Solving the top 5 challenges of onboarding and motivating the volunteer workforce
Sue Lingard Cezanne HR

Writes Sue Lingard, Director at Cezanne HR

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many UK charities and not-for-profits. According to the Community Life Survey, volunteers donate over 2 billion hours of their time each year – equivalent to 1.25 full-time employees.

However, research suggests that volunteer engagement is harder to build, and loyalty harder to retain. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find new and better ways to onboard and engage your volunteers – the opportunity is to break down the barriers that are getting in the way so your whole organisation can be more effective.

1. Paperwork

For most not-for-profits, taking on volunteers has more than its fair share of associated – and often essential – paperwork. It’s critical that this doesn’t bog down either yourselves or your volunteers. Everyone hates being asked to provide the same information in triplicate, or wasting hours chasing down missing forms – or turning up on the first day to be told you can’t actually do anything because an essential check has not been completed.

Mapping out your new joiner process can help minimise the risk. What information do you need to collect for each volunteer, how do you get it and who needs to be involved? Once you’ve got to grips with the process, finding onboarding tools that can help you streamline the collection of the relevant documents and data are worth their weight in gold.

2. Training

Providing effective, timely and appropriate training will make the difference between a frustrated volunteer and one that’s more productive and more satisfied. For over-stretched charities, there is a temptation to devolve training responsibility to local staff. That can work, but it can also backfire. Not everyone is a natural mentor, and local staff may not have the time, or experience, to provide an appropriate level of support.

A number of organisations provide online training that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg and can help volunteers get up to speed in their own time.

3. Commitment

Life often gets in the way of good intentions, so building volunteer commitment from the get-go is critical. A good onboarding process that builds emotional connections – and makes every individual volunteer feel part of a team – can make all the difference. 

Qualitive research by The Involve Foundation found that participation was fostered by the availability of places to meet, collaborate and share thinking.

Look for volunteers that are great at making connections, and buddy them up with the new starters. Mix in permanent staff and create opportunities for them to meet up – either face to face or online.  Having a forum where they can share ideas, or just keep in touch means that even if they don’t see each other face to face, they can still feel part of your community.

4. Feedback

Everyone wants to know they are making a difference and volunteers – who are giving up their time for free – deserve it more than most. Finding the time to make this happen can be challenging – it’s too easy for important events, or opportunities, to get overlooked. HR systems can act as a virtual assistant, giving a nudge, for example, when an anniversary is coming up, or providing a forum where staff can give each other kudos.

Performance check-ins, where volunteers have the chance to share experiences and ask for guidance, can be invaluable, too. They provide the opportunity for volunteers to have their voices heard and, supported by the right technology, can be easy to set up and manage.

5. Time

Time is the most important resource you and your volunteers have. So, finding ways to save it – to cut down on manual administration and work smarter together – will have an immediate impact on the work you do.

Digital HR solutions that centralise data, automate manual processes and provide easy but secure self-service access, remove unnecessary admin overheads and help processes flow more smoothly. 

And, while the charity sector has had a reputation for lagging behind in the adoption of digital tools, our experience suggests that when it comes to HR, they are catching up fast.

The availability of sophisticated but cost-effective Cloud-first HR systems is providing HR teams with the opportunity to revolutionise their back-office processes – and engage with employees and volunteers in a way that is much more rewarding and satisfying for everyone involved.