An estimated 12.4 million people volunteered for good causes in 2020, which is up by around 40 per cent from the previous year. With a surge in people wanting to give their time to good causes, how can the sector turn this energy into long-term support?
Speaking at the Essential Volunteer Management Third Sector briefing, sponsored by Salesforce.org, Elena Laguna, head of volunteering at Oxfam and trustee at Peer Power Youth, told delegates that "engagement is essential at any stage of the volunteer journey". To give volunteers a good experience and to keep them for the longer term, it's vital that organisations are flexible, inclusive and help their volunteers feel connected, whether that's virtually or in person.
This was iterated by Stuart Garland, training and programmes manager at Volunteer Ireland, who remarked that where volunteering during the pandemic has been a success is with those organisations that kept communications open with volunteers – even if their programmes had stopped running. Keeping in touch with volunteers at all stages shows they are valued and an integral part of the organisation.
The ways in which people were volunteering pre-Covid-19 had to change because of social distancing, lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions. Organisations have had to change their ways of inducting and communicating with new volunteers.
"One of the challenges is finding the software that works for your volunteers and not necessarily for your organisation. The social element for volunteers is really important, whether that's face-to-face or online, so it's vital to use the software that's easiest for them to use and access, instead of creating barriers," said Garland.
As people are returning to work after being furloughed and their priorities change and shift with restrictions being lifted, how can organisations embed and retain their support in the longer term? "A good volunteer culture within your organisation is really important," says Garland. "People want to feel part of something and feel valued."
Charities need to reconsider their volunteering requirements, he said, and offer volunteers more flexibility. Fifty-eight per cent of people in Ireland who don't currently volunteer say they would if they could get involved in short-term, episodic volunteering. "It's unrealistic to expect people to commit to nine-to-five every Tuesday. People don't know what they might be doing in a month's time. Rather, they're looking for shorter, more project-based opportunities that have a start, middle and end."
Flexibility being the key was echoed by Garland's colleague Amy Woods, communications and advocacy manager at Volunteer Ireland. In a recent Guardian interview she said: "Increasingly, volunteers also want flexibility, such as shorter roles and ad hoc or one-off tasks, rather than committing to the same day every week for six months".
"Using Salesforce helps charities provide that flexibility, as well as creating a huge amount of data that they can use to show the impact they're having," said Woods.
With circumstances changing, keeping the lines of communication open is so important.
"Having conversations early about whether their circumstances are changing and how best we can adapt to keep their support is vital,'' said Dr Crewenna Dyamond, director for volunteering and partnerships at CPRE.
Charities should be investing in their volunteering teams now more than ever. Not only to ensure that they feel supported and that they have the tools to offer the volunteers the best experience possible, but so volunteers want to continue volunteering their time and skills.
Now is also the time to take a step back and make sure that volunteers receive a proper induction, as this may have slipped due to the urgency of the pandemic, and that they feel both welcomed and settled.
At Action for Children, Amber Churchill, national volunteering strategy officer, explains that they're holding virtual inductions for volunteers across the country to join and hear more about the charity, what support they'll get as a volunteer, and who they can get in touch with for more information or support. On a local level, they are re-inducting volunteers, both new and longer-serving, to talk through practical things such as fire escape procedures in the building, as well as any changes to the organisation as a result of restructuring.
Looking to the future, organisations will need to have a hybrid approach both to volunteering and to communicating with volunteers. While there is the opportunity for volunteers to take on digital roles, such as helping with the website or social media, there's still a huge appetite and need for the more traditional face-to-face roles where companionship and reducing social isolation is so key.
In the same way, communicating with volunteers will need to be done in whatever way works for them. For some it may be via email, text or even an intranet, while for others they will want a face-to-face meeting or catch-up. Larger charities that host conferences for their volunteers will need to consider a livestream for those who wish to join in virtually rather than attend in person. As Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants said: "Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy."
With about 30 per cent of the UK population volunteering in 2020, there is so much opportunity for charities to build on the successes of the last year and take that forward for long-term success in the future.