Data released in March 2017 by the Office of National Statistics reveals that volunteer time in the UK dropped 7% between 2012 and 2015, a loss valued at £1bn. These latest data highlight a general decline in volunteer time since 2005 – a worrying trend for charities and social enterprises.
Volunteering has played an important role in the delivery of a number of young people’s services in the Realising Ambition programme, Realising Ambition is a Big Lottery funded programme led by Catch 22 helping young people avoid pathways into offending. Organisations that have involved volunteers in the provision of their services included Chance UK, delivering an ‘Early Intervention Mentoring’ model with 5 to 11-year-olds with behavioural difficulties in London and YMCA Scotland, delivering ‘Plusone Mentoring’ to young people aged 8 to 14 identified as being at high risk of moving into the criminal justice system. In both cases, volunteer mentors were at the heart of these services.
So what have we learned from Realising Ambition that could help organisations delivering similar services to make the most effective use of volunteers amid a national trend of declining numbers? Below we set out some useful findings for organisations that work with volunteers.
Why use volunteers in service delivery?
Involving volunteers in service delivery can bring many benefits:
- Volunteers typically bring a wider range of skills and experiences to a service such as mentoring than would be possible with employees, opening up new possibilities for beneficiaries and raising aspirations
- Users of a service often experience a wider mix of social and cultural interactions through their contact with volunteers
- The relationships formed between volunteers and beneficiaries can be much more powerful than with employees – the fact that someone is working with a young person out of choice rather than necessity creates a dynamic of caring and mutual value
- Volunteering schemes forge new links within and across communities and foster greater social cohesion, helping to create a more ‘shared society’ in the UK.
Lessons from Realising Ambition
The experiences of Chance UK and YMCA Scotland through the Realising Ambition programme show us how delivering a programme using volunteers can be done well:
- Know your patch: if you are setting up or expanding a volunteer-based service in an area, make sure you research the local demographics and understand the local context, as the level of interest and availability of potential volunteers could vary enormously. Ensure that you identify and engage with local agencies and key community ‘lynchpins’, which will help you understand whether there is a local track record of volunteering.
- Know your volunteers: understanding who your volunteers are and their motivations for working with you will help you recruit and retain them better. For instance, young professionals in their 20s and 30s are much more likely to be reached online via social media platforms and online portals such as doit.org and Team London, versus more traditional approaches such as events, posters, flyering, news articles and newspapers. Many volunteers, especially college and university students, will get involved to boost their CVs, so make this a key part of how the opportunity is marketed and ensure you target relevant campus events. In times of economic downturn when people may be less willing to volunteer if they are worried about job security, consider whether a more flexible schedule is feasible in order to allow them to fit volunteering around work commitments.
- It takes time: allow sufficient time to recruit volunteers, as it could take longer than you think. Make sure that the commissioners or funders of your service are aware of what constitutes a realistic time frame and keep dialogue with them open during the recruitment process and service set-up.
- Take it seriously: if funds allow, bring in a dedicated volunteer recruitment officer or a team member who can dedicate a portion of their time, rather than splitting the responsibility among several people. Designing and implementing promotional campaigns and managing recruitment and training processes require specific skills – finding the right people to do this will be key to success.
- Get the right volunteers on board: design and implement rigorous assessment, training and supervision processes. Make sure you fully understand potential volunteers’ motivations for getting involved and don’t be afraid to screen out early on those who aren’t fully committed. For example, applicants using the opportunity as a short-term route into work may not be able to commit beyond a certain time frame. Building an appropriate level of volunteer supervision into service delivery will allow you to detect issues and act accordingly once the service is up and running.
- Your volunteers can be your greatest assets: make the most of current and former volunteers to promote and champion the opportunity to others and to communicate the benefits of the service. People working with young people in a voluntary capacity outside their day job and personal experience can undergo a transformative change in their own lives as a result. Realising Ambition organisations can cite numerous examples of volunteers who have changed career, adopted a new outlook on life and developed a deeper understanding of their local community. Fostering a volunteer alumni network will increase volunteer retention and support future recruitment efforts
Working with volunteers has enormous benefits but it’s also important to be aware of some common challenges. The Realising Ambition experience has taught us that:
- High demand for volunteers can make recruitment a significant issue. Practicalities to contend with include fitting contact times around volunteers’ other commitments and considerations of cultural compatibility between volunteers and beneficiaries to find the right match.
- Integrating volunteers into service delivery can mean varying levels of dedication and reliability, the need to provide higher levels of training, supervision and quality assurance, and the lack of a legally binding contract to underpin the relationship. The Big Lottery Fund explored these dimensions in their evidence review of volunteer models for their A Better Start initiative. Considerations like these mean that engaging and managing volunteers can come at a significant cost and that there is an impact risk associated with using volunteers ‘on the cheap’, as poor quality delivery could do more harm than good.
- However, this does not necessarily mean that the use of volunteers cannot be cost effective. It does mean that both the direct and indirect costs of service delivery based solely on the efforts of volunteers needs to be carefully planned and managed. In our most recent Programme Insight briefing, ‘Show Me the Money’, the Realising Ambition team have attempted to calculate the direct and indirect costs of different types of interventions supported by the programme, by calculating the unit cost of delivering each service. You can read the full report here).
Involving volunteers in service delivery isn’t easy. But getting it right can greatly increase an organisation’s social impact. Our experience in Realising Ambition shows that getting the best for both your service users and your volunteers demands a consistent approach to learning, adapting to changing environments and taking a whole-organisation approach to improving services.