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The ultimate guide to recruiting and retaining volunteers

June 9, 2020

Table of Contents

Over 20 million people in the UK formally volunteer each year – with many more people volunteering informally (taking part in more ad hoc volunteer opportunities and activities). 

Events and festivals often rely on help from volunteers. From welcoming guests right through to tidying event areas and stewarding performances, volunteers are an invaluable asset that help events run smoothly. 

However, the nature of a volunteer means individuals aren’t paid for their time. This means you don’t often have the same level of managerial control over a volunteer. You can provide rules, regulations and guidance but ultimately your volunteer is under no obligation to continue working for you if they don’t agree with your terms. A poorly developed relationship with your volunteers could lead to your event being understaffed or, worse still, your reputation damaged. 

Successful managers know the worth of their volunteers. They may be unpaid staff, but they are worth their weight in gold. As with all employees (paid or not), the time and expense of recruiting a good team can be significant. Find a fantastic employee, and you’ll want to hold on to them for a long time. The same principle applies for your volunteer team. Build a great team of helping hands, treat them right, hold on to them and watch your events flourish as your volunteers gain confidence and additional skills. 

Finding the right volunteers

Some people want to become regular volunteers. Others want to apply for specific opportunities or activities. This is especially relevant for events like festivals, where volunteers often get a free ticket in return for helping out. 

The type of volunteers you need will depend on the type of events you’re running. If you’re running several community events throughout the year, chances are you’ll need a large team of people willing to help out regularly in order to ensure consistency and minimise having to duplicate training time. If you’re hosting one large one-off event, it’s likely you’ll be looking for passionate volunteers who can be easily trained up on the day or slightly beforehand, ready to hit the ground running for one night (or day) only. 

The first step to finding the right volunteers is to advertise. Use your existing marketing channels to recruit volunteers. Add a page to your website, share opportunities on social media and in your newsletter, and start to build up an email list of potential volunteers. You can even outreach key opportunities to the press (this works particularly well if your remuneration package is worth shouting about). 

As well as using your immediate network, why not ask people to share opportunities amongst their connections too? Ask existing volunteers to spread the word, or put up notices in local community centres or colleges. 

There are also a number of national websites you can use to advertise volunteer opportunities. Do It, Volunteering Matters and CharityJobs are great starting points. 

Recruiting great people

There’s finding volunteers, and then there’s finding the right volunteers. If you want great people to work with you, you’ll need to ensure the role you’re advertising is appealing. 

Start off with a fantastic roles and responsibilities description that makes the role look exciting and rewarding. No volunteers want to end up making tea or having no defined role and goals. Detail what the role will involve, what skills you’re looking for and what type of personality would suit the position. If you’re transparent about the role, it’s likely only suitable candidates will apply. 

Be friendly, welcoming and understanding in all of your communications. Represent your company as a great place to work. 

Make sure you list potential benefits for volunteers too. Just as you would share salary and other benefits for a paying job, you’ll need to detail why volunteers should want to apply. Place emphasis on the difference they’ll make and how they can help their community as well as listing incentives. 

Managing volunteer expectations

Remember that some people may be fearful about a long term volunteer commitment. You can quell these fears by running volunteer meet-and-greets, training sessions or tasters so people can get a good impression of what it’s like to volunteer with you.

If this isn’t possible, then your best avenue is communicating commitment requirements as early as you can. Looking for someone who can give you at least two days of their time each month? Specify that. If you’re able to accommodate a vast array of volunteers, and can provide flexible opportunities, make sure this is promoted in your job description and advertisements.

Do keep in mind that it is not recommended to ask volunteers to make a time commitment. Instead, simply suggest that you would prefer a volunteer works these hours and that it would help them make the most of the experience. 

So you’ve got your list of volunteers?

Now it’s time to make sure they’re the right people for the job. 

Volunteers should be given training. The level of this training will be dependent on the opportunity. Some volunteers will need to be given basic introductions, a list of instructions and a health and safety brief. Others will require more in-depth support. The best way to ascertain the level of support and training your volunteers need is to ask them. One person may feel comfortable hitting the ground running, whereas another will simply decide not to return if they aren’t given the training they need to feel confident in the role. 

Once you’ve trained your volunteers, given them a handbook and got to know them it’s now time to ensure they feel valued. Donorbox gives some great advice to ensure volunteers enjoy their role: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Your volunteers should feel respected, challenged and must understand what goals they’re working towards. Plan ahead as to how you’re going to give your volunteers a great working environment. More on this later. 

Creating written guidance

Create a volunteer handbook that details your expectations, policies and procedures. Write down what you expect of your volunteers, including everything from uniform requirements, behavioural expectations and workplace responsibilities. Then detail what they can expect from you, such as a safe working environment, equal opportunities and zero tolerance policy on discrimination or bullying. 

Having a written handbook in place will help both your managers and volunteers to see what is expected. Your handbook should in no way be seen as a contract and it should be made clear that volunteers are under no obligation. Expectation and obligation are different things. You can expect your volunteers to arrive on time or complete a shift, but you should not enforce this or make it a requirement of their working arrangement with you. 

It’s advised not to ask volunteers to sign a contract to ensure it cannot be construed as binding. This is to safeguard against volunteers questioning their legal status

To prevent this agreement becoming legally binding, NCVO suggests including the following wording: 

“This agreement is not intended to be a legally binding contract between us and may be cancelled at any time at the discretion of either party. Neither of us intend any employment relationship to be created either now or at any time in the future.”

