volunteer is donating their time for free, you can’t really dictate when they come in. You can make a suggestion and plead a business case for certain days/times, but the volunteer will always have the last say in this regard—and rightly so.
It helps in the long run if you treat your volunteers as you would an employee. Not in the sense that you can make demands of them or impose sales targets, for example, but so that you give them the right training, and so that you have a formalised onboarding procedure, involving relevant background checks and references. It’s also a good idea to have a proper reporting structure for any issues that may arise, and formal processes to record the volunteers’ annual leave, for example, so that you can arrange cover in their absence.
Another consideration when bringing volunteers into your charity is boundaries, which probably applies more to charities that offer support around beneficiaries’ health and wellbeing. For instance, if a volunteer was giving emotional support, where’s the line that separates an informal chat to reduce social isolation from effective counselling and support needed to prevent someone from having a mental health breakdown? Could a volunteer in such circumstances do more harm than good?
Of course, no one can really anticipate what a beneficiary will do, say, think or feel, and it’s therefore costly and unnecessary to have experts deliver services that could be defined as being on the fringe of formal support—such as companionship and a friendly face to chat to. The costs to provide trained counsellors across every charity service in the UK would be far too much for third sector organisations to meet. If detailed, robust referrals are exercised, such incidents shouldn’t occur. That said, given that humans are unpredictable by nature, it’s important that there’s a process in place should more formal support be required, even if this involves referring the beneficiary on to another third-party service.
It's a bit of a catch-22 situation, but this is why it’s important that your charity has the correct reporting and safeguarding polices and structure in place.
As I mentioned in this article, over the last few decades, charities have increasingly had to step in to provide frontline services as government budgets have been cut and cut. It’s fantastic that they have, as God only knows what would happen to people struggling if charities weren’t there with their safety nets; however, unless the organisation recruits accordingly, the common-or-garden charity worker and willing volunteers aren’t able to (nor would they wish to) replace healthcare experts and trained psychologists.
To have a defined onboarding process boosts a volunteer’s commitment to your organisation. They will perceive your cause as a professional charity that is serious about the support it provides and the impact it has. They will feel more like an ambassador for the charity if they wear a uniform whilst providing their support. Teamwork will be easier, as everyone will know what they’re meant to be doing, and the infrastructure of the charity will underpin their support.
An onboarding process also helps frame volunteers’ expectations. They may have preconceived ideas of what their support will look like, how often they will be required, the processes they will have to follow and the paperwork they may have to complete. This could be very different to how their daily routine will unfold in real time. By setting out expectations at the outset and qualifying any of their objections/queries, there will be fewer problems when the volunteers finally get going in their roles.
The better you treat and train your volunteers, the longer they will likely stay to support your organisation. Obviously, you will get the odd one or two drop out during every volunteer recruitment drive—which could be more to do with them than you—but it’s more likely that the majority will stay if you set your stall out from the beginning and spell out what you expect from them.
This also includes where the boundary lies between casual support and formal expertise.