An Open Letter to Senior Managers and Boards from leaders of volunteering

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Recent events have shown what we in the charity and not-for-profit sector know to be true – that volunteering and community engagement is and remains a universally strong spirit. People, without being asked to step in, are coming forward to give their time and share their skills, to provide practical assistance, comfort and support; ultimately creating a sense of resilience and strength.  

But in order to support these initiatives and enable people to contribute effectively it is vital to think about how to develop and provide the relevant set up. Evidence on collective efficacy has shown that without the appropriate infrastructure and support to co-ordinate efforts and offers of help, community action can dissipate rather than proliferate. 

A key element of this infrastructure I would argue is having well trained and well supported people to provide the volunteer management. We are all familiar with the well-deserved accolade of volunteers to our organisations – and indeed the sector as a whole; but in order to enable volunteers to offer the greatest value we need to recognise that Volunteer Managers matter as well.  

Keeping a balance between efficient, supportive volunteer opportunities with a responsive and adaptable relationship, carries right though a volunteer journey. Volunteers need to be supported once they’re involved; in a way that is meaningful to them and meets their changing needs. At this time, this has extended into supporting volunteers who have been asked to temporarily stop their role and thinking about how we can re-engage them. Organisations which involve volunteers need to reflect on the importance of putting resources into their volunteering interventions, including equipping those who work with our volunteers. 

At a time when all organisations including charities are facing threat to their income, the value and impact which volunteers bring, extending the reach and resources and developing services and interventions which resonate within the community, really matters. As Joe Saxton from nfpSynergy said in a recent blog, “volunteers…could be at the heart of the shift” of making sure things get done.

If we are going to effectively build on the interest in volunteering which has come through this pandemic, and not lose the positives of the agile and flexible way that people have been able to get involved, organisations need to think widely and creatively about how they engage those who want to give their time – and in order to do this strategically they will need to keep the investment in volunteer management.

This is why a group made up of AVM, the Association of Voluntary Service Managers (AVSM), Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG), the Scottish Volunteering Forum and Volunteer Now have come together, convened by Rob Jackson and building on a similar alliance in the States, involving Betsy McFarland from Adisa, to write an open letter to leaders of organisations which involve volunteers  – to let them know the importance of having those who understand and lead on volunteer management at the table when discussing the future.

This is the first time we’ve worked together in this way as an alliance and I’m so proud that AVM has been part of that and hope we can bring our networks together in the future, so thanks for Rob for making that happen.

I’d like to thank Rob and Betsy who joined us at the launch of the letter and shared their thoughts and experience.

I’m proud that AVM has taken part in this important piece of work and to have been able to work across our organisations, and please do get in touch to feedback and let us know how you’d like us to promote this and support you to get the message out.

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The vital role of volunteers during Covid-19

Rebecca Kennelly, Director of Volunteering at RVS, discusses how the charity has been at the heart of Britain’s biggest mobilisation of volunteers since 1939

Image is text that reads "we're all in this together"

For the last two years, Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) has put considerable focus on growing newer forms of volunteering that make it easier and more flexible for people to give their time. 

Little did we know when we started this work, that in February this year we would be plunged into a major health crisis. And that this would lead us to launch the biggest volunteer recruitment drive since we were founded in 1938. 

As the threat of Covid-19 became more apparent we began to work with NHS England to understand how volunteers could support those most at risk of the virus and take pressure off the NHS. We also needed to think about a way to quickly and safely mobilise these volunteers so they could respond to tasks within a very short time frame.

The answer came in the form of the GoodSAM platform, an established app which has been used for the last five years to alert those trained (from resuscitation to cardiac arrest) to nearby incidents, while an ambulance is en-route. We recognised this technology could be adopted to speedily match volunteers to people nearby who needed support and with the fantastic team at GoodSAM we were able to mobilise a new digital solution. 

NHS Volunteer Responders was born.

At the end of March, when lockdown was announced, we were ready for launch and a major call was made for the public to sign-up. They would be asked to sign-up for four different roles– from picking up shopping and prescriptions and giving lifts to medical appointments to making ‘check in and chat’ calls to people isolating and delivering hospital equipment.

Our original target of 250,000 volunteers was met within 24 hours, growing exponentially to 750,000 just 72 hours later. 

