Volunteering: 'It's a marketing challenge'

Volunteers aren't what they used to be. Kaye Wiggins looks at how their expectations are changing and how charities are trying to respond

Volunteering (hands)
Volunteering (hands)

Volunteering is changing. Gone are the days when charities could pick out the jobs that needed to be done and hand them to unpaid but willing recruits. In today's busy, choice-driven, technology-focused consumer society, volunteers have needs to be met and can choose the most convenient ways of fulfilling them. They are dictating the rules - and charities have to keep up.

"Thinking has been tipped on its head over the past few years," says Kate Shanley, project director at the British Heart Foundation.

"It isn't about having jobs that we need volunteers to do any more; now it's about having volunteers whose skills and interests we have to satisfy."

Kath Abrahams, head of volunteer-led fundraising at child protection charity the NSPCC, agrees. "We have to work on their terms, not ours," she says. "Volunteers are busy people in their daily lives. They may give less time than volunteers used to give, but that time is more focused."

The figures confirm it: volunteers do give less time than they used to. According to Helping Out: a national survey of volunteering and giving, a Cabinet Office report from 2007, volunteers spent an average of 4.05 hours per week in their role in 1997, but only 2.75 hours a decade later.

But Abrahams insists this shift can have benefits for charities. "In the past, people volunteered in fundraising because they were committed to our cause. Now they want to have an idea of what the money they raise helps us to do. They're businesslike and they expect tangible outcomes.

"They want a bigger role. They're not content with being given tasks. They want to innovate and come up with ideas for new fundraising strategies. They're a very creative force."

So why the change? It's partly because there are fresh faces entering the volunteering world. "The old stereotype of the twinset and pearls-clad charity shop worker was never really accurate, but it's less true now than ever," says Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of Volunteering England.

"Younger volunteers won't accept being placed in predetermined positions - they want a say in what they do. Co-production and citizen influence are key themes of the 21st century, and this is reflected in volunteering. We have to give power and authority to volunteers."

The internet is a big factor here. Websites such as www.do-it.org.uk, which matches volunteers with placements, have transformed the way people look at volunteering. Potential volunteers have options now and charities have to work hard to get noticed.

"People like to shop around," says Sarah Alderson, head of projects at volunteering charity TimeBank. "They'll browse the job descriptions for a range of volunteering opportunities and pick the one that suits them best. And because they know there are other opportunities out there, they won't stick around if they're not happy."

Demanding more

But it's not just the young ones who are changing the face of volunteering. "The baby boomers are a significant force," says Angela Ellis Paine, director of the Institute for Volunteering Research. "After they retire, many take up voluntary work. But as a generation, they have high expectations and aspirations. They know what they want from volunteering and they're likely to ask for it."

The rise of employer-supported volunteering has also encouraged this trend. Helping Out found that only 16 per cent of respondents in 1997 said their employers ran volunteering schemes, but 36 per cent said this was the case in 2007. And employees have specific demands: 43 per cent want "personal achievement" and 41 per cent to enjoy volunteering.

"Employee volunteering is about satisfying the volunteers," says John Ramsay, head of volunteering at the charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged. "They can create a social benefit, but in a way that works for them."

So charities must work hard to attract and retain volunteers. "We have to focus on customer care," says Alderson. "It's about understanding our audience and tailoring our product to meet their needs. We employ a head of customer care and we ask our project managers to make sure their volunteers feel valued."

A lot of charities have changed the way they work in response to these developments. Helping Out notes that, in 1997, 71 per cent of volunteers said their work could be better organised, but only 31 per cent said the same in 2007. "Volunteers want feedback, and there's an expectation now that they'll get recognition," says Ruth Buchanan, interim head of volunteering at Samaritans. "So we've started producing recognition certificates and offering reviews of volunteers' work."

This is part of a bigger trend towards professionalisation. "Because of the service-level agreements we run, we've had to make changes," says Ramsay. "In practice, this means interviewing volunteers, getting references and carrying out Criminal Records Bureau checks."

And as charities themselves become increasingly professional in their work, it can be difficult for volunteers to understand how they fit in. Helping Out reported that in 2007 nearly twice as many volunteers said their chosen organisation did not really need their help as in 1997.

"Many charities have paid staff carrying out administrative and planning roles that used to be filled by volunteers," says Ellis Paine. "The shift toward contracts and service agreements means that, while volunteers are involved in service provision, they are less likely to be fundamental to the running of the organisation in the way they used to be."

Holding on

All of this means the task of attracting volunteers has now become as much a marketing challenge as anything else. "Charities need to be creative in the way they describe opportunities - they have to make them stand out in a competitive marketplace," says Rena Sodhi, head of policy and programmes at youth volunteering charity v.

So the ball appears to be in the charities' court: their market is changing and they must innovate to keep up. And they can't afford not to.

"Whoever our volunteers are, we'll do everything we can to keep hold of them," says Abrahams. They're gold dust to us."


A decade of change, as registered by Government surveys of voluntary activity

Mr 1997

The volunteer of 1997 was just as likely to be male as female, according to that year's National Survey of Volunteering. 'Mr 1997' was more likely to be aged between 65 and 74 than between 18 and 24. He was also almost twice as likely to be from the highest social backgrounds as the lowest. He spent four hours a week volunteering, and this was most likely to be in fundraising. But he was very likely to be dissatisfied with the poor organisation of his placement: 71 per cent of respondents to the 1997 survey said their placement could have been better organised. He was also likely to feel bored with what he was asked to do (noted by 34 per cent of respondents) and to say that his efforts were not always appreciated by the organisation he volunteered for (a sentiment shared by 29 per cent of surveyed volunteers).

Miss 2007

The 2007 model volunteer was more likely to be female: according to Helping Out: a national survey of volunteering and charitable giving, 64 per cent of women did some formal volunteering, compared with 54 per cent of men. 'Miss 2007' was likely to be aged between 16 and 24. She was more likely than in 1997 to be unemployed: 55 per cent of unemployed people volunteered in 2007, compared with 38 per cent a decade earlier. But she had less time to give, volunteering for an average of 2.75 hours a week. She may well have been from a group deemed to be at risk of social exclusion, which included people from ethnic minorities, people with no qualifications and people with disabilities. According to Helping Out, 48 per cent of people at risk of social exclusion volunteered. She was also likely to be involved in a variety of ways: Helping Out says 71 per cent did more than one type of activity.


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