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Supporting the volunteer journey

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South Derbyshire Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) shares how it learned to maximise the volunteers’ potential through developing effective support structures.

Background

As a Volunteer Centre, we recruit and place volunteers with a lot of different organisations.  Usually our role is that of a broker – we advertise volunteer opportunities, support volunteers to make an informed choice about where to offer their time, and then pass them on to the organisation of their choosing.  This project has been very different.

We have worked with 3 care homes, all new to volunteer engagement.  As well as recruiting volunteers our role has been about building their skills and confidence to involve volunteers effectively.  We have also had direct involvement in the preparation, training and support of volunteers. 

A useful model for thinking about this is the volunteer journey described in Kathy Gaskin’s A Choice Blend*, which identifies 4 stages along the path, from:

  • Non-volunteer (a person who is outside volunteering, and may have attitudes, characteristics or circumstances which keep them a non-volunteer); to
  • Starter (has shown an initial interest by making an enquiry or application); to
  • Doer (HAS committed to being a volunteer and begun volunteering); to
  • Stayer (someone who persists as a long term volunteer). 

The role of good volunteer management is to help people progress through the four stages. 

Gaskin also identifies a number of ‘pressure points’ at which a potential volunteer may be lost from this journey, which are the transitions between these stages.  For example, if a ‘Starter’ finds the application process long winded or unwelcoming they may decide not to go any further.

Usually the Volunteer Centre’s role is to progress people from Non-volunteer to Starter.  However for this project we are also directly involved in the second transition from Starter to Doer – and to some extent, supporting volunteers to move from Doer to Stayer.  Getting the right relationship between us, the care homes and the volunteer is key to the success of this process.

*Gaskin, Kathy A Choice Blend: What volunteers want from organisations and management (Institute for Volunteering Research, 2003)

The issues we faced

Focusing on the volunteer’s transition from initial expression of interest (Starter) to active volunteer (Doer) several issues arise:

  • Discrepancies between the volunteer’s expectations of the care home setting, residents and volunteering and the reality.  Some volunteers found this more daunting than we had anticipated – for example many of the residents are seriously affected by dementia which affects the kind of relationship they are able to have with a volunteer. Others were surprised at how unsupervised their role was.
  • The effectiveness of training and induction in preparing volunteers for their role.  The project’s expectation was that care home staff would make time to prepare and support volunteers within the care home.  However this was a new role for most of the care home staff and most of them were already very busy.  Staff in the homes work different rotas and shift patterns so those on duty on any given day may not be aware of how experienced or confident a volunteer was, whether they’ve had an induction - or may not even be clear who the volunteers are.
  • The timing and availability of the training and induction sessions.  These were not always in times or venues convenient to individual volunteers.  Sometimes there was a wait between a volunteer making an application and completing their training. This led to frustrating delays in getting started.
  • The diverse needs of different volunteers.  Some volunteers have enough confidence or experience to go straight into the care home and get going. Others need more support initially to get started.  It was a challenge for busy care home staff to appreciate and meet these different needs.

The actions we took

 

 

The Volunteer Centre staff invested time in getting to know each volunteer and build a relationship, so that we properly understood their needs and any concerns.   The Volunteer Coordinator spends 1:1 time with each new volunteer so that they can ask questions, are invited to express any concerns and are reassured of the support available to them.  She also attends the volunteers’ training and accompanies new volunteers on their first visit, so that they go into a new setting (a daunting experience for some people) with someone they know.

 

In some cases we arranged for new volunteers to shadow a more experienced volunteer who acted as a ‘buddy’ in the early stages.

While it is probably not realistic for the timing of training to meet every volunteer’s needs, we are now moving towards planning and organising training locally which will allow greater flexibility.

As our understanding of the care home setting grows, we are able to encourage volunteers to have realistic expectations and provide appropriate preparation.  For example, encouraging them to start off with quite short visits and gradually build up how much time they spend there, so that they don’t become overwhelmed. We also offer Dementia Friends sessions to all volunteers.

