Harnessing the untapped potential of the ‘do-gooders’

Volunteers are the backbone of a charity. They are the fuel that powers the engine, and these are not just a bunch of words, I mean them.

Recently, I have been working closely with a visionary charity to help them with a review of their volunteer programme, to learn from successes, challenges and lay the base for change and transformation, through a systematic process of surveys, interviews, workshops and more. 

What a journey it’s been. A journey, even in its early stages, has provided immense insights not only about change and what it involves, but also about what being a volunteer truly means. As a volunteer and a trustee myself, the learnings have brought so much home for me and struck a personal chord.

Whilst there is always organisational nuance, some early insights that emerged feel more universal, and might well feel familiar to others too.

  • One-size-fit-all does not work: volunteers are a massively heterogenous group, and the book is best not judged by its cover. Even where they might share obvious common grounds in terms of their age and ethnicity,  their needs, motivations and ways of engaging or relating to the organisation might be quite different. 
  • The big draw: the underlying motivation of volunteers to help is unquestionable but what keeps them there is how their sense of purpose engages with the benefits of familiarity, routine, friendships, social connections and more on a day-to-day! There are so many charities vying for this pool of do-gooders and it feels important to recognise what those wider unintended benefits of the role to people actually are.
  • Connecting to the big picture: volunteers may be cogs in a wider machine but knowing the bigger organisational picture helps them ‘plug in’ and sense the wider impact they are making with their individual roles. Seeing the part they are playing in the community as a whole is rewarding and makes it all worthwhile especially after a tough shift.
  • The small stuff: volunteers care about the little brushes of acknowledgement, the side chats and warmth, the small stuff that makes their day. The big stuff comes once in a while and it is lovely, but the little touches can be truly uplifting.
  • Untapped potential: Afterall volunteers are a bunch of humans with quite diverse professional or personal backgrounds with possibly shared values. This is a pool of people who are an untapped reservoir of creative ideas, new skills and potential and can bring a real passion and dynamism into the organisation.
  • Advancing the agency: At one end of the spectrum there are volunteers who might say ‘I am after all a volunteer, and how does it matter what I say?’ and at the other we might hear ‘I am a volunteer, have been doing his gig for while, therefore I am integral to the organisation and need to be heard’. Irrespective of where people are on the spectrum, there lies the potential for empowerment and helping volunteers recognise and use their agency to really drive change in organisations and communities as a whole.

Volunteers are vital organisational ambassadors in communities and unmissable community advocates in organisations.

As it’s volunteering week next week, just wanted to give a shout out to volunteers who are the heart and soul of charities, want to make a difference (with no monetary strings attached) and deserve to be truly cherished, supported and celebrated.

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