Nobody puts the volunteer in the corner

Integrate, adopt and inform – a strategic approach to managing volunteering for long-term success

For charity organisations, volunteers can be complicated. Fresh faced and enthusiastic, each new cohort needs training and dedicated time given by an employee – time and dedication that most NGOs would rather spend on achieving goals and hitting targets. It’s a difficult dance between the value of the volunteer and the limited resources of the charity, but with a subtle shift in step and move to the left, NGOs can change how they approach volunteers and the value they get out of their engagements.

“Look at volunteering through a different lens – one that recognises how volunteers can introduce fresh perspectives, ideas and skill sets into the organisation that will help expand impact and reach into the community,” says Mary Lant, Marketing & International Fundraising Manager at Lesedi la Batho. “It’s a mutually beneficial experience – if volunteering is integrated strategically, it can deliver real value.”

Lesedi la Batho has developed a detailed plan that outlines specific areas of the business where volunteers can provide meaningful contributions that deliver ongoing value. The strategy provides volunteers with clear channels of collaboration that allow for them to leverage their existing skillsets to provide the company with services and support that are relevant and focused. The approach has meant that volunteers step into their roles easily and with minimal disruption and that Lesedi la Batho continues to achieve measurable results. 

Which begs the question – how?

“In our earlier years, volunteering was highly skilled people who came from various countries and stayed with us for a few months to help us grow as an organisation,” says Lant. “Not all the experiences were good, but many were. Then we started working with forgood and using this platform helped us to learn more about the strategy behind working with volunteers and made us rethink how we approached volunteering as a whole. The reality is that volunteers take time and training and we don’t have time for that, nobody does.”

It’s the reality of the industry. Volunteers are wonderful, but they’re also hard work. They can add value, but that value can take a while to surface. To shift this dynamic, Lant offers up best practice as developed by Lesedi la Batho through its collaboration with forgood, volunteers and corporates.

Find the sweet spots. Where can volunteers plug into the organisation and make a real impact right from the start? Instead of being a poverty tour guide, provide volunteers with a space that empowers them as much as it empowers the organisation. It ensures that contributions are used purposefully and that work is consistent and that they are adding value.

“Connecting with forgood was an important first step for us as it allowed us to become more strategic and focused,” says Lant. “It’s important to ensure, right from the start, that a volunteer is a good fit for the organisation, and vice versa. Our approach is to seek out skills based on volunteering and corporate environments are fantastic for that – we collaborate for positive change based on how well we fit from the start.”

Show the impact. Volunteers want to know how their work, skills and approaches can drive positive and tangible change, so give them the opportunity to see what the organisation is doing and to visualise where they will plug in.

“While we are strategic, we try to remain flexible and allow volunteers to use their own voices and design priorities that can fill gaps that we hadn’t seen before,” says Lant. “We give them a sense of autonomy in terms of how they are supporting the organisation so they don’t feel stifled.”

Open channels of communication. It is important that both corporate brand and volunteer have visibility into the work being done, and the opportunities that exist. This can be achieved in multiple ways, but for Lesedi la Batho it meant creating a dedicated role for someone who directs and supervises the volunteers.

“This person is there for volunteer conversations, and helps them to understand how they can add value,” says Lant. “From the volunteer perspective, they have access to someone they feel comfortable with and who makes sure that they don’t feel like a cog in some machine. There are open lines of communication and this smooths out the process significantly.”

Build long-term relationships that deliver ongoing value. The obvious benefit of adopting a strategic and immersive volunteer approach is that the service and input provided by volunteers is transformed. Relationships last longer and often people are compelled to stay involved for longer, and this has the knock-on impact of reducing time spent on training.

“We socialise with our volunteers and try to make the experience more enjoyable – to show corporates how indispensable they are to our work,” says Lant. “We know that they are invaluable to us, so we make an effort to recognise and appreciate their contributions.”

Be clear on policies and processes. It can be complex to welcome a volunteer into a space where, for example, the organisation works with vulnerable people. To minimise disruption and streamline processes, be clear on policies and culture. 

“Include cultural tips and advice in the onboarding process and make sure that volunteers have access to documentation that outlines everything they need to know from the outset,” says Lant. 

Don’t expect it to be magic. 

“Sometimes you’ll put in the work and it won’t be a meaningful experience, so don’t expect every experience to be meaningful” says Lant. “Manage the flow of the volunteer process carefully, put a volunteer strategy in place, and develop a system that reduces volunteer complexities. That way, you’re always evolving your approaches so it doesn’t become a burden.”

There is value in volunteering for the corporate, too.

There is immense potential in the volunteering landscape to change corporate mindsets, broaden perspectives and step outside into different environments. It can inspire and transform, it can connect people more effectively, and it can have a positive, long-term impact on corporate culture. 

“When people come together for positive change and are accountable for embedding this change, they become more aware of others and more involved and engaged,” concludes Lant. “It’s worth being creative in your volunteer approaches and to engage with corporates creatively, because the positive impact can be felt both ways.”

Over the past year, Lesedi la Batho has tackled the pandemic’s impact on volunteering by going even deeper into digital, using the forgood platform and alternative volunteering strategies to keep people involved and engaged. The organisation’s 2021 Volunteer Strategy takes the lessons learned in 2020 and translates them into opportunities, using a focused approach to continue getting the right results from its volunteer programme.

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