What do volunteers do?

Joni Browne worked at NCVO’s Institute for Volunteering Research until December 2014. Joni has now left NCVO but her posts have been kept here for reference.

People normally associate ‘volunteering’ with practical tasks – in the 2008/09 DCLG Citizenship Survey, four of the top five most popular activities for formal volunteers were practical tasks, such as organising events and providing transport/driving.

The Children’s Society’s (TCS) have published the findings of our evaluation of volunteering in two of their ‘My Place’ youth clubs in Birmingham and Coventry which work with young migrants. In this report we describe what the volunteers did, and we found that they often inhabit a number of roles and offer a variety of skills.


…lend a hand

When we asked staff and volunteers what volunteers do, participants usually described the practical tasks, such as setting-up and cleaning venues, buying food and teaching beneficiaries how to cook. These activities were functional and had clearly defined, tangible outcomes. As volunteers performed these ‘behind-the-scenes’ tasks, this freed up staff time so that they could focus on providing expert advice and guidance to young people.

…lend an ear

Often volunteers provided emotional support to the young people, whether through listening and offering advice or through simply showing care by just physically being there week after week. Seemingly small gestures, like remembering the names of the young people and asking them how they were doing, held significant importance to many of those who attended the youth clubs. Also, what seemed like simple functional tasks carried out by volunteers sometimes held more meaning than they immediately appeared to. For example, cooking and eating together was not just about ensuring beneficiaries had a nutritious meal, but it was also about showing kindness and sharing an experience.

Our research supported findings in Dr Lea Esterhuizen and Dr Tanya Murphy’s longitudinal study and the Refugee Council’s 2011 report on promoting and supporting the educational and recreational needs of refugee children. Lending an ear (in the form of befriending and mentoring) can have a long-term positive impact on young refugees by improving their confidence, as well as helping them to integrate successfully into a new culture.

…lend a voice

Our findings support existing research that has shown that mentors of young refugees gain a lot from their experience: volunteering is a ‘two-way process’.

In the case of the youth clubs, volunteers learnt about the issues facing young migrants, and often became a ‘mouthpiece’, championing their cause to others. For example, volunteers often tried to educate those around them about young migrants, and many recommended volunteering at the clubs to others.

…but volunteers can’t do everything.

We found that some volunteers were willing and able to take on extra responsibilities and were interested in other flexible opportunities which might take place outside of the youth club sessions. Good volunteer management will ensure that the expectations and needs of volunteers continue to be met, and that the skills, interests and passion of volunteers are used to their maximum potential.

The majority of volunteers did not have the specialist skills, knowledge and experience that staff had in dealing with vulnerable young migrants. Also, not all volunteers were willing or able to take on extra duties either because they were time-pressed or because they did not want the responsibility, instead preferring that staff retain overall accountability for the young people and youth clubs.

Want to find out more?

This has been a quick overview of the role that volunteers have in the two youth clubs we evaluated on behalf of TCS. For more information and detail on the ‘added-value’ of volunteers and the benefits and challenges of volunteering in youth clubs, we invite you to check out the report.

What’s your experience?

Do your volunteers lend their hands, ears and voices or do they do something different or additional?  As always, we’d love to hear your comments about how these findings apply to you and your organisation/cause.

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