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.

No Community Cafe in Welland Park but we have a vision that could be used elsewhere….

CaféplanA group of Harborough residents came together a few weeks ago to look at whether we could take over the running of the cafe in Welland Park to retain it as a community facility with continued opportunities for the people with learning disabilities who were volunteering there.  We put together a business plan and got down to a shortlist of four and were interviewed by a panel of Harborough District Council councillors and officers.

We found out yesterday that Harborough District Council is in discussions with another bidder about the cafe in Welland Park.  This is disappointing, but we achieved a lot in a short space of time with various members of the community coming together to share our visions and ideas to create the business plan, which just shows what the community can do working together – thank you to all involved.

We did talk about the possibility if this doesn’t come off of finding somewhere else instead that might be more suitable for our aims, so this is still a possibility if people are interested.  Below is what we said we’d do.


Our vision is for a Community Café in Welland Park that uses the best of local food to produce high quality meals, brings together members of the community, particularly those who are at risk of isolation or disadvantage, is a focus point for community events, and provides volunteering and work experience opportunities for all sections of the community.

Our added value

A group of around 20 Harborough residents and organisations have come together in response to the request for a new body to run the café, some attending a meeting and some contributing by email and telephone.  Our intention is to set it up as a social enterprise, run by a representative board from the community, including local food producers, voluntary organisations and Harborough residents. We would also welcome public sector involvement.  We already have many offers of help from people as well as the organisations named in this proposal (see appendix two).  We believe that what will make the café in the park successful is the community involvement that we will bring through our existing work and the new initiatives that we will develop.

The added value that we believe we will bring over a more traditional business includes:

  • It will have a strong ethos of encouraging community participation and social inclusion.  As well as café space we would like to develop meeting space, for which previous studies have demonstrated that there is a need.  As well as letting it out to community groups, we will also develop informal groups where young and old and everyone in-between can meet for a drink and to undertake an activity, for example reading groups, knit and natter, happiness clubs, “Men in Sheds” activities etc.  We want it to be a place where people who would otherwise be isolated can drop in and find someone to chat to, as well as to turn it into a comfortable space with top notch local food and drink for people to meet family, friends and neighbours.
  • We will look at how we can work to reduce demand on public services, such as exploring “social prescribing” with local health services, for example where healthcare staff believe that someone has a low level mental health condition that is exacerbated by loneliness and isolation, then they can be referred to one of the activities that we provide in order to relieve this.
  • We will provide volunteering opportunities for people with learning disabilities and others in the town who need experience in order to gain confidence and skills for employment.
  • We will run it as a not-for-profit social enterprise, putting the profits back into the company to further benefit the community.  We will have a board and volunteers who will give their time for free to further generate profit.  We will generate our own income through sales but we will also raise additional funding through grants, trusts and crowd funding to run our social inclusion projects, as well as working with local charities in the town to raise income so that they can also deliver activities from the cafe.
  • As a social enterprise we will be able to bring money into the town from external bodies such as the Big Lottery or Heritage Lottery Funds and other trusts and foundations.
  • We will have space for local artists and crafts people and other businesses to display and sell their work, thereby supporting the local arts scene.


We will deliver our vision through:

1. Producing high quality food using local produce

Our menus will be designed to appeal to the different sections of the community.  We will source as much of our produce from local farms and other providers.  Partners EdibLE16 and Farrinheight Foods already have many links, and we will develop more.  Food will be freshly cooked and prepared on the premises with options on the menu for vegetarians, vegans, coeliacs, and those with allergies/intolerances etc. We will aim to expand the summer opening hours from 8am to 6pm and winter 8am to 4pm and later for specific events. We will develop the menu over time, some examples of the types of food we would like to do are below:

