Over the last year I have been working with ppre on an EU project looking at Improving Volunteering in Social Care. The project is part of the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Programme. It has been a great opportunity to learn about, and from the experiences of partner organisations in Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Italy and Wales.
Inspired by the 2011 European Year of Volunteering, the project is exploring how to create a more supportive environment for volunteering in the EU, focusing on the 3 ‘R’s of Recruitment, Retention and Recognition of volunteers. The aim is to devise a framework for good practice in these areas.
At first I thought it might be difficult to identify common ground, given the different types of organisations involved and the very different political and institutional contexts for, and perceptions of volunteering in each country. Indeed, even agreed definitions of volunteering, let alone social care initially seemed hard to find.
In Cyprus, for example we learned that it is not uncommon for nurses to volunteer their professional skills (eg giving injections) to patients who can’t afford health care. Our Italian colleagues, on the other hand, emphasised the ‘value added’ by volunteers, expressing a concern that the current interest in volunteering might be a cover for cutting state welfare (sound familiar?)
However, consensus was easier to find once the discussion got on to how individual organisations support volunteers and the policies and processes that help them to do this well. This was apparent at the recent meeting in London, when some common themes clearly emerged from very different case studies. To give you a flavour of the diversity of examples presented, they included:
• Generate, a London-based organisation supporting people with learning disabilities;
• PASYKAF, providing support and palliative care to cancer patients in Cyprus;
• the Romanian branch of ELSA, the European Law Students Association; and
• the Agnese Bagnio Study Centre for refugee and migrant children in Adria, Italy.
Each one is unique in terms of their aims, the people they are working with, and the needs they are trying to address. Yet all highlighted the importance of volunteering being a central part of the ethos of their organisations. And all drew attention to the importance of managing volunteers (and therefore of volunteer managers) to ensure that it is a positive experience for them, for the organisation and for service users.
The 3 Rs
Looking at the ‘3 Rs’, it quickly became apparent that they don’t exist in isolation: the way that volunteers are recruited and supported, and the extent to which their contribution is recognised and valued by the organisation, can have a direct impact on retention.
Key here is understanding what motivates people: most volunteers are motivated by a combination of altruism and self-interest. People want to give something back to their community or support a particular cause. But they also want to learn new skills or make use of skills they already have, develop confidence or self-worth, or simply to meet new people and have fun. That is true whether they are a law student or someone with a learning disability; whether they are just starting out on their career or retired.
In all of these cases, successful recruitment involves finding out what motivates people and giving them good information about the organisation, the role and what is expected of volunteers. PASYKAF, for example, does this through open day events, interviews with potential volunteers and by providing training. Agnese Bagnio also highlighted the importance of interviewing recruits – and of this being a two-way process. A successful outcome being, as our Romanian partner put it, ‘placing the right volunteer in the right project’.
We also learned that if you want to go beyond the ‘usual suspects’, you may need to adapt the way that you recruit and support volunteers. People with learning disabilities, for example, may not be able to read or write, so you will need to find other ways of communicating – perhaps using pictures or photographs. They may need extra learning time or tasks to be broken down, so they can learn one thing at a time. And they need to know that they can ask for help – and who to ask.
But the need to be supported in a volunteering role, to be able to do it effectively, is the same for all volunteers. All need to be given feedback on their performance and invited to give feedback on their experience, as well as opportunities to develop or try out new roles where possible. And they want to feel that they are making a contribution to the organisation – and that the organisation values the contribution they make.
Interestingly, we had begun the project thinking that recognition should be a formal process, perhaps leading to accreditation. That will be true for some people. But the experience of these organisations is that volunteers are more likely to stay with them if their needs and interests are taken into account, their role is appreciated and they can see that they are making a difference.
Much of this is not new – in England we have good practice frameworks and occupational standards from Third Sector Skills and Volunteering England that address these issues directly. However, it has been very valuable sharing these experiences with colleagues in Europe. From these very different stories, common understandings of good practice in volunteering is beginning to emerge. I’m looking forward to the next meeting to see how this might develop and what a joint framework might look like.
This blog was first published on Civil Society Online on 1st November 2012