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Best Practice in Supporting Community Helpers

By: Lynne Conner - Updated: 30 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Volunteer Strategy Wellbeing Training

Whether you are running a community project or are a community helper yourself here are some useful guidelines on best practice in supporting community helpers. Helpers donate their valuable time, skills and energy for free so it is important to look after their wellbeing, provide appropriate training and ensure that they feel valued.

Create an Overview of how you will Manage Volunteers

An overview helps you in planning your volunteer strategy. Identify the areas where volunteers are needed and outline exactly who will manage them and what you need helpers to do.

Volunteers need training and support to be effective and your overview can include how you will provide this. Consider what rewards and benefits you will offer such as refunding travel costs, relevant discounts, the chance to gain qualifications or an annual meal. How will you ensure the health and safety of volunteers?

Having a clear picture of what is needed, the key issues, who will undertake which tasks and how your strategy will work puts you in control. It also ensures that your team of staff and volunteers will work well together for the success of the project.

Create Clear ‘Job Descriptions’ for each Role

This is a helpful document to discuss with new volunteers as it makes it clear what their role will entail. It also allows you to be clear about what exactly you are looking for and helps to avoid any future misunderstandings. Think about including both a specification of the role and any particular skills, experience or personal qualities you are looking for. Where relevant you will also want to specify the need for references or a police background check.

Be careful to emphasise the voluntary nature of the role. The law around volunteering is not always clear and you need take steps to ensure that a volunteer is not legally viewed as an employee. Clear written specifications help everyone to be aware of where they stand.

Role descriptions can also be a useful marketing and information tool to display on your website or other literature. They help to sell your project and give potential volunteers a good idea of what helping you will involve.

Don’t Place Obligations on Volunteers

As volunteers are not employees you cannot insist that they perform tasks. Far better (and friendlier) to make a polite request. A community helper is quite within their rights to refuse. Also, if you are a community helper you cannot be told that you must work a certain number of hours or shifts in order to receive a benefit such as further training.

However an organisation can of course simply ask you to stop volunteering if they feel you are unreliable or cannot meet their requirements.

The volunteer/project relationship is a delicate one. The emphasis is on informality. Goodwill, common sense and flexibility on both sides is the key to a successful community helper partnership.

Value and Support your Team

It is important to motivate your volunteers. Don’t take them for granted. When they begin take some time for a personal chat and give them a basic induction. Ensure they get to meet key people and give them an understanding of what your project is all about and how it is run. Not only will this help them in their role remember they will act as your ambassadors too. The more informed they are and the more valued they feel the better the word of mouth publicity you will gain.

Put in place relevant training and take into account the fact that different people benefit from different paces and styles of learning. Treat your helpers as individuals. Where possible, make provision to be as inclusive as possible. Make sure that you have an equal opportunities policy and take steps to remove barriers which may prevent certain groups from getting involved.

Particularly where the work is sensitive or emotionally demanding make sure volunteers have access to a manager or mentor for support. Arrange regular meetings and take time to discuss progress and to get feedback on how volunteers feel they are doing and their experience of the project. Where possible arrange continuing training opportunities and keep volunteers in the loop about news and events.

Arrange adequate insurance and make sure that there is good health and safety provision in place. Share benefits and rewards with your volunteers as a thank you for their time and efforts. Even a simple “thank you” can go a long way in encouraging your team.

Remember that it is one thing to recruit helpers but another to retain them. Continue to invest in them because not only will this make them feel appreciated and enhance their volunteering experience but you will also be developing the biggest asset an organisation can have, its people.

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