Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!

More change will come as lockdown life slowly, cautiously, comes to an end. We face an unprecedented economic downturn following the government bailouts, employment protection schemes and the ongoing costs of protecting people from Covid-19. For some, life may well get harder before it gets better. Some commentators even think the loss of GDP in the UK could result in more deaths than those caused by the virus.

Looking back to the global financial crisis a little over ten years ago, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) looked at the impacts on nonprofits and volunteer managers and there are some useful lessons for us to learn:

  • Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
  • Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
  • Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
  • There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources

As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?

What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.

1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something

It is wonderful to see reports of a million people coming forward to volunteer during the pandemic but we must not equate an interest in volunteering with actual volunteering.

On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.

Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.

In both cases, my interest in volunteering has not resulted in me actually volunteering. Instead, it is has caused frustration and annoyance. I’m not alone either. Recently a UK tabloid newspaper called the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme a shambles,not exactly the kind of press that encourages people to volunteer.

As Jayne Cravens once said:

”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”

Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed

To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.

Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.

We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!

If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?

Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back

For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.

As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.

We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.

Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.

10 thoughts on “Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

  1. I’m just getting around to reading many of your posts Rob and they are stimulating indeed. Lots of food for thought. I think the rise of informal volunteering that we are seeing at this time might be the impetus for the importance of engagement professionals. People are helping their neighbors from a safe distance; getting together in communities; assessing needs and delivering on needs locally. I am hopeful that this might be laying the framework/groundwork or infrastructure..whatever you might want to call it ..for being more open, interested and willing to seek volunteering within organizations when this quiets down ( my opinion: we will have to find a way to live within covid not without it). Managers of Volunteers who are great marketers will build on this and find ways to reach out to those who have had satisfying and worthwhile experiences perhaps with informal volunteering for the first time…does this lead to other volunteer opportunities? I sure hope so.
    By the way, I also tried to volunteer as a contact tracer…I have strong research and analytical skills that I thought would be very useful. I never heard back either and yes, gave up. Decided to find ways to support other neighbors who were isolated or had to make emergency trips to hospitals (one for twisted bowel and the other for heart issues) and reached out to family to see how and when I could help. Been making lots of food to deliver/cards/calls….this is in part what made me think of the thousands of others doing the same thing and building their community connections. Managers of Volunteers in the right place at right time can capitalize on this movement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post Rob. My nature center has put most staff on furlough, especially now that the school year is winding down and we don’t know what will be happening for summer camps in the States. Given the loss of revenue for at least 5 months, one of my concerns is that not all the staff will be coming back in the fall, let alone volunteers. For organizations on the smaller end of the middle tier like mine, we have higher overhead compared to our peers, which could put us in a bad situation – even for organizational viability. One might conclude that these types of organizations might need to convert to more volunteer or pro bono led programming and staffing rather than paid staff. Which is a scary proposition.


  3. Excellent post Rob. I suggest if any of our colleagues are furloughed, temporarily laid off, or otherwise not employed to be sure and share with your organizations leadership. To be on the safe side, just share this message everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rob – such a timely article that hits home in these rapidly changing times. Lots of thoughts and agreement with the points raised. I think what stuck out to me most is the need to ensure skill based recruitment is front and centre when filling openings needed by either permanent volunteer retirements or newly emerging needs resulting from staff downsizing. Volunteer engagement professionals are aware of shifting demographic trends in the areas we support, tactical recruitment strategies, and we understand how the impacts of your first two points will influence the opportunity an organization has to attract the best candidates. As mission programs will likely see changes as a result of new social Covid-19 realities or funding limitations, it is likely that volunteer needs and roles will change. To be successful, recruitment cannot be a ‘warm body’ solution. Success will be seen when a volunteer with skills matching the role’s responsibilities and objectives is placed. It’s takes time to identify the right people and it’s after the screening and onboarding that the work begins in fostering the ongoing relationship. Leaders of volunteers also need to be a part of organizations to ensure that volunteers have positive staff partner experiences. Lastly, I would add that we know that volunteers are often likely to also be or become donors. As revenue challenges related to Covid-19 try to be rectified and fundraising is the focus, future gifts can be greatly influenced by the volunteer experience received. Not only by word of mouth but in the decision of volunteers investing their hard earned dollars along with their time, whether that is in the short term or long term. Recognizing that volunteer engagement professionals are influencers of more than shifts, schedules and waivers will be what helps to rebuild and recover revenues and organizations who recognize this will come out on top.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so spot on Erin, thank you. I especially loved, “Recognizing that volunteer engagement professionals are influencers of more than shifts, schedules and waivers will be what helps to rebuild and recover revenues and organizations who recognize this will come out on top.” 😃👍🏼


  5. Thanks Rob, really pertinent post. Sadly though, so many of us are currently furloughed that we’re not in a position to influence discussions, or even speak to our volunteers to gauge their feelings or future plans, which is frustrating.


  6. Great post Rob highlighting really important points which I am raising in my organisation and I hope that others are too, nice to have some verification!

    Liked by 1 person

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