We were absolutely overwhelmed with the public’s response, but our team rose to the challenge – processing hundreds of thousands of applications and DBS checks in a very short time.

By the end of the month, 600,000 volunteers had been approved. All ready to mark themselves as ‘on duty’ and start completing tasks for the 2.5million people self-isolating. 

With safeguarding a key concern, our teams worked quickly and efficiently to produce thorough guidance for each volunteer role. This would ensure volunteers were adhering to social distancing and safeguarding rules (i.e. not entering people’s homes, not paying for shopping out of their own money.)

Since going live over 250,000 tasks have now been performed by NHS Volunteer Responders, who have been leaping into action across the country, wherever and whenever their help is needed. This help has proven invaluable to those who have been receiving it, and we have had an overwhelmingly positive response from those using the service.

The scheme now averages 7,000 tasks a day, with the majority (70%) matched and delivered within two hours and 98% within a 24-hour period.

Covid-19 has certainly revealed a desire amongst the public to volunteer, with a recent poll by Legal & General suggesting one fifth of the population has volunteered during the crisis. 

This is encouraging, but as important for us, is that the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has shown us a way of making volunteering more attractive and flexible and give people the flexible micro volunteering roles they want. We hope that once the crisis has eased, volunteering for those trying it for the first time, will become another part of the new-norm.

As we mark Volunteers Week 2020, we want to say thank you to all our volunteers, past and present, for their gifts of their time, talent energy and kindness. We are constantly humbled and inspired by everything that you do.


To request support from the NHS Volunteer Responders, referrals can be made by health professionals, as well as directly from the public, who can call the hotline number – 0808 196 3646 to request the support they need.


Rebecca Kennelly

Rebecca Kennelly is Director of Volunteering at Royal Voluntary Service

A volunteer manager’s experience of mutual aid

A volunteer manager reflects on their experience of volunteering in their local community, and what lessons their organisation might be able to learn

A black chalkboard with a red heart. The words "Look out for each other! With distance!" are written in white over the heart

“Can you pick up some shopping for a couple living in sheltered housing? Here is their phone number and address. Give them a call and see what they want and how they want to pay. Thanks.”

Hold up! Have you got their consent to share their details with me? Are there any risk assessments? What should I do if I have a safeguarding concern about them? What are the boundaries of the relationship? Plus, you’re asking me to carry out a regulated activity without a DBS check. Are you crazy?

If I was in work all of these questions and more would have immediately whirred through my brain and we would have decided we definitely couldn’t do the shopping because of the risks to individuals and lack of clarity over governance.

After 20 years working in volunteer management, have I become institutionalised? I expect anything to take an age to happen, with all the right people from different departments (marketing… I forgot to involve marketing… what was I thinking???) consulted as part of a project and communications plan and… you know the rest. You need milk? I can probably get you some in three weeks if we can sort out the paperwork and cash handling training.

The local response to Covid-19 has been amazing, humbling and professionally confusing. In the morning I’ll be skyping into meetings where we talk about risk registers and whether the wearing of face masks should be mandatory and then at lunchtime I jump in the car, go to the local pharmacy with the name and address of someone I have never met before, tell the pharmacist that I am picking up a prescription for them and then deliver it. I’m encouraged to share my phone number with them and free to respond as I choose to different asks for help – no-one tells me what I can and cannot do, I am expected to use my judgement and common sense.

Professionally the lack of safeguards sometimes worries me and I know why good practice is, well, good practice, but the simplicity of the ask has allowed lots of people to help who would not have if they had to follow a traditional volunteer recruitment process. We often talk about removing barriers to volunteering and the community response locally has shown that if you make it easy and worthwhile, people will volunteer.

The final thought I have is whether I am doing this as an individual or as a volunteer? Looking at it professionally, the service is co-ordinated by the local authority and they put me in touch with the people I help so I’d say they are responsible and the local area co-ordinator is my volunteer manager. But personally, it just feels like they are making it easier for me to help – it is liberating to be treated as an adult who can make informed decisions and tolerate risk, even if it is only when I am away from my desk.


