Specialist Volunteering

Specialist volunteering can be an ideal way to tackle all those ideas and projects on your 'if I had the time' list. 

Organisations often focus on generalist roles for volunteers, such as community fundraising, general administration or complementing staff with service delivery. Generalist roles are a great way to ensure that anyone who is interested in supporting your organisation can join in and participate as part of a larger team. An alternative approach to volunteering, however, is to enable people to use or develop specialist skills in their volunteer role, recognising that people can also make a difference to your organisation in more specialised ways.

Thinking about specialist volunteering

It’s important to define clear roles for specialist volunteers, with an understanding of the tasks and skills required. These could be in addition to generalist roles or could be a chance to focus each role on a particular aspect of work. In a generalist role, for example, you might have a team of office volunteers who take on tasks such as photocopying and filing as well as cashing up at the end of the day and processing questionnaires for the latest survey. In more specialist roles, however, you could involve a volunteer bookkeeper and a volunteer data analyst, who bring more specific skills and experience to their roles.

The nature of specialist roles will depend upon your organisation’s mission and aims. Perhaps what your organisation offers to the community is already relatively specialist, in which case identifying specialist roles will be straightforward. This is true within fields such as archaeology and also for counselling or therapy roles with organisations such as MND Scotland.

You might need people to join you with good knowledge or experience, but think about whether you can offer training and support for people to learn the specialist skills they’ll need. This approach is taken by first aid organisations such as St Andrew's First Aid – volunteers need to have life-saving skills, but receive full training and continuing skills development from the organisation.

If the service you provide is not specialist, think about how you can develop specialist roles alongside generalist roles. The Citizens Advice Bureau offers a variety of volunteering opportunities including specialist IT support roles and opportunities for law students. For volunteers in a generalist adviser role, there is also an opportunity to undertake training to develop specialist skills and contribute in new ways.

One of the key things to think about when planning for specialist roles is how often you’ll need someone to contribute. Is this an ongoing opportunity or a one-off piece of project work? You could involve a volunteer with an HR or legal background, for example, to do a review of your internal policies, or you might want to feel able to call on this volunteer for advice and support at any time. Perhaps you could set up an employee volunteering partnership with a local business so that people with professional experience in specialist roles can provide ad-hoc support or mentoring for your organisation whilst also contributing to their own corporate social responsibility.

Getting started with specialist volunteering

Once you’ve identified a specialist volunteering opportunity, consider where to promote the role to find people with the required skills and experience. Is there specific trade press for advertising your opportunity or a particular professional network to tap into?

Think about how you can best select for the role when you receive applications. Using a formal interview should ensure you get the right person for the role and will set expectations about the standard of work you’re expecting, but remember that the person is still volunteering even if the role needs professional skills. It’s important to get the balance right throughout the recruitment and induction process and ensure that the person is offered the same volunteering experience as any volunteer joining your organisation. Also think about how you’ll assess the volunteer’s skills and abilities as part of your screening process, rather than accepting anyone who says they’ve got a specialist skill. This not only respects the significance of these skills, but also saves you dealing with difficult situations later on if someone’s level of ability doesn’t match the requirements of the role.

It’s also important to consider how you interview volunteers for all other roles. Make sure you give everyone a chance to tell you about the skills they can bring to your organisation and whether or not they would be interested in using and developing those skills through a specialised volunteering role.

You also need to be prepared for people to offer specialist skills when you’re not promoting a particular volunteering role. If someone from your existing volunteer team or your client audience sees an opportunity to help with a specialist piece of work, how ready are you to discuss this and to assess whether their skills and experience are right for your organisation? Don’t be afraid to say no if the opportunity won’t be mutually beneficial, but do take seriously any offer of specialist skills. You never know what you might gain as a result, particularly if the skills on offer are not already available within your volunteer or staff team.

Making a difference through specialist volunteering

A key area which depends upon specialist volunteering is sports coaching. Many community sports organisations are run entirely by volunteers and rely upon the skills and experience of coaches and officials to operate effectively and to be recognised by their governing body. Making a difference for the local community therefore means that sports coaches need to be fully supported in their role. Perhaps the club can cover or at least share in the costs of individuals gaining coaching qualifications and continuing their professional development and training. Ongoing reward and recognition is important too, to ensure coaches remain motivated to contribute to the sports club for as long as possible.

Another example of specialist volunteers making a difference for an organisation is anyone involved in volunteering at executive level. This includes your board of trustees and volunteers who support senior executive staff with tasks such as developing strategy or setting budgets. There’s no reason volunteers can’t be involved at this level of the organisation, particularly if you’re able to provide development opportunities for your existing volunteer team to take on greater responsibility after a period of time with your organisation.

One of the challenges that volunteer managers might face with specialist roles is that a volunteer may have a greater level of knowledge about a field than his or her manager. This could happen when an existing volunteer spots a gap in the skills or knowledge of the team and offers to complete tasks to help the organisation. It can be difficult for managers to assess a volunteer’s performance in this situation, or to provide full support if the volunteer is faced with a difficult task, depending on the complexity of the work.

Allocating tasks, however, is usually more straightforward with specialist volunteers, as you’ve clearly agreed a specific role that needs to be completed. Once tasks are complete, volunteers are less likely to ask whether there is ‘anything else’ that needs doing, which gives the manager more confidence to let the volunteer finish for the day rather than looking for smaller tasks that could be done to fill time. The allocation of tasks might mean that specialist volunteers prefer to volunteer from home or other locations. Think about whether you’re able to support this and whether you’ll need the volunteer to join you in the office on any particular occasions.

As with any volunteer role, regular catch ups are important and these can become crucial if a volunteer has been given a higher level of responsibility for a specialised task. Make sure you agree the best way to communicate and how often you’ll talk through the volunteer’s contribution. Having regular catch ups can also provide an opportunity for both you and the volunteer to raise any concerns about the volunteer’s ability to complete the task, identify any extra support that’s needed and work together to overcome any other challenges.

Continuity planning is also vital for specialist roles. If as a manager you don’t fully understand the tasks that a volunteer is completing, make sure you ask for a record of actions and decisions in a clear format. This can then be shared with future volunteers as and when the volunteer is no longer available to support your organisation.

Building on the success of specialist volunteering

When a volunteer role requires specialist skills, there may be less opportunity to further develop those skills – or conversely there may be specific professional development that is essential for the individual to continue in the role. Consider what your organisation is able to offer in the way of training and support to enable the volunteer to contribute for as long as possible.

Once a specialist role comes to an end, the individual might be interested in other opportunities to volunteer with your organisation, including generalist roles. Don’t presume that the skills the volunteer has been using are the only skