When I first saw the theme for Volunteers’ Week this year – ‘Volunteering for All’ – I got a little bit excited. In previous years, the national theme has focussed on expressing gratitude to existing volunteers – ‘Time to say thank you’, ‘The Big celebration’, ‘You make the difference’ – which is fine but to me seems a bit…safe.

Volunteers’ Week is definitely about thanking volunteers, but it’s also about highlighting their vital contribution and encouraging practices which increase participation. This year, with ‘Volunteering for All’, we have a proper call to action. Volunteering IS a valuable experience for all involved and it SHOULD be open to everyone. What are YOU doing about that?

Firstly, I just want to make it clear that our volunteers ARE amazing and really do make a difference. Our retail volunteers helped us to raise £1.4 million last year, a life-changing sum for the people we help. Our other volunteers, often in frontline roles, contributed over 10,000 hours to our work last year and helped thousands of people experiencing bad housing or homelessness. Quite simply, without them we could not help as many people as we do.

Because of this, it is only right that the opportunity to volunteer is rewarding and is open to as many people as possible. The importance of this was highlighted recently by one of our retail volunteers who responded to our annual volunteer survey:

‘Volunteering for [Shelter Scotland] has changed my life. When I approached to become a volunteer I hadn’t worked for a few years due to suffering with depression and crippling anxiety.…[volunteering] has given me back my confidence, so much so that I was able to apply for full-time paid employment. If it wasn’t for [Shelter Scotland] I would be stuck in my house hiding from the world and wouldn’t feel like I am slowly getting my life back on track’

This is a powerful reminder, and Shelter Scotland has done a lot in the last year to ensure that volunteers from all backgrounds and circumstances are able to participate fully in our volunteering activities.

Firstly, we have worked closely with volunteer management colleagues in other parts of Shelter (retail, HR, Fundraising and our services in England) to develop a new Volunteering Policy for the organisation. To ensure that the policy was meaningful, we started with a completely clean slate and each committed a significant amount of time to its development. On reflection, the process of developing the policy was arguably more valuable than the finished policy, helping us to develop a shared commitment to making volunteering in Shelter more consistent and inclusive.

In Scotland, we have also implemented some further practices to encourage diversity and participation. We really get to know our volunteers before they start volunteering, and view the induction and training as an important part of the selection process. We have interactive induction sessions which encourage prospective volunteers to reflect on their own experiences and challenge stereotypes. These sessions also give our Volunteer Support Officers the opportunity to further assess each volunteer’s suitability and address any concerns. As a result of this comprehensive selection process we have stopped requesting references – a common barrier for many volunteers – in some of our roles.

We also have a very person-centred approach to volunteer involvement, and take time to understand and address any specific needs they might have. A personalised risk-assessment is created with volunteers who have a relevant disability or health condition, ensuring that we can provide support when required. This has included identifying a designated safe space for somebody affected by panic attacks, or providing a screen filter for a volunteer with epilepsy. As a result, the percentage of volunteers with disabilities in Shelter Scotland, taken from our anonymous equal opportunities form, is double the national rate detailed in the 2016 Scottish Household Survey.

At Shelter Scotland we are committed to involving volunteers who have lived experience of homelessness or bad housing, and are currently developing a supported pathway to ensure that their specific needs are met. For many people who haven’t had a stable address in recent years, applying for a Disclosure or PVG certificate can be a real challenge, particularly because they are less likely to have sufficient evidence to prove their identity. In the past 6 months we have paid for two volunteers to get a copy of their Birth Certificate so that they can satisfy the requirements for a Disclosure application.

In the last year we have also addressed the most common barrier of all. Time. In the 2016 Scottish Household survey, the main reason people reported for stopping volunteering was ‘no longer having the time’. People have busy lives with multiple competing demands, and many just can’t fit in a regular volunteering commitment. In response to this, we introduced a flexible, ad hoc volunteering opportunity which is almost entirely administered online. It’s proven to be very popular with volunteers, and it helps us to ensure that we have extra support at key events or activities.

We try to embody the ‘Volunteering for All’ theme in our approach to volunteer involvement, and constantly look for ways to be more inclusive. There is still more that we can do, however, and this Volunteers’ Week we are launching a new initiative to promote ideas for little acts that have a big impact. Intrigued? Keep an eye on our social media or visit www.shelterscotland.org/volunteersweek2018 to find out more!

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