6. What are the key issues and learnings?

This section explores the key issues and challenges relating to diversity and volunteering experienced by organisations – as well as learnings to take forward for staff and organisational leaders.

The findings from this section come mainly from workshop data and to a lesser extent data from interviews and digital forms.

6.1 Setting the context

As we have seen in the previous section, organisations are at different stages of their journeys related to diversity. Most felt there was still more to be done and some have only just begun. In this section, we explore the lessons learned about diversity and volunteering, starting with internal issues and ending with external ones. Many of these areas are, of course, linked but we have separated them out for ease of analysis.

These are explored in turn, as below:

For each of these areas, we look at the issues and challenges as well as lessons learned from organisations, based on what participants told us about what has worked well and what more could to be done.

Diversity in volunteering cannot be fully achieved without taking a holistic approach as an organisation, which is why some of the sections below focus more on actions within the organisation as a whole while others explicitly focus on volunteering.

6.2 Organisational culture

What are the key challenges?

One of the most overarching barriers to greater diversity in volunteering identified by organisations across the research relates to organisational culture and values, and how these shape practices and behaviours within organisations. This was, for example, mentioned in the context of anti-racism and in light of campaigning by #CharitySoWhite which highlighted a range of issues within the voluntary sector (eg paternalism, colonialism). One interviewee noted the importance of not reinforcing these ideas:

Volunteering for some charities can feel like reinforcing colonial behaviours and attitudes: eg being complicit with white saviourism, reinforcing the global north’s position and undermining the global south, all the ills of voluntourism (eg white middle class people going to poorer countries and building wells or schools instead of allowing people in those countries to do this).

(Expert interview)

Diversity is not always valued, prioritised or strategically embedded throughout organisations.

Many organisations we spoke to were looking at their internal culture and how to address imbalances of power between stakeholders by doing less ‘to’ and more ‘with’ service users, such as through involving volunteers with lived experience (sometimes known as experts by experience). There were some common features in organisations with these imbalances of power, many of which are at the start of their diversity journey. These common traits included:

  • a general lack of prioritisation of diversity and inclusion often accompanied by numerous reasons or excuses about why this had not been the case
  • actions undertaken on a more individual basis (by those who were passionate about it), rather than being organisationally driven or embedded within the organisation, including having little volunteer input – which resulted in inconsistencies within the organisation
  • actions taken that tended to not be strategically driven but more ad hoc and did not progress very far
  • a lack of confidence in how to talk about diversity and inclusion or a fear of offending and of doing it ‘wrong’.

One respondent commented that some organisations saw diversity as an ‘add-on’ or ‘nice to have’, which meant that it couldn’t be embedded. Other respondents reflected that it was more difficult to shift culture in larger organisations or those which have been in existence for a long time.

As a large, established organisation, any change is difficult to embed and relies on cultural shifts and change management processes.

(Inclusion Project Manager, youth organisation)

It was also noted that decision-making sometimes takes place in exclusive spaces. This makes change harder to happen and negatively impacts diversity:

Volunteering to be on a board can be difficult as some decisions are made outside of meetings; dinners, coffee catch ups, gallery openings or other white and exclusionary spaces that BAME board members either aren’t invited to or don’t want to be at. Board decision-making power should remain within board processes.

(Expert interview)

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing organisational culture challenges in the following ways:

  • Being honest and authentic: organisations felt that a positive ‘first step’ for many organisations in changing organisational and volunteer culture was to be honest about where they are at, coupled with a genuine willingness to change.
  • Creating a direction and embedding it: organisations considered it was important to make diversity a priority at a strategic level (see also section on leadership) and to develop clear objectives in this area, supported by formal processes such as training and inductions for all (to address inconsistencies). Organisations also felt that inclusion needed to be embedded as part of the volunteering culture, whether it be through its values, having internal networks for specific groups, or getting involved in cultural celebrations.

We need to embed equity into organisations culture. This is why having people in positions of power for a long time can be unhelpful – they are too embedded in old culture to want real change and can be defensive when trying to approach EDI in an equitable way.

(Founder, BAME organisation)

Embedding inclusion in the organisation and volunteering in multiple ways builds common understanding and shared values across the organisation.

