Netball volunteers and a volunteer strategy: a silver lining around a very grey COVID cloud (part 2)

In the second of our two-part series on adapting England Netball’s volunteer strategy to Covid-19, Imogen Greatbach shares how the strategy has evolved

This is a time that many of us never imagined we would experience in our life time. Life feels different with many unknowns. In December 2019 England Netball launched its first ever Volunteer Strategy. A huge signal to the estimated 26,000 netball volunteers that as a sport, they value the volunteers that help make netball happen and have a vision to improve the landscape in partnership with them. 

We have given them the opportunity to stop and reflect on the journey so far and role a volunteer focussed strategy can play within an organisation. This is only really the beginning of their journey, but they highlight what they call ‘silver linings from this grey COVID cloud’. Increased volunteer engagement, openness to try new things, revealing digital skills they never knew existed and a clear and common sense of purpose to ensure they can return to court when the time is right and it is safe to do so. 

Following on from Part 1 of this two-part reflections piece, Imogen Greatbatch (England Netball Head of Volunteering) shares her reflections on the evolution of the strategy in the face of Covid-19.


PART 2: A netball volunteer strategic story: launch, embed and evolve reflections

Roller-skating parallel worlds

The first five months of this role focussed on re-visiting concepts within the unpublished draft of the strategy, refining thinking alongside volunteers and completing the finishing touches for the formal England Netball launch in December. This post December Embed and Evolve phase has been focussed on lacing up the skates to bring it all to life. 

The wheels on one skate represent 60% of time prioritised to think, organise and activate how we service the needs, engage in conversations and build the road map to prioritise and deliver the activities together.

The wheels on the other skate roll through the needs of England Netball. With volunteering spanning pretty much all corners of the business, the remaining 40% of my time focusses on understanding the nuances of how volunteers add value and are supported. All in the interests of striving towards delivering a consistently world class volunteer experience. 

Creating conversations, actively encouraging informal learning and sharing brilliance 

Lockdown has turned our world ‘digital’ (and accelerated need and appetite for some activities we were planning in Years 2 and 3!). Digital skill sets have been revealed that some never knew they had. 

We knew we needed to create more informal netball focussed learning opportunities across broader number of roles. Much of it is centred on creating space for netball volunteers to have discussions on topics they care about but often don’t have time to explore and share opinions on. Whilst we are still developing these ‘In Focus’ sessions (in partnership with volunteers) and learning from every interaction, we are regularly seeing it is not about providing all the answers but facilitating and encouraging volunteers to be part of the journey. A true netball quality centres on supporting and learning from one another, a powerful way to unlock new thinking and ideas.

Activating segmented communication to key groups of volunteers

We have had to adapt our ways of working and thinking across everything we do, amplifying areas of focus in a significantly compressed and ever changing timeframe. This includes connecting with senior volunteers in County and Regional committee roles over two weeks (proudly achieving our highest ever engagement on a virtual tour {97%} with our CEO and Development Director, to share thoughts, feedback and ideas on ways to navigate this strange time, together. But just as importantly ensuring we also start talking more regularly to club and registered league volunteers (often individuals that span multiple roles and multiple netball volunteer led organisations).

The varying scale of time volunteers have pre Corona Virus and now presents challenges; some with lots through business furlough arrangements and many others still learning how to juggle several important balls {work, home schooling and caring commitments}. We have to ensure we tailor support to enable them to consume the essentials in ways they have time and appetite to engage with.

Authenticity, vulnerability and trust

Netball’s culture pivots around the importance of remaining true to oneself yet not being too proud to ask for help when needed. This is something the netball volunteer world instilled in me. I know I am not getting things right all the time, we try to do a lot at pace, not to mention aspirations often being significantly bigger than reality enables but remain true to the passion of supporting volunteers and trying, is most important and if it doesn’t land right, learn and be better next time. 

Resilience and duty of care

Resilience is a key quality these days and my experiences as a volunteer have tested my resilience but also helped strengthen it! When you volunteer you can often feel out of your comfort zone, alone and find yourself questioning is it all worth it? But then there are moments of magic that emerge from things you do like; friends, pride and a sense of achievement supporting your local community and you wonder what you ever doubted. 

Understanding this we are trying to ensure the activities we deliver as a result of the strategy create a community that cares about each other. A community that knows how to signpost one another to the right support to help individuals be the best they can be, as volunteers but just as importantly as people. Physical and mental wellbeing is more important now than ever. 

A common purpose

The volunteer strategy sets out a vision to improve support for netball volunteers to consider their ‘why’ and feel more purposeful, through building a movement. A movement towards a true partnership with England Netball. This partnership has become more important than ever as we work out how to emerge from lockdown and return to court, stronger than ever and when it is safe to do so. 

It is only appropriate to finish with, we don’t have all the answers, but as a sport we are hugely proud to have our first ever netball volunteer strategy and are learning every day. It is our first step to show netball volunteers they do matter and are truly important. Volunteers Week is a great time to shine a light on volunteering, but the reality is we need to move to a world where volunteers feel special every day of every week. 

To any volunteers reading this {particularly those in Netball} – you continue to give your time, expertise and energy to causes you care about and are helping shape the world into something pretty special. Your stories are our (volunteer managers’) inspiration.

Thank you.


Imogen Greatbatch

Imogen Greatbatch is Head of Volunteering at England Netball and focusses on Strategy, Network Support and Promotion and Recognition of volunteers. Imogen is a passionate netballer and netball volunteer, and has been since school. She has held numerous volunteer roles at Club, County, League and Regional levels and in 2019, at the England Netball Goalden Globes celebration {held alongside the Netball World Cup}, she was honoured to be awarded the England Netball Rose Award for her services to netball, as a volunteer. 

Netball volunteers and a volunteer strategy: a silver lining around a very grey COVID cloud (part 1)

In the first of a two-part series on adapting England Netball’s volunteer strategy to Covid-19, Laura Elson shares her reflections on strategy development

This is a time that many of us never imagined we would experience in our life time. Life feels different with many unknowns. In December 2019 England Netball launched its first ever Volunteer Strategy. A huge signal to the estimated 26,000 netball volunteers that as a sport, they value the volunteers that help make netball happen and have a vision to improve the landscape in partnership with them. 

We have given them the opportunity to stop and reflect on the journey so far and role a volunteer focussed strategy can play within an organisation. This is only really the beginning of their journey, but they highlight what they call ‘silver linings from this grey COVID cloud’. Increased volunteer engagement, openness to try new things, revealing digital skills they never knew existed and a clear and common sense of purpose to ensure they can return to court when the time is right and it is safe to do so. 

Laura Elson (Consultant and former England Netball Volunteering and Governance Manager) played a big part in the development phase of the Volunteer Strategy and she will begin: 

Laura’s netball team

PART 1: A netball volunteer strategic story: pre-launch reflections

When is a strategy not a strategy?

Often what we call strategies are plans with a budget. This is still useful especially if time and resources are tight, but there are some key differences that make a strategy much more than a document on a shelf. A plan uses some internal data to describe what an organisation will do with its volunteers. A strategy is a roadmap co-designed with volunteers that uses rigorous internal and external insights to describe what volunteers will achieve.

A true strategy is about listening to the breadth of your volunteer movement, identifying the main groups within it, their diverse motivations, and the roles they play in your organisation’s purpose. For most organisations volunteers outnumber paid staff in such vast numbers that activating them is crucial to meeting your overarching goals. So a good volunteer strategy sets out how volunteers achieve your purpose, not how the annual awards will be run or what to budget for T shirts.

Strategy development techniques

Invest in the process 

We spent almost two years working through a series of research steps to gather the data we wanted to use. England Netball also chose to hire an external consultant to lead the process of gathering data and consulting volunteers.

Segmentation analysis 

Women in Sport were commissioned to conduct a segmentation analysis, with their focus groups identifying six communities of motivation within the wider netball community. This showed us we had six segments or “hearts” of volunteers who have different motivations but are all united by their ultimate reason for getting involved – because they love netball.

Other player analysis 

It’s easy to just look around and borrow from other organisations. This is a bit of a trick though, and what’s unique about your movement often won’t translate for another organisation. We held structured interviews with leaders of volunteering across sport but also with national charities and women’s organisations. 90% of netball volunteers are women, and we actually learned the most from Girlguiding and the Women’s Institute.

Internal and external analysis 

Volunteers out number staff 200 to one in netball and their contributions underpin whether we meet those our goals. We started with our overarching strategy and ensured we used those goals, as did other departments such as Officiating and Coaching (who are also predominantly volunteers.) Sport England and NCVO also provided us with insights so that we could consider the national volunteering landscape too.

Volunteer voices 

We compiled data from thousands of volunteers via our annual survey, the Big Netball Conversation. 

Co-production 

Alongside all this was the best bit of my job, travelling around the nation over 18 months and meeting hundreds of volunteers in every region and every role. 

Yes, this is a huge investment of time but it’s crucial. Questions were asked at regional and county meetings, focus groups were held at national conferences, people who had stopped volunteering were phoned to mention some of the activities. This enabled us to be clearer about what the groups and themes we identified meant in real terms.. Second it enabled movement building, the more volunteers we involved the more ownership, partnership and respected our movement felt. 


Laura Elson is Consultant specialising in volunteering strategy and development, fundraising and governance with an MSc from the Centre for Charity Effectiveness. Laura is a member of AVM, volunteers as a trustee at Getting on Board, the national trustee recruitment charity, and Bramley Elderly Action. She also volunteers with the Institute of Fundraising, Small Charities Coalition, and her local food bank. But her favourite volunteering role is as player/kit secretary at Carr Manor Lightning Netball Club in Leeds, where she holds the title of the shortest Goalkeeper in the league.