Volunteering and the general election

Another election, another surprise. No doubt, the result will be pored over by journalists, pollsters and academics for years to come – discussing how turnout, demographics, regional trends and more contributed to the final result.

Did the different ground-operations of political parties affect the outcome? Some have suggested so. In particular, Labour’s ability to mobilise large numbers of volunteers to canvass and get the vote out is being seen by some as a decisive factor.

Whether this had any great effect on the election outcome is debatable, but it is clear that political parties were able to mobilise large numbers of volunteers. With charities needing to think about more flexible forms of volunteering, what can charities and volunteer managers learn from the election?

Flexible opportunities

National data shows that lack of time due to work or home commitments is the number one barrier to volunteering in the UK. Canvassing is a great example of providing opportunities that fit in with peoples’ lifestyles.

Doorstep canvassing sessions typically run during workdays, evenings and weekends. Volunteers can simply turn up and commit as little or as much time as they like. Often, no training is needed. First-timers can simply turn up and learn from pairing up with a more experienced canvasser.

Increasingly, people can also ‘micro-volunteer’ from home. Canvassing from home was apparently a key tool used by the Conservative party in 2015 and for the ‘Back Boris’ London Mayoral campaign in 2012. Labour also set up a home-canvassing app this year.

Many charities are already using similar techniques in their attempt to provide ‘bite-size’ micro-volunteering opportunities from home, such as the Age UK telephone befriending service.

NCVO provides guidance to help you think through how to develop and manage micro volunteering.

Using technology

In this election, accessibility has also been bolstered by good uses of technology.

Most parties now have web pages which allow volunteers to easily express their availability and areas of interest. The Green Party page is a particularly good example of a straightforward way to make applying for volunteering quick and easy.

Parties also explored new ways of using technology. The Labour campaign group Momentum for example used My Nearest Marginal, which allowed volunteers to input their postcode to find campaigning sessions in nearby marginal seats. The aim of this was to help volunteers who lived near safe seats to identify other areas where they could get out and volunteer.

Momentum also used a carpooling app for the February by-elections to help volunteers across the country attend sessions in Stoke and Copeland. Volunteers have even used their tinder profiles to encourage voter registration and to canvass.

Of course, many charities also use technology in innovative ways to assist with flexible volunteering. One particular example I was shown earlier this year was the GoodSAM app, which alerts off-duty medical professionals and first-aiders if someone is having a cardiac arrest in their vicinity. Volunteers can also upload information about public defibrillators.

Technology can be particularly effective at reaching young people and after a significant increase in engagement from young people at this election, there may be scope for channelling some of this new energy into volunteering and social action.

However, new technology may not be right for every charity. It’s also important to remember that some people are excluded from technology, with digital exclusion becoming another concerning measure of disadvantage. Charities should consider resources, target audience and inclusivity when thinking of how to deploy technology.

A clear call to action

Above all, elections show how effective having a clear call to action can be. By their very nature, they are time-limited campaigns, with clear aims and intended outcomes and are therefore fantastic opportunities to mobilise volunteers.

All parties worked to get this message across. The Conservative party called for people to ‘help us make a stronger, fairer Britain’. The Labour party produced videos explaining the importance and accessibility of canvassing. The Lib Dems and SNP used the now obligatory candidate-volunteer selfies to good effect.

Charities can attract volunteers through simple, compelling messaging like this, especially when working on a campaign or event. Explaining clearly how important volunteers are to your mission and how each contribution can have a big impact can be hugely effective. Also, don’t forget to thank them in person and publicly! During Volunteers’ Week we saw lots of great examples of this in action.


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Up until July 2018, Will supported NCVO’s policy work on volunteering development. His interests include the role of volunteering in public services and removing barriers to youth volunteering. He produced the monthly volunteering round-up blog and supported Volunteers’ Week.

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