Top tips for charity leaders
How do you retain your volunteers in the charity sector, and keep them happy and working well? Lisa Fraser offers some good practice tips.
What is the link between defending Ukraine, Britain’s beloved National Health Service, and teaching sports to children? Simple: the three rely on the generous, invaluable support of thousands of volunteers. Volunteering is the glue which sticks society together and can make the difference between someone falling into destitution and discovering their dignity as an individual.
Assessing the impact of the charity sector is tricky. We can measure the impact on the GDP, but we cannot quantify the value of having someone to talk to when we’re feeling depressed, or receiving support to avoid sleeping on the street at night.
Coming from abroad, the volunteering sector in the United Kingdom seems much stronger to me than in any other country I know of. According to government sources, approximately 28 million people in England have volunteered in some way or another in the last 12 months. This compares with 12.5 million for the entirety of my native France. It is common for me to hear my British friends and colleagues talk about their volunteering activities when we catch up after the weekend. In France, by contrast, my friends often warned me against the dangers of doing unpaid work.
The State in France provides its citizens with more robust and generous safety nets. As a consequence, the charity sector has not grown as much as it has in the UK. Overall, organisations call for improved regulations wherever there is a need – which ends up making the State stronger – rather than promoting grassroot support for their own initiatives. There is also a specific mindset that develops when people expect State intervention to support individual needs: they tend to look up for solutions, rather than look around and organise local relief schemes.
There is definitely a ‘volunteering mindset’ in the UK, where, in the main, people tend to be more aware of their blessings, and grateful. Making the first step to volunteer is also easier when the environment (media, workplaces, faith groups) praises inspiring role models. Think about Captain Moore, or Marcus Rashford.
Yet, the volume of opportunities, and the variety of roles and causes, can make it difficult to stick to an organisation.
One risks becoming a ‘volunteer butterly’, trying one cause after another, depending on the news and trends. When talking to charity owners, one of the main topics of discussion is often: “how do I retain my volunteers?” This point is essential for charities to have a consistent impact, and reduce costs.
I have volunteered mostly in faith-based charities, with roles including training, fundraising, lobbying, public speaking, communication, and service for the homeless. Sometimes I volunteered for targeted events, but most of my volunteering has been going on for years. Here are some top tips I learnt as a volunteer over time.
One of the essential steps to make sure one’s volunteers remain involved is to understand their motives. Charity leaders should ask themselves (or ask the volunteers, if it’s appropriate): why do they volunteer in the first place? Only then we can keep the fire alive. Both leaders and volunteers need to be clear about their shared motivation, the fire driving their inner engine, and come back to this again and again, particularly in challenging times.
There have been philosophical debates about whether there can ever be pure motives to be generous, and if some motives are ‘less noble’ than others. This article will simply acknowledge the various reasons which drive people to be generous, without judgment. And mixed motives can also include very good ones and might be enough to get people moving and so do a lot of good to others, and themselves.
Talking to volunteers around me, I’ve identified four main profiles.
Profiles of volunteers
Some people are mostly motivated by gratefulness and generosity. They’re self-aware, conscious of their blessings (whether these are skills, experience, passion, or wealth), and they take the step to share them. A friend of mine went through cancer; she’s learnt how to navigate the NHS to receive the best support one can, and she generously gives of her time to support women also going through breast cancer.
Some people volunteer because they need something back at this stage of life. One of my friends, a student, teaches lessons in deprived areas because he loves children and wants to make an impact on society, but also, he needs to boost his CV before graduating and applying for jobs. He is aware that volunteering builds transferable skills, demonstrates aspects of one’s personality, and helps build a network of like-minded contacts. Good on ‘im, I say.
Thirdly, volunteering can be a way to fill a void in one’s life – different circumstances can create a vacuum in our existence, such as the loss of a job, retirement or break-up. These events force us to think about how we want to invest our new spare time. A friend of mine started dog-sitting after a painful breakup; the comfort he found in petting a dog helped him get out of bed in the morning. Or, we might need to find a purpose – for instance, a friend who works in finance volunteered to help people in financial difficulties manage their budget better. Yes, this is volunteering for self-gain but it gets you thinking of others and benefits them too.
Finally, volunteering is often recommended by therapists as a way to relieve loneliness and low moods. It gives a way to break the ice with like-minded people, or peers experiencing similar issues. A friend organises free walks around London as a way to break isolation: by relieving his loneliness, he is also supporting people who feel equally lonely. A volunteering activity can be a way to open up about our vulnerabilities and journey together in a safe environment.
All these reasons are valid, and should be respected as they are. They are not mutually exclusive. The motives often change over time, depending on the stages of life: for instance, a friend of mine who is a parent supported a breastfeeding charity; when her child grew up, she moved on to a charity supporting home-schooling.