  • Valuing the small steps: while spearheading activities at an organisational level was perceived as necessary, it was also highlighted that progress could be made at both a micro and macro level. Organisations recognised that it was often not a quick process to embed these sorts of changes and that small steps could sometimes make a big difference. It is also important to have concrete and achievable smaller targets. One organisation, for example, talked about adding preferred pronouns to emails and having rainbow lanyards, and while these are small actions, they help to make progress towards being a more inclusive organisation.
  • Engaging volunteers on the journey: organisations suggested that an important way of embedding inclusion and diversity, and making it authentic, was to include and engage volunteers themselves on the journey. This could be done in various ways whether through getting specific feedback (eg via focus groups, panels or exit interviews), including volunteers in training and strategic meetings, or having platforms for honest conversations and the sharing of meaningful experiences (eg case studies, photos or real-life stories). Organisations also felt it was important that volunteers understand the impact they potentially have on each other, service users and the organisation as a whole.
  • Evaluate cultural practice: organisations noted the importance of internal reviews about how volunteers are celebrated and how volunteering is valued throughout the organisation. Alongside this should be an analysis of the benefits volunteers receive from volunteering in addition to what they contribute. Volunteer managers should be encouraged and supported to evaluate the volunteer sub-culture within the organisation, which may have both positive and negative aspects.
  • Address structural and systemic discrimination: organisations felt it was ultimately beneficial to take an honest look internally and work to tackle and redress any issues that are structural or systemic within their own organisations. This included understanding the ways that organisations might be reproducing colonial or oppressive structures (such as having a ‘saviour’ approach to service users rather than a peer-to-peer approach) and working to shift the balance of power and take a more equity centred approach. This links to external issues related to branding and images used as well as internal attitudes of governing bodies and volunteer managers, and power dynamics between paid staff and volunteers.

6.3 Leadership

What are the key challenges?

Organisations commonly thought that a key aspect which determined whether diversity was valued and flourishing within volunteering was how it was perceived by the leaders within the organisation, if there was diverse representation at that level and if action was being taken at a strategic level to make the organisation more diverse and to prioritise inclusion. This applied to staff at senior levels as well as the governing body, who were perceived as being critically important from a strategic and governance point of view.

[Our challenge is] persuading some trustees and executive staff that trustee recruitment is worth the investment.

(CEO, governance charity)

Without doubt organisational leaders are under immense pressure, especially in the current climate, and there will always be challenges related to competing priorities and resources. However, where there is a lack of interest, buy-in, representation or action regarding diversity at senior leadership levels, it was seen as being very difficult for it to be practically embedded within volunteering or throughout the organisation.

If governing bodies and senior staff embrace diversity, it is more likely to be prioritised, resourced, and embedded.

Where senior level buy-in was in place, organisations were much more likely to be successful in creating inclusion and increasing diversity within volunteering.

There is a need to be diverse at all levels of organisations: you can’t just have diverse volunteers if trustee boards, management and staff are not diverse.

(Director, BAME organisation)

Organisations also noted that some decision-makers (such as CEOs or board members) may not realise that diversity is an issue (or should be a priority) in their organisation if they do not have any lived experience of oppression or have never felt discriminated against. Participants cited examples of leaders whom they knew this was an issue for.

In addition to the need for buy-in from senior staff members, organisations see diversity among leaders themselves as a way to reflect its priorities and values. When it came to diversity among the governing body, a particular barrier that was cited was recruitment methods. These roles are not always advertised openly but instead are often recruited through personal networks or word of mouth, which increases the likelihood of attracting the same type of people and leads to boards that lack diversity.

Organisations highlighted a current trend towards the recruitment of younger trustees, as there was acknowledgement that many governing bodies are often composed of older people.

