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  • INTO Short Guide to Recruiting & Retaining Volunteers

    Posted on November 22, 2014

    INTO Short Guide to Recruiting & Retaining Volunteers, by Julie Thompson, INTO Volunteer, updated June 2014

    For an organisation such as INTO, volunteers are an absolutely essential resource, as with only one salaried employee, it is almost entirely reliant on them to achieve its objectives. It’s therefore important that volunteers with the appropriate skills and experience are recruited, managed and supported to help deliver their objectives and to recognise that the volunteering relationship can be one of mutual benefit.

    This short guide has been developed to help anyone in INTO to recruit, manage and retain volunteers and provide an overview of good practice.


    There is no one definition of volunteering, however it can generally be described as an ‘unpaid activity where someone gives their time to help an organisation or individual who they are not related to’. The UN has a long definition and summarising this it’s possible to identify four stages of volunteer activity – mutual aid or self-help, philanthropy or service to others; civic engagement or participation; advocacy and campaigning.

    Why do people volunteer?

    There have been a number of studies which show that volunteering is good for a person’s health! Research also shows that people volunteer for a number of reasons, including:

    – To give something back or ‘do good’
    – Commitment to a particular cause
    – To use their existing skills in a new environment or
    – Develop new skills / expand CV
    – To fill spare time productively
    – To meet people /be part of a team
    – As a route into work

    A person’s reasons and motivations can change over time and it’s also worthwhile to consider the different types of volunteer:

    Stalwart volunteers: often characterised by a strong psychological investment to the organisation’s objectives and aims. They are often dedicated to the cause and will commit long-term. Volunteering can almost become part of their identity.

    Stepping Stone volunteers: see volunteering as a means to their ultimate goal. Examples of this could include those who are looking to return to work or a student looking for experience for their CV. They may not be long-term volunteers for the organisation.

    Project Hopper volunteers: often move from one organisation to another, volunteering for limited periods of time. This could be someone who enjoys working on different project and shorter-term commitments, but volunteering is often part of a mind-set, hence they will keep returning to volunteering.

    Understanding the different types of potential volunteer will help match individuals to the most appropriate role. For example, a stepping stone volunteer who is also looking for a job may be best suited to a project-based or finite timescale role in the first instance. For another person who is primarily motivated by wanting to socialize, thought should be given to how this could be accomplished if they will be based at home.

    In the case of many organisations including INTO, volunteers could also be donors, members or executives of INTO member organisations etc so they may have several different relationships with the organisation, which is important to remember.

    GOOD PRACTICE in volunteer management

    There are ways that small charities can recruit and retain enthusiastic volunteers without creating unwanted bureaucracy. Here are some suggestions:

    Role descriptions
    Role descriptions are the cornerstone of any volunteer relationship and one should be created for every volunteer. To maximise organisational effectiveness, roles created should directly relate to INTO’s objectives, where possible. The role description allows potential volunteers to match their own skills and experiences to requirements and, as importantly, ensures that ambiguity is avoided. Research shows that volunteers are much more likely to be motivated and retained if tasks and expectations are clear. Where a volunteer is recruited without a role description, an overview of responsibilities should be agreed upfront (ideally in writing) and these can be expanded upon later. However tempting it maybe to rely on a ‘psychological contract’ or unwritten promises, disillusionment can quickly set in if expectations aren’t met and it can then be more difficult to get things back on track.

    What to include in a role description:

    – Description of responsibilities and tasks
    – Skills/experiences required for the role
    – An indication of likely time commitment required
    – Information about INTO
    – Expenses policy

    N.B. It is important to indicate that the role is voluntary and non-contractual.

    The use of employment terms should be avoided eg job, work etc. Likewise, it’s essential to steer clear of stating minimum or precisely defined time commitments as these can imply a duty. Fortunately, most of the likely roles in INTO can be managed around each volunteer’s own constraints and volunteers should be encouraged to manage their own time.

    It’s good practice not to include too many mundane tasks in the role and each volunteer should be encouraged to be empowered – to ‘own’ or be responsible for a particular piece of work or project where possible.

    Role descriptions can be seen as ‘living documents’ and once one has been prepared, will make the following stages a lot easier.

    Promoting the volunteer opportunity
    Large charities, such as the National Trust, have a number of ways of attracting volunteers: leaflets at heritage sites, word-of-mouth through existing volunteers and a large Intern programme etc. Smaller entities such as INTO generally, although not always, need to use other methods – including advertising – as it is vital to attract and recruit individuals with the appropriate skills for the role. There are a number of things to consider where this is the case, including:

    Where to advertise: There are a number of charity-specific websites that can be used to promote roles and some offer templates that can be filled out. Good ones include in the UK and Seek in Australia. Roles can also be advertised on the INTO website, however a more targeted advertising approach may also be required eg advertising the role in the country the volunteer is likely to be based in and/or perhaps on an INTO member’s website.

