First of all, what on earth does ‘professionalised’ volunteering even mean?
Essentially, we are talking about formalising the processes around volunteering. Things like interview processes, volunteer agreements, recruiting volunteer managers, and providing formal training are all ways that volunteering has been ‘professionalised’.
This does not mean that volunteers should be expected to carry out the same duties as an employee, but that you have an opportunity to provide further support for your volunteers.
The move towards a more professionalised view of volunteering has become accepted over the past few years.
This has been attributed to several factors:
- volunteering has been increasingly perceived as a way to refine skills or develop a career
- an increase of volunteers of working age due to economic downturn and a difficult job market
- a greater sense of risk aversion and fear of legal ramifications has led to the formalisation of certain roles
Why should you consider upgrading your processes?
Regardless of the reasons, it seems that this idea of professionalised volunteering is a logical, some might even say inevitable, next step for the industry.
In 1997, 71% of respondents to the National Survey of Volunteering in the UK said that a major drawback of volunteering was that their organisations were not properly organised. It makes sense that in order to get the most out of volunteers and make the biggest impact for the beneficiaries of a charity, there needs to be an element of formalisation.
Good volunteers are gold
A more professionalised approach to recruiting and managing volunteers has some obvious benefits.
Viewing a volunteer role with the same responsibility and accountability as you would a paid position helps both the volunteer and their manager to take the role more seriously. A volunteer who understands the importance and impact of their work and has access to sufficient training and support is more likely to take pride and responsibility in their role and be a more productive asset to the organisation.
Volunteers have become integral to many organisations not simply in fundraising but also service delivery and increased formalisation helps to recognise these volunteers as an essential component of the company.
Lack of formalisation = bad practice
Furthermore, in certain areas, a lack of professionalisation in volunteer roles can have very serious implications.
One such instance is the rise of ‘voluntourism’ where people travel to developing countries to take part in volunteer projects, often as part of a gap year experience. Writing for the Huffington Post, one former volunteer criticises ‘no experience necessary’ placements and describes the “training” she received: ‘[it was] merely a handover from the previous volunteers who were so desperately under-qualified that they remained blissfully unaware of the fact that the impact of their efforts was negligible’.
Working with vulnerable people requires a level of skill, understanding and experience that is simply not possible to achieve without adequate training. It has widely been reported that the ‘voluntourism’ industry which relies on cycles of untrained, inexperienced volunteers paying to contribute their time in orphanages and construction projects, actually causes more harm than good. There have even been reports of local people having to reconstruct walls built by well-wishing volunteers in the middle of the night so that in the morning the tourists would be ‘unaware of [their] failure’.
Making it easier to measure impact
Closer to home, there are concerns that a move towards increased formalisation of the third sector means viewing the industry in economic terms rather than social ones and that it might deter potential volunteers by making them jump through hoops or meet certain requirements to get volunteer positions.
While this may be true to an extent, viewing volunteering in more economic terms can actually make it easier to measure and quantify the impact an individual or an organisation has had.
Furthermore, recruiting volunteers with relevant experience or training is good for both the volunteer and the organisation, as the volunteer will be more stimulated by their work leading to increased job satisfaction and the organisation will likely see greater results than with a totally inexperienced volunteer.
What to do next?
So, with all these benefits in mind, how can your organisation take steps to professionalise its approach to volunteering?
Provide training and support
Although this may seem like an unnecessary extra expense, a volunteer who has received appropriate training for their position and who feels supported in their role is more likely to stay with your organisation and to make greater waves within it.
Do not underestimate the incredible impact your volunteers can have if given opportunities for learning and growth.
Set entry requirements for certain roles
When hiring for a paid position, employers have certain expectations from candidates. Organisations recruiting new volunteers should consider taking a similar approach. While this is not necessary for every volunteering position, certain roles (especially those related to care or education) should require a level of prior skill or experience.
Prepare the necessary paperwork
Roles in which volunteers will be working with vulnerable people are likely to require paperwork in the form of background checks and clearance certificates before they can take on the role.
It is good practice, however, for any organisation taking on volunteers to draw up a volunteer agreement which outlines the expectations of the role and both the organisation and the volunteer’s agreed commitment to each other.
Hire a dedicated volunteer manager/co-ordinator
The role of volunteer manager should not be an extra responsibility tacked on to the end of a prior employee’s job description. To be able to provide the necessary training and support for volunteer staff, your organisation needs to have an individual dedicated to the role of volunteer manager.
It is imperative for organisations to collect quantifiable data about their impact and achievements. This gives an air of professionalism that will help them to compete with larger, national charities for financial backing and support and will increase trust with stakeholders who will want to know how the organisation has used their donations and with beneficiaries who will be interested in how the charity can help their needs.
While the term ‘professionalised’ volunteering sounds formal and a little formidable, it really just refers to best practice volunteer management.
Not-for-profit organisations who work with volunteers regularly will be already be aware of the benefits of having processes in place to navigate the relationship between organisation and volunteer. From early stage interviews, to training, volunteering, and exit interviews as they leave the role, understanding your volunteer’s needs and expectations will help build a trusting relationship between you and amplify your impact for your beneficiaries.
If you want to know more about formal volunteering and how to get involved, please get in touch!