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Committing to a ‘whole organisation’ approach to diversity: rather than taking a ‘siloed’ approach, organisations felt it was important to take a holistic approach to embedding inclusion within organisations, and making sure that volunteering is included within wider organisational efforts towards diversity.
  • Developing a strategic direction and dedicated roles: where organisations had achieved progress in increasing diversity, there was a tendency to have in place a strategy underpinning activity in this area. Having a more strategic approach was felt to help address issues specific to the organisation, with resource targeted in these areas. This created an organisation-wide approach and meant it was less individually driven, with senior leadership supporting changes from the top but with actions and responsibilities dispersed across the organisation. Some felt that organisations also benefited from staff expertise (preferably at a senior level) dedicated to driving diversity and inclusion within the organisation. This was seen to avoid activities being done in isolation and to create a ‘golden thread’ that ran through the organisation as a whole, linking activities together, including volunteering – so that it was part of, rather than excluded from, wider organisational plans in this area.
  • Highlighting the benefits to the organisation: for those organisations who considered that a lack of buy-in at a senior level was an issue, some believed more could be done to create an appetite for it by clearly articulating the benefits of increasing diversity in the organisation, backed up by evidence where relevant. Organisations also felt that it was important to specify how actions could be taken forward, which were not necessarily costly or significant, but could still be effective.
  • Diversity training and increasing awareness for leadership: some organisations felt that more could be done to create greater awareness and knowledge around diversity among senior staff and governing bodies specifically. While this was not common in practice, some organisations talked about including diversity within the scope of board training (making sure that not just legal responsibilities were covered but also their duties in this area). Other examples suggested an away day for senior level staff and trustees with independent EDI consultants to address these issues with experts (budget permitting) or people with lived experience. As well as formal methods, other suggestions included informal methods such as through learning groups, to support raising awareness and knowledge of these issues.
  • Increased support from national networks: organisations suggested that there was a role for national networks and infrastructure bodies such as ACEVO and NCVO to play in helping to challenge the voluntary sector, particularly senior leaders, to question as a critical friend and to support as needed, such as through training or networking events.
  • More diverse recruitment for governing bodies: when it came specifically to addressing the issue of the lack of diversity among boards, respondents felt that it was important to use appropriate recruitment methods and an inclusive process to build governing bodies that reflect either the community served or the local area. This included recruiting people with different backgrounds and skills. Some suggested that longer term planning in recruitment could support this, for example re-advertising if not getting suitable applicants.

6.4 Capacity and resources

What are the key challenges?

An overall barrier that cut across all areas (and many believed it to be the cause of some of these issues) was a lack of capacity and resources. This has been exacerbated during the covid-19 pandemic, where resources have been even further stretched. Organisations spoke about diversity not being a priority (this may relate either to volunteering or more widely) and not being able to invest the time and resource required to make changes, which meant that progress could not happen. There were also practical barriers created, such as not being able to pay expenses.

Low levels of staff capacity and shrinking financial resources can be a barrier for implementing diversity but creating an inclusive volunteer environment does not have to be costly.

Some organisations felt that the lack of staff and resources was particularly acute within volunteer programmes and opportunities that are sometimes seen as an add-on and often not given the support needed within organisational structures. Where there is a paid volunteer management role, it is often only part-time. In other cases, the responsibility for volunteer management is distributed across multiple roles and teams. In both instances, this can mean that diversity happens in a more ad hoc manner.

[Our challenge is] staff capacity to make it a priority, to forge links with community groups, to embed it slowly and sustainably. There's been one-off projects that have gone well, but then not been repeated.

(Volunteer Officer, faith-based organisation)

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Leadership as gatekeepers of capacity and resources: as previously stated, buy-in at senior levels was viewed as particularly important. This was not only so that changes could cascade from the top, but also so that a more strategic approach was taken, and resources could be targeted as needed. While leaders are constantly weighing up priorities, they must also understand and convey the benefits of diversity to the organisation, the value of investing in diversity and the link with the values of their organisation. Having a dedicated lead staff person to coordinate diversity efforts was seen as one way to support these discussions and activities.
  • There are cost effective actions: some organisations thought that lack of resources was sometimes used as an ‘excuse’ for inaction, but in reality, there are small changes that can be made without incurring large costs. Some examples of this type of action include small gestures of solidarity with marginalised groups, such as celebrating cultural events that might otherwise be ignored (eg LGBTQI+ pride, Eid, Diwali), including diverse images of volunteers on websites and use of inclusive language. Identifying barriers and some of these solutions could help organisations make progress, even if not having the financial resource to invest.
  • Partnership and creative collaboration: organisations considered it would be helpful to collaborate with external partners and experts as a way to mitigate against the lack of resources. These could include corporate organisations, public bodies, or other voluntary sector organisations and would involve bringing in additional skills, expertise and capacity to support activities. Some also spoke about peer learning – one organisation, for example, was working with other charities in their London borough to share experiences and learnings; another had partnered with an organisation to address a particular aspect of diversity.
  • Seeking out funding opportunities for inclusion: organisations spoke about getting funding for projects related to inclusion and diversity, whether through grants or crowdfunding opportunities. This might be to fund particular aspects of their volunteering programme, such as IT solutions to make volunteering more accessible, or could include funding for a dedicated volunteer recruitment and support role.
  • Increased training and support resources for volunteer managers: organisations noted that an especially important resource related to diversity should include training and supporting volunteer managers with the necessary tools and resources to build their confidence and knowledge in this area. This is also an area where additional resources and training could be supported by funders and other support bodies

6.5 Volunteer management

What are the key challenges?

