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When volunteers are your lifeline

Originally Published: May 2017

Ministry of Stories, a creative writing and mentoring center, has eight paid staff, including a full-time volunteer coordinator — and around 350 active volunteers.

Open to children and teenagers who want to "discover their own gift for writing," the Ministry runs regular programs in local schools, plus after-school clubs and story-making or comic book workshops at its premises in east London. As well as the emphasis on sparking imagination and creativity, a core principle is to provide kids with the kind of one-to-one support they don’t get in most schools or even at home. That means around 45 volunteers are needed in any given week: most work as writing mentors, while others are workshop leaders, illustrators and book publishers. Volunteers also man the tills as shopkeepers at Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, a quirky gift store whose proceeds support the Ministry’s work, and jump in when needed to help with PR, marketing, fundraising or event management. As head of operations Ilona Leighton-Goodall, says, "we couldn’t do it without them!"

So how does a small charity deal with being so dependent on volunteers?

Ensure a steady pipeline

Ministry of Stories currently has some 1,000 volunteers in its database, but they’re always bringing new people on, which requires active recruitment efforts.

"We attend volunteer fairs and job fairs quite regularly — at least three or four a year," says Oz Yikici, the volunteer and administration coordinator. Occasionally, the team also attends festivals to raise awareness of opportunities on offer.

Every newcomer must first attend an induction day that introduces the organization and covers mentoring techniques, how to get the best out of young writers, behavior management and safeguarding. These days are held 10 times throughout the year, so that new volunteers can get started quickly (once they’ve completed required background checks and references).

Regular induction days and the necessary follow-up are resource-intensive, costing the charity an estimated £500 per head in staff time and resources. But they’re crucial. In 2016, they experimented with fewer induction days, but, says Yikici, "it affected our recruitment — we didn’t have enough people coming through." Volunteers are expected to complete a minimum of six sessions in the first six months.

Accommodate people’s availability

Delivering services through volunteers means you have to adapt, says Leighton-Goodall. "You have to acknowledge that people are giving up their time for free, and that sometimes other priorities or last-minute things mean they can’t make it. You have to respect that." But, she adds, turnout is not generally an issue: "For the most part all our volunteers are amazingly committed."

For each workshop, up to eight volunteers are signed up; this allows for one or two cancellations, says Yikici, though the dropout rate can be higher over winter. If needed, staff can jump in to cover the 2-3 hour session.

Use a reliable, powerful system to coordinate

Ministry of Stories uses a Salesforce database to keep track of all volunteers. The system also allows volunteers to view upcoming slots a couple of months in advance via an online calendar and to book their own sessions. That’s essential, says Leighton-Goodall: coordinating 350 people manually "would be impossible." Yikici also uses email and a Facebook group to alert volunteers when sessions become open or when last-minute help is needed, as well as for other communication.

Provide the right support

"If you’re recruiting for a paid member of staff, you would [hire] someone with specific skills for the role," says Leighton-Goodall, "whereas volunteers might not necessarily have experience of working with children." That’s not a problem, but it means adapting your support accordingly: "[We] have to be aware that we’re the ones with the professional expertise."

While volunteers usually deliver one-off workshops, staff members lead the weekly sessions and are responsible for all workshop planning and design. At every session, Yikici tries to ensure a mix of experience, with a maximum of two completely new volunteers at a time so they can be supported by others if needed.

Workshops always include a team briefing before and a debrief afterwards. These are a chance to prepare for and review working with challenging kids, and are an important aspect of supporting volunteers, says Yikici. "If something went wrong, they’d get feedback on how they managed the situation, and hopefully feel like they’d still achieved something positive. That’s a big thing for our volunteers."

Offer opportunities for feedback and improvement

As well as the briefing and debrief for each individual session, Ministry of Stories captures feedback from all volunteers — including those who no longer actively volunteer — via a survey sent out roughly every two years.

They also host around two or three social events for volunteers each year, which offer an informal opportunity to share experiences with each other and to talk to staff.

Make the most of their enthusiasm

Whether wanting to help boost young people’s confidence, enjoy a change of scene from a serious desk job, or build up experience while transitioning to a teaching career, people have different reasons for giving up their free time.

The fact that they’re unpaid is a big advantage, according to Ministry of Stories. It means the organization gets to work with a large number of people from diverse backgrounds, who bring a mix of skills and knowledge. And it impacts motivation: "If you replaced them with paid [staff], it just wouldn’t be the same," says Leighton-Goodall. "People might be having a bad day, but they are always pleased to be here." That enthusiasm brings extra energy to the workshops. "The kids bounce off that as well," says Yikici. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grumpy volunteer."

For more on how volunteers can champion the writer in every child, visit Ministry of Stories.

(Photo: Tom Oldham)



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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.