Helping refugees to volunteer

Before I joined NCVO I was volunteer coordinator for NCVO member the Evelyn Oldfield Unit. Evelyn Oldfield was a refugee from Sierra Leone who became a grants officer for the Trust for London’s grant programme, she worked closely with London’s refugee communities.

In her memory, Trust for London set up the Evelyn Oldfield Unit in 1994 to offer capacity building, and advice and opportunities for partnership working for refugees and migrant organisations.

At that time there was no pan-London refugee organisation. What was and continues to be great about the Evelyn Oldfield Unit is that their board is refugee and migrant-led. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, however all the trustees have a refugee and/or migrant background and this means that they better understand the refugee perspective.

How you can help refugees to volunteer

At the Evelyn Oldfield Unit I was responsible for a Big Lottery funded programme that aimed to help refugees and migrants to volunteer; I learned a lot from the volunteers about the specific barriers which impede their participation.

If you are part of a mainstream organisation and want to help refugees and migrants to volunteer, here are some pointers for you.

Make it easy for people to register their interests

Refugees have gone, and may be going, through traumatic and difficult circumstances. The last thing they need is yet another form to fill in, with formal language that may smack of officialdom.

Partner people with others they get along with

Volunteering together is fun and a way for people who may suffer isolation to make friends.

Demonstrate trust

Offer volunteer roles that make use of existing skills and develop leadership, so that trust is recognised.

Draw on your creativity and emotional intelligence to develop others

Build a volunteering programme with volunteers, to make a haven of good practice and virtuous values. I created volunteer roles in consultation with refugees and sought to include people who wanted to volunteer with the Evelyn Oldfield Unit. I did not quiz them about motives, but focused on the quality of the role and developing reciprocal relationships.

Make volunteer expense claim forms visible and available

Remember that people may feel uneasy about asking for their expenses and simply not assert this request. Yet it could be the difference of going without food.

Make time to talk to volunteers

Help them access the financial or emotional support they need to settle. There are lots of fantastic refugee-led organisations but they are often beneath the radar and have no online presence. The Evelyn Oldfield Unit is in contact with many of them.

Dignify the volunteer journey

Extend the hand of friendship to someone who is rebuilding their life; this does not mean over-stepping boundaries. Dignify the volunteer journey by showing an interest in where your volunteers are from and what has brought them to volunteer. Help them get the best out of the experience.

Use your organisational policies

Create a culture of fairness and recourse within the organisation and between all people; staff and volunteers. Encourage your volunteers to reflect on the policies and what they mean for them.

Address damaging behaviours

Acknowledge language or behaviours that may be discriminatory, exclusionary or elitist.
These are always good chances to open a dialogue about what guides this thinking and to question our own beliefs and values, as well as feeling confident to question others.

Refugees and asylum seekers can volunteer!

Refugee Action led a successful campaign in 2014 called Right to Volunteer. NCVO is working with the Home Office, so we may update our guidance around immigration status, visas and volunteering. NCVO member Voluntary Action Sheffield has helpful guidance on how to involve refugees and people claiming asylum in volunteering.

I loved working in the refugee sector, surrounded by volunteers from countries I have never visited and some places I had never heard of. It was like a microcosm of the whole world.

The refugee sector may be impoverished in terms of funding, and experiencing a burgeoning need for services; yet I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such richness in the volunteers and trustees I had the privilege of working with.


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Avatar photo Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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