Volunteering in infrastructure organizations

Hello Everyone,

I was wondering please if anyone had good experiences of setting up volunteering programs in infrastructure organizations and what kind of roles they have developed?

I manage a very small organization – a council for voluntary youth service which provides support to about 80 youth organizations and we are thinking up ways to capacity build our services by engaging volunteers. Have you done this and can you give me any good advice/sample role descriptions?

Thanks ever so much.

Best wishes,

In my previous role as Strategic Volunteering Manager at Voluntary Action Sheffield, I set up a Volunteering Ambassadors Scheme. It was essentially a scheme whereby experienced volunteers from different organizations across the city came together to promote the benefits of volunteering at events across the city. You can see some info about it here: https://sheffieldqualitytime.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/sheffield-volunteering-ambassadors/ and a link to a short promo video about volunteering that the Ambasssadors produced: http://www.vas.org.uk/news/361

My advice is simple really, and the same as for any kind of volunteering program: plan it carefully! It was quite time consuming researching the various events that Ambassadors could attend (eg employment fairs, summer fetes etc) and then arranging attendance etc. However that in itself could be a volunteer role too.

Good luck!

I agree with the previous responses

It’s clear that the current situation cannot carry on as it is.

The volunteer coordinator needs arrange a meeting with the volunteer. Before the meeting the vol coordinator should gather concrete evidence to point to during the meeting and should have the role/task description to hand as well. If the volunter cannot carry out the tasks, then this needs to be addressed point by point in this meeting.

If extra training and support can be offered to get the volunteer up-to-speed, then great. But at the end of the day, if the volunteer is not suitable for the role, then it’s either time to find another role at the same organisation (one that’s useful for the org and is meaningful for the vol and meets their motivations for volunteering) – or – to find a role elsewhere and that’s where you and your services come in.

The volunteer coordinator can point the volunteer in your direction and you could book a one-to-one appointment with someone at your centre who is experienced to deal with this person sensitively and helpfully. Perhaps you could discuss some dates before their meeting takes place.

By giving the volunteer options at the end of the meeting, this will hopefully be a positive outcome for everyone involved.

(By the way, we have had to do this ourselves several times over the years.)

I have been in a similar position. I wonder if its socialising that she needs but doesn’t accept she needs, whether the blow may be softened if you could find a volunteering post somewhere where socialising is part of the role? Agree you have to be up-front about the current role not working so as not to be too manipulative, but finding something to go to often helps someone to ftill feel valued, which in another role she may well be. A good neighbours scheme, support group, day centre, hospice, hospital or similar? Maybe initially as an urgent fill-in role over the summer holidays? Perhaps by saying they are desperate for a volunteer with her skills and personality? Some (not all!) roles like that can have wavy lines around who is the volunteer and who is the recipient…worth a shot?!

Almost exactly this same scenario came up in a life-changing workshop I attended, lead by Mary Merrill, some time in the late 1990s. The workshop was on volunteer management ethics. And this scenario just really got to me and I’ve never forgotten it – and here it is again on UKVPMs, almost verbatim. And what I’m sorry to say is that no one in the workshop, including Mary, could come up with exactly the right answer. Tears were shed. It’s a tough, tough situation.

Could you find her a volunteer placement elsewhere, at another organization? Are there non-essential volunteering activities at other organizations that she could do? For instance, is there a community theater that could involve her to hand out programs before a performance? Could she help serve refreshments – just putting cups filled with a liquid, not doing any of the filling of the cups herself – at some community event that involves volunteers?

Is there an organization in your community that helps people with diminishing mental capacities that you could introduce her to, that could give her meaningful activities to engage in – like going to community events in a group? Does she sing – and is there a community she could get involved with? Does she attend events by a community of faith, and could that community be called on to help in this situation?

What I’m getting at is that, you are probably going to have to let this volunteer go, but is there a way to help her not just leave your organization, but go to another, either as a volunteer or as a participant in their program?

I think this is a really tricky one and is always difficult

I think this is a really tricky one and is always difficult to comment on when you don’t really know the person fully. However, I felt compelled to respond for 2 reasons:

  1. Because this is one of the key questions I always get asked in training and it’s as though there is some sort of hidden box of answers we haven’t yet discovered which will enable us to deal with these type of situations without upsetting anyone – especially ourselves!
  2. Because here at the VC, we recently had to face this challenge ourselves and the issue really resonated with me.

