With funding on the decline and demand for services increasing, offering a compelling employee experience could help to bring in more volunteers to charities – emulating the enthusiasm seen during the peak of the pandemic.
It was a terrible period where people were simply trying to survive (and in too many tragic cases, did not), but one positive during the bleak peak of the Covid-19 pandemic was how many demonstrated altruism in the face of catastrophe.
There was a greater sense of community spirit, the likes of which had not been seen since WWII – and it is not a stretch to make such a grandiose comparison, since this was another type of war, one fought against a victim that was invisible until it struck. The vaccine rollout saw many medical professionals coming out of retirement, and non-medical professionals volunteered in their thousands to support the vaccine programme. A survey by Royal Volunteers found that 88% of people volunteered during that period because they were responding to a national crisis; meanwhile, 64% wanted to support the NHS and 72% wanted to support their local community.
Those peak pandemic times were, of course, tough for charities too, with many unable to gather the donations that are their bloodline, even if there were great examples of adaptability, such as trading online for the first time when shops had to close or taking their services to people who could no longer come out for them.
But there's since been a downward trend of volunteers. Pro Bono Economics, which helps charities and social enterprises understand their costs and improve their impact, reports that “hours given have petered downwards”. And not only that, as soon as we moved out of one tragedy and restrictions were lifted (all the while acknowledging that the coronavirus has not disappeared altogether), it seems that we landed almost immediately in another, with the cost-of-living crisis.
The change in national sentiment post-pandemic
So why hasn’t our current predicament inspired the same level of volunteering as we saw during 2020 and 2021?
The pandemic with it brought sense of urgency, a sense of everyone being in the same boat, equal. It was a fight. And a fight brings people together, in this case on a national scale, against a mutual enemy. Wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, crossing the street when someone was approaching (with a polite nod of acquiescence) … all these were little blows against the enemy.
With the pandemic, we all faced it equally from that first day. In contrast, the cost-of-living crisis is more dependent on circumstances, in terms of income and personal situation, or even whether you have a fixed energy tariff that doesn’t yet feel the effect of the universal price rises.
The fight will come to everyone eventually; even the hitherto secure middle classes are starting to feel the effects of inflationary pressure. It's just a matter of time; but meanwhile, there are still the haves and the have nots. But with a virus, although some people are more vulnerable, we are all in the same boat – or submarine, to stretch the war metaphor further. With Covid-19, there were deaths of the healthy the young, the ‘strong’, from day one.
Improving the experience to encourage more volunteers
One thing that charities might consider exploring to boost their volunteering numbers is providing a really compelling employee (volunteer) experience.
Factors to consider that are already being prioritised by forward-thinking businesses can include making sure that your people are being listened to and that their wellbeing is a priority; taking any feedback and acting on it; being sure that leaders are properly trained; having the right technology in place and making best use of it; and fostering strong collaboration between all colleagues.
And what if charities could remove some of the barriers to volunteer recruitment? As anyone who has ever helped out a charity will know, it’s not much different to getting a paid job. You answer an advert, you have an interview, you discuss terms (when you can work, is travel paid for, and so on). There may be background checks taken, risks assessed, references checked. Certainly you cannot simply turn up, offering to lend a helping hand.
Clearly, there must be a vetting process. Clearly, CRB checks are not voluntary, even for a volunteer. But is there a way of streamlining these hurdles? Making the recruitment process and the onboarding smoother for the volunteer? Because much in the same way that a charity donor is the same as a customer, a charity volunteer is the same as an employee – and has to be treated with the same consideration.
Volunteers are precious to charities. There will always be people who want to help, but no matter how good their intentions, we are all under enormous pressure right now and the strain may cut our capacity to give up our time. By improving the volunteer experience, charities can give themselves a better chance of keeping their people happy – and keeping their organisation going.