Volunteers are precious stones, with their own stories and gifts. Losing them can be painful for the team. It also has a cost on charities: they will need to invest in attracting new volunteers; there can be costs for onboarding and training. New volunteers will require more dedicated support in the first stage of their commitment. The transition might also have an impact on the delivery of some targets, especially if the charity is a small one.
Therefore, making the effort to understand the motives of the volunteers, and how to support them, is crucial.
Communication is key – in life as well as in running a charity. Using a survey when the volunteer joins the charity can be a way to start the discussion. But we should always take time to talk to our volunteers shortly after their arrival, one-to-one if possible, or in small groups. The discussion should be a recurring item in our diaries, to make sure we understand the volunteer’s journey. Asking, listening, reaching out, are an essential part of running a charity. It can be delegated if the team grows bigger but it shouldn’t be lost.
Charities will decide individually on the right frequency for these meetings, so that volunteers are not overwhelmed. But ideally, there shouldn’t be a communication gap longer than six months: otherwise, in some cases, the volunteer is lost.
Understanding the volunteer’s motives and skills can help them find a space within the organisation (whether it’s a small team or a nation-wide structure), and allow them to bring their whole self to the team.
Appreciating obstacles volunteers might encounter is equally important. It’s important to create a safe space to allow individuals to express any worry or requirements they might have. Some barriers could be related to cost; the commute; care responsibility (young children, disabled, elderly or sick relative); workload; language; disability; dietary requirement. Realistically, not all needs can be accommodated, but we should feel confident to have an open discussion, and think together about solutions wherever it is possible. Being supportive can secure a long-term commitment.
Some charities run workshops to help individuals think about what they would like to give, plus the frequency, obstacles, and expectations related to their volunteering. This helps to draw up a ‘volunteer’s path’ within the organisation, tailoring their support to the aspirations and gifts of each one.
Once we have a clear understanding of the individual, we can think about how to support them – in the present, but also over time, as their needs evolve. The point is, volunteers, though usually unpaid, need professional not amateur treatment.
Charities should secure time to train their volunteers, on their onboarding, and throughout the year, even if it’s just informal training. Offering a certificate or an accreditation can be valued by volunteers who seek to support their professional careers. For instance, GDPR certificates are important for charities, and also add value to the CV of a volunteer seeking a new job.
We can also create networking opportunities within the network of volunteers, and with the people who support the charity in a broader sense (through donations, sponsorship or other ways). The offer can be on a one-to-one basis, for instance, by setting up a buddy system, or mentoring opportunities. It can also take the form of networking events.
If you’ve spotted a volunteer, or a group of volunteers, who have said they are feeling lonely or low energy, why not reach out and set up a coffee chat, even a virtual one? Socials are obviously a must for any charity: creating a sense of belonging, community, and sharing the joy is a powerful driver to give even more of oneself.
These are suggestions to choose from, rather than a mandatory check-list. These efforts take time and energy, and charities are often under-resourced, time-constrained, and necessarily careful about their spending.
Yet, investing in relationships can ultimately save time and efforts in the future and reduce turnover.
Good initiatives are not always expensive: a get-together can be as simple as a potluck dinner. I’ve been to excellent networking events where I was served coffee instead of fancy cocktails and canapes, but I enjoyed feeling welcome and the guest list was helpful. It’s all about community spirit, and care.
Care for your carers
Volunteering is often transformative, but depending on the area, it can also be tough. To retain volunteers, we should be aware of the toil of volunteering on their mental health. Visiting hospitals, prisons or the homeless can make us see situations which we never thought could exist. I have cried sometimes after the homeless service, because some testimonies were heart-breaking.
Therefore, this notion of care should be ingrained in the charity. Some of them can provide mental health support, due to their size and budgets. Smaller charities might offer a safe space where to share experience. The most important thing is that volunteers can receive appropriate support, advice, and offload as needed.
Whether they support the most vulnerable people in society, or share their passion for free, these amazing volunteers deserve kudos! The volunteers should be recognised and celebrated (even though many of them prefer to do good unnoticed). Some initiatives might look cheap: the charity might send a picture to the local newspaper, write an article on their website, or send an email of congratulation to the whole team. Yet, who can say it hasn’t warmed someone’s heart when receiving it?
Each one of us needs to know their own worth, and be sure that their contribution has a positive impact on this world. Think about ingraining this culture of praise within your organisation.
You might also want to give volunteers a space to express themselves, to empower them. For instance, you might publish their articles and testimonies on your website, or encourage them to lead a workshop if they’re enthusiastic. Empowering volunteers, when they feel comfortable doing so, will make them feel they belong, and encourage them to invest in the team.
Relying on a solid, stable network of volunteers is vital to many organisations, and for society. It’s also a way to feel valued not only as workers, but also as individuals. A survey by the University of East Anglia found that volunteering was linked to ‘enhanced wellbeing, including improved life satisfaction, increased happiness and decreases in symptoms of depression’. Spread the joy…support your volunteers!
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