When it comes to transforming volunteering, beware of transformation

Volunteering underpins a huge proportion of community life but how can we make the volunteering experience better for volunteers and the organisations who rely on their help? John Eady offers some thoughts.

Across the UK volunteering is recognised as the keystone of community life. The huge amount of time and activity delivered by volunteers is, quite rightly, celebrated as an essential contribution to the work of the many organisations that depend on them. The support, devotion and assistance of this unpaid workforce is of enormous value to the recipient organisations and has a profound impact on lives, environments and opportunities within communities all over the country. Of no less importance are the significant health, wellbeing and personal development benefits that good volunteering can have for the individuals who give their time.

Note the use of the word ‘good’ here: good volunteering is the key. Given that so much of the nation’s sporting and cultural life is dependent upon volunteering, it is vitally important that we get it right. Making volunteering a positive experience, both for the volunteers that contribute and the organisations that rely upon them, is crucial but it is not easy and it is not always done well. Working with volunteers and managing the volunteer experience needs to be much better if our volunteering culture is to thrive.


Transforming the volunteering experience to maximise the effectiveness of the contributions being made does not necessarily require seismic shifts in the volume or type of work being undertaken. However, volunteers do need support. If this support is to be effective there needs to be a clear understanding of who our volunteers are, what they do, why they do it and what value their volunteering delivers, both for themselves and to the organisations with which they work.

Lead agencies and organisations need to be committed to volunteer development but they also need to be clear from the outset about the ways in which the programmes, venues and networks supported by volunteers will be funded in the future. A great many sports venues, parks and open spaces, along with all the opportunities they create, will depend upon this – and the volunteers who lend their time, energy and goodwill so prodigiously deserve nothing less.


Equally vital is clarity about positive and negative volunteer involvement, remembering to differentiate between the value of engagement for the participating volunteer and the organisation receiving the input. Experience suggests that while the overwhelming majority of volunteering input is founded on good intentions, the outcomes do not always end up matching the original ambition.

Organisations looking to transform the volunteer experience and the effectiveness of the volunteering input need to be clear about their own direction, contribution and outcomes. They also need to be clear about the management, funding and ownership of the environments, bodies and programmes to which their volunteers are contributing.

Within communities across the UK there is a whole raft of societies, ‘friends of’ groups, and voluntary clubs that adopt and perform a variety of stewardship roles for open spaces, sport, physical activity, allotments, parks, village and parish halls, play areas and community recreation facilities. In all these environments getting the desired transformation will depend upon a balance between, on one side, the support, engagement and co-ordination that might be interpreted as the imposition of ‘bureaucracy’, and the positive enhancement of the work of smaller groups and individual volunteers on the other.

All this work must also take into account the issues associated with, for example, age, gender, ethnicity, experience, and areas of high and multiple deprivation. There will also be local and project-specific improvement tools and mechanisms to be considered, including associated motivation and reward factors. When it comes to volunteering and working with volunteers, numerous strategies, processes and resources have been tried, tested and (to a lesser degree) evaluated. They may be of help to your improvement process.


If we’re talking about transforming the volunteering experience, the use of term ‘transformation’ might imply that volunteers on the ground, the ‘volunteers in charge’ and the professionals who manage and interact with volunteers have fully thought through what it is that they ask for and why. In truth, in the majority of cases a great many activities will have evolved around the need to react to local changes and circumstances. Across the annual (and longer-term) cycle of sport, arts, culture, open space, voluntary body or parks operations, more than we might like to admit will be based upon the characters of those interacting in the process rather than any specific overarching ambition.


All this means that any support provided must strike a balance: between leading and dictating; between direction and empowerment; between instruction and engagement. This support also needs to fit with the groups and individuals through which agencies look to ‘invest’ in excellent volunteer practices that align with their own strategic objectives.

Excellence in volunteer practices might include, for example: volunteer quality, recruitment and retention, improved communication and evaluation processes, a broader workforce with less pressure on key individuals, greater capacity to grow the workforce, and an ability to deliver an excellent experience for those involved.

