Learning from Access to Volunteering

Philip MantomPhilip Mantom is director of fundraising and projects at Cherry Orchard Garden Services, a community interest company based in Staffordshire. This is the latest post in our manifesto series.

Cherry Orchard Garden Service (COGS) was lucky enough to be part of the Access to Volunteering (AtV) project in 2010, a government scheme to help voluntary organisations with the extra costs and expenses involved in engaging disabled volunteers. COGs is a community interest company based in Staffordshire, and as our members all have some degree of learning disability we felt we would be able to accommodate more volunteers through the scheme. In fact we occasionally struggled – but in the end we learned a lot about our own organisation as well as broadening our volunteer base. Making a success of AtV took time and effort, but ultimately that was paid forward into the lives of the volunteers.

That’s why we’re backing NCVO’s manifesto (PDF, 1.4MB) call for the government to create a new Access to Volunteering fund, to contribute to the additional costs incurred by participating organisations and make sure that more opportunities are created for disabled volunteers.

Why we found the Access to Volunteering fund so important

Volunteering isn’t free

No volunteering is free, but working with disabled volunteers takes extra time and resources which small organisations in particular may struggle to meet on their own. You need to be realistic about how much cost is involved in training and supporting each volunteer. One of the biggest drains on our budget was transport as taxis are often the preferred means of getting about, especially for adults with mobility or sensory problems.

You need to have a thorough induction

One of the mistakes we made was assuming that volunteers would get used to the office environment easily. In actual fact we often had to start from the very basics, such as the etiquette of office life, and then move on to processes, before we could get to the nuts and bolts of the role. Our volunteers had not been in a work environment before and were often unaware of the standards we expected.

Meeting your volunteers’ needs

The routines of AtV participants required them to volunteer for shorter lengths of time and have more breaks and opportunities to have their work checked. We found that volunteers took time to get used to the demands of a day in a way that non-disabled volunteers might take for granted. We also restructured some roles into mini-roles so that two or three volunteers could work together to complete one task – this was especially useful in the office where basic administration such as printing, data entry and filing was a team effort.

Creating a suitable location

Making sure that the volunteering environment is appropriate is a must, which can require investment of time and money. Be prepared to ask your volunteers what would help them and make reasonable changes straight away. As well as making sure you have accessible entryways and toilets think about smaller things, such as making sure post shelves are within reach, being extra tidy to keep gangways clear, and making sure that everyone is offered a cup of tea.

Finally… being there

This was more of a confidence issue, but we found that the volunteers who came to us through AtV needed a lot of support. Supervision and timely feedback are a must in building up the independence that volunteering can give, which means it’s important to have a volunteer manager or voluntary mentors. After the project finished one of our long-term volunteers divulged that he had spent time closely working with someone on the AtV project on how to use the printer/photocopier, which made us realise that for every three volunteers with support needs we should have had an extra pair of hands to support them. In retrospect this would have been an excellent volunteering opportunity in itself!

The AtV programme gave us an invaluable chance to improve our volunteering offer and help us integrate with the wider disabled community. The volunteers we worked with benefited immensely from the time and effort we put in and many of them moved towards a mainstream volunteering ability. However, the scheme does require time and effort and this needs investment, much more than we had initially anticipated. The next government should commit to building on this good work and making sure that no one is excluded from volunteering opportunities because of their ability.

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