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As your volunteers increase, review your policies, staff and communication

Originally published: June 2017

For many nonprofits, volunteers are a lifeline: without them, they wouldn't be able to run their services. If your charity is reliant on volunteers to deliver your work, you need to consider how you manage and support them. Staff members and volunteers need clear guidance and the tools to carry out their roles.

This is the case for U.K. charity Contact the Elderly, which tackles loneliness among older people aged 75 and above, through monthly tea parties run by volunteers. Since 2012, its volunteer numbers across England, Scotland and Wales have almost doubled from around 5,900 to 10,330.

Every month, the older people (referred to as older guests) are collected by volunteer drivers and taken to the home of a volunteer host, where they join a small group for "tea, chat and companionship." Volunteer coordinators oversee 750 groups across the U.K., liaising with the other volunteers to make sure that everyone knows when they're hosting tea parties and picking up the older guests.

"Volunteers are at the heart of our work," says acting chief executive Cliff Rich. "Without the willingness and support of thousands of individuals, we wouldn't be able to provide our service. Reaching 10,000 volunteers is an incredible achievement but it's more vital than ever that we're effectively managing and supporting them."

Staffing structure

Contact the Elderly only has 40 employees so the ratio of volunteers to staff is huge. In recent years, the organization has had to carefully consider how it uses its limited staff resource to manage and support its growing volunteer base.

For a long time, the charity had development officers spread across the U.K. who were responsible for both developing new groups and supporting existing groups. But as volunteer numbers grew, the development officers found it increasingly difficult to support existing volunteers, as their time was largely spent setting up new groups. This left existing groups at risk of closing because not enough time could be spent supporting volunteers.

The organization recruited eight new support officers, whose job it is to support volunteers on a day-to-day basis and address any issues or concerns.

"Our support officers ensure that volunteers are happy in their roles and feel supported, so that we don't lose them and have to close down groups," explains Rich.

Meanwhile, the development officers are now focused solely on recruiting new volunteers and setting up new groups.

The new staffing structure has proved effective, as the charity only closed five tea party groups in 2016-2017 — the lowest in its 52-year history (the five groups were merged with other groups, due to older people sadly passing away.)

Policies and procedures

As your volunteer numbers grow, you can’t afford to neglect your volunteer policies and procedures — you need to clearly outline their roles and responsibilities. If you're working with vulnerable groups, such as older people, volunteers also need to know how to keep them safe. It's essential therefore to have a safeguarding policy in place outlining how your organization will protect vulnerable people.

Over the last few years, Contact the Elderly has tightened up its safeguarding policy and reporting of accidents and incidents.

"Obviously when you're working with vulnerable older people things are going to happen and it's important that our volunteers, especially our group coordinators, know what to do and they feel supported," explains Rich. "We've worked hard to update our safeguarding policy and, as a result, it is much clearer and more comprehensive."

Communication tools

With volunteers working in small groups, it can be easy to forget there are thousands of other volunteers doing exactly the same in other parts of the U.K. It's important to communicate effectively with volunteers to make sure they feel part of the bigger picture.

Contact the Elderly keeps its volunteers updated via a monthly e-bulletin and by posting content on social media, as well as sending targeted mailings to group coordinators. Facebook in particular is a popular channel for volunteers to share tea party photos and interact with other volunteers from around the U.K.

The charity is also planning to launch an online portal at the end of summer 2017, providing a central hub where volunteers can access information, including guidance on volunteer roles, practical tips for supporting older people who have mobility issues and hearing and visual impairments, videos, and recipe and activity ideas for tea parties.

Rich says: "The portal will hopefully bring volunteers together to share their experiences and ask for advice from others. We want volunteers from Scotland to be speaking to volunteers from the Midlands and so on."

Before going live, the charity is testing the site among its volunteers to make sure they feed into the process and can let staff know if there's any other information that needs including.

Later in 2017, the charity will introduce a second phase to the portal: the hub will be linked directly to the charity's database, allowing people to update their information, access tea party schedules and let group coordinators know when they're able to drive older guests to and from the tea parties.

"It's about trying to find the best route to get information out to our volunteers," says Rich. "I think you can always improve on that and hopefully the volunteer portal will make a difference."

For more information on volunteering in your area, visit Contact the Elderly



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