Volunteers at sub-Saharan Africa charity Two Wheels for Life (the author foreground) where, throughout, the charity has been able to rely upon a core of active volunteers and supporters to carry it on.

Responding meaningfully to the commitment of volunteers

Most charities rely upon a corps of volunteers to help their causes. Please don’t take their goodwill for granted.

The very nature of charity, and the finances of charities themselves, means that most rely upon volunteers to raise funds, promote their cause or “man” their operations. Yet how seriously do many charities take the task of really managing relations with their volunteer force and showing them they are valued and their views respected?

At the heart of managing relations with volunteers is understanding what motivates them. Since there is no financial incentive (and often quite the reverse) to volunteering, you need to understand why they want to help you.

It sounds obvious, but people will only volunteer if they are getting something back from it. That’s not selfish, merely fact. So why do they volunteer at all? Obviously the reasons will vary according to whether your charity is cause-related, amenity or community-based. But the main reasons for volunteering are:

  • It’s a cause they believe strongly about.
  • They want alternative pastimes outside of work, or post working age.
  • It’s part of a corporate or planned support for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
  • It’s something where they can apply their professional skills, pro bono, or seek professional development.
  • Family ties, allegiances and experiences bind them/draw them in.
  • They just want to meet people.

So the principal motivation is not just to “give something back”, but to seek an emotional return on the time and effort invested, whether in a job well done, a feeling of making a difference, or deriving a personal connection with the cause: it could even be part of someone’s professional development.

Who volunteers?

The Office for National Statistics and the Community Life Survey data shows that in the 15 years between 2000-2015 the proportion of people in the population volunteering at least once a year has remained close to 40% of those surveyed. While this percentage appears positive, volunteering once a year can hardly be said to constitute a solid volunteering commitment.

More tellingly, the average amount of time each volunteer commits has dropped over that same period, down by 8% for men (to c.68 hours a year), and by 4% for women (to c.95 hours per year). Granted, we have had a significantly depressed economy since 2008, but it’s hard to deduce how this has affected participation rates.

Perhaps confounding the perceptions of the older generations, volunteer participation rates in the 16-24 year old age groups are higher than for other generations – and climbing – while participation rates aged 55 and over are decreasing. Positively, participation for those aged 35-54 seems to be on the up.

There are massive differences in participation rates between age groups, genders and income levels. Men are less likely to volunteer than women – and to devote less time than women; and lower income women are the more likely to volunteer. But there remain many challenges to acquiring and retaining volunteers’ attention in a crowded charity marketplace. So much for the Big Society (remember that?).

Engaging with your volunteers

Thanking volunteers is a welcome acknowledgement of the role they play, but is probably not enough for the majority. Most now want their views listened to and acknowledged. But, as you can tell from the analysis above, the age, gender and socio-economic profile of your volunteers may mean that you’ll need to think carefully about how you communicate with existing and prospective volunteers.

People now expect to be engaged, whether via social activities or social media, or whether it’s seeking people’s thoughts and ideas before setting a clear path, and clearly communicating it (preferably in person). To do otherwise is to run the risk that:

  • The volunteers will inadvertently misdirect efforts or interpret things their own way.
  • They act as unwitting detractors for your cause.
  • They’ll end up as a public kicking post for a less visible executive.
  • They’ll leave.

The arrival of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in late May 2018 also means that many charities will need to think more carefully about their mass mailing activities to supporters and volunteers – in favour of activity which generates real engagement.

Perhaps at this point I should “declare my hand”. I have been a volunteer in four charities over the years (sometimes concurrently), employed by another for five years, and the director of yet another for seven years. So this is a personal and professional perspective from both sides of the fence.

An example

As an example, the UK charity Two Wheels for Life (formerly Riders for Health UK) has operated for 30 years through open engagement with its supporters and volunteers. Its cause is based around providing motorcycle transport and training for rural health workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Co-founders Barry and Andrea Coleman invite supporters to annual planning days, and to hear how the charity is expanding operations across sub-Saharan Africa.

This core support and engagement from its supporters has paid dividends through tough times – including support to overcome an attempted takeover. But throughout, the charity has been able to rely upon a core of active volunteers and supporters to carry it on.

In the words of Andrea Coleman: “I co-founded Riders for Health 25 years ago. All the dedicated individuals worked hard but it soon became clear that volunteering was so much more than a commitment of time. Enduring friendships have been built and even new families created. We now have volunteers whom I have seen grow from babies!

“During the recent, very painful, attempted takeover of Riders for Health UK, the volunteers stood firmly with us. That loyalty carried me, personally, through some emotional times. More importantly, they worked to get the organisation, in the shape of Two Wheels for Life, back on its feet. We carry on supporting the neglected work of managing vehicles in very harsh conditions and so healthcare can reach even the most remote communities in Africa. We have done something amazing together.”

As a strong supporter of Two Wheels for Life, I have been lucky enough to meet first hand the people the charity’s work serves, the African health workers who benefit, and the leaders of its several African operations. For me, that’s cemented the voluntary commitment of many of the charity’s supporters. They’re impassioned and they’re involved - not merely informed.

In some charities in which I have been involved, the core team’s commitment to the charity has struggled to communicate its passion beyond that core – with the risk that the rump of work and reliance rests upon a few. The danger is that this “core” becomes too overburdened, or detached – which becomes self perpetuating.

Some ideas….

The arrival of GDPR may force many charities to put aside “round robin” mailings in favour of other supporter engagement activities. That may be no bad thing. Here are some other ideas to conjure with:

Glean volunteers’ feedback. Often the volunteers, like the checkout worker in your local supermarket, may have a truer view of the charity’s workings “on the ground” than either management or trustees. Volunteers’ feedback on users’ or customers’ reactions may be invaluable in shaping your operations or propositions.

Working or coffee sessions with the volunteers in small groups can be a direct and personable way to get feedback – or moderate the inevitable zealot! You could even work alongside volunteers for a couple of days each year, to assess the mood on the ground.

Seek volunteers’ views on the way forward. People are more likely to engage with activities or initiatives which they feel they’ve had a hand in shaping.

Consider the age profile of your volunteers. Social media like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram can provide a visual and thus emotional engagement, especially when done consistently.

Get volunteers directly involved. Like the Riders for Health trips to visit its operations in Africa, the opportunity to experience the cause at first-hand, rather than just raise funds at a distance, can elevate the support base for your charity. Make it real.


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