pat church aprilcI spend a lot of my increased leisure time indulging my twin passions of animals and heritage. The former makes me travel all the way to Plankendael, Belgium to see their wombat. The latter brings me into contact with many people who give their time and skills to make the world a better place and in return gain or keep a sense of purpose, most often after formal retirement.

One example in our village is the magnificent grade one-listed St Patrick’s Church, said to be one of the finest in England. It is maintained by an army of people, from the formal roles of lay preaching, verger and organist to those who provide flowers and the massive, never ending job of maintenance and climbing the tower to wind the clock.

Volunteers are everywhere. They provide care and company in places like Dove House our local hospice, act as explainers in museums and properties run by the likes of the National Trust and English Heritage. They pilot lifeboats, listen to children read in schools, run foodbanks, sing and even provide advice and support in social enterprises such as Citizen’s Advice Bureaus. Some act as trustees whilst others roll up their sleeves and get on with practical tasks. The list is endless. But what is true that you, me and everyone else’s lives would be poorer without them.

The motives for being a volunteer are as diverse as the people who do it, but one thing is they like being appreciated and supported and if not, they will leave and unlike employed staff you have no hold over them. My retired cousin volunteers at a large, prestigious National Trust property in Cornwall. On Tuesday this week she was verbally assaulted by a member of the public in a way that had she been a member of staff in the NHS or in any public facing service, action would have been taken. The manager, more concerned that there was no bad feedback on the likes of “TripAdvisor” mollified the customer leaving my cousin feeling bereft. She cried as she drove home and feels uncertain whether she will go back after years of service there.

We are more familiar with the term “disgruntled”, it is used often to mean unhappy and discontent. Well gruntled means the opposite: pleased, satisfied and contented. Whether you lead paid staff or volunteers it is important to keep them “gruntled”, but what is important to volunteers? There is not definitive answers but these are some ideas I have gained by observing, participating and listening to people:

1.      Create a sense of belonging to the team.  A friend of mine who managed a small museum introduced an informal uniform and gave the volunteers a sweat shirt with the museum logo on it. They could choose the colour and even whether or not they wore it, all but one did. It was better for visitors since they could find help when they needed it and created a sense of pride. Felling like you belong is important.

2.      Provide meaningful training opportunities. There is no escaping mandatory training to meet safety, protection of vulnerable people and legal requirements and it is a necessary evil, but if paid staff do it under sufferance, so do volunteers. Beyond these requirements you can create opportunities for volunteers to learn if they want to. Perhaps skill sharing, travel to a partner orgainisation /venue or even in-house. If you can afford it try to provide a simple lunch and time to eat with paid staff making the tea.

3.      Take opportunities to see them as people: As a leader of a team you have the power to make someone feel great even if it is only a birthday card, a single comment or an acknowledgment of time served. Make time for it, and if you know the social isn’t your thing, then enlist support to help you do it well.

4.      Tangible rewards. Most charities and third sector employers are strapped for cash (though it is amazing how many of them “need” to have their main offices in expensive central London – a bugbear of mine!) but a scheme which enables a volunteer to have a tangible but low-cost reward for their work is useful. My cousin volunteers for the National Trust and when she visited us we went to an NT property, she showed her volunteering card, gained free entry and spoke enthusiastically to volunteers there about the stately home she worked in.

5.      Support them. Recruiting volunteers is costly and time consuming, it is therefore important to try to hang on to the one’s you have got. Consider how staff policies and support mechanisms can be adapted to fit volunteers and if there are abusive service users or customers, make sure you support the volunteer as well as uphold the reputation of the organisation- for in most cases, their fortunes are interlinked.

People are aging better than they have done before and they are a useful resource. If Sir David Attenborough can be a touchstone for changing how the world thinks about plastics at 90, what can young, retired people and those looking to get back into the workforce contribute to the economy? To your organisation? So my advice is: keep those volunteers gruntled!