This blog has been written anonymously

Volunteer-led fundraising vital in post-lockdown recovery

David Grout, who heads up Fundraising Volunteering at Marie Curie, shares his thoughts on the future of volunteer-led community fundraising

When we think of fundraising, we often think of an office bake sale, supporting a friend who is running a marathon, or popping our spare change into a collection tin. Many perhaps don’t think about the army of volunteers behind so many fundraising activities, all sharing their personal skills to give their time in an enjoyable way to support their favourite charity.

Fundraising is a fantastic volunteer experience, with a huge array of opportunities available, allowing everyone to find the role which suits their ambitions, skills, interests and the time they have to give. Volunteers often tell us it is a rewarding way to give their time, and they take great encouragement from understanding the impact of what they raise.

Some people choose to volunteer as part of a local fundraising group, while others choose to volunteer in a more independent role, perhaps by looking after collection tins in their area, or giving talks about their charity to local groups. Some volunteers choose roles which are quite public, while others choose roles in the background, such as volunteering in their local fundraising office. While some look for a role with a regular time commitment, such as a weekly shift in a local charity shop, others look for ways to give their time in short bursts when they can, such as cheering at a marathon.

It is up to fundraising teams to provide a range of well supported, rewarding opportunities for all. All fundraising has to be legal and safe, and fundraising through a volunteer network provides a great framework for the charity to ensure this. From providing templates and event ideas for volunteers to use, to ensuring effective background processes are in place, strong volunteer management is an essential skill for community fundraisers.

Volunteers need easy access to good resources and training, a clear line of contact to the charity and, most of all, to feel appreciated. Community Fundraisers will tell you that their favourite days are those where they speak to their volunteers and hear their new ideas, unrivalled enthusiasm and insights into their local community.

We know that people volunteer for a variety of reasons, and often the main incentive is simply to support our chosen cause or causes. In fundraising, we can quickly see the impact we make in the money raised, with a caveat.

Last year, volunteer led fundraising raised £6m for Marie Curie with 5,000 volunteers forming a strong network across the UK. These volunteers have a massive impact, not only through the amount they raise but through the additional impact they have by raising the profile of the charity and encouraging support from others.

The last eight weeks has meant a pause to many traditional volunteer fundraising activities. A quick scroll through twitter shows this hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of volunteers who have taken their meetings online, calculated how many laps of the garden make up a marathon and encouraged their friends and family to donate their unused commute money.

The explosion of volunteering throughout this crisis should give us great hope for the future. Many people are volunteering for the first time and they will need new ways to channel that energy when our needs as a society change. With charities facing an uphill struggle to recoup lost income and us all looking for ways to come back together after the loneliness of lockdown, volunteer-led fundraising provides great opportunities for our recovery.


David Grout

David Grout has spent 33 years working with volunteers in Scotland. after escaping from the banking sector. Of those, he spent 15 years as Chief Exec in Outdoor Education, followed by nine years with Macmillan, and nine years with Marie Curie, where he heads up the UK Fundraising Volunteering programmes.

Are you available to help plan and organise the community wide response to COVID-19?

Shared on behalf of Volunteering Matters


NAVCA, NCVO and Volunteering Matters are working together on a project to recruit and place volunteers with Volunteer Centres and Local Infrastructure Organisations who are experiencing a significant increase in volunteer registrations as a result of Covid 19. In a survey of NAVCA members, a number told us they needed additional resources to manage all those who responded to calls for volunteers, some of whom have still to be contacted never mind being given meaningful tasks to do. 

We are looking for volunteers with expert co-ordination and brilliant communication skills and we have two roles that recognise the range of equally important functions that those managing volunteers will be doing – a Volunteering Manager (supporting the manager on a range of activities) and a Volunteer Co-ordinator (communicating and engaging more directly with volunteers). 

Both roles can be done from home, working remotely. 

Are you able to share your skills and expertise as an experienced Volunteer Manager/Co-ordinator within a Volunteer Centre or Infrastructure Organisation? While each organisation will have its own specific needs and practice the roles will broadly involve working alongside the staff on all or some of the following tasks and depend on how much time you have available:

  • Providing support to place new and existing volunteers in relevant local opportunities and organisations.
  • Training new volunteers using a range of online platforms.
  • Working alongside existing staff and volunteers to manage change.
  • Liaising with a range of community groups and hubs on their needs and challenges with regard to volunteer management. 
  • Responding to enquiries about volunteering and referring as appropriate to other staff members or other agencies.       
  • Compiling information and circulating to existing volunteers, signposting them to additional resources as appropriate.
  • Using databases, manipulating spreadsheets.
  • Keeping in touch with those waiting to volunteer, alerting them to new opportunities and supporting them to access these with a view to keeping them motivated and available as lockdown eases and new volunteering opportunities emerge. 