Organisations highlighted that some internal processes and procedures were currently making it more challenging to be inclusive. Some of the most common barriers in this area included:

  • the volunteer recruitment process can be intimidating or daunting – this might relate to application forms (that can be difficult to understand and complete) or training requirements
  • that training can be an onerous or extensive process that requires a time commitment that is inflexible and lengthy.

Making volunteering more accessible involves removing the physical, cultural, and informational barriers for potential volunteers.

  • The lack of accessibility of physical spaces (such as the buildings where volunteering takes place) and of information can create barriers for people with disabilities, those for whom English is not their first language or those with low levels of literacy.
  • Whether organisations reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses related to their role or how they reimburse them can exclude people. In addition to the obvious out of pocket expenses such as transport, there are hidden costs of volunteering including childcare or other care costs. Additionally, some organisations have a culture or norm where volunteers are not expected to claim expenses even if there is a policy in place, which creates a cultural barrier.

We are a massive organisation that can be slow to change. We have a lot of bureaucracy which can make it difficult to be responsive. We have more admin and red tape for volunteers to go through which works against under-represented groups.

(Volunteering Services Manager, NHS Trust)

Developing flexible roles that adjust around the diverse lives of volunteers makes volunteering more accessible to a wider group of people.

One of the key barriers to progress cited by organisations related to volunteer roles – many felt that their current volunteer roles had requirements that excluded certain groups of people. These requirements varied and included the level of commitment required, the nature of the role (eg physical labour), the need for types of experience or skills, the time of day or week in which the activities took place or the location.

Having pre-set roles makes it more challenging to accommodate all volunteers, especially where volunteers might have additional support needs.

In some instances, staff can create further barriers by having unrealistic expectations of volunteers. Participants saw this as being a greater problem in organisations that approach volunteering from the perspective of the ‘modern’ model (with pre-set volunteer roles).

Volunteering asks are often very narrow and inflexible and don’t fit around the lives of those working long hours, multiple jobs, with caring responsibilities, etc.


What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Reviewing volunteer recruitment and support processes: organisations felt it was important to review their own processes to see how inclusive (or not) they were and try to understand what, if any, barriers might be in place for volunteers – from recruitment to physical spaces or cultural barriers. Once reviewed, an action plan should be put in place to address these barriers. Some organisations did more formal audits or equality action plans, while others took more informal approaches. One example of a small action taken by an organisation was that they had used wording provided by Stonewall (an LGBTQI+ organisation) to improve the way questions were worded in an application form. Another organisation had carried out their own research into the barriers faced by potential volunteers, which helped them to involve more people. In addition, it is worth considering how covid-19 may have a lasting impact on the diversity of volunteer roles and processes with the development of remote, online and micro volunteering being accelerated as a result of the lockdown restrictions (see spotlight on volunteer participation during the covid-19 pandemic).
  • Simplifying volunteer recruitment and training processes: in addition to flexibility around roles, participants felt that organisations needed to be both more varied and more flexible in how they undertook their recruitment processes and training. This could mean using different methods other than application forms (eg Zoom or coffee mornings), and not always having the same requirements for every role. This could be tailored to appeal to specific groups, for example online application forms or online videos might be more appealing for younger volunteers. Organisations also felt that making sure processes were inclusive should involve volunteers’ input – for example asking what works for them or offering support to complete forms where needed.
  • Developing a variety of volunteer roles and tailored recruitment messages: organisations suggested that in order to attract a wide range of volunteers, there needed to be different types of volunteer roles on offer. This included suggestions for roles to be carried out or organised in different ways such as remotely, more project-based activities or ad hoc roles. Participants felt that organisations needed to be imaginative and creative in their approach in making roles more attractive to a wide variety of people. As well as having diverse roles on offer, it was equally important to market those roles effectively, tailoring messages to different groups, making sure benefits (eg gaining skills, making a difference or meeting people) are made clear and appealing to target groups of potential volunteers.

