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The first five months of this role focussed on re-visiting concepts within the unpublished draft of the strategy, refining thinking alongside volunteers and completing the finishing touches for the formal England Netball launch in December.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.

Looking to the future of volunteer management in the new normal

Ruth Leonard, Chair of AVM, shares her thoughts on what the future of volunteer management might look like in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’

A black chalkboard with the words "what's NEXT" written on it

This current pandemic situation has shown what people who involve volunteers know to be true – that volunteering is and remains, universally strong. Volunteers, as members of a local community, can help address needs which statutory services or organisations on their own cannot reach.
The response and growth of local mutual aid groups, helping people to self-mobilise to donate time and attention to people within their area, shows this. People, without being asked to step in, came forward to give their time, to provide practical assistance, comfort and support; ultimately creating a sense of resilience and strength.

The vast numbers of people signing up to be involved in the NHS Responders opportunity within England further demonstrates the desire of people to be able to do something and help others. Whilst this is a more top-down approach, Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), who facilitate the scheme, have been able to offer the volunteer journey in a much more agile and flexible way than many of the traditional models in volunteer involving organisations ordinarily do. If we are going to efficiently build on the successes born out of this crisis, we need to think more widely and creatively about how we engage those who want to give time.

One of the aspects for me about what volunteers bring is their ability to specialise and focus but at the same time being able to innovate and experiment, but volunteers themselves don’t necessarily feel that they have the opportunity to do this, with over one in six reporting in NCVO’s Time Well Spent report that they have skills and experience which they’d like to use in volunteering, that they’re not currently using.

Whilst this is clearly not a large number it seems statistically worth considering from a volunteer management point of view so that we can ensure that volunteers are able to give in a meaningful way which also meets their personal needs. People powered services should be exactly that – powered by people not by systems or processes.

We are used to viewing people giving their time through the lens of ‘traditional volunteering’, generally limited to pre-determined functions and selected for specific tasks; but to do so could mean that we are moving away from people’s motivations and interests and merely valuing the transactional and that which is carried out through an organisation – which I think is a barrier to those people who come forward because they want to just do something.

There is a wide spectrum of reasons for giving time and people do so in many ways – including to a variety of sectors as well as to none. As we can see during the response to the Covid19 crisis, boundaries are being increasingly blurred between the sectors – state, charities and private – and those who want to do something to make a difference want to do just that; so it is our responsibility as leaders of volunteering to help facilitate that as much as possible.

How do we ensure the necessary and relevant structure without impeding the volunteer journey and experience? Volunteer management needs to be less about telling and more enabling and encouraging flexibility. Part of this should be looking at how volunteers can fully be involved and able to influence development.

Volunteer management enables people giving their time to be engaged, supported and motivated, which includes working together with volunteers to meet the needs of the community through their own assets, so we need to develop our skills at mobilising community engagement and empowerment to ensure continued flourishing of volunteering.

What’s the point of a volunteer manager?… on furlough during Volunteers’ Week

AVM Director, Rachel Ball, shares her thoughts on what it’s like to be a volunteer manager on furlough during the annual Volunteers’ Week

Multi-coloured thought bubbles with question marks

It’s Volunteers’ Week and it’s a strange time. During this week volunteer managers around the country usually take the opportunity to say thank you through holding parties and events, share the stories of impact and difference their volunteers are making to their organisation and beneficiaries and take the opportunity to influence and advocate within their organisation for further investment in volunteering. 

This charge for celebration in England is usually led by our friends at NCVO, but they have had to withdraw their vocal championing, collation and sharing of information of organisation’s outputs so they can support charities with their most pressing and urgent needs. By some this was interpreted as they were cancelling the week… it wasn’t as it’s not something they can cancel. The week only exists because we as volunteer managers (VMs) champion, utilise and deliver it. 

It has been fantastic to see VMs across the country come together to create a national response to thanking volunteers. A richly deserved thanks. We’ve seen how people getting involved, giving their time and helping causes close to their hearts has been making a difference. This call out to VMs to get involved has helped them to think about what they could do this year and given them something to gather around, and feel a little less adrift from the norm.

