2020 has seen charities make widespread changes to the way they operate. What does this mean for volunteering?
COVID-19 has changed everything for charities. From fundraising to service delivery, every area of charity operations has been disrupted. Necessity is the mother of invention, and for many charities, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for digital transformation, as organisations have been forced to find innovative digital solutions in order to continue providing their vital services.
Perhaps no area of charity operations has been transformed quite as dramatically as the way we work. Advances in remote working technology have allowed many charity workers to continue their roles from home. And so we have switched commutes for coffee-makers, braved the perils of the Zoom meeting, and set up shop in bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens.
As we’ve adjusted to remote working, forward-thinking charity leaders have begun looking to the future - as we imagine what the charity workforce will look like in years to come. This has been the subject of much discussion in the sector. But most of the focus has been on full-time, salaried employees.
One of the key differences between charities and corporate organisations is the importance of volunteers in the workforce. Volunteers are the lifeblood of many organisations - particularly small or local charities who face tighter budgetary restrictions than their larger and more affluent counterparts.
“Over a third (36%) of people volunteered formally (ie with a group, club or organisation) at least once in 2018/19. This gives an estimate of 19.4 million people who formally volunteered during that year.”
- Data from the NCVO
With a large portion of the UK now experiencing tighter restrictions, volunteers will have to take their important work into the digital realm. For many organisations, this foray into digital volunteering will mark another first.
So will this new state of affairs change the face of charity volunteering? Or is it merely an acceleration of existing trends?
Skills-based volunteering allows qualified professionals to work for charities on a pro bono basis.
In some fields, this has been a longstanding practice. Lawyers may undertake unpaid public defender work, or work on behalf of a charitable organisation or legal defence fund. Medical practitioners may sit on the board of trustees for a charity dealing with a specific disease or condition, so as to offer expert advice and guide decision-making.
Skills-based volunteering offers unique benefits when it comes to charity digital operations. Many small charities may struggle to pay full-time staff or freelance contractors to perform specialised digital tasks. It can be difficult to find the money to pay someone with the necessary skills.
This leads to longer-term consequences: if charities do not have digital professionals helping to guide decision-making, then those organisations are likely to fall further behind the curve in the future.
Organisations that lack the resources to hire digital professionals can benefit from skills-based volunteering, as long as one or more of their supporters has the requisite digital skills and is happy to volunteer their time and expertise.
The challenge facing charities lies in how to remove the barriers to skills-based volunteering. One of the easiest ways for charities to do this is to offer opportunities for remote volunteering.
With remote working becoming normalised among both charities and the wider public, there will be greater opportunities for digital volunteering now and in the future.
Whilst remote working does have its drawbacks, it can make volunteering much more accessible.
We’ve previously explored how remote working offers unique benefits to the charity sector. A lot of these benefits extend to volunteers. By allowing people to volunteer remotely, charities can appeal to a wider talent pool - rather than restricting their search to people available in the local area between the hours of 9 and 5.
Recent figures suggest that only 13% of working parents want to return to the ‘old normal.’ The option of digital volunteering could help charities attract key talent - particularly in digital roles.
With the ‘furlonteer’ initiative picking up steam among those unable to work during the pandemic, there has never been a better time for charities to benefit from skills-based volunteering.
“Quality flexible working can help organisations attract talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty, reduce absenteeism, and improve well-being; it can also make businesses more responsive to change.”
Ella Smillie, Head of Policy and Campaigns for the Fawcett Society, says that ”There are also clear benefits to employers - offering flexible working...creates a stronger, loyal and more diverse workforce, which pays dividends.”
One of these dividends can be an increase in the recruitment of skilled volunteers.
A volunteering arrangement should work in two ways. The charity will benefit from the skills of the volunteer. But the volunteer should also have the opportunity to grow in the role.
In the current financial climate, there are a number of reasons why people may look at skills-based volunteering as an option to suit their professional development.
It can be difficult to explain a gap in a CV during a job interview. This is particularly true of digital roles, where things move quickly. If you’re not keeping up-to-date with the latest developments and sharpening your skills with the latest tech then this may be a red flag to interviewers.
Volunteering can help to fill this gap, whilst also giving candidates a canvas to showcase their skills. Digital volunteers may find that they have greater autonomy in their new role and can better showcase their abilities than in a more restrained corporate set-up - giving them a better shop window for their skills.
A high number of people in the UK are either unemployed or on furlough. Skills-based volunteering can offer them a lot in this difficult time. Many people will want to help in a time of crisis, but traditional volunteering excludes those with limited mobility or other underlying health conditions, who may need to continue to shield or self-isolate. Skills-based volunteering will allow them to make a valuable contribution.