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Dave Thomas, NCVS Volunteering Development Officer

The Volunteer Journey - First Steps

Dave Thomas Volunteering Development Officer at NCVS writes...

In my last blog, I suggested that the language that we use to talk about volunteering is important in valuing volunteers and in making it clear that there is a difference between volunteering and employment. I also admitted that I sometimes struggle to make that clear distinction.

In this blog, I’d like to explore three very commonly used concepts in volunteering and ask whether we can come up with alternatives. By examining the purpose of each of these steps in our volunteer recruitment process, perhaps we can start to develop some different words and phrases to reflect the differences between their use in volunteering and their use in the world of work.

In order to understand the key difference between applying for, and getting a job, and a volunteer role we must put ourselves in the position of the person applying.

A person wanting a job is in the position of persuading the organisation to accept them. They have already decided that they want to be part of the organisation. While a potential volunteer will need to satisfy you that they have something to offer, they are also deciding whether to give their time to you.

So, the first steps on the volunteer journey are about exchange of information. They want to know about your opportunities and you want to know about them.

When a potential volunteer first makes contact, they will almost certainly want to know more about the role and the organisation. Many organisations simply send an application form as the first step, but is that the right first step? If they need information, would it be better to meet them first, whether online, on the phone or in person?

But let’s consider that form.

The Application Form

The questions on it and the boxes that we ask volunteers to complete often look a lot like the ones we see on application forms for paid jobs. But if we step back and consider why we have this form, we may be able to think of it in another way.

An application form for employment is a legal document that the applicant signs to verify that the information is true and correct. For a volunteer role, we want to avoid establishing a contract.

However, whatever personal information we collect about a volunteer must be held and processed in accordance with GDPR.

We may well need:

  • To have a record of the volunteer’s name, address and contact details.
  • To find out about their skills and interests in order to match them with the role that they are enquiring about.
  • To carry out (part of) a risk assessment
  1. By asking people who know them to tell us more (taking up references)
  2. By asking them to tell us about their needs

At this stage, we probably don’t need:

  • Employment history
  • Educational background 
  • Criminal record 
  • Eligibility to volunteer in the UK 
  • Equal opportunities monitoring 

This is not to say that we will never need to know some or all of these, but do we really need it at this stage? In fact, do we need a form at all? If we really do, does it have to be an 'application form' – or could it be called something like an Initial information form?

Does this form really need to be completed by the potential volunteer? The Leader of Volunteers could just as easily complete this during a phone conversation, or at the next step in the volunteer’s journey. This is the point where we meet face-to-face, or in an online chat via Zoom.

The Interview

For many people, the scariest part of getting a new job is the interview. The days leading up to it can build up anxiety, the day itself can be one of the most stressful of your life and the formality of the interview leaves some people nervous and tongue tied.

In the 'old days' before Covid-19, this interview would almost always be conducted face-to-face, but many volunteers are now being recruited via Zoom and other online tools.

So why do we put our potential volunteers through all this? Once again, I would like to step back and take a look at the purpose of a volunteer interview.

By the time we get to this point in the volunteer’s journey, they have already found out some information about the role and about our organisation, and we have collected some basic information about them. 

This point in the volunteer journey is where the world of work and the volunteering realm part company, in a big way. In a work situation, the interview is a watershed where, once you have 'passed' the interview, you are an employee. In this situation, the employer’s organisation has the upper hand.

For a volunteer, it is a totally different situation. They want to have enough information to decide whether they want to give their time to your organisation. Your organisation may want to ensure that potential volunteer is a good fit, but the scales are more finely balanced in a volunteering situation.

Almost every Leader of Volunteers that I know will strive to make this meeting as informal as possible. Therefore, we could look for alternative ways to describe it. I like the phrase natter over coffee but we could go for informal chat, or even, initial information session.

And that leads us on to my third challenge:

The Induction

The volunteer induction, like the other two steps that we have considered will mean different things to the potential volunteer and the organisation. The organisation’s priority is likely to be giving the new team member enough information to get them involved as soon as possible.

The volunteer is still in a discovery process. They are still learning about your organisation, the support you offer, the tasks involved in carrying out the role, alternative roles to the one they initially enquired about and so much more. But then, so are you discovering more about the volunteer’s skills, interests and suitability.

Most importantly, the volunteer is still deciding whether to give you their time.

So, how about a change of emphasis for this stage as well? This could be a continuation of the initial information session that I mentioned earlier, or even a continuation of that discussion on a later date. I’ve seen the word on-boarding used, although I’ve never used it. I tend to refer to it as the next time we meet. So, if the process of induction takes more than one session, I treat it as a natural part of them becoming involved in our organisation.

Another view

Helen Percy, from Hope Nottingham, has an innovative take on these three concepts. In her response to my previous blog, she said:

"You refer to the terms application, interview and induction and how they have limitations. I wondered if attract, engage, enable might be alternative ones which are more inspiring and appropriate.

"We want to attract the right people to join us, to engage with them and find out their skills, so we can match them with the needs we have, and we want to enable those people to be effectively contributing."

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, 10 August, 2021

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