However, for furloughed VMs this has brought mixed feelings about the week and what should and shouldn’t be happening. They can’t participate, no matter how much they want to. Some VMs may say they still could, but those I have been talking with don’t want to risk their own employment or their employers ability to claim back their salary and for their time being furloughed to be wasted. The chances of being accused of working by taking part is very slim but who wants to be the one that broke everything. Like everyone in this country, no one wants to be the one that makes things worse. 

Now some furloughed VMs know their organisation will be doing something because not all of their team has been furloughed (most likely not as grand or comprehensive as they had planned), for others, nothing will be happening. No one wants to miss out on an opportunity; they also don’t want to be seen as not caring or that their organisation doesn’t care; that isn’t the case but it is about priorities and it has made some of them question about how truly important volunteers are to the organisation and raised concerns about the impact this will have on the relationship with their volunteers.

As volunteer managers we fear Volunteers’ Week will be our only opportunity to thank our volunteers and celebrate their achievements. We fight for ways to squeeze in recognition on a daily, weekly and monthly basis throughout the year. So during our network calls we have been reminding ourselves that we may be missing out now, but we will have opportunities to do something when we return. If you need a formal hook to galvanise around, there is always International Volunteer’s Day on 5 December.

This year’s Volunteers’ Week message has changed from ‘celebrate’ to ‘thank you’ and at AVM we have decided to take the time to do a thank you on behalf of all our furloughed members because they cannot at this time. We also want to thank all those that coordinate volunteer contributions as volunteers themselves. To quote a commonly said phrase, we are all in it together! 

Happy Volunteers’ Week Everyone!

Volunteers’ Week 2020 #WaveForVolunteers – special ‘shout out’ to all COVID-19 Volunteers

AVM Directors #WaveForVolunteers

This week people from across the UK have been coming together to say a massive thank you to millions of volunteers. On Thursday 4 June 2020 we are sending out a special shout out to all volunteers who have actively supported the COVID-19 response and those who have been ‘great neighbours’.

There are hundreds of thousands of households and individuals who may be shielding who have benefitted from acts of kindness, like someone walking their dog or helping with their shopping. These people often don’t see themselves a volunteers but they are. We want to take this time to say thank you, and hope that their acts of kindness now turn into acts of habit later.

The #WaveForVolunteers was started by Volunteering Australia in May and we would like to continue this campaign in the UK during Volunteers Week 2020. We are encouraging everyone, including those whose lives have been touched by volunteers, to say thank you

You can join in by simply taking a photo of yourself waving to volunteers with a smiley face on your hand and post it on social media using #WaveForVolunteers and #VolunteersWeek.  

Volunteers have been the lifeblood of our communities in recent months. They are keeping us connected and in the coming weeks they will go on to play a role in helping us get back to the things that we love. By joining forces in Volunteers Week 2020, we are aiming to increase visibility of the vital efforts that all volunteers have made this year.

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.

Resilience and determination – why volunteers are never more needed

Andy Broomhead, Head of Volunteering at Diabetes UK, shares how they adapted plans to celebrate Volunteers’ Week in light of the global pandemic

I think Volunteers’ Week has a greater-than-usual significance this year. Whilst in some areas there’s been an explosion in volunteering, social action, community support and organisation, in others the impact of coronavirus has seen charities and volunteers put their plans on hold almost immediately.

At Diabetes UK, as at many other health and well-being charities, we took the decision to pause the vast majority of our volunteering relatively early on in the pandemic. Many of our volunteers are in higher risk groups and it’s important that their welfare is protected first and foremost.

One of the things volunteers are great at doing is connecting with and supporting people that charities might not otherwise see. Their passion, authenticity and ties to their communities make them the trusted figures representing our organisations. At times like these, sharing those important messages to help people manage their health is vital. Volunteers understand and can empathise in a unique way that is so valuable for members of the public.

When health and well-being is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, reassurance, guidance and quality information is now more highly valued than ever. As we strive to separate fact from fiction and provide help to people who need our advice and support the most, it’s now that I think of volunteers caught between their drive to help others, whilst being unable to do that in the ways they know best.

Volunteers bring resilience and determination to our causes and I’m sure that my experience at Diabetes UK will be familiar to many other volunteer managers across the country. 

We’ve seen many of our volunteer-led groups turn to technology to continue supporting people affected by diabetes without missing a beat, becoming Zoom experts overnight. Volunteers have also been in contact with ideas for how they can continue doing the things they care deeply about, and suggestions for new ways to help with the changing demands people are facing.