There has also been a process of building the volunteer management skills and understanding of care home staff to ensure there is a good transition from being ‘Volunteer Centre volunteers’ to properly belonging to the care home.  Often this has been about quite small things that don’t take up a lot of time.  For example, welcoming volunteers on arrival, saying ‘thank you’.  Also, realising that it helps if they suggest to volunteers who they might want to spend particular time with that day, making sure volunteers are briefed about individual residents’ history, interests and needs.  One care home has a short description of each resident’s interests and past on the door of their room; another has this information in a folder which volunteers can read.

Similarly, the care homes’ engagement with volunteers and making them feel a valued part of the team is important.  One care home has regular volunteer meetings where a manager and volunteers spend time together.  Another has a noticeboard with the volunteers’ photos and roles so residents, staff, relatives and other volunteers understand who they are and why they are there. Another has invited volunteers to go on outings with residents and staff.

Positive outcomes

The training delivered has gone well and provides a really good grounding of knowledge and skills.  The training materials have been developed and adapted as the project progresses to make sure that they are relevant and effective.

Our relationship with the care home managers and staff has been fruitful on both sides.  We have had a lot to learn about the reality of their world and setting (new to us), and they are really taking on board the importance of good volunteer management.  This will put all of us in good stead as we move towards a gradual handover of the volunteer management role to the care homes.

Negative outcomes

In retrospect, it would have been good to have spent more time at the start of the project to build relationships with the care homes, getting to know their environment, clarifying expectations on both sides, and making sure all staff understood what volunteers need. 


For example, one of our very first volunteers made an immediate impact, engaging with residents and creating some very imaginative activities for them to participate in.  However the care home staff had no prior experience of managing volunteers and some of the simple things (saying ‘hello’ to volunteers when they turned up, helping the volunteers engage with residents, saying ‘thank you’) were overlooked.

Sadly, although he enjoyed the time spent with residents, this volunteer became discouraged and withdrew from the project.  We learned a great deal from this experience as it shows how volunteers need to feel valued by the care home as well as enjoying the role itself.   Although volunteers gain a lot from the time they spend with the residents and it is clear to them how much the residents enjoy their visits it’s also important that the staff express this too. This has since been addressed with the new manager of the care home and we are seeing improvements in the way that the volunteers are supported. 

Another learning point for us is that care homes are busy places with a lot of different staff.  We have had several very capable and confident volunteers tell us that “It definitely needs to be self-driven as all are so busy with their workload and their time is precious - staff are lovely.” This was not a criticism of the Care Home staff, but a reflection of their real experience of volunteering in that setting. This is something that we have had to take on board in the role description and recruitment process.

Lessons learnt

Care home managers increasingly appreciate that an initial investment of time and support with the volunteers has real benefits in the long run.  The project has proven that where a volunteer is really committed, with the right support they do persist and continue. Not everyone is able to be a ‘self-starter’ however, and it’s important to make sure that those who need it are given the necessary support.

 

For example: We have been working with an individual who is very keen to volunteer but has not previously done so due to mental ill health.   The Coordinator talked with her about her condition, how it affects her, and how volunteering might help to build her confidence. She felt nervous about going forward, but the Co-ordinator reassured her that she would be supported the whole way through.

She completed the training course and induction and had regular contact with the volunteer co-ordinator who accompanied her to visit the Care Home where a member of staff showed them around.  During the visit it was good to see how the volunteer asked questions and became more confident.  The volunteer co-ordinator made sure that she knew who to ask for on her first visit and where to go to sign in and be given further direction. All of the staff were very welcoming and the volunteer was happy to realise that staff members were easily identifiable.

Afterwards they discussed how the visit had gone and the volunteer admitted she was still feeling nervous and worried about getting lost and not knowing what to do.  The Coordinator arranged for another volunteer to accompany her for the first few visits, until she feels confident and happy to go alone.

However we do also have to accept the limitations of what the care homes are able to offer to volunteers and what the role demands.  In another case, the care home setting did not provide the level of supervision support that a particular volunteer would need. In this case we arranged for him to volunteer in a Day Unit instead of the residential care home – this is a more structured environment where staff are always on hand to give support.

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Page last edited Aug 10, 2017

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