I think that what we perhaps need to overcome is our ‘fear’ here and to ask ourselves, what are we assuming about this scenario that might be limiting our thinking in terms of how we need to deal with it? So, for example, are we assuming that the volunteer may react in a particular way? Perhaps we aren’t assuming and we know, based on previous experience that they will, however what we are possibly assuming is that we don’t know how to respond back – whereas I think generally we do.

volunteer supervisionWhen dealing with this sort of situation I think we have to accept that there is a likelihood that the volunteer may get upset, or possibly even offended – and that is OK – they are entitled to feel how they need to feel in that example. As the manager, it is part of the role to take reasonable, responsible decisions about this type of stuff, otherwise we can end up existing simply to meet the needs of the volunteer, with no real benefit being provided to the organisation and to the wider community, and if this is the case, then it isn’t really volunteering in my opinion. What’s important is then how we respond to their reaction.

In terms of actually giving the person reasons and feedback – this needs to be thought through, with examples and the impact of actions or non-actions fully explained. Asking them what they think may help – sometimes people will surprise you and will actually be aware of the effect they are having – they just needed the opportunity to be able to talk about it. This has happened to me on several occasions. Although I do accept that some people can be difficult and may be in complete denial!

The volunteer in question here at the VC was incredibly upset, in fact initially quite angry and was on the verge of simply storming out of the building when it was explained to her. However, the team here were aware that she was being asked to leave on that particular day, most of us had already either worked with her or at least come into contact with her and were also aware of her vulnerability and so we were prepared in a way for anything. Because of this, a couple of members of the team were able to spend time with her, encourage her to stay for a while and talk it out and eventually she became calm and although she was still upset – she began to understand the reasons involved and could even accept them.

I think what I am trying to say is that there is no magic box of answers for how to deal with this situation, but perhaps the best advice is to treat the person how you would like to be treated if you were in that situation. And, don’t try and deal with it all by yourself. If you are working as part of a team of people who understand the individual and the issue – make sure they are there to help you support the volunteer perhaps in different ways, depending on what they need.

Apologies everyone for incredibly lengthy response – I do hope there is something in here which is a little bit helpful!

I know it can be a very delicate matter, but we have to maintain a focus on what the purpose of the organisation is.

And it is unlikely to have been set up for the benefit of its volunteers.

At the end of the day we recruit volunteers for a reason, and that is to benefit the organisation and its service users. If ongoing supervision is taking place then this would provide a venue to discuss issues around workload and ability. If that’s not in place then it might be worth getting someone she trusts within the organisation to discuss the issues. Is she aware of the situation? Is she aware of her apparent memory problems? If so what sort of support it she getting? The discussion would also give the opportunity to explore the reasons why the volunteer “insists” on coming in.

EG. Does the volunteering provide socialisation that she doesn’t get elsewhere? If so can she be signposted to organisations where she could access social clubs, etc?

If she wants to keep busy and feel like she’s making a difference then is there some other volunteering she could do with another organisation?

Could she become a “Friend of…”? Able to attend any social events, fundraising activities, ,maybe even internal training events, so that she still feels part of the organisation? That way you can contniue to acknowledge her contribution to the organisation without her continuing to volunteer?

The organisation needs to raise the issue with the volunteer as soon as possible to avoid any further frustration from paid staff and other volunteers, as this can potentially develop into ill-will towards the volunteer herself and the organisation for not dealing with the situation.

Its a very difficult situation, and there is no easy way to deal with it, but it needs to be dealt with compassionately, but with conviction that her current role is no longer suitable.

HELP please

I have received the appeal below from one of the groups I support. I have suggested looking at alternative roles, possibly home-based, but wondered if you other experts out there may be able to come up with another suggestion.

“I don’t have a problem dealing with most everything to do with volunteers and volunteering but I have a really difficult problem exiting a very valued volunteer who is no longer capable of ANY volunteer tasks, but still insists in coming in, causing chaos and leaving. I have managed to get her to reduce her hours but we are getting to the point where staff feel really concerned that her failing health and inability to cope and remember things is detrimental to the running of our admin where she volunteers.

I have no wish to offend, or upset this volunteer who has been faithful to the organization for many years, but I cannot find a solution to fit the bill.

Any help or suggestions would be most welcome.”

Many thanks

I know it can be a very delicate matter, but we have to maintain a focus on what the purpose of the organization is.

And it is unlikely to have been set up for the benefit of its volunteers.

