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Green sector volunteering: what every organisation needs to know

02 Jan 2024 12 min read

When managed successfully, volunteering can be valuable for both the organisation and the individual.

Photo of wildflowers in a meadow
Volunteering is a two-way exchange. Here’s how to optimise the relationship and get it right for your organisation and your volunteers.

For many organisations operating in the sustainability sector, volunteers can be an invaluable resource. And for the individual, volunteering can be an excellent way to explore new career directions, picking up insight and experience along the way.

However, while volunteering might seem the perfect way to balance resourcing requirements and available funds, there’s lots to consider if you want volunteering to be a success for everyone involved. Volunteers require the same health and safety, insurance and risk assessments as regular paid staff, and no matter how much enthusiasm they bring to the role, you may find that volunteers need more training, mentoring, and oversight than regular team members, and for a longer period.

For this reason, it’s important to get the right people involved in recruiting volunteers and managing your volunteering programme from the start.

Ruth Leonard is Chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers. She says: “In order to support initiatives and enable people to contribute effectively, it is vital to think about how to develop and provide the relevant set up.

“A key element of this infrastructure, I would argue, is having well-trained and well-supported people to provide the volunteer management.”

Are volunteers really what your organisation needs?
A woman in a field collecting vegetables and putting them in a box

“When is a volunteer not a volunteer?” asks Lynn Crowe, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management at Sheffield Hallam University. She says: “For many years, I have regularly (and probably rather tediously) expressed concern about the practice of many environmental charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) employing people in unpaid voluntary positions, which are clearly full-time jobs.”

When you opt for a volunteer over a paid employee you have a responsibility to make sure that person isn’t being exploited in the name of cost-cutting. The practice of disguising real jobs as volunteer positions is particularly prevalent at entry career level. As Crowe outlines in this article, and as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) policy states: ‘If it looks like work and sounds like work, then it probably is.”

And, while you’re assessing whether the role is justifiably unpaid and voluntary, is a good time to also consider whether this opportunity will be accessible to everyone. Or, if there are factors that mean it will be restricted to those who have both the time and the money to take it up, thus contributing to the sustainability sector’s overall recruitment diversity issues. If this does seem to be the case, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make it more accessible.

What will your volunteers do?

Once you’re sure that volunteers are the right fit for the project, it’s time to start shaping their role within your organisation. Answer this question honestly: what are these people going to do? The easiest way to do this is to write a job description. Consider how much time the tasks involved in the role will take to complete. A good way to calculate this is to double the time it would take you to do it yourself! You know how to perform the role, but your new volunteers won’t. They will get faster as they become familiar with what’s needed, but unless they’re already in a similar role, they will take more time than you imagine. It’s important to design the volunteer position with this in mind, and not overstretch your expectations of what a volunteer might achieve.

What skills will your volunteers need?
Four people working/studying at a table

Create lists of essential and desirable qualifications, skills and experience, as you would in a standard recruitment exercise. Begin with rigid expectations before filtering through the criteria again: what skills are there that you could provide training for; do volunteers really need such varied experience?

Then be brutally honest about your final ‘job description.’ Is this really a voluntary role? Would you do this as a volunteer? Even for just one day a month? If you answer no to either of these questions, then it’s back to the drawing board. Perhaps you could cut the position into smaller, more manageable pieces? Or, do you need to source more capital and create a paid role?

What reward can your volunteers expect?

You’re almost ready to recruit but what can you offer in return? And, perhaps more importantly, what do you need to offer? These are distinctly different. You may need to offer: a uniform, PPE, essential safety training (e.g. first aid or training to align with company requirements), or guidance on anything from the language used in presentations to how to use specific equipment.

By contrast, the rewards and thanks you offer to a volunteer could recover anything from expenses to baked potatoes! This is highly dependent on what your volunteers are doing. If you have a group of volunteers out hedge laying in the winter, a bonfire with fresh bonfire baked potatoes and gooey chocolate cake is perfect. However, if it’s remote work cataloguing files, identifying photographs or samples, then supplying specialist software might be more appropriate.  

If you’re offering a longer-term placement, then arranging accredited training for your volunteers is often very welcome. And remember, all volunteers, regardless of what they’re doing, like their contribution to be acknowledged and valued, so don’t forget to say thank you!

Time to recruit

When it comes to attracting the right people, the first thing to consider is your volunteer requirements. Are you looking for a long-term commitment, and how many days or hours do you need? Would it be better to have a big group of occasional volunteers, or just a few individuals committing regular amounts of time?

If it’s a big group of occasional volunteers then the best way to find people is to advertise locally, reaching out via local Facebook pages, or even putting up posters in a visitor centre. For a more ‘job-like’ voluntary role then the more mainstream recruitment routes (like Countryside Jobs Service or the Green Careers Hub) may be the place.

More help and guidance

This is Green Careers Hub guest blog, with information supplied by Countryside Jobs Service.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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