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The one thing that has surprised me in the eight years that I have been running a Volunteer Centre is how difficult it can be to volunteer.  Many organisations are crying out for volunteers but often a person’s path to volunteering does not run smoothly.  


It is not unusual for us to hear stories of people who have applied to volunteer for organisations but have never heard back.  This leads me to wonder whether because they are giving their time for free we are not truly valuing it.


Many voluntary organisations will say: of course we value our volunteers! and that is no doubt true for your existing volunteer team but spare a thought for the people who offer to volunteer for you.  Do you really value their offer and their time? And do you demonstrate that you value their offer of giving their time by responding in a timely manner to their application?  


It is the recruitment process that often seems to go wrong and, unlike paid work where people will carry on through economic necessity to look for a job, if they don’t hear back about an application the prospective volunteer who has a bad experience will quite possible decide that they just won’t bother.  They tried to volunteer, they weren’t wanted so what’s the point?  We then lose that person (and quite possibly their friends and acquaintances) to volunteering for good.


Paid staff vs volunteer recruitment

Compare what happens with the recruitment of paid staff to the way volunteers are often recruited:  An organisation will usually pay to place a job advert, they will have a closing date and a plan on how to deal with prospective applicants within a set timeframe.  People who are interviewed will be told if they aren’t successful and when the job is filled the company will stop advertising for that post.   Because the recruitment process costs money and the person recruited will need to be paid due care is taken over the process.


Compare that to what frequently appears to happen with the volunteer recruitment process:

It is free to advertise for volunteers in the Volunteer Centre but because there is no salary and you are relying on finding someone with the available time to spare it will take a lot longer to get applications so there probably won’t be a closing date.   And, because there is no closing date and no fee for advertising, organisations frequently forget they are advertising for volunteers. They then don’t take the advert down when they no longer want a volunteer for the role.  


I think there are very few companies who once they had recruited a paid member of staff would then carry on advertising for that post and just ignore people who applied.  But that happens frequently in the volunteering world.  This difference must surely come down to placing a different value on a paid-for service than on a free one.  If it’s free you can post your advert then forget about it and then if you don’t need a volunteer when they apply, don’t respond to them because their time isn’t worth anything.


These are some of the reasons we’ve been given when we’ve reminded organisations that they have volunteer applicants waiting who they haven’t got back to:


“Oh we’re moving offices soon so we’re not sure we still need volunteers in Guildford anymore.”

But they hadn’t told the person that had applied to them they weren’t needed.


“We don’t need women volunteers any more, its men we’re short of.”

But they hadn’t contacted the women applicants to convey this message to them


“I only work part-time”

Perhaps the answer here is to a recruit a volunteer to help you!


Volunteers are waiting

At the time of writing we have 280 applicants waiting to hear back from the organisations that they have applied to; 250 of them have been waiting for more than two weeks, 185 for longer than six weeks which probably means they won’t volunteer for that organisation as they will have lost interest.  This represents applications to just over 100 different organisations.


Picking applications at random I see:

  • a post-graduate studying finance

  • an IT expert

  • a student keen to get work experience in health and social care

  • someone with a good admin background and experienced in working with people with mental health issues

  • an experienced volunteer doing a masters degree


I could go on. These are people with fantastic skills and excellent educational levels, they appear to be just the type of people that are needed but yet no-one has responded to them.


I know that voluntary organisations' resources are stretched and everyone is very busy.

Many of you will volunteer yourselves and still more of you will have stories about people who said they would volunteer and haven’t turned up or have changed their minds and proved unreliable but these applications are from people who have declared their willingness to give their time for free so even if they do turn out not to be suitable for your organisation please give some of your time and make sure you:

  • Respond promptly to everyone who applies to volunteer with you

  • Don’t advertise for volunteer roles that you don’t need

  • Don’t lose  a volunteer: If a prospective volunteer turns out to be unsuitable for your role suggest they contact the Volunteer Centre and we can help them find something that does suit them


If you don’t have the time or resources to do these things then is it reasonable to ask people to volunteer for you?

A volunteer’s time is free but not second-rate

by Carol Dunnett, Chief Officer, Voluntary Action South West Surrey