How can you involve volunteers successfully in developing and delivering your strategy?

Volunteering image

The involvement of volunteers can be the difference between success and failure of your mission, but doing this effectively is an area in which some organisations struggle.  Based on experience as an Investing in Volunteers assessor, this post sets out what some of the common problems are, what volunteers bring to delivering the organisation’s objectives, and some suggestions about the practicalities of involving volunteers successfully.

Investing in Volunteers standard

There are various practices in Investing in Volunteers that address involvement of volunteers in strategy, including:

  • 1.1 The organisation has a written policy on volunteer involvement that sets out the organisation’s values for volunteer involvement and highlights the need for procedures for managing volunteers, based on principles of equality and diversity.
  • 1.3 People at all levels of the organisation have been informed of, and can articulate the organisation’s reasons for involving volunteers and the benefits to volunteers.
  • 2.4 The organisation’s annual plan includes objectives for volunteer involvement which are reviewed regularly.
  • 8.4 Volunteers are asked for feedback about their role and their involvement with the organisation.
  • 9.2 Volunteers have an opportunity to make known their views about the organisation’s work, including its policies and procedures, and to participate in decision making.

Common gaps in involvement

These include:

  • Strategies and plans mentioning volunteers but only as an input or resource and not including them in the outcomes / objectives / action planning sections.
  • Not mentioning volunteers at all.
  • Not involving volunteers in the review of services or development of plans.
  • Not being clear with volunteers and staff what volunteers contribute to delivering the strategy.
  • Not providing the systems, structures or resources necessary for volunteers to undertake their roles, including not linking volunteer managers sufficiently into management structures.
  • Not involving volunteers or volunteering measurements in reviewing progress.
  • Not linking volunteer managers into the planning process.

Being clear about what volunteers contribute

When asked what volunteers bring to organisations, as well as the obvious added capacity, common answers are:

  • A range of skills, knowledge and experience to deliver the strategy that the organisation wouldn’t otherwise have, from life and professional perspectives.
  • Connections to the local community, geographically or specific groups of people to broaden an organisation’s reach and help beneficiaries feel the organisation is “for them”.
  • Bringing a wider range of voices into the organisation to provide fresh ideas or challenge to existing practice to help with innovation and developments.
  • Improving outcomes for beneficiaries.  Volunteers have the time to spend with clients to build relationships and to meet emotional needs see How can volunteering improve health outcomes? for more information about some research on this in the health field.
  • They are someone who interacts with clients “without a clipboard” as one service user said to me, who can focus on the client’s needs without a particular agenda.
  • Volunteers help beneficiaries to feel valued and important.  It is meaningful to service users that someone is giving their time freely rather than being paid to be there – to some this is an unknown concept.

How can organisations involve volunteers in strategy?

There are various steps that you can take, many the inverse of the gaps:

  • Involve volunteers in research about your beneficiaries’ needs and evaluation of your services. Volunteers can often be the people in your organisation with most time to speak to your service users and may be told things that staff do not get to hear.  They also provide a wider reach into your local community.  This can be through ensuring you have mechanisms to ask volunteers through to involving volunteers as community researchers with a specific role to find out what people need or think about your services.
  • Set up mechanisms to hear volunteers’ voices  For some this is about involving volunteers in existing staff structures such as team meetings or awaydays, for others it’s about having a volunteer steering or advisory group, or volunteer forum.
  • Enable volunteers to feed into the development of your plan. This may be by involving volunteers in a strategic planning or leadership group through to giving volunteers the opportunity to comment on a draft plan.  Let people know the contribution that volunteers have made to the plan and what has been adopted or rejected in the development of the plan.
  • Ensure that for every strategic objective in your plan you have identified whether and how volunteers contribute towards this. Make it clear in the plan what volunteers’ roles are and be specific about how it will be delivered and what resources are required to support delivery – some of the more detailed information may be in an action plan or service- or team-level plan.
  • Communicate inside and outside your organisation what volunteers bring. This can be through staff meetings, training, individual meetings, articles or case studies on your website, newsletter or intranet, social media, or any other mechanism you use to communicate.
  • Consider how volunteers delivering services relate to the governance of your organisation. You could involve service delivery volunteers as trustees, have a trustee/trustees on the board with specific responsibility for liaising with volunteers, make a volunteer steering group a part of the board structure, or hold shared meetings and activities.
  • Involve volunteers in the regular review of your strategy throughout the planning cycle.
  • Ensure that your volunteers are well managed and get training, support and recognition. Investing in Volunteers can help you to review your volunteering practice and highlight the voice of volunteers to identify what you do well and what you can improve.  You can get a free, no obligation quote.
  • Recognise the crucial role of volunteer managers. They are likely to have a huge amount of expertise in relation to what does and doesn’t work and are vital in working directly with the volunteers to ensure that your strategy is a success.

Ideas to Impact can help you with all aspects of the process of involving volunteers in your strategy: working with volunteers to get their views and ideas about what works, involving volunteers in the planning process, supporting setting up steering groups or volunteer forums, reviewing your existing processes to identify strengths and areas for improvement, writing policies and procedures, facilitating meetings, holding good practice workshops, and coaching and mentoring.  Get in touch for a discussion, contact details and form are at the bottom of each page on the main Ideas to Impact website.