A new era for volunteering



Sally Bibb – PA Consulting






Some of the most important jobs in society are done by unpaid workers. In the UK, Special Constables, Magistrates and Samaritans are all demanding volunteer roles that rely on people with the right kind of talent to do them well.  The challenge is that some of the people who are drawn to these kinds of jobs are the types of people who are unsuited to them. 

We have a variety of motivations for wanting to become volunteers – needing to be needed, a sense of belonging, social status, power, making a difference to society. However, everything humans do is based on self-interest. Harnessing that self-interest can do a lot of good but organisations which depend on volunteers need to be aware of the dangers of recruiting the wrong kinds of people.

Imagine a Special Constable who gets a kick out of arresting people as a way of wielding their power, a magistrate whose motivation is to impress their friends by having the letters JP after their name or a Samaritan wanting to do the job because they loved to ‘fix’ people.  Recruiting people who have the wrong motivations for the job, at best, means they’re ineffective, at worst meant they do more harm than good.

How do you know who will make good volunteers?
Voluntary organisations need to understand what good looks like in a volunteer just as much as when recruiting for a paid position. This should go beyond just writing a job description and ‘person specification’ which lists all the qualities that the recruiter thinks the volunteer needs for the role and trying to develop an objective understanding about what actually makes someone great at the role. They also tend to be written using vague terms like ‘self-starter’, good team worker, good communicator. Terms like this make it difficult for a would-be candidate to know whether they would be a good fit.

An effective and proven approach to doing this is to focus on what people who are great at the job have in common. Being specific about that means that potential volunteers can easily recognise themselves in the description and the recruiter can identify whether someone is or isn’t a good fit.

The Shelford Group (top ten NHS University Trusts) recognised that when they had the right kinds of Ward Managers, patient care was better. To work out what set these Ward Managers apart, they commissioned a study to profile the strengths of these high performing Ward Managers.

It’s time to bring an evidence-based approach to volunteer selection
The lesson from this work was that it made it clear why someone was a great fit for the role and, as importantly, why others struggled with it. This was not about competence and experience but about more fundamental characteristics of the Ward Managers. Being a square peg in a round hole in a job is a miserable experience for the job holder and in some roles, it can have catastrophic consequences for those who are in their care. This is as true for someone who is paid to do a job, such as a prison officer as it is for a magistrate or a special constable.

Strengths profiling tells you what kind of people are the right kind of people so that you attract people who have the ‘right’ motivations, strengths and values and not ones that could lead to damaging consequences. And, in working out what great really looks like it will allow you to increase diversity, which is another challenge many voluntary organisations face. As a result of the application of strengths-based recruitment, 9% more people from BAME backgrounds were appointed into the Ward Manager role.

How to start?
The first step for organisations looking to recruit volunteers is to identify the people who perform best in a role and study what makes them great – what natural strengths, values and motivations do they share. It is important to choose a diverse range of people to study so as to avoid unintentionally building bias into the profile. For major recruitment exercises, external specialist research firms can help.

This understanding of what motivates effective volunteers also opens up potential new talent pools. People can read a request for volunteers and either recognise themselves in the description or not. That makes it vital to frame volunteer recruitment campaigns in ways that resonate with the right people and makes them more likely to apply.

The evolutionary biologist Nichola Raihani in her book, ‘The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World’ says that selfless acts are possible, that lots of the time helping behaviour is ‘psychologically pure’ but that from an evolutionary point of view there have to be benefits to the individuals or their relations. A strengths-based approach is the most effective way to identify and recruit volunteers who will deploy their self-interest in a positive way for the organisation and weed out those who do not.

Sally Bibb is the author of Strengths-Based Recruitment and Development