At the end of the day we recruit volunteers for a reason, and that is to benefit the organization and its service users. If ongoing supervision is taking place then this would provide a venue to discuss issues around workload and ability. If that’s not in place then it might be worth getting someone she trusts within the organization to discuss the issues. Is she aware of the situation? Is she aware of her apparent memory problems? If so what sort of support it she getting? The discussion would also give the opportunity to explore the reasons why the volunteer “insists” on coming in.

EG. Does the volunteering provide socialization that she doesn’t get elsewhere? If so can she be signposted to organizations where she could access social clubs, etc?
If she wants to keep busy and feel like she’s making a difference then is there some other volunteering she could do with another organization?

Could she become a “Friend of…”? Able to attend any social events, fundraising activities, ,maybe even internal training events, so that she still feels part of the organization? That way you can continue to acknowledge her contribution to the organization without her continuing to volunteer?

The organization needs to raise the issue with the volunteer as soon as possible to avoid any further frustration from paid staff and other volunteers, as this can potentially develop into ill-will towards the volunteer herself and the organization for not dealing with the situation.

Its a very difficult situation, and there is no easy way to deal with it, but it needs to be dealt with compassionately, but with conviction that her current role is no longer suitable.

Its historical rather than current

Its historical rather than current, but one of my all time favourite innovative posts was a “Toilet Development Volunteer”. Caught everyone’s eye with immediate indignation at the very idea, but then the description was a short-term, outcome-focused role, do-able from home, to research needs and costs and fundraise for new accessible toilets. So memorable that I still use it as an example when training groups on marketing their volunteer opportunities!

Also in recent work with museums, I developed a model with Brent and Croydon museums for “Volunteer Leaders”. This was very specifically designed not to tread on the toes of the museum’s paid staff (even during a time of redundancies), but gave people an opportunitiy to take on a mentoring-style responsibility, giving them specific training on mentoring/volunteer support skills, a customised train-the-trainer course and opportunities to explore and practice the leadership role.

It was really popular (we selected the group to go on the training for the role through a formal competitive application process), gave great transferable skills to the volunteers undertaking it, and produced all sorts of surprise side-benefits, such as the leaders sorting out new communication systems for all the other volunters. Do feel free to contact me for more info if useful.

Short-term assignments for tech volunteers – http://www.coyotecommunications.com/volunteer/techvolideas.html – These one-time, short-term assignments relate to computers, the Internet, or related hardware or software. Each might takes a few days, a couple of weeks or maybe a month to complete. But each has a definite start date and end date, shouldn’t go on longer than a month (maybe two) and do not require a volunteer to make an ongoing commitment to the organization – once an assignment is done, the volunteer can move on to another assignment, or stop volunteering with the organization altogether.

Social media manager – the person responsible for Facebook postings, for Tweeting, etc.

Online forum manager – the person responsible for your online discussion group for volunteers

Online photo archive manager – the person responsible for your organization’s profile on Flickr or other photo sharing site, who solicits photos from volunteers and other supporters that they take during service or events, who makes sure photos are tagged properly so staff can find what they need, etc.

Different and innovative volunteering opportunities

Hi there,

Some of our team here have been investigating new and different volunteering opportunities and where they are being advertised. Following a search on Do-it – we came across very little that we felt fitted into the above description (although we appreciate that these words are open to interpretation). One seemingly strange opportunity was described as ‘Regional Staff’ – but maybe that’s a debate for another thread?

What we are looking for are some examples of new and different opportunities so we can inspire our local groups and provide them with some reference points.

Any suggestions of where or examples from your organisations would be much appreciated. Feel free to contact my colleague Helen off this blog if preffered.

How about…

– Guide Dogs will be pilotting sighted guides (non-canine) for blind people over the next year – more info from Kerry Tweed at Guide Dogs

– Southbank Centre in London has a small army of volunteers – based in a rather nice beach hut outside the Royal Festival Hall – who are guides and information gurus for visitors to the Southbank as they celebrate the Festival of Britain’s 40th anniversary: volunteer supremo. Andrew Reed can tell you more about how they got it up and running.

– HMS Belfast has happy volunteers restoring gun-turrets and suchlike (in fact, museums volunteers get up to all sorts). Not a new role, but certainly a bit different.

If I think of any more, I’ll post.

The three above were all driven by the need of the cause, rather than the need to have new/different roles for volunteers – so maybe lateral thinking about the cause is a good place to start.