We’ve also seen some of our roles expand with more volunteers looking to take part in what had been a small befriending service in one part of England but is rapidly growing across other parts of the UK.

We know how important volunteering can be for people’s well-being, and for many to have had those opportunities curtailed in a short space of time has been incredibly challenging. But it should be no surprise to any of us that volunteers have come into their own. 

The willingness and adaptability of volunteers to stand firm is inspiring. I know in a few charities some volunteers have even argued that their volunteering is more important than their own health and wanted to continue regardless – such is their commitment to helping others.

Volunteers’ Week rightly shines the light on all those people who donate their time, skills and dedication to the causes that matter to them. Whether they’re able to volunteer right here and right now is secondary. The collective efforts of volunteers over the last few days, weeks, months and years is what we’re coming together to celebrate this week.

Back to Volunteers’ Week blogs

L&D For Volunteers in the Covid Age

Nigel Ross, an L&D Professional specialising in the voluntary sector, shares his thoughts on how the global pandemic has changed L&D for volunteers

Image is of a laptop and tablet, sitting on a desk next to a set of headphones, plugged into a smart phone. On the laptop and tablet screen is the image of bookshelves. The background is a blurred image of the same bookshelves.

Providing volunteers with all the skills and knowledge required to successfully carry out their role is vital and most organisations pride themselves on having established excellent induction and training courses for their volunteers.

Covid-19 has challenged everything we do. Face-to-face and classroom based programmes are now largely impossible to deliver, and the only viable alternative is a virtual training programme.

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Zoom are currently free to use, and most of us are now very confident at virtual meetings – so it is a small step for any learning and development (L&D) professional to tweak their standard course to make it suitable for online delivery. With a little practice in moving from PowerPoint to whiteboard, opening and closing polls and the essential skill of controlling microphones, it is relatively easy to put together a slick online training programme.

But what must not be forgotten is that unlike paid staff, who are incentivised to stay with you by their monthly pay cheque, volunteers only stay with you if they find it rewarding and enjoyable to give their time – and much of that enjoyment comes from social interaction. Here is the biggest challenge to the L&D profession at this time – how do we keep the social interaction in a virtual training programme? It is relatively easy to make the virtual training course engaging, but there is no denying that sitting in your own home in front of a laptop does not offer the opportunity for social interaction that attending a face-to-face training event offers. You automatically lose the coffee break conversations. You also lose all the totally off purpose conversations that take place in pairs and small groups (yes we all know that much of the discussion time diverts into gossip about the news or moans about the journey or room temperature or food – but this is all valuable bonding!).

The danger is that at the end of an engaging virtual training programme, your new recruits will be left totally isolated – not knowing any other volunteers or any other faces in your organisation – and this is very different from how things have been in the past, where they would have had chance to bond with other volunteers, trainers and others who helped with the housekeeping/ catering/ meeting and greeting. There is a very real risk of all the hard work that is put into training being wasted because of a high attrition rate as the volunteers feel like strangers and out of place in your organisation. This may well be exacerbated by social distancing rules which make it difficult to interact in the way we usually would.

So – the answer? Well firstly force social engagement. Make use of forums and make it a training requirement to comment on at least a couple. This gets the group interacting outside of the virtual classes. Seed the forums with good discussion points that are not about your organisation – perhaps ask for tips on ways to keep children occupied in these strange times – or advice on how to cut your own hair!

And mentor your new recruits. Make sure that there is someone who takes them under their wing, helps them transfer the learning into practice and shows them where the coffee is kept. Remember how deskilled and uncomfortable you have felt in the past then you have started a new job and not known the basics such as: do you need 9 for an outside line and where do people go at lunchtime? As I said at the beginning, paid staff ride this discomfort for the financial reward – volunteers may simply choose not to return.

In the past we may have overlooked the important role our induction and training courses had in bonding groups of new volunteers, introducing them to the surroundings they will be working in, and introducing them to faces they will come across when they are in their role. In the future we need to be very mindful of this and ensure we plug the gaps that remote learning and social distancing leave.

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Nigel Ross is an L&D Professional specialising in the voluntary sector. For over 17 years he was responsible for the volunteer learning function at Samaritans. Since leaving that post he has established a consultancy and has worked with major charities both in the UK and overseas.