    What to include on the advert: It’s important to think about the benefits there could be for potential volunteers (think of ‘what’s in it for me’?) and these need to be made explicit on the ad. (Examples could include to being part of an international team, responsibility for a particular project or piece of work etc). It’s also vital to include information about INTO, and if possible, this should be consistent across all adverts. Many organisations use recruitment adverts as a means of increasing awareness of their brand or cause.

    Monitoring effectiveness: Most websites charge charities to advertise their roles. It’s therefore essential to ensure that the advert is well written and includes the information above, as well as the job description. Ideally, adverts that yield no response should either be revised and re-advertised or taken down from the website after one month. Potential volunteers can be deterred from applying for roles that have been on websites for a long time.

    Selection and Interviews
    All being well, there should be some interest in the volunteer opportunity and applicants should be asked to submit a CV, if this has not been stated on the advert. This is a standard request and most applicants should expect this. A CV is one of the best means of ascertaining the suitability of an individual in the first instance. It’s also a good idea to ask applicants to email a short covering note to indicate why they are interested in the role. This can give an additional insight into the individual’s interest levels, motivation and skills, especially if they are applying for an opportunity that’s radically different from anything on their CV!

    For those individuals where you feel there is a good match, invite them for an interview. Every applicant should receive a prompt response, thanking them for their interest.

    The word ‘interview’ sounds formal, however it is imperative that a meeting takes place, which could be a chat over a coffee, on the phone or via Skype. Not only does this help the potential volunteer to assess their own interest and suitability for a role, it gives the interviewer the chance to understand the applicant’s expectations and motivations (stalwart/project hopper etc). A good way to start this is to ask open-ended questions eg what they hope to get out of volunteering etc. Where there is rapport and a good fit with the volunteer’s skills/ aims/time commitments there is a strong chance the volunteering relationship will flourish.

    Managing and communicating with volunteers
    Most volunteers find regular communication motivating. Infact, lack of communication is one of the key reasons that volunteers become dissatisfied. It’s very important to listen to volunteers and respond to their requests or concerns as soon as possible. To maintain engagement, it’s vital to keep volunteers informed.

    The volunteering relationship is a different one to the employer/employee reporting relationship. Indeed, some volunteers may relish their ‘free spirit’ nature as they are not bound by an employment contract. This aspect can add to the complexity of managing volunteers, however it doesn’t need to be a bureaucratic process and should be appropriate for the individual and their role. There should be an opportunity for both sides to give and receive feedback periodically – say every six months. This is especially important where the volunteer works remotely/independently or for someone who is a long-term volunteer. The conversation (whether face-to-face or on the phone) doesn’t have to be long but it should have a structure: perhaps a review of the role description/objectives and setting new ones for the next 6-12 months. This is a good chance to re-visit the volunteer’s motivations and to ensure that INTO is matching expectations, especially where the individual is wanting work experience or to develop their skill set.

    Retention and Recognition
    Most volunteers, like employees, like to feel a sense of achievement and be recognised in some way for their work. Studies show that volunteers are motivated and retained by having clear expectations, feeling empowered and having the opportunity to give and receive feedback. Ensuring that volunteers feel valued will also help to retain them. Just as the motivations for volunteering and personal circumstances vary according to the individual, so do how people wish to be rewarded or recognised for their contributions. The best way to do this is for the manager to get to know the person and understand what they are looking for.

    Conclusion and Recommendations
    Recruiting and retaining motivated and suitable volunteers has a massive impact on all charitable organisations including INTO. Whether the volunteer is part of the INTO secretariat or INTO board, this guide is equally relevant.

    The main points in summary are:

    • Role descriptions should be the cornerstone of every role and should be prepared before the volunteer is recruited: even a basic document will suffice. The role needs to be linked directly to INTO’s objectives.
    • Internet advertising is an important part of promoting roles. Thought needs to be given to the content of the advert to include information about INTO and the team that the volunteer will be part of. Some organisations advertise the role description alone – this should be avoided.
    • Adverts need to be refreshed or taken-down and edited after one month, even if no suitable applicants have come forward. People tend to be put off applying for roles if they have been advertised for a long time.
    • Get to understand each potential volunteer’s reasons for volunteering and give some thought to what type of volunteer they are, in addition to assessing their skills when interviewing.
    • There should be a periodic review of how volunteers are progressing – say every six months. This is especially important for volunteers working remotely! This should give both INTO and the volunteer the chance for feedback and also ensure that all volunteers are contributing to INTO’s objectives.
    • Recognition is important, especially as volunteers are unsalaried. It is important to understand the individual volunteer and give each person the appropriate recognition for them.

    NCVO :
    Institute for Volunteering Research :
    National Trust volunteering resources
    Do-It :
    Seek Australia :
    How to run a Charity /Marr
    Volunteer Managers Handbook / McCrudden volunteers want

    Written by Julie Thompson, updated June 2014

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