Kind regards, Anne

For paid work you can no longer ask these questions

Angela’s right to say that for paid work you can no longer ask these questions until a job has been offered under the new Equalities Act (2010). This legislation doesn’t cover volunteering though, so the organisation Nic recevied the request from hasn’t done anything legally wrong.

I would agree with Nic completely. It’s up to the person volunteering to disclose their support needs. When I’ve worked with organisations to encourage them to be more inclusive, I’ve always recommended that they create multiple opportunities for volunteers to disclose information that is relevant to the person volunteering. You need to recognise that volunteers may not disclose info until a certain level of trust has developed. A useful piece of advice I was given when thinking about disclosure for mental health is:

  • WHAT – people disclose, keep it relevant to the volunteering
  • WHEN – recognise this could be during an interview, on an application form, or in a supervision, etc…
  • HOW – let the person be in control of what is disclosed, ideally avoid something coming out because someone becomes ill.

I’ve found this applicable for disclosure of any health related aspect and guess that it’s the how, which is most relevant in this case.

I would have thought Scope are in a good position to point out the inappropriacy of the question on the reference form.

My position has always been that I would ask these health questions on my risk assessment. I ask the question at each stage: (Application form, interview, training and meetings) “Do you require any support to complete this task / Attend this event”. There is also a question on the Equal Opportunities detatachable section on the application form about disabilities. After the interview and an offer of a place as a volunteer, I then carry out a risk assessment which asks volunteers about any health conditions which may affect their volunteering.

I give examples such as “If someone has asthma which is triggered by pet hair, I wouldn’t match them with a client with a pet”, or “Someone with depression can find it difficult to attend early morning meetings, so I wouldn’t match them with a client who has early morning appoimtments” etc.

I have found that this tends to work and I am able to make adjustments for those volunteers who may not have otherwise had the confidence to ask for them. As for references, I would never disclose any health issues without the prior consent of the volunteer in question. As mentioned by others, it is up the volunteer whether they decide to declare any health issues.

It is also up to the new company to carry out the risk assessments as to whether a client’s health issues would affect their placement. Even though volunteering placements are not strictly covered by the provision in the Equalities Act which makes it unlawful to ask about health issues before the offer of a job, it is still good practice to abide by these rules. They are there to prevent discrimination and the new organization *could* be seen to be unfairly discriminating against the volunteer by asking these questions before an offer of a place.

Health questions asked in volunteer reference requests

Hi all

Scope received a volunteer reference request last week which asked the question ‘Do you know of any health condition or disability that may affect the individual’s ability to carry out the role?’ – what are people’s thoughts on this? We did not answer this question and said we would not disclose this information as it should be the decision of the individual as to whether something as personal as this is disclosed to the organisation.

As an organisation we aim to make volunteering inclusive for all – creating more and better volunteering opportunities, particularly for disabled people. Are questions like this conducive to the organisation or the volunteer?

I was under the impression that it is illegal to ask medical questions of referees or interviewees for paid roles until a job offer is made? Is this incorrect?

If it is the case, surely it should be the same for a volunteer?

We ask the question directly of the volunteer and word it as follows:
“Additional information: Do you have any medical or health problems that we need to be aware of that could be affected your role as a volunteer? (e.g. heart problems/ asthma/ diabetes/ limited mobility/ epilepsy/ allergies etc.) YES (if ‘YES’ please give information below) NO “.

This is primarily for benefit of the volunteer because we have a duty of care to him or her and we wish to ensure that the volunteer’s own health isn’t adversely affected by any activity they do e.g. a volunteer befriender with asthma or heart problems being allocated a client who lives up 4 flights of stairs or who has a houseful of cats. It also ensures that or that the placement is aware of any health conditions e.g. someone with epilepsy or with type 1 diabetes who may experience a hypoglycaemic event. Such information is never used to exclude a volunteer from volunteering, but if his/ her health could be affected then this is pointed out to the potential volunteer and perhaps alternatives suggested.

In addition, we ask the volunteer to decide whether he/she considers themselves to have a disability and ask the question on our equal opportunities monitoring form “Disability: Do you consider yourself to have a disability? Yes No”.

Volunteers are also asked in some cases to fill in an ICE form -In Case of Emergency; this contains basic information about who to contact in case of an emergency, such as a family member, partner etc, if there’s medication that he/she may need to manage their condition or guidance on how a health problem could be dealt with by the first aider present etc.

In all cases, it is the potential volunteer who provides the information as he/she feels is appropriate and there is no onus on referees to provide such personal information. Personally I think that asking referees that question is completely unsuitable.