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Event Volunteering: Lessons from Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA)

Event Volunteering: Lessons from Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA)

Wales Council for Voluntary Action

Spirit funded WCVA to run the Volunteering Spirit Wales project from 2015-17. The aim was to identify, design and consolidate best practice in event volunteering into a digital toolkit for organisations throughout Wales, and beyond. The Toolkit aims to ease the administrative burden of event organisers, combining event-management and volunteer-management best practice.  

Six pilot projects trialled new processes and systems to find out what worked. Helen Spedding, Spirit grant manager for the project, selects golden nuggets from the projects.  

1. Invest time upfront in deciding whether volunteer management software is right for you. 

There are several off-the-shelf options available, but you’ll need to plan for software development time for these or for a more bespoke version.  For The Outdoor Partnership (TOP), bilingual software was essential: local recruitment drives had meant that by 2014, 86% of their volunteers were Welsh-speaking. Moving to an online system was a culture change for staff and many existing volunteers were reluctant to change to the new system. The process took longer than expected. As such, they recommend determining if investing time and resources to set up and embed a new system will bring sufficient benefits further down the line. If so, then allow time to make the transition and communicate it, including benefits, to staff, partners and volunteers, with a transition period.     

2. Identify what diversifying your volunteer pool looks like in your context 

WCVA’s baseline survey suggested that 80% of the events organisations in Wales relied on an existing pool of regular volunteers when recruiting for one-off events. Clearly this has some advantages, as the volunteers are trained and know the event. However, it can place heavy demands on a small pool of individuals, and solely advertising to this group means you are missing out on a much larger cohort who either do not want, or have not yet considered, a regular commitment.  The Urdd Eisteddfod is a touring festival celebrating the Welsh language through competition and performance. 15,000 young people take part in the national finals, with almost 50,000 involved in regional competitions before that.  In previous years, volunteers had been recruited solely through word of mouth, but the team used their pilot project to open up to new audiences.  An important new audience for them was volunteers not (yet) fluent in Welsh, and purposeful recruitment of those learning the language helped to diversify their pool. Pre-existing volunteers acted as team leaders to new recruits - a welcomed development opportunity for the old hands, and valuable support for those starting out.  For the Mental Health Arts Festival, diversifying the volunteer pool meant living the festival values, ensuring there was a safe and welcoming environment for volunteers with mental health problems. A partnership approach is recommended; working with Voluntary Arts Wales helped them reach out to people who might not otherwise have volunteered.

diversifying the volunteer pool meant living the festival values, ensuring there was a safe and welcoming environment for volunteers with mental health problems.

3. Use your understanding of volunteer motivations to set your rewards 

Several of the pilot organisations started out with the premise that volunteers would like to log their volunteering hours, and use them to work towards official recognition schemes. However, although a small number of volunteers asked for references, the majority of volunteers were not seeking to log volunteer hours. This system is perhaps less applicable for event volunteers than a regular commitment that would build up over time. Feedback to St. Fagan’s Food Festival at the National Museum of History showed that they were at a disadvantage because some prospective volunteers were motivated by getting free tickets to events, whereas their event was free to all. They were able to mitigate this with other perks such as a goody bag and discounted access to future exhibitions.  Other feedback suggested that an understanding of how big events worked ‘behind the scenes’ was an important motivator, whilst ‘giving something back’ was the most important. Volunteers did not all recognise that the museum itself was a charity, and so taking part in the research enabled St Fagan’s to emphasis this when thanking the volunteer team. Run4Wales were able to secure sponsorship to recognise their volunteers in a variety of ways: from branded uniforms, to a celebration event and thank you video

4. Dedicate proper time and support for young volunteers to reflect on the skills they have gained.

Leading youth volunteering charity, Step up to Serve, stresses that meaningful social action means that participants should recognise the double benefit of what they’re doing – not just how they’re helping others, but how that helps them too. The Disability Sport Wales pilot focused on how they could support young people, many of whom had learning disabilities, to recognise and articulate the skills they gained from volunteering. Their Volunteer Scorecard, co-produced by the young participants, encouraged reflection and helped develop a sense of achievement. The team also developed Guidance and an Easy Read version. The team believes that the cards will lead to more volunteering, as well as support young people to describe their experiences when applying for jobs.

5. Set aside the time to review your policies and practice – small changes can go a long way

One of the key strengths of Volunteering Spirit Wales, noted in the external evaluation, was that it prompted reflective practice, and provided a forum for sharing those ideas. This occurred in numerous small ways throughout Volunteering Spirit Wales: discussions about in what ways event volunteering might be different to regular volunteering identifies gaps in safeguarding and health and safety policies, reflecting on how disabled volunteers could better participate led to improvements in the briefing of all volunteers, creating or refreshing volunteer role descriptors led to widening the variety of opportunities on offer. Volunteering is becoming an increasingly important strategic resource within Wales and the wider UK, so a little time to consider what you’re doing well, and how you can do better is well worth the investment.