Managing a large volunteer workforce - problems, pitfalls, opportunities

What's over three times the population of Newcastle, and could fill Wembley stadium ten times over? Well, yes - the viewers of this year's Eurovision song contest, but also the number of volunteers who contribute to public and social services every year in the UK.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has just published its latest Civil Society Almanac, revealing that 880,556 people worked in the voluntary sector last year. It's a staggering number - much higher per capita than in many other European countries. At a time of austerity, it is also much needed, with many volunteers stepping in to contribute vital social services previously run by the state. 

Of course volunteering comes in all different shapes and sizes, with some people working locally with the neighbourhood charity, and others forming part of a much bigger workforce typically led by the very largest charities.

Here at Moorhouse, we have recently been working with some of the big charities who manage volunteer workforces of significant proportions. One of the things charities want to get right is the 'volunteer experience', from the moment they express an interest to the point where they're signed up, trained and doing work on the front lines. 

Getting the volunteer experience right sounds obvious, but it's easier said than done. Effectively managing volunteers throws up all sorts of challenges, ranging from the cultural and demographic kind to those linked with the efficacy (or not) of organisational systems and processes.

Many charities, for example, want to get younger people involved but they struggle to make the process intuitive. As digital natives, young people may expect to use technology to get signed up, do their training at a time and place that suits them, and get deployed onto work as quickly and effortlessly as click and collecting something off Amazon. They want flexibility and choice; charities aren't always set up to provide these. Traditional marketing and comms can also come across as a bit stuffy and fail to excite millennials who tend to engage with social media in new and different ways.

Volunteer retention is another particular challenge: many volunteers don’t feel especially valued and sometimes drop off after their first engagement. They don't want to have management structures and practice thrust upon them, as so often happens. It’s not easy for any organisation to know what works well and what doesn't. Given that so many charities now rely on volunteers to deliver elements of their core service, it's important for them to come to arrangements which are both operationally viable for themselves and satisfactory for their volunteers.

How then, in a nutshell, should charities be tackling this? Needless to say there's no silver bullet, but there are some clues. A number of organisations are investing in stronger processes and CRM systems to open up new digital channels, provide more tailored information and communications and accelerate core processes such as safeguarding, training and deployment. They seem to think the price is worth paying and indeed preferable to losing the goodwill of their volunteers as a result of clunky processes. Of course technology by itself is never the answer. This is where it can help to do some clever design work to get onto the right footing: mapping out typical volunteer journeys, understanding the skill sets and number of people you'll need, and having a clear view of GDPR and other regulatory issues are all crucial steps to working out the right solution and approach.

Another element is cultural – the extent to which charities really engage and support their volunteers. Do they feel valued? How do they feel after their first engagement? Do organisations know what they enjoy and what they don't? In some ways, this is where the old-fashioned principles of customer care and customer loyalty - traditionally stemming from the business world - can be a really effective way of reframing the charity-volunteer relationship. One of the large charities we're  working with is just about to take its entire management team and board trustees on a UK-wide tour to meet their volunteers, step into their shoes and listen to what they think (I long to be a fly on the wall on that roadshow).

The crucial role that volunteers have in supporting the delivery of key services is only going to increase, so let's make them feel valued so they stick around. Happy volunteers' week! 

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