Because you’re worth it! Managing flexible volunteering and risk

When I first saw the email advertising the ‘Risk Factor’ event, the subject line, ‘⚠ Can you manage risk and flexible volunteering at the same time? ⚠’, asked a question that I had been grappling with for months. I didn’t hesitate in booking, despite the minor consideration of an 800 mile round trip!

Helen Johnston, Museum of London Archaeology, presents her ‘Risky business’ session

We’re not alone in this balancing act

Like many organisations, we are investigating how best to respond to volunteers’ increasing demand for more flexible or episodic volunteering. I suspect Shelter Scotland are not alone in finding it difficult to balance our formalised risk and safeguarding procedures with more informal volunteering. We’re reviewing our flexible role to make it more inclusive and volunteer led, but it’s proving difficult to ensure that such a flexible commitment is sustainable when we need to invest so much time in recruitment and training. It’s a bit of a catch 22!

As such, I was really looking forward to the event on the 21st May. I didn’t flinch when my alarm went off at 5.45am for my 7.30 train from Edinburgh to London, and even the 1.5 hour delay to my train didn’t dampen my spirits!


Sketch note from delegate at Risk factor event – Alison Faraday, British Red Cross

A sustainable flow of volunteers

I rushed in the door with two minutes to spare, having gulped down a bag of roasted peanuts and an apple for my lunch, and immediately got into the networking with other lovely volunteer managers. The event started soon afterwards, and we were introduced to Helen Johnston from the Thames Discovery Programme. Her presentation was really interesting, and definitely gave me lots of food for thought. She has about 750 volunteers who support archaeological exploration on the banks of the Thames in a really flexible model for participation.

I was interested to hear how they are able to keep the model sustainable given that it is such a skilled role with no minimum commitment required. This is likely, in part, because they charge for training, but also because they have a very pragmatic approach to risk. Indeed, she told the story of her volunteers who successfully dealt with finding an unexploded World War II bomb, without the need for her involvement.

As well as providing in depth training, they have developed a culture of safety by holding briefings at the start of each session and placing a lot of trust in their volunteers to make sensible judgements about risks they encounter. I think this emphasis on trust in volunteers is perhaps something that all of us large national organisations could learn from.

Catherine Bartlett, NCT, presents her ‘How to stay in control when managing risk’ session

Risk versus objective reward

Secondly, Daniel Ingram from AVM led a discussion about risk appetite. My key takeaway point from this was that risk should not be assessed in isolation, but rather in line with the impact they would make in helping us achieve our objectives. If the activity is likely to be of significant benefit, perhaps it is worth the risk?

Next up, Catherine Bartlett from NCT told us about a volunteer led project with significant risks but also significant positive impact. Yet again, we were hearing about the balance between potential risk and actual benefits. Catherine, as a former barrister, highlighted the need to really take time to evaluate and understand your risks. Building detailed evidence to support your assessments will help to instil trust with colleagues and reassure the most risk averse!

Netflix, Pinot Grigio and chocolate raisins – because you’re worth it

Because you’re worth it

My trip to London for the AVM Risk Factor event was definitely worth the risk! It gave me lots of food for thought regarding our approach to risk in Shelter Scotland, and highlighted to me the value of two quite different approaches. I also had a far less eventful journey home too – Netflix, Pinot Grigio, chocolate raisins and six pages of notes to ponder!

Sarah Latto is the Volunteer Development Manager for Shelter Scotland and Co-Chair of the Scottish Volunteering Forum

Learn more. Our upcoming events can help your professional development and boost your volunteer management career 📈

Flexible volunteer management when there’s a risk it could all go boom!

At AVM’s Risk factor event Helen Johnston will be sharing how she established a flexible volunteering model while successfully managing the risks that archaeological fieldwork can dig up.

It’s Crimbo Limbo, the gap between Christmas and New Year, I’m on the sofa under a blanket, contemplating another rummage through the Quality Street tin to see if there’s any of the good ones left, idly scrolling through Facebook. And then, there it is, one of my worst-case scenarios: a photo of one of our volunteers flanked by two police officers (all smiling thankfully!), and the next one, a close-up of what looks like a rusty bit of scaffolding pole. I know immediately what it is and why the police are involved; it’s unexploded ordnance, left over from one of the World War bombing campaigns. Chocolate forgotten, I shake off my sofa-haze to find out what’s happened and make sure everyone’s safe.


Unexploded WWII incendiary bomb we found on the Southbank under the Millenium Bridge in 2016 – Photo by Nathalie Cohen

At Thames Discovery Programme, we run a flexible volunteering programme to monitor and record vulnerable archaeology on the Thames’ foreshore, the area which is revealed at low tide. As well as running fieldwork coordinated centrally, we have groups of volunteers who organise themselves to regularly monitor particular sites on the river. But the foreshore is not a safe environment, and there are many risks that need to be considered when working there.

On that lazy Saturday afternoon, a couple of our volunteers decides to make a last-minute visit to Fulham, the site of an ancient river crossing, to check on the interesting prehistoric archaeology there which is under threat from erosion. It’s matchday, and fans are streaming through the nearby park for a Fulham Palace home game. As the tide begins to come in, the volunteers are making their way back to the steps when they notice something that, thanks to their training, they immediately recognise as potentially an unexploded bomb.

Unexploded ordnance is not an uncommon find on the Thames; London was heavily bombed in World War 1 and World War 2, and the river wall was deliberately targeted to try to flood the city. At Thames Discovery Programme we come across possible ordnance every year or two, and so our volunteer training includes what to do if you find a bomb.


Thames Discovery Programme volunteers marking out a bomb crater on the Isle of Dogs –  Photo by Nathalie Cohen

In this case our volunteers do all the right things, they leave it where they found it, call the Police and move away from the area. When the Police arrive, there’s a bit of discussion about whether it’s a rusty aerosol can before they make the decision to call in the bomb squad. The river is cordoned off, the last of the football fans are kept out of the area, and the device, which is identified as a WW1 incendiary bomb, is safely removed to be disposed of somewhere a long way away. By the time I find out about the incident on Facebook that evening, it’s all over, and everyone involved is back home. I check in with the volunteers over email to make sure they’re all ok, finding things like this can be unnerving. They were fine and they’d already sent us a full account of what happened, including pictures!

Even if your risk assessment doesn’t need to consider possible explosions, managing volunteers remotely and flexibly is not without risks. On 21 May in London, I’m going to discuss how we’ve developed our flexible volunteering model at Thames Discovery Programme when there’s a risk we’ll dig up bombs. Join me at AVM’s Risk factor: flexible volunteering and risk management event and join the discussion at #AVMRisk.

Helen Johnston has over 15 years experience of creating and delivering volunteering programmes. Her current portfolio of work includes leading an archaeological volunteering project and supporting small charities.