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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Future-proofing your volunteer strategy from day one 

This opinion piece is 11 months old

Advice on making volunteering a success

It’s no secret that the recruitment of staff and volunteers is a vital part of a charity’s success, so getting this process right from the very beginning is vital.

But, as the pandemic and cost of living crisis have demonstrated, circumstances can change quickly so it’s important to consider how your needs may change and ensure your strategy is as future-proofed as possible. 

The NCVO Time Well Spent 2023 report recently revealed that the number of adults involved in regular volunteering had decreased by just under a third between 2020 and 2022. While having a lack of time and other outside pressures were given as contributing factors, as many as one in 10 reported that they reduced their volunteering activity due to being unhappy with the way their group was managed or organised. 

Given the amount of time and resources that a new recruitment drive takes to get going, it’s vital to make sure that it’s effective - and that means ensuring a good conversion rate. Having a swift recruitment process, and making it as easy as your compliance requirements allow, will help prevent applicants from dropping out. 

For charities considering reviewing their volunteer recruitment, it’s always worth going back to the basic building blocks. Making sure everything is thought through and planned may take a little more work now but will save headaches further down the line. 

Creating clear roles 

As charities grow, it's not uncommon for new, ad hoc volunteer roles to be created to fill new needs as they arise. In the short term, plugging a gap with a specific role can be of great help, but before long it can lead to lots of disparate roles, which makes future recruitment harder. Both staff and volunteers may end up feeling unsure about where each role's responsibilities start and stop. 

Taking the time to clearly define roles or merging different responsibilities under one more general role helps both permanent staff and applicants to know what each one will entail. This clarity helps prospective volunteers know what their tasks will be and what would be expected of them, as well as the time commitment.  

In a recent Assemble report, we discussed the importance of making volunteer opportunities attractive and accessible through the way you advertise them. While you might ask a potential volunteer what qualifications they have, soft skills are often just as important, if not more so. Unless specific skills are required, such as driving or photography, look at how personality traits such as empathy, enthusiasm and a can-do attitude will add value to your organisation. 

For more and more roles, lived experience is more important than almost anything else - but having too many other requirements could lead to potential applicants ruling themselves out. 

Clarity is a key part of creating a great ad for vacancies. If someone is interested in your organisation and wants to get involved, but is presented with a confusing description of what they’re signing up for, it’s less likely they’ll complete the application or induction process. You don’t want them to be surprised by the reality, compared with how the role was described. 

Similarly, volunteer managers will have a clearer idea of which resources to direct the volunteers towards, and what training they’ll need for their roles. Clarity in the role description could even affect whether or not vetting is required.  

Making sure you get the right data 

Gathering together all the right data is a key part of the recruitment and application process. For a larger charity, they may find that, over the years, volunteer information has been stored in many different legacy systems with varying levels of detail - meaning some important information has been missed. 

When consolidating data into one system it can seem like a lot of work to begin with, but it is a good way to establish a best practice model. This, in turn, will help to improve the recruitment process. All your data in one place is the best way to avoid duplicated work, losing paperwork, or applicants falling between the cracks going forward - and importantly, you can rest assured that personal information is stored safely and securely, in line with GDPR. 

Standardising to create a better volunteer experience 

Updating or installing a volunteer management system (VMS) is a good chance to review current applicant processes and check which elements could be cut down, or removed entirely - especially if some only exist to compensate for issues that existed within a previous system. 

Often I advise charities to break down current processes into flow charts. Visualising how they work is a good way to spot redundant steps in any process and can save massive amounts of time down the line. Even if it’s taking a six point process down to five, this can really add up over the days and weeks - not to mention it means volunteers can get stuck in sooner, which will improve their volunteering experience. 

Future-proofing works 

We began working with the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in February 2020. Previously, volunteer recruitment and management was performed internally by the Scottish SPCA’s human resources department - which was responsible for more than 100 volunteers and using mostly manual processes. 

When Assemble was introduced, amid national lockdowns and a real shake-up to how charities were operating, we worked to get the bulk of their data on the system and volunteers engaged with the software. Once we did this, it quickly became clear that volunteers felt more connected.  

By capitalising on regular updates, news and social media content, which was all available through the VMS, volunteers were also able to get a broader picture of the charity. That encouraged them to explore and they continued applying for other opportunities and roles within the organisation. 

Since then, the volunteer headcount has grown significantly - from around 100 to more than 700, and the Scottish SPCA’s volunteer management team is growing too. We’re proud of this partnership, and it highlights that taking the steps to future-proof volunteer recruitment really works. 

Whether it’s to encourage and accommodate volunteer growth, get data organised for smoother applicant processes, or to help a charity thrive during unpredictable situations such as a pandemic or recession, using the best tools should be a part of an organisation’s strategies to ensure it is futureproofing its volunteer recruitment whilst retaining and developing its existing volunteers. 

To learn more about how to future-proof volunteer recruitment, visit:  

Wendy Halley is associate product manager at volunteer management system Assemble.