The importance of supported volunteering

Part of NCVO’s International Volunteer Managers Day 2015 series.

Disabled people and others who need additional support are less likely to volunteer.  Only 35% of people with a disability or long-term limiting illness participate in formal volunteering, compared to 42% with no disability. Many people who require additional support are currently excluded from participating in volunteering due to barriers of access and lack of opportunities.

There are huge benefits to involving volunteers with additional needs for both the volunteer and the organisation. For the volunteer it can lead to new friendships, skills, enjoyment and confidence. With the right understanding, awareness and support from volunteer managers and organisations, those with additional needs can bring a broad and often unique range of skills and experience as committed volunteers.

But what key steps can an organisation take to develop an inclusive supported volunteering scheme?

Ongoing support – the value of volunteer managers

All volunteers need support, and for some people in particular a lack of support can be a significant barrier to volunteering. Volunteer managers play a crucial part at the beginning of a volunteer journey for those with additional needs, they will provide support through the recruitment and induction process as well as identify specific support needs.

However ongoing support for volunteers with additional needs is crucial – providing them with a point of contact and holding regular ‘catch-ups’. This will assist the volunteer manager in better understanding their needs, identifying personal development opportunities and providing a chance for recognition.

Some volunteers with additional needs may benefit from having a volunteer buddy.  Having a volunteer buddy system in place provides the individual with additional support, assisting and developing them in their role. Volunteer buddies can also be a welcome development opportunity for an experienced volunteer already in place.

A person centred approach

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Rather, it is about working with a person-centred attitude; considering the personal barriers faced by each individual involved and working through these with that person – putting in place reasonable adjustments to enable participation.

For example, is the venue or location where the volunteer role will be carried out accessible? Is the format of training or induction appropriate to the individual’s needs? Has appropriate transport for the individual been budgeted for?

A detailed and formal recruitment procedure could prove a barrier to people with additional needs, preventing them from applying. The forms provided and the language used during this process is very important.

For example, gathering initial information though an informal ‘chat’ rather than an ‘interview’ and application form would help collate the information required but also remove some of the barriers introduced by more traditional processes. Having a discussion early on in the process can also help to identify support needs so you can plan for reasonable adjustments in advance of the volunteer starting.

Produce accessible materials

Promotional material used for advertising volunteering opportunities should be made accessible to all and produced in a range of alternative formats. They should be clear and easy-to-read, in audio/video format, available in a larger font size, have background colours and pictures to support content/questions.

This would also be relevant to any materials provided to the volunteer – such as the role description, application form, handbook and induction/training materials. It is important to remember that not everyone has online access, so easy to read and audio/video formats are still important.

Organisations should also consider where people with additional needs might go to find out about the volunteering opportunities that are available to them and ensure that the advert contains clear and concise information about the organisation and the specific tasks/responsibilities of the volunteer, as well as the skills, experience and hours required for the role.

Invest in the programme

Inclusive volunteering is much easier to achieve if everyone in the organisation is committed to it. Organisations should provide adequate support and investment to provide all staff with the resources, skills and experience to involve people with additional needs in the organisation. This is particularly important for those who will be managing volunteers and liaising with organisations and staff to discuss the involvement of volunteers supporting their work.

Having an inclusive programme will increase the pool of potential volunteers. A more diverse group of volunteers will make a programme more sustainable, offer a wider range of skills, experience and perspectives, bring in new ideas and reflect the community.

However this kind of support is not free. Providing a supported volunteering scheme will require additional resources and time and that is why, in our manifesto, we called for a new Access to Volunteering fund to open up volunteering opportunities for more disabled people.


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Kathryn Harrington was NCVO’s volunteering development team assistant. She supported our work on volunteer management and good practice and supported the Investing in Volunteers Quality Standard.

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