More volunteering roles to offer has meant more volunteers from different backgrounds. Being flexible about roles and also having short term opportunities has worked well.

(Volunteer Services Manager, housing association)
  • Deciding which volunteer management approach will be in place: participants thought organisations should consider whether volunteer roles had any elements of flexibility and how much capacity there was to recruit and support volunteers. Informal feedback is that the home-grown model of volunteering is more inclusive (as it builds the role around the individual), however the modern model may be easier (as it often slots individuals into pre-defined volunteer roles).
  • Developing volunteer roles that fit around the volunteer: building on the previous point, participants felt that organisations should be flexible in accommodating the needs of volunteers and their motivations. Why people engage is often quite personal and is linked to individual circumstances, values and priorities.
  • As part of this, organisations would need to engage with volunteers to understand what their needs are and what is important to them and to also support volunteer managers and others who might be responsible on a day-to-day basis to make adjustments. It was noted that often these adaptations could be made easily. Volunteer recruitment can be more inclusive if recruitment is linked to the motivations of the target group of potential volunteers.

The global pandemic has provided ample opportunities for organisations to rethink their volunteer roles and often this has meant more remote and micro volunteering. While this might work for some volunteers, not everyone will have equal access to digital technology or data which these types of volunteering often rely on (see spotlight on volunteer participation during the covid-19 pandemic).

Some organisations were looking at ways they could do this. An example was an organisation who had rolled out a new process where a volunteer would be assigned a case worker to support them to make any necessary adjustments.

We have previously been too prescriptive about what we ask of volunteers and how we shape opportunities, we are changing and increasing the flexibility of opportunities for volunteers to join us from all backgrounds with an "apply and we'll find something meaningful for you" approach.

(Volunteer and Apprentice Manager, county council)

It is important to remember that volunteers may have more pressing issues to deal with (especially during covid-19) such as housing, employment or illness. Finding flexible and creative ways to support these volunteers to allow them to continue being involved and keeping the momentum is key.

  • Develop more inclusive role descriptions: in addition to more flexible roles, organisations felt it was also important to review how roles are described and make sure that the role descriptions are inclusive. Some organisations had taken active steps to review communication materials, including volunteer roles to look at the impact of the language being used and to make it as inclusive as possible.
  • Clarity and expectation management in relation to roles: throughout the discussions about volunteer roles, organisations highlighted the need for clarity and managing expectations of volunteers. This was felt to be important in making sure that volunteers had a good quality experience from the outset and were not disappointed. It is also important to have honest conversations about what the organisation is able to commit to so as not to put them in a position where they were not supported properly. For example, where volunteers might have additional needs, it is essential to be clear about what the organisation could and could not do to support volunteers.

By being clear and managing expectations, volunteer managers felt that it allowed for volunteers themselves to be able to evaluate whether a role was suitable for them. Some suggested ways this could be done, such as with taster days, or opportunities to shadow where volunteers could fully understand what the role was like and if it was ‘for them’.

  • A good quality experience is key to retaining volunteers: as well as getting volunteers in the door, making sure that roles work for volunteers is something that requires continuous effort. Organisations suggested that it was important for organisations to ‘check in’ with volunteers, whether more informally or formally (eg via a trial period to see how it’s working) and to engage via regular communications to ‘keep volunteers warm’, even if (and especially if) working remotely with the organisation. This can be done in many ways, for example through buddying new volunteers with existing volunteers. Some also suggested that it is important to build in progression for volunteer roles.

6.6 Attitudes of volunteers and staff

What are the key challenges?

Resistance to change among those already in the organisation – including current volunteers and staff – is a major barrier.

Regarding volunteers, some participants recognised that their organisations attracted a certain demographic. Others acknowledged that entrenched and long-standing groups of volunteers could be less welcoming to newcomers, especially those who did not share the group identity. Where this was cited, there were examples of volunteers bring cliquey or excluding new volunteers. In one organisation, this had resulted in a volunteer being very close to leaving the organisation. This links to recent research and data (see context section) highlighting discrimination within organisations. In some organisations, long-standing, entrenched or very independent groups of volunteers can create their own volunteer culture, and this can be inclusive and welcoming or closed and exclusive.