Incentivising volunteers

There are many benefits to volunteering:

  • Learning new skills
  • Offering skills to an organisation 
  • Training opportunities 
  • Building confidence 
  • Getting to know the local community 
  • Enhanced employability 
  • Fun activities 
  • Socialising opportunities 
  • Making a real difference 
  • The personal reward for giving back to the community

One of the largest motivators is “doing good” and helping a cause or organisation the volunteer believes in or has affinity for. People with spare time often want to offer their skills and experience in return for enjoyable volunteering opportunities and a chance to meet new people. Most volunteers aren’t in it for their own gain – they have altruistic intentions. 

Demand for volunteers is high. Many businesses, community organisations and events require volunteers in order to keep staffing costs low and businesses/events profitable. This means finding skilled, reliable volunteers can be complex. Businesses and event organisers should try to make volunteer opportunities as rewarding and exciting as possible. 

As well as ensuring the actual role is rewarding, there are some perks you could offer to ensure volunteers feel valued and motivated:

  • Consider reimbursing expenses (ensuring only genuine out of pocket expenses are paid) 
  • Offer free refreshments 
  • Write a personalised thank you note to your volunteers at the end of the event
  • Provide free access to your event whilst a volunteer is “on duty” 
  • Offer wellbeing support and guidance

These perks should be offered at your discretion, rather than delivered as part of an agreement. This is to ensure these perks cannot be considered a payment. 

Insuring your volunteers

You’ve got your volunteer team. Now it’s time to keep them safe. 

You will legally need to have adequate Employers’ Liability in place to protect people who work for your organisation. You should make sure your policy specifically mentions protection for your volunteers. This is to ensure both you and your volunteers are covered financially if they suffer injury or illness as a result of your negligence. Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. But you need to make sure you can offer compensation to the people who rely on you to keep them safe if the worst happens.

By working with a reputable insurance broker (hello!), you can ensure you have the right insurance policy to suit your needs. The benefit of seeking comprehensive insurance, personalised to your event or organisation, is you can be assured you’re paying the most competitive price for the level of cover you really need. 

Your volunteers may also need to be given further insurance advice, such as informing their motor vehicle insurance if they’re using their car as part of their volunteering duties. 

How to develop an effective volunteer rota 

Before you ask volunteers to work for you, develop a plan and rota for your event. How many volunteers do you need, and what roles will they be filling? Think about what skills are needed for certain roles and try to match them with your volunteers’ experience. For example, someone selling tickets will need different skills to someone working behind-the-scenes to prepare goody bags or hand out promotional flyers. 

You may have an abundance of volunteers to choose from. In this instance, you can either hand pick volunteers to suit the available roles, or you can ask your volunteer database who would like to fill the roles and allocate them on a first come, first served basis. Make sure your volunteers know how long each shift will be, and any physical requirements such as standing for long periods of time. Remember that not everyone will want to commit to a seven-hour shift! You might need to allocate time slots instead to share the workload. 

In advance of your event, map out the tasks each volunteer will need to complete. Give as much detail as possible – where they will be stationed, who they will be working with, which manager they will report to. You could use a free tool such as Google Calendar to add in everyone’s shift and tasks, so everyone has visibility of what will happen on the day. 

Managing your volunteers

This one’s simple. Manage volunteers as you would manage any employee: with respect and understanding. Give clear goals and guidance, offering additional support where needed. Do keep in mind that employees are not paid workers, however, and it should be clear to an outsider who is a paid employee and who is a volunteer. 

Assess each individual’s circumstance separately. One volunteer may prefer to be given total autonomy over a specific task. Another will require detailed instructions and extra help. Be prepared to listen and offer advice. Be patient, and be welcoming. Always remember that your volunteers are offering their time for free to help you – so let them, and be grateful for their input and opinions. 

You may simply not have the resource to be on-hand to help your volunteers throughout an event. Whilst a buddy-up system (one employee partnered with a few volunteers) would be great in an ideal world, it’s not always possible to provide the support you would like to. In this circumstance, ensure all volunteers are given a contact number. If there is a problem, respond to phone calls or messages promptly. It simply isn’t fair for volunteers to feel “left to it”. 

A debrief is also important for volunteers. Simply finishing a shift and slinking off won’t help volunteers feel valued or receive the feedback they need. Gather all your volunteers together at the end of an event and thank them sincerely, detailing what went right and what you would do differently next time. Never single out a volunteer or place blame. They are under no obligation to work for you, and it’s not within your jurisdiction to provide development opportunities or feedback on how to grow and improve within the role. 

Risk management considerations

There are a few written policies you should consider creating. In some instances you will be required by law to have these documents:

  • Health and safety policy
  • Safeguarding policy (if working with children or vulnerable people in particular)
  • Privacy policy
  • Equality and Diversity policy

You must also have a risk assessment in place for any event or workplace environment. This demonstrates you’ve assessed potential risk and put control measures in place to minimise this risk. 

The above will demonstrate that you have done your due diligence and taken all reasonable steps to keep your employees and volunteers safe. While some policies will cover both employees and volunteers, any written document should make it clear if a certain section only refers to paid staff or just volunteers. 

You can find further risk management advice, including risk assessment templates, on our Resources section

Keeping in touch

Even after your event’s over, you’ll want to keep connecting with your volunteers for future events. Don’t just call upon your volunteers when help is needed. Regularly send them updates about your business or upcoming events. You could even team up with other local businesses to share volunteer or career opportunities to keep things varied. 

Your volunteers may become your biggest advocate. They’ll chat to their friends about your organisation or events. They’ll share photographs of their volunteer work online. It’s likely they’ll come back to volunteer for you time and time again… but only if you treat your volunteers right. View everyone as an equally valued member of your team from the get-go and you can ensure your volunteers will reward you with hard work and loyalty. 

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