The Covid-19 crisis has placed a sudden spotlight on volunteering as a way of bolstering communities, channelling the kindness that the crisis has brought to the surface, addressing feelings of isolation and powerlessness, and rebuilding confidence and careers. Now is an ideal time for organisations to reflect on the wider implications of this growing appetite for, and recognition of, volunteering.
An essential starting point is to agree and adopt a clear definition of what you mean by the term 'volunteer'. Volunteers across your organisation may have different roles and engage in different ways. This is fine, as long as it’s legal and works on the basis of shared understanding and respect. Volunteers are an essential and valued part of the workforce, but they are not staff, so a fine line of expectation needs to be carefully navigated1.
The way an organisation views and relates to its volunteers is a crucial manifestation of its values. Working with respect and appreciation for the contribution volunteers make – from the board onwards – results not only in a productive programme, but feeds local perceptions about what kind of organisation you are.
It is important to have clear role descriptions – not ‘job’ descriptions – and articulate how staff and volunteer roles are distinct. Volunteers enable work to be done that is above and beyond core staff responsibilities. It is a two-way process: volunteers bring unique skills, capacity and perspectives, and contribute ideas, creativity and specialist knowledge. In return they gain new skills and experiences. As many organisations move towards a more distributed, less controlling model of local leadership, valuing those wider perspectives and alternative forms of expertise is key, so think about their motivations for engaging. They are not paid and for the most part work irregular or part-time hours. They are giving their time for a purpose beyond earning a living.
In arts and culture, there is growing interest in co-creation and audience-centred design. Volunteers may or may not be involved in a defined co-creation initiative but their ideas, skills and expertise with certainly enrich an organisation’s creativity and relevance. The concern around a fair exchange for their input is even more important.
Diversity is vital to both organisational survival and delivery of artistic mission, and volunteers can play a key role in developing new relationships, creative thinking and new ways of working. Most organisations have traditionally attracted a narrow pool of volunteers, dominated by wealth, whiteness and women (the same, of course, can be said for staff). But in the past few years volunteers have increasingly been acknowledged as part of the overall equation for building a more diverse community of stakeholders and audiences.
This has inspired lots of interesting and innovative programmes for volunteer recruitment and role management. Many organisations have been challenging themselves to change their approach to volunteer recruitment. The measures they have taken range from altering the nature of roles and time commitment required from volunteers, to focussing on the positive impact volunteers can make to the development of their community.
Some inspirational examples of volunteering initiatives that contribute to the diversity agenda include:
- Celebrating time-squeezed volunteers – however little time they can give
The Museum of the Home (formerly known as the Geffrye Museum) present volunteering opportunities that value different levels of time input, from ‘just a minute’ to an ‘hour or two’, ‘give a day’ and ‘regular help’. This sensitively reflects the profile of its local community.
- Place-based legacy – making a long-term difference to communities
The evaluation report for Waltham Forest’s year as London Borough of Culture 2019 reveals the success of its Legends of the Forest volunteering programme. More than 1,000 people volunteered 11,300 hours of time and the volunteering model proved to be an important legacy in the form of ongoing engagement in local projects by community volunteers. Similarly, the City of Hull volunteers are currently supporting the local Covid-19 crisis response.
- Agency and voice
People’s History Museum won the Marsh Christian Trust volunteering award (run in partnership with the British Museum) and the Museums and Heritage Show Volunteer Team of the Year in 2017 for involving its volunteer Community Curators in the exhibition Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights exhibition. A film sharing their work reveals the important contributions of their knowledge and experiences. The Galway European Capital City of Culture’s Wave Makers volunteering programme places volunteering within a radical active vision of positive disruption and bringing about change. Both inspiring projects include volunteers in a project’s vision, giving them active decision-making roles.
What all these examples tell us is that volunteering offers benefits to organisations, communities and volunteers themselves. In this win-win-win situation, the more everyone invests, the greater the returns for all.
Information is power but empathy is queen, so a useful starting point is to review your staff and volunteer demographic profile and gain a deep understanding of their experience and motivations. Quantitative and qualitative intelligence is key here. How do your volunteers reflect your local population? What are the gaps? How do volunteers feel about your organisation and what would they recommend for new recruits? Could local partnerships help you redress the balance and promote your roles to people that really represent your communities? Also, undertake an audit of the types of roles you offer and have an honest conversation about why they may not be universally appealing? Is it the job, the hours/timings, or simply the way you market and recruit? Then identify areas of good practice to learn from and build on.
Organisations with really effective volunteer forces have dedicated staff who recruit, train and develop them, and investing resource in good volunteer management is crucial. In larger and longer-established volunteer workforces, emerging lead volunteers become mentors and take on more proactive roles. This brings new challenges, but ensuring there are progression opportunities and ways of engaging newer perspectives is a continual part of developing practice.
A good time to reflect
This time of crisis can be used to good effect by challenging the way your volunteer programme works:
- Think about how shifting post-Covid priorities around how people live, as well as what they may want from arts, culture and creativity, will impact on your overall model. Volunteering for Wellbeing, a good practice guide to socially engaged volunteering programmes, could help with this.
- Review data about who your staff, volunteers, audiences and population are, and think about how you can diversify volunteering activity.
- Use this time to deepen relationships and build empathy by talking more with your volunteers about their experience, exploring their journeys and motivations.
- Revisit the type and scope of your volunteering roles. Work to make them engaging to the right people – and be open to reconsidering the marketing, recruitment, function, and format of your volunteering programme.
- Think big! Some cultural organisations have secured Investing in Volunteers status – a UK quality standard for good volunteering. Even using the standards as a reference guide can support your review of current practice.
- Think about how you could evaluate the wider social impact of your volunteering programme. Understanding wider community impact could help you to scale, improve and resource future programmes in an ambitious way.
This article first appeared in Arts Professional on 13 May 2020 as part of The Audience Agency's series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.