In the context of covid-19, some organisations have seen some of their older volunteers step back due to the need to shield at home, while new younger volunteers have started. It is too soon to tell how these might impact on attitudes.

Staff and volunteers who are resistant to change can create a closed culture that is not inclusive.

Participants thought that staff resistance to having a more diverse volunteer base related, in some cases, to a general negative attitude towards change and not recognising the need for diversity. In other cases, it also related to not appreciating the value of volunteers more generally. Others perceived that staff resistance was linked to potentially feeling threatened by volunteers, especially those who offered specific skills and this relates to perceptions of volunteers replacing paid workers.

The biggest factor I face in talking about diversity on blogs and in trainings is the pushback from so many charities and non-profits that say ‘We don't need to be putting so much emphasis on diversity. We don't do anything that prevents anyone from volunteering here. If we're not diverse, it's because “those” people don't want to volunteer here.

(Expert interview)

Finally, in a number of cases organisations felt that a barrier in relation to staff was that their focus was on service delivery and that volunteers were recruited to support this. They felt that volunteers were there to ‘make their life easier’ and in many cases, these volunteers were longstanding volunteers who were perceived as being ‘very reliable’ and as such the staff were resistant to make any changes to a situation that they felt was working well. In this scenario diversity and inclusion were not seen as a goal, as the focus was on how volunteers could support service delivery

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Increasing education and training for staff and volunteers on inclusion: some organisations had already put in place active steps so that those within the organisation, whether volunteers or staff, can learn about inclusion – whether about the need for and value of it, or specific aspects such as addressing unconscious bias. This was primarily through training – this was not always successful in changing perspectives but was felt to be a necessary step in addressing some of the resistance present in organisations and should be rolled out to everyone. Others suggested alternative approaches to building inclusion among existing staff and volunteers, for example by focusing on values such as social justice which many organisations are built on.
  • Creating clear organisational processes and expectations to challenge discriminatory behaviours: Organisations felt that there should be mechanisms in place as well as processes (both formal and informal) to have courageous conversations and ‘call people out’ for inappropriate behaviours, and to make sure that expectations were clearly communicated about what was acceptable (or not) in the organisation. For this approach to work, it was considered important for these messages and mechanisms to be reinforced from the highest levels of the organisation.
  • Creating an inclusive volunteering culture: organisations felt that to change attitudes and behaviours among staff and volunteers, it is necessary to ensure that the organisation widely relays positive messages related to diversity and volunteering and makes this an organisational ‘norm’ while making it clear that there is no place for those who do not share these values. Part of the work of building an inclusive volunteering culture includes using various communication platforms to raise awareness and to build support, such as through an intranet or events. As always, these messages are more effective if they are genuinely endorsed from senior levels within the organisation.
  • Maintaining a welcoming environment for volunteers: Participants highlighted that organisations need to create spaces where all volunteers feel they belong, are welcomed and that they ‘fit’. They talked about what happens once you have recruited a more diverse pool of volunteers and reflected on the need to provide evidence of whether volunteers feel included and engaged in the organisation or not. They felt that it is important for volunteer managers to make sure that volunteers are supported from within the organisation and to proactively ensure that volunteers feel they are part of the organisation and safe, particularly if they are in the minority within the organisation.

6.7 Volunteer data

What are the key challenges?

Some organisations, especially those at the beginning of their diversity journey, may not understand where they are at, as they lack accurate data on who volunteers within their organisation. Participants felt this was a barrier to knowing where to put resources and, without a baseline, they were not able to fully understand what sort of progress had been made.

Data and insight in itself is hard to come by, which then makes it harder to identify the right actions that will be most impactful. We also have a historical profile of volunteers that is typically not very diverse (for a few key reasons) and this also slows down our rate of change for us.

(Senior Volunteering Journey Manager, children’s organisation)

Organisations struggle to collect data about volunteers but those who do are in a better position to create a diverse volunteer base.

Organisations reported numerous challenges in capturing data about volunteers. For example, not all volunteers are willing to provide information and it is often not compulsory. Additionally, some volunteers do not have access to the internet or lack the technical skills to use online tools, which makes it more challenging to capture and analyse monitoring data.

GDPR requirements are also seen as a barrier for organisations, however this is easily overcome by clarifying the purpose of the data or by collecting information anonymously. Where information had been captured, some organisations cited further challenges, including not having an adequate system in place to record the data or not having the skills needed to analyse or communicate about the data (for example, explaining to volunteers why they need the information and how it will be used).

