Volunteering is in flux. Those looking to volunteer and what they are looking to gain from it are changing. The volunteering market is becoming competitive and as organisations that rely and thrive on our volunteers, the conservation sector needs to change how and what we offer our volunteers.
Since I was last a regular volunteer, I’ve held two roles that have worked with hugely varying groups of volunteers. As a Senior Project Officer with the London Wildlife Trust, I managed a select and skilled group of volunteers mostly between the ages of 20 and 35, all career orientated and looking to get their first toehold in environmental employment. Most recently, working out in Epping Forest on the fringes of London, the volunteers were hobbyists, generally retired, white, middle-class and generally long-term. This is what the volunteering set up was largely geared towards, but even here in a bastion of traditional conservation volunteering, the intake was moving away from the stale, male, pale stereotype. It would be simplistic to break conservation volunteering into this dichotomy; young vs. old, short-term vs. long-term, careerist vs. hobbyist, but it is certainly a theme and making sure we offer opportunities for both is a key theme in modern volunteer management.
When I first started in the sector with the London Wildlife Trust as part of their graduate trainee scheme in 2008, I came in with a very definite approach; gain as much experience, skills and training in as wide a range as possible in order to get my first job in the sector. I was also working on an ad hoc basis at the time, so my input could be varied and irregular. My experienced mirrored a number at the Trust at the time, as many of my generation began to face up to harsh realities and looked to find ways of expanding and improving their employability. 6 years on, volunteering has changed yet further and it is important that we address our attitude towards volunteering and acknowledge the social, political, cultural trends that influence it. Two key reasons for a change in psychology in the intervening six years can be summed up by two phrases: ‘Big Society’ and ‘Games Makers’. Firstly, the Conservatives made a claim to be the moral defenders and creators of the volunteering movement, while continuing to cut funding and support to voluntary organisations. The notion was widely ridiculed and a backlash ensued, but this benefited the volunteering movement not a bit as it became tainted by association amongst those of a liberal and altruistic nature who would generally be the mainstay of volunteering. Then Games Makers gave every prospective volunteer a distorted and skewed view of glamour and zeitgeist, media interest, general goodwill and approval. Dispelling these notions is key to the future of volunteering: reaffirming the value of volunteering divorced from any political connotations; stressing the need for hard work, commitment and desire and demonstrating that the role is not being used as a replacement for paid staff.
My early experiences have shaped the way I look to manage and work alongside volunteers now as I look to improve what I can offer, learning from what worked in that first experience of volunteering and adapting what did not. I believe an iterative approach is essential to getting the right volunteering set-up for each organisation. To this end, feedback and an openness to exchange of thought and idea as a two-way process should be intrinsic to any volunteering offer. Consideration should be given, depending on the size and scale of the organisation and volunteering community, to setting up a volunteer council, through which constructive comment and evaluation can pass in both directions. This allows volunteers to become involved and invested in their own management and allows for the divesting of some roles normally taken on by the volunteer manager, with obvious benefits on time and finance.
That early hook in the volunteering offer is key in retaining new recruits. Any new volunteer is offering precious time and they need to know that they are committing to both a worthwhile cause about which they are passionate and to an organisation that will support them. For me, this was as simple as a tools talk on my first day and the instruction to pay close attention as next time I’d be asked to talk about one of the tools (if willing, a non-pressure environment is also key). This signalled to me that I was no free labourer but an appreciated and involved member of the team, capable of making valuable contributions to the running of the day. The next time I volunteered I duly took on my part of the talk and this is something I readily incorporated into my own future projects. That first induction session can often play a role, and again represents an opportunity to divest a role to enthusiastic and capable volunteers by getting them involved in inducting new volunteers. I have recently toyed with the idea of implementing a personal development plan for each new volunteer at this stage, giving new volunteers targets to reach for, much as an appraisal or Personal Development Record would do for a regular paid member of staff. This may not be of interest to our ‘hobbyists’, but a short-term ‘careerist’ would value the opportunity to identify and rapidly gain skills and isolate areas requiring training.
Feeling valued is the most key part to retaining and developing our volunteers. The exchange between organisation and volunteer needs to be two-way and as fair as possible with obvious benefits to both sides. Offering a wide program of training and varied volunteering opportunities is imperative; scrub cutting is a valuable exercise but a week of it will disenchant even the most hardcore and dedicated. Advocating the involvement of as many different personnel within an organisation with as wide ranging skill sets as possible to set up a year long volunteering program is a key step to delivering a program of training sessions, mentoring opportunities and volunteering projects. This has obvious value for our careerist as they look to improve their employability, but our hobbyists should not be discounted and expanding the skills of long-term volunteers helps to enhance the delivery in a number of areas.
A former colleague worried about such program being open to abuse by those not willing to put in the hours volunteering and just turning up for training sessions, suggesting some form of reward scheme for training. This is an interesting idea but not one I would support and risks turning volunteering into a competition, creating a further bifurcation between our long-term careerist and short-term hobbyist, not to mention creating an administrative headache. But this attitude attests to an antipathy that can often exist between paid staff and volunteers. From a volunteer’s perspective, and this I have seen increase as charities become further stretched, much irritation can arise when volunteers are utilised to fill previously paid positions under the guise of internships or training. Likewise, staff can see volunteers as at best a drain on their time and resources and at worst a threat to their own positions or future prospects. This, again, is another area where a ‘volunteer council’ can assist, giving voice to these concerns. By involving both sides in the discussion, the value and necessity of the volunteering offer to both volunteer and organisation (and by extension, organisations staff) can be communicated.
The logistical future of conservation volunteering offers will also need to move with the times. Volunteering officers can be hugely skilled in practical areas, this should be encouraged and setting up an intuitive database with a simple and accessible interface can reduce time on administrative duties. Volunteer records I have come across in previous roles have ranged from impenetrable databases to back of a fag packet scribbles. Online means should not be discounted and new initiatives in volunteering will predictably revolve around our screens as organisations utilise social media and new software and applications. Online software such as those supplied by Better Impact will increase ease of monitoring, feedback and administration while applications such as Blue Dot will offer the opportunity to gain rewards through volunteering interactions, the use of which should certainly not be underestimated when encouraging a more techno-savvy demographic. What are now becoming ‘traditional’ forms of social media, Twitter and Facebook, will need to be kept on top of and can have drastic publicity benefits if managed proactively but mismanagement can draw the ire of those with a negative volunteering experience.
Accreditation for training will be a future area of interest for many conservation charities as they look to improve their offer, both for the sake of the volunteer, but also for the publicity and reporting value of such schemes. I believe this will be one of the key areas of advance in conservation volunteering offers as more and more conservation charities begin to provide accredited training schemes in environmental management, community outreach and areas such as species identification.
Care should be taken to ensure volunteering is not undertaken for its own sake, to drive up numbers and hours of volunteers. These are ineffective measures of success, despite the temptation to deal in quantitative values that aid our reporting and fundraising and look great in press releases. A more useful indicator of success of a volunteer offer, given the increase in short-term volunteers, might be those moving into careers in the sector, training sessions delivered and attendance levels, reports of projects completed, volunteer satisfaction, qualifications gained etc. By these means, we change the measure of success of our volunteering offer not as hours achieved but what our volunteers have achieved in those hours.