Such processes need to consider and/or incorporate the key elements of a good volunteer experience, along with the skills and knowledge needed to enable the delivery of such an experience:

Examples of key elements of a good volunteer experience

 Preparation for the role
 Honesty about realistic time commitments
 Clarity about their place in the decision-making hierarchy, areas of influence, etc
 Whether roles are based on single or multiple tasks
 Levels of guidance and direction needed; and levels of guidance and direction actually available
 Volunteer induction when starting and when taking on a new role
 Volunteers’ understanding of, and respect for, each other’s roles
 Progress evaluation, recognition, appreciation and thanks, whether delivered personally or publicly.

Examples of the skills and knowledge needed to enable delivery of a good volunteer experience

 Leader/co-ordinator understanding of how individual volunteer roles fit within the overall environment, entity or function
 Appreciation of, and a commitment to, alleviation of personal work overload
 Leader and peer appreciation of the value of the volunteer role being undertaken
 The skill of the ‘task allocator’, including delegation, authorising, empowerment, recognition (of effort and achievement)
 The willingness of those in leadership positions to recognise, challenge and (if required) ‘weed out’ volunteers who limit or obstruct, particularly where this adversely affects the motivation (and ultimately retention) of other effective volunteers.

Attracting, training and deploying volunteers to work in areas such as tackling health inequalities, supporting the ill and unwell, or assisting people facing physical and mental health challenges and disabilities is hugely important. However, while the level of depth is often good, numbers are almost invariably low. Such work requires commitment for the long haul. As the number and proportion of people aged 65-plus rises there is a need to consider whether and how volunteer-based support can be provided to older people while also recruiting more effectively from this cohort.


If we are trying to transform the volunteer experience one element of the solution might be to persuade those involved with leading and managing volunteers to better reflect upon what they, their people and their volunteers do, why they do it and with what results.

Few organisations find it easy to find time for volunteer leaders to discuss, plan, implement and review the actions they take to improve the volunteer experience. Organisations need to find a way to think about how they attract volunteer support, how long people stay in volunteering roles, which roles show the most attrition, and how volunteering in essential areas can be made more attractive and rewarding. Anything that can help them do this, or raise awareness of the range of support and guidance available, will pay dividends.


Volunteer segmentation can also be a useful part of a transformative process. Considerable research has been undertaken into the motivation involved in volunteering but little which explores the motivational role of the different environments and experiences to which volunteers are exposed, for example age, duration of volunteering roles and recruitment routes.

Alternative segmentation approaches consider factors such as effectiveness, time commitments, and the extent to which the personality and attitude of ‘lead’ volunteers encourage or discourage the involvement of others.

While much discussion around these models will be essentially light-hearted and used to stimulate debate, such models do assist those involved to consider the nature of the volunteer resource they have at their disposal and the impact this has on their operation and progress.

KKP’s volunteer segmentation models encompass a range of such factors, including chronology, environment, background and potential motivations. While not exhaustive, the example below does illustrate the complexity of the sector and the level of knowledge, detail and understanding required to develop appropriate actions and resources.

Volunteer segmentation model


While the sector may benefit from a transformative approach to the way it recruits, manages and deploys its volunteers, KKP’s extensive experience of working within and around volunteering suggests that terms such as ‘transformation’ can be problematic. What is innovative to one person may be standard practice to another. Alternative (if less ‘corporately sexy’) terms such as ‘learning’, ‘improvement’ and ‘development’ all imply change, whether that change is incremental, radical or revolutionary.

Perhaps the key is less imposition and more reflection (possibly with assistance), along with greater understanding and recognition of how an individual contribution at localised level underpins delivery of greater strategic ambitions and benefits.

Slightly corrupting a quote from an unnamed source: “Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections every so often but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.”

And slightly misquoting American humourist Leo Rosten: “The purpose of volunteering is to matter – to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference.”


31 January 2020