As we do not include demographic questions in our volunteer form, we do not have accurate figures to show how diverse our volunteers are.

(Senior Membership and Volunteering Officer, social services organisation)

Some organisations gather data in a very focused way rather than taking an intersectional view.

For example, some may target young people or people with a disability rather than taking a holistic approach. One organisation noted it is important to recruit people with lived experience to volunteer on programmes where that group is served (eg refugees volunteering with refugee support organisations), but thinks that intersectionality is sometimes forgotten in this scenario (ie the refugees could also be of differing religions, ethnicities or sexual orientation).

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Reviewing data needs: as a first step, organisations felt that it was important to be intentional about what information they need, how they plan to use it and why. Organisations might have different reasons for collecting information (eg to benchmark against similar organisations) however it is important to be clear about the purpose for collecting data and to understand that diversity is more than just capturing one or two demographics such as age and ethnicity.
  • Developing a system to collect and analyse volunteer data: for organisations to be able to use their data effectively organisations felt it was necessary to have a reliable and secure system for collecting and analysing the data. As the data collection requires volunteer engagement, a key part of this stage was communicating to volunteers the value of this information. While it may be challenging to overcome ‘survey fatigue’, organisations could explain to volunteers the benefits and/or need for the data (eg to better reflect the community served or as a funding requirement) so as to get better results.
  • Creating a snapshot of volunteers to see how this compares to service users or the community: organisations felt it was important to use volunteer data effectively – to create a clear picture of who volunteers within the organisation and to be able to compare this with the community served or the local, regional or national population. It was also considered important to think about intersectionality when analysing data. If organisations are not willing or able to use the data, they should not collect it and all organisations should have a data protection policy in place. It is also possible to survey volunteers within organisations anonymously and to draw conclusions based on a representative sample of volunteers. The results of any research should be shared with volunteers.

6.8 External perceptions

What are the key challenges?

A key issue identified by organisations in relation to diversity and volunteering is associated with external perceptions of the organisation. There are numerous aspects to this issue:

  • Public opinion about the organisation is not always positive or accurate: one organisation noted that their name implied it was religious while another was concerned their organisation was perceived as being ‘stuffy’. This view was more prominent in responses received later in 2020, potentially as a result of campaigns that have drawn attention to paternalism and institutional racism in the voluntary sector.
  • Volunteers are not all motivated by the same causes: organisations are not appealing to everybody and some organisations felt their cause was ‘harder to sell’ (eg a refugee charity who felt their cause was polarising) or resonated less among certain groups. One organisation noted that support for causes can vary greatly, for example support for animal charities is not popular within every culture.
  • There may be misconceptions about the nature or requirements of the volunteer roles: some organisations felt that there were prevailing and possibly misguided assumptions being made by potential volunteers about roles. One example given was that hospital volunteer roles are patient-facing and that an arts background is required for volunteering at an arts-based organisation.
  • Organisational branding and marketing may leave some volunteers feeling excluded: the external communications, branding and images from organisations do not always reflect the diversity of society or communities served and potential volunteers do not always ‘see themselves’ or feel that they belong in organisations where their identity is not visible.

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations believed that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • If volunteers see themselves in organisational imagery they are likely to feel more welcome: organisations noted that this requires looking at how people are represented in current communications and using imagery that reflects the people that the organisation is hoping to attract so that potential volunteers ‘see themselves’ there. Organisations also noted the importance of using images authentically and avoiding tokenism – many felt it was important that volunteers could identify with images and through sharing of experiences via case studies or real life stories as well as the need for inclusive language in communications.

A small change that we have been embedding is using images that our students can see themselves in and identify with when advertising volunteering roles to them.

(Volunteer Coordinator, student union)
  • Organisations should pro-actively challenge misconceptions about what they stand for and their volunteer roles: organisations suggested that this needed to be an ‘active’ process – eg going out to volunteer fairs and public events to talk about the organisation and make sure potential volunteers get a realistic understanding of what the organisation is about (and not about). This also included more proactive community engagement (see section 6.9). Similarly, with the roles offered, organisations felt that actively promoting different roles, especially those people do not expect, could help to address preconceptions of what volunteering at the organisation involves.
  • Targeted volunteer recruitment messages are effective: organisations felt that a ‘blanket’ approach was less effective than thinking about different target groups and tailoring volunteer recruitment messages and communications accordingly, highlighting benefits that might appeal to each group and that are based on their motivations for getting involved. For example, young people are likely to be more interested in gaining new skills.