This is a new project and will require your knowledge and expertise to make it ready for delivery to Volunteer Centres. You will need to be open and flexible, joining us in demonstrating the value of actively and skilfully managing volunteering. 

If you would like to know more or to register your interest please contact: Barbara Regnier, Volunteering Matters [email protected]

Big up a Volunteer Manager on International Volunteer Managers Day, 5 November 2019!

I’ve now finished my term as Director for the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM). It’s been one of the most rewarding volunteering experiences I’ve ever had. I’ll tell you why…

I was elected as Director just after I’d returned from a years’ maternity leave. I was feeling rusty, shattered, and, honestly, quite lacking in confidence.

But as any volunteer manager worth their salt knows: volunteering can help with all of that!

In my role as Director at AVM I was surrounded by a wonderful network of other volunteer managers – the other Directors and other AVM members. My people! They held me up, energised me, helped me realise where my strengths were, and gave me a great volunteering role where I could make a difference to the lives of other volunteer managers, which of course, made me feel great.

The other Directors at AVM feel the same – we all gain so much strength, knowledge and confidence from our fellow volunteer managers.

So, on International Volunteer Managers Day, we would like to take the opportunity to big each other up and give a little recognition and thanks to all the great volunteer managers that we know are out there.

Get ready on Twitter…and use the hash tag: #BigUpVM – let’s all tell another volunteer manager we know that we appreciate them, and big them up.

Angela Wilson is a former Director at the Association of Volunteer Managers and Head of Volunteering at MS Society. Follow her on Twitter: @Angelawilson__

Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy?


Screenshot of BBC Radio 4 In Business: Managing Volunteers episode

When producer Beth Sagar-Fenton asked on Twitter for people to share tricky experiences of managing volunteers for an upcoming programme, I think many volunteer managers were a little apprehensive about the motivations. Volunteering and volunteer management can often have quite a narrow narrative – either 100% brilliant (an amazing army of awesomeness etc) or a set of lazy assumptions about how an unpaid workforce could possibly be managed effectively. With the tone of the crowdsourcing questions, I think we were all nervous about the picture that might be painted.

As it turns out we shouldn’t have worried – what followed was 30 minutes of well researched and thoughtful content, which accurately summed up the unique complexities of managing volunteers. True, there were some comments that irritated, as Sally says below:

Interesting piece – useful to shine a light on the role of Volunteer Managers. I did bristle at the comment around ‘use of volunteers’ we do not USE anybody, volunteers (and staff) are valued contributors to our missions, we involve, engage, support but we don’t use (rant over)

— Sally Seddon (@sallyseddonSI) August 30, 2019

Overall however this was a welcome overview.

Here are the programme highlights:

  1. Volunteer managers are unsung heroes. The phrase is cheesy, but this was a real acknowledgement from the start that the role of volunteer manager was important.
  2. We have some great insight and research to help us continue to design relevant and impactful volunteering experiences. The NCVO report into their survey of the volunteering experience can be found on their website.
  3. Volunteering is not a free resource – it requires careful management. Yes, I know WE all know that, but how many people outside of the non-profit sector or even just volunteer management know that? It’s great to see the issues covered by In Business in order to reach a wider audience.
  4. Volunteer management is distinctive to paid-staff management. Again, I think we all know that, but having this accessibly communicated to a wider audience is crucial. As the programme briefly touched on, volunteer manager roles are often the first to go when funds are tight, so raising awareness of this distinctiveness with decision makers who may not have direct volunteer management experience is useful.

    “Volunteer management is something quite distinctive” – Jarina talking about the “exceptional people skills” needed in volunteer management. Listen now to Jarina on @BBCRadio4

    — NCVO Volunteering (@NCVOvolunteers) August 29, 2019

  5. The exceptional people skills talked about by NCVO’s Jarina Choudhury include the ability to perform emotional labour; the ability to manage your own, and other people’s emotions. This was one of the key findings from the National Trust commissioned research into the differences between managing paid staff and managing volunteers. You can read the full report online.

