Rob Jackson: Bridging the gap between long-term and short-term volunteering

We shouldn't look at the two groups of volunteers as separate, but find out what they have in common and adapt our approaches to volunteer engagement

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

You’ve read it by now, haven’t you? Time Well Spent, the first major study of volunteering across Britain for more than a decade, was published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations at the end of January. If your organisation involves volunteers, you need to take a look at the report and reflect on the insights it gives you into what makes for a great volunteering experience.

Among the challenges Time Well Spent covers is the reliance we sometimes have on a small cohort of dedicated volunteers. According to the research, only 7 per cent of volunteers are consistently and heavily involved throughout their lives. The vast majority of people move in and out of volunteering over time. This chimes with the existing civic core work by the Third Sector Research Centre, which found that just 8 per cent of adults account for 50 per cent of the volunteer hours.

We often think of long-term, committed and shorter-term, episodic volunteers as two separate groups. The former are going to give you a huge, open-ended time commitment, the latter will volunteer for five minutes before moving on to something else. This leads to thinking that different approaches are needed if we want to recruit and retain these different kinds of volunteers.

I don’t think this is always correct.

In their 2018 study of super-volunteers (defined as people who volunteer for 10 or more hours a week with a single organisation), Einolf and Yong* said that when an organisation relies heavily on a small cohort of committed volunteers there is often a willingness to create the conditions that allow those people to keep volunteering rather than lose them – conditions such as flexibility and producing volunteer roles tailored to the individual and their skills, experience and talents.

Interestingly, these are the same conditions that will work to engage shorter-term volunteers. As Time Well Spent noted:

  • 16 per cent of volunteers say they have skills and experience that they would like to use in their volunteering but which they are not currently using;

  • This is especially true for those aged 25 to 34;

  • Organisations need to support volunteers to give time in ways that are meaningful to them and provide the flexibility for people to volunteer on their own terms.

In other words, if we are currently adaptable and successful in engaging and retaining long-term, committed (super) volunteers then its not a massive leap for us to apply some of those same practices to involving volunteers who want more flexible, short-term roles.

Instead of looking at these two groups as completely separate, perhaps we should explore what is common to them and adapt our approaches to volunteer engagement accordingly? If it delivers a better volunteer experience and great impact for our beneficiaries, then it’s a paradigm shift worth making.

*Einolf, Christopher J & Yung, Cheryl (2018). Super-volunteers: Who Are They and How Do We Get One? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47(4), 789-812

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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