6.9 Community engagement

What are the key challenges?

Organisations noted a challenge related to engaging with local communities and targeting specific groups for volunteer recruitment. Specific outreach was seen as an important way to access a more diverse demographic and to break down barriers and change perceptions of their organisation (as outlined in section 6.8).

‘They don’t want to volunteer’ isn’t a valid excuse. Organisations shouldn’t be taking this at face value. They need to find the reason that they don’t want to volunteer and fix it.

(Expert interview)

Organisations were at different stages in terms of their knowledge and skills in relation to community engagement. This ranged from those who felt that they lacked awareness or knowledge of the types of organisations present in their community, to those who had developed specific relationships with target groups, eg a local school or faith group. Some organisations were also targeting individuals directly rather than through community groups.

Building trusted relationships in communities helps to create positive opinions and encourage volunteer engagement.

It was common for organisations to feel that it was not just a case of ‘knocking on doors’ but building long-term relationships. This was seen as an activity that involves tremendous effort without always being successful. Within some organisations, this had resulted in staff ‘giving up’. There was a recognition of the need to develop trust and goodwill, but organisations noted that there was not always the resource or capacity to invest in relationship building.

Covid-19 has limited organisations’ ability to engage face-to-face and this may have longer term impacts. During lockdown, engagement has shifted to remote and online platforms and this may have both positive and negative impacts on perceptions of volunteer recruitment (see spotlight on volunteer participation during the covid-19 pandemic).

What are the learnings to take forward?

Organisations felt that they had or could make more progress in addressing these challenges in the following ways:

  • Being visible and communicating messages pro-actively: organisations considered it was important to not just put adverts out generally but to actively engage with communities they want to involve in volunteering and showing how roles might appeal to those groups. It was also important to strategically communicate about the values of the organisation, the benefits of its volunteer roles and how volunteering could make a difference and be impactful. Labelling some groups as ‘hard to reach’ was not perceived a valid reason for lack of engagement, and it was highlighted that organisations needed to reach out and work collaboratively to engage volunteers and service users and reflect the communities they serve and want to involve.
  • Focusing on understanding community needs: one of the first steps that was considered important to make progress in this area was to build an understanding of the communities that organisations want to engage with. One organisation talked about ‘building bridges’ – as well as communicating about the organisation, taking steps to listen to the needs of target groups, so as to be able to recruit volunteers in a way that matches with their motivations and needs. One organisation suggested that a community development team could be responsible for outreach and engagement, but this type of capacity may not be possible for every organisation.
  • Identifying and developing relationships with key people: there was a recognition that finding key people or local leaders to work with is an important step in the journey towards inclusion. There is also a need to build long term relationships and trust in order to maintain networks and make this a sustainable approach.
  • Taking the time that is needed – this is a long-term approach: organisations acknowledged that developing sustainable and trusting relationships with local communities takes time and sometimes involves setbacks before progress. Being aware of this and continuing to make efforts and steps

6.10 Further research needed

There are clearly some gaps in knowledge that have been highlighted within this research. Below we have identified key areas where further data, information or research would help understanding of volunteering and diversity. This information may also inform any further stages of our work on this topic, which will focus on the volunteer experience of diversity.

  • The impact of covid-19 on volunteering patterns
  • Patterns of volunteering and the volunteer experience of ethnic minority groups (disaggregated)
  • Patterns of volunteering and the volunteer experience of LGBTQI+ communities
  • Patterns of volunteering and the volunteer experience of people with different types of disabilities
  • Volunteering, accessibility and the social model of disability
  • Faith as a motivator for volunteering
  • Volunteer Centres’ role in recruiting volunteers from diverse communities
  • Volunteering as an intervention to improve social mobility
  • Diversity in relation to formal and informal volunteering
  • The image, perception and stereotypes of volunteering as a barrier to diversity
  • Place-based approaches to volunteering
  • Research on volunteering among particular intersections of identity such as BAME people with disabilities
  • Power dynamics between volunteers and between paid staff and volunteers

Diagram: Embedding diversity

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 17 December 2020