  • Breakfast: a range of breakfasts including full English Harborough Breakfast, various items on toast, eggs Benedict, freshly baked pastries, cereals and fresh fruit.
  • Lunch: a basic range of sandwiches, jacket potatoes, soups and salads, keeping the prices as low as possible for people who like simpler meals and might be on a limited budget.  We will also provide a range of panini, filled ciabattas, tarts, and salads using different ingredients to appeal more to “foodies”.Cakes and snacks: homemade cakes and pastries, changing daily, will be available throughout the day.  We will also provide toast, teacakes, scones, fresh fruit, yoghurt, biscuits, flapjack bars, chocolate and crisps.
  • Drinks: we will provide a full range of fair trade fresh coffees and teas, soft drinks, juices and smoothies.
  • Evening bistro: this will be run during summer months, and will include “Pop Up” evenings of different themes from local providers and including alcoholic beverages.
  • Mobile kisok: we will run a mobile cart with a range of snacks including ice creams (in the summer), crisps, cakes, fruit, drinks, including hot drinks and soup (in the winter).  It will be responsive to events, and provide refreshments for example for tennis and bowls clubs.

2. Running and encouraging a range of social activities to include and integrate all sections of our community

Just as important as high quality, fresh food will be the environment that we create in the café that encourages community involvement and cohesion.  See appendix one for information about the different sections of the community we will target.

  • Social and leisure groups: through our staff and volunteers and local members of the community we will set up a range of groups and activities for our customers and encourage and support them to set up their own groups.  This might include reading groups, knit and natter, happiness clubs, bridge or other games, and gentle fitness activities weather permitting. Although some activities may appeal to specific sections of the community, our overall aim will be to integrate everyone around common interests to improve community cohesion.
  • Book exchange: we will run a used book exchange in the café where people can come and exchange books for a small fee.
  • Games: we will hold a collection of games that can be played by adults and children.
  • Coffee pending: we will have a coffee pending system so that people can pay for an extra coffee to donate to the next person coming in needing it, we know that poverty is one of the causes of social isolation amongst older people, and this might help to encourage people out who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

3. Providing volunteering and work experience for people with learning disabilities and other community members

We will continue to provide volunteering opportunities for different members of the community.  This will include people with learning disabilities as now through Hft, as well as other volunteers including older and younger people to enable different sections of the community to mix and for people who need it to gain skills, experience and confidence to move onto employment, education or training.

4. Running and supporting local events

We will run events and coordinate our activities with events run by other groups and would seek to provide a comprehensive calendar of events in and around the café as well as complimenting events organised by other organisations.  Events could include:

  • Teddy Bears picnic events on the lawn
  • Outdoor puppy party venue for the local veterinary surgeries to use
  • Sunday afternoon jazz on the lawn
  • Acoustic music nights
  • Mini food festivals
  • Craft fairs
  • Local producer events
  • Childrens swap shop, passing on childrens clothing and toys
  • Arts and craft events
  • Skills events, e.g. willow weaving, textiles shows
  • Themed events, e.g. Easter, Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas

5. Providing space for meetings and for people to sell arts and crafts, produce, Fair Trade goods and other items

During the first year we will seek funding to reconfigure the space in the café to provide two separate spaces, the main body of the café for anyone, and a separate space that can be set out as a café or a meeting room for groups to meet (see below for more details).  This will be used for activities that we run some of the time, but will also be let out to local groups for £10-15 / hour (previous feasibly studies have indicated that there is a demand for this).

Our partners, skills and experience

Over twenty people have contributed to this plan and have offered their help in the future. Organisations include:

  • Transition Town Market Harborough
  • edibLE16 Ltd
  • Farrinheight Foods
  • Hft
  • Voluntary Action South Leicestershire
  • Seven Locks Housing
  • Sustainable Harborough
  • Ideas to Impact Consultancy Ltd

In addition we have local residents offering to help, including: the chair of a local company and charity supporting disabled people; a teacher at Welland Park; someone who ran a successful town centre business in Market Harborough for many years; a market trader; a journalist and writer; and other people offering practical help and skills.