    While many think volunteer managers can learn from managers, Dr Jenna Ward explains how the opposite is more true. Listen more on @BBCRadio4 https://t.co/wnqwIKW6yX

    — Shaun Delaney (@shaundelaney) August 29, 2019

  6. The programme concluded that there is much that the world of HR management can learn from volunteer management. A recent research briefing from NCVO reports that across all sectors, the ability to manage your own feelings, or handle the feelings of others, is the second biggest reported ‘soft’ skills gap, and the least improved skill over the past few years. Perhaps sharing our skills in emotional labour is our biggest lever?

Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy? was an insightful overview into the world of volunteer management. I know from colleagues it’s already being shared with non-volunteer manager colleagues to provide a compelling introduction. A useful resource now and in the future. 

BBC Radio 4 in Business ‘Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy?’ originally aired Thursday 29 August 2019. 


Listen again

Annabel Smith is an AVM Board member and Head of Volunteering and Participation Development at the National Trust.

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 📈

I didn’t expect to learn this about influencing change

It’s really important to me that the value of volunteers is recognised across
The Brain Tumour Charity, and that both volunteers and the staff who support them have a great experience.

Within my relatively short time in post, I’ve learnt that positive change often requires support for volunteer engagement across teams and at all levels. So when I spotted an email about an upcoming AVM event focusing on ‘successfully influencing change’, it got my attention.

At the event we heard from Charlotte Witteridge, Head of Volunteering at The Myton Hospices and Clare Burgess, CEO of Surrey Coalition of Disabled People. Both shared the way they had wielded influence in order to embed volunteering more deeply in the culture of their organisations.

For them, building a case for support and thinking strategically about the changes that were needed was really important. But even more crucial was their ability to bring people along on that journey. Below I’ve parceled their advice on doing just that into three top tips:

  1. Be reliable and interested
  2. Focus on the things you can change
  3. Know your allies

1. Be reliable and interested

1Doing what you say you’ll do (which includes saying no), and making a point to learn something new outside of your work remit each day, will engender trust among key stakeholders. By building your personal brand, people are more likely to believe in your ideas and in your ability to make those ideas a success.

2. Focus on the things you can change

Don’t spend time focusing on your ‘circle of concern’ – the things which challenge you but you can’t do anything about. Instead, think proactively about your ‘circle of influence’. If you do this you’ll become more effective at making change and increase what you’re able to influence.

3. Know your allies

Work out who it is you need to influence, and how you can get on their radar. This isn’t always about targeting those who hold important job titles. By building strong connections across and outside of your organisation you may identify people who can break down a barrier for you.

To get decision-makers on side, think about how each person needs information delivered to them. Some people are most interested in facts, some finances and some in stories.

I came away from the event with lots to think about, some action points and overall feeling more confident about influencing within my organisation. But having had a bit of time to reflect, my main learning from the day was perhaps a more surprising one.

I didn’t expect to learn this

I know that I’m not alone in finding conferences and events like these a daunting prospect. Part of the reason, I think, is that many of us feel that we have little of value to share. Day-to-day, we’re not doing anything radical or out of the ordinary.

We (volunteer managers) are quick to be self-critical and to focus on the areas that aren’t going right, but I learnt something valuable from everyone I spoke to at the event. During group discussions, people shared lessons learnt through experience – lessons that will undoubtedly save others time and heartache in the future.

My key takeaway

By sharing what your organisation is doing well at events like these, it encourages others to take small steps to improve their practice, which will in turn improve the experience for volunteers in their organisation. And our willingness to speak about these positive things, with colleagues, with other volunteer managers, or with potential volunteers, will make us better influencers too.

Most of the positive, proactive changes that you’ll make during your time as a volunteer manager will not be brand new concepts, but that doesn’t make them uninteresting, or less valid. What you see as your bread and butter, the areas where your organisation is succeeding, are probably the very same areas that others are struggling to crack.

We should shout about these positive things more. I know I certainly will.


Amie is the Volunteer Development Manager for The Brain Tumour Charity.

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.