Supporting hands

A ruling this week by the UK’s Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO) has highlighted the importance to charities of supporting volunteers. The Alzheimers’ Society was taken to task for repeated failures in handling sensitive personal data, and could face prosecution. This strikes a chord with me, as my own parent was helped by an Alzheimers’ volunteer several years ago. Although dedicated and motivated, she was struggling with a mountain of paperwork and poor connectivity. She was woefully under-resourced, and at one point lost some papers. At the time, we assumed this was unusual; however from this case, and looking at growing bodies of research, it seems that a lack of support and sustainability is a common theme across the volunteer sector.

The value of volunteers

In a statement, the ICO Head of Enforcement Stephen Eckersley said:

“Volunteers form the cornerstone of many charities’ work and we all admire and appreciate their personal commitment and goodwill. They play an important role and must be given the support to handle personal data as safely as paid members of staff.

Volunteers can fall into a communication chasm between employees, who are embedded in the central organisation, and donors, who are the target of marketing campaigns and advertising. Because they are external to the core business, the natural day-to-day interactions of the workplace are missing. Assumptions about pervasive corporate culture that you can make about staff don’t apply to volunteers: they are in a different environment, isolated from development of group norms. Equally, linear communication channels such as email, or reliance on public social media, may deliver information but they don’t provide adequate peer support or a strong feedback loop.

Supporting volunteers through Community

We recently spoke to Dr Jennifer Hagan about sustainable volunteering: You can read more about our discussion here : How can a community approach support sustainable volunteering? Her research has identified significant difficulties in not only the recruitment but the long term retention of volunteers. If recruitment is already difficult, retaining skills in the organisation is paramount. Existing volunteers are hugely valuable and, as Stephen Eckersley says, should be supported.

Developing a volunteer community achieves several goals.

  • It helps to show volunteers that they are valued;
  • it allows a culture to develop within the community to mirror the central organisation;
  • it is a constant feedback mechanism.

In Dr Hagan’s research on Cultural Heritage and Tourism Volunteering, she concludes that “Organisations and their co-ordinators must have a long-term and more holistic view….. not only as a means to achieving sustainabilty, but as something which requires sustainability itself.”

Taking action

The Investing in Volunteers standard defines nine indicators of good volunteer management. Working towards the standard is a great way to review the support and communication strategies which will motivate and sustain your valuable personnel.

Ultimately, good communication in all directions, and organisation and peer support, are at the very heart of the challenge faced by charities such as the Alzheimers’ Society. Ambix, as a private community platform, can help to facilitate that essential communication and feedback. To find out more about using Ambix as a tool to develop good volunteer management practices, contact us for an initial consultation.


Reference: Hagan, J. (2014) ‘Sustainable Volunteering: Managing Volunteers in Cultural Heritage Attractions’. PhD Thesis submitted to Teesside University (copy provided directly by author).

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