It’s easy to forget how things were before the pandemic hit in early 2020: hospitals and allied care were able to utilise the essential work of volunteers, easing up both menial and skilled work so that healthcare workers and professionals had less on their plates.
But that has changed. Even now, volunteer programs are largely unable to return to full steam as health concerns stay stagnant regarding various COVID-19 strains and immunocompromised volunteers, clients and patients. The Australian Government is making strides towards re-engaging social support volunteers for residential aged care facilities, but we’re yet to see how well the program works (AGDH, 2022).
However, we at Ausmed like to be prepared. This is why we’ve put together a helpful guide about how to rejuvenate your volunteer program in the wake of the debilitating lockdowns.
Who are you looking for?
Screening and selecting volunteers is often viewed as an afterthought in the industry: there are roles that need to be filled and there are people waiting for support, so why would you thoroughly screen anyone?
Mainly, to protect the integrity, reputation and efficacy of your organisation. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link – ideally you still want to make your weakest link a strong member of the team. This extends to volunteers as well.
So, now that you need to screen people, what kind of people do you want? At a base level, you should look for people who have an understanding of your organisation’s function. Does your organisation source and donate kid's toys to paediatric wards? If so, you might want someone who has experience with kids to be delivering them to the wards and playing with the kids. They should also be an enthusiastic and charismatic person to be fundraising for the acquisition of the toys.
This being said, there should always be room for people who have not had a chance to develop or refine their skills yet. Young adults and teenagers make great learners, and are also one of the few groups of volunteers who will (somehow) find a way to have fun while sorting thousands of toys into hundreds of crates.
How can you harness the motivation of your recruits?
Once you’ve recruited a stellar group of volunteers, you need to get them hyped up for the work ahead.
There are a few things you can do to channel their motivations into functional productivity for your organisation:
Give mindful assignments: there’s no use in putting someone interested in X into a position where they’ll only be doing Y. To avoid wasting engagement and potential, make sure you’re listening to people when they tell you what they’re interested in.
Take them on a broad orientation: though each person needs a specific role, giving someone a more general overview of the organisation is incredibly effective in keeping people engaged. People can see what other positions are on offer within the organisation and will be motivated to set goals to move towards them in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s the nature of volunteer work for people to become involved very quickly and then slowly taper down until eventually they’re not present at all. How do you combat this?
What do you do if your organisation has a culture of short-lived volunteer life cycles?
Volunteer managers can feel helpless in the face of gradual disinterest. While it can feel natural or inescapable, there are definitely avenues to take if you want to retain your volunteers and use their skills for as long as possible.
If you’re churning volunteers on a consistent basis – or even just faster than you’d like – that is symptomatic of an ill-structured or flat structure. There are two things you can do here:
Create a feedback loop: here at Ausmed, we feel as though we’re constantly banging on about the magical and mystical healing powers of feedback loops. However, there’s good reason for this! Feedback loops create an opportunity for staff and volunteers to provide feedback on their working experience. The main benefit, however, is that the staff population are empowered to discuss what they’re not happy with, work together to find solutions, and present these solutions to an open-minded management team.
Foster upward mobility: when someone sees no future in what they’re doing, they’re unlikely to fully engage. When someone sees a bright and varied future, however, they are reinvigorated and committed.
In the 21st century, people not only want to work for organisations that they appreciate but organisations that they’re proud of. In terms of volunteering organisations, this increases tenfold. What can you do to create and foster an energising and inspiring workplace that your volunteers can be proud of?
Foster and celebrate inclusivity
Staff, whether paid or volunteer, thrive in a space where they know their opinions and presence are welcome. In particular, volunteer positions are often physical in nature. This means it’s integral that you go out of your way to create positions for people of all ages and abilities to engage with your organisation.
If you’re not sure where to start, there are some great resources to be found regarding Australian volunteering regulations and innovations. We’ve listed them below (if you’re not in Australia, don’t worry – the principles are still relevant!):
Volunteering Resource Hub – Virtual or Remote Volunteering: this resource explains the importance of varied working conditions. While this whole article is aimed at the return of in-person volunteering, there will still be people who are immunocompromised who will not be able to return to life as readily as others. Providing virtual and remote volunteering opportunities, including administrative roles and outbound fundraising roles, is a great way to make your organisation more inclusive to a post-pandemic community.
So, you’ve done all of this… what now?
In most cases, organisations and their management teams have to wait a while for these institutional changes to actually make a notable effect. In the meantime, it’s a great idea to check that your tracking metrics are giving you the data that you need. How many people visit your volunteer page but don’t click through? How often do people use your ‘Send us an email if you have an enquiry!’ option? Make sure these are working as hard for you as your volunteers are.
Another great idea is to create connections with other volunteering organisations or departments. If you have an excess of volunteers who want to work in a specific area, maybe you could refer them to another organisation (and visa versa) so their skills are not wasted. This relationship will go both ways, and will cement solidarity as we all transition to post-pandemic way of working (which is bound to be a bit hectic!). An added benefit of this is that, should your organisation not have the space or adaptive capabilities to take on someone with a certain disability, you can contact your network and find a space for them and their skills in another organisation.
When life returns to a functional level outside of everyone’s homes, volunteering will hopefully be close behind. Make sure your organisation is prepared for onboarding and re-training volunteers who may not have been able to work for over 2 years, and use this time to optimise your volunteering offering for both people looking to donate their time and skills as well as patients and clients on the receiving end of your work.