People power

Every school knows the value of volunteers, but you may feel you're asking too much. Flip your thinking, says Lindsey Marsh, and view volunteering as an opportunity for supporters to connect and feel good

According to the 2019 survey ‘Time Well Spent’, conducted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, two in five adults in the UK volunteer annually. The most common benefits they reported were enjoyment (93%), a sense of personal achievement (90%), and feeling that they made a difference (90%).

The economic value of volunteering – from working in a charity shop to becoming a school governor – is approximately £23.9bn, with clear links to improved mental health and wellbeing, says The UK Civil Society Almanac 2020.

So, perhaps it’s time for schools to rethink their approach and begin to create a culture of volunteering, where supporters benefit from working on longer-term projects and initiatives. Volunteers give their time and talents for free – a generous gift for schools struggling with tight budgets. Whether parents, carers, students, alumni or the wider community (retired, employed, unemployed), many people come with expertise, drive and passion. They can help you fundraise, provide services for free or bring new perspectives. With the right kind of nurturing and motivation, they might even lighten your workload and help deliver a wider range of goals more quickly.

Understanding why people volunteer

This is the first step in developing a volunteering culture at your school. Volunteers often talk about their desire to ‘make a difference’, but they may also want to utilise their skills or gain new experiences, connect and network with people, and improve their career prospects. Parents and carers want to help enrich the educational environment and opportunities for their children.

Some individuals also sign up as part of a school, college or workplace programme. Certainly, evidence from the NHS states that volunteering makes people happier and healthier, giving them a purpose and creating feelings of self-worth and belonging.

The gains

The most common way that volunteers support schools is, of course, through organising fundraising events and activities, primarily through PTAs or Friends’ groups. But volunteers may also be able to help with online income generation by spreading the word about fundraising across their own networks.

They could nominate your cause for help through their workplace, or assist with researching grant funders. They could offer enrichment activities beyond the usual (and invaluable) helping with school trips and clubs, notably by giving talks, running workshops and providing pupil mentoring.

School ambassador programmes are another way to engage support and gain visibility for your school. Volunteer ambassadors can represent your school, champion your cause, help raise funds on your behalf and give talks to your local community. They can widen your donor streams and share your messages, campaigns, fundraisers and opportunities on social media.

Recruitment

Start by knowing what kind of people and specific skillsets you’re looking for. Clearly, particular roles will require DBS checks. Creating a database of key individuals with whom you regularly work could be infinitely more useful and manageable than developing a larger, ad hoc one.

Contact current and past supporters already on your radar, and gradually develop your network (according to current data protection guidelines). People often feel privileged to be asked, and if they can’t help, they may know someone who can. You can also publicise opportunities across your school communication channels, send a press release to your local newspaper, and post vacancies via your local volunteer centre.

Additional options:

  • Research local employee-supported volunteering schemes.
  • Discover UK volunteering opportunities at do-it.org.
  • Research initiatives that place volunteers in schools. For example, Coram Beanstalk for volunteer reader helpers (org.uk) and Code Club (codeclub.org) for volunteers to run after-school computer coding sessions.
  • Look at the LinkedIn volunteer marketplace at linkedin.com/volunteer-marketplace.
  • Check out Reach Volunteering – its endorsement can encourage further support: org.uk/.

'With the right kind of nurturing and motivation, volunteers might lighten your workload and help deliver a wider range of goals more quickly.'

How to keep your volunteers on board

To retain good volunteers, you need to support, motivate and empower them. Make sure you cover any relevant practicalities, such as safeguarding, induction and training. Match skillsets to jobs: for instance, someone with design skills will be invaluable if you need help putting together newsletters and flyers, while a volunteer with experience in marketing can promote events and campaigns.

To give a sense of direction and challenge to a volunteer taking on a longer-term role, you could agree on SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based) goals together. Make sure that you provide ongoing support, regular supervision and guidance. You may even be able to suggest career development opportunities. Work out what tools and resources are needed for the volunteer to maximise their impact and to also have a positive experience. If you’re employing a volunteer fundraiser, for example, you could organise a mentor, and give them a volunteer pack, a best practice guide and a subscription to FundEd

Make sure you thank volunteers regularly and give them positive feedback to make them feel appreciated. Thank you messages from staff and pupils are particularly powerful. Also thank any employers or tutors that have supported the placement. Send cards or share stories across your network of the difference volunteers have made. Consider setting up a recognition and reward system for when volunteers reach certain milestones and goals. You could also develop a ‘volunteer of the month’ programme or an annual appreciation event.

Finally, remember that your school is in a strong position to uncover hidden talents and empower people to grow as they help you. Working more closely with your supporters demonstrates true community spirit and illustrates a commitment to lifelong learning.