Four key challenges I faced in year one as a volunteer manager

Joel Rackham

Joel Rackham is volunteer engagement manager at Muscular Dystrophy UK, a national charity which involves around 500 volunteers in a variety of roles.

I’m the first person in the role as volunteer engagement manager at Muscular Dystrophy UK (MDUK), a national charity with a rich 60 year history. We have roughly 500 volunteers who do a variety of roles, from supporting fundraising efforts, to supporting others, and advising our work and campaigns.

At the end of my first year, I reflect on some of the successes and challenges faced in the past 12 months.

Understanding the volunteers and organisation

Having been employed by MDUK for three years already, I had a head start. However, some of my assumptions were still incorrect; my background was running a peer support programme and it was really useful to spend time speaking to staff and volunteers across the charity. This was important to learn about what they do and how their volunteering supports the overall strategy.

The number of volunteers, demographics and budget are all important. But it was understanding volunteers’ motivation to participate, their expectations of the charity and what they wanted to achieve that was more useful. This helped to pinpoint where we needed to improve and develop as a charity.

Engaging the right people

Mapping stakeholders can be very complicated, so I initially made sure I’d engaged three broad groups: volunteers, staff and decision-makers.

We created a steering group consisting of volunteers with a variety of experience, including trustee representation. This group provided a direct insight into what’s needed for volunteers.

It was also incredibly important for me to engage staff. Some have worked with volunteers for over 20 years and their experience brings great value. They’re also the people to enact change. Confirming everyone understands the changes being made and has had a chance to feed into meaningful discussion meant more long term success is likely.

I was also keen to speak to senior management and provide regular volunteering updates to outline the progression of our plans.

Making system change

Following through with change is a long term challenge. But working alongside the groups above gives a quick indication of some of the things that can be improved. Ensuring a co-designed approach means people understand the change and see benefit in what we do.

We’ve worked with our digital team to restructure our website, increasing volunteer applications by over 300%. We’ve reworked our volunteer policy to ensure our volunteers are supported with the right checks and training. We’ve also created our first volunteers handbook which has been distributed to over 200 people.

Communicating the message and creating a strategy

Work for this begins on day one to ensure the message is clear and concise – even if it simplifies some of the content. It’s essential to getting people on board. Don’t presume people understand everything you’re aiming to do. I invested time meeting individuals one-on-one and presenting at staff meetings simply to get the message out.

I joined the NCVO Volunteer Strategy Group in March 2019, and this professional support has been invaluable in my first year. I’m now working to co-produce a strategy document to launch in 2020. This’ll represent a clear direction for volunteering and a commitment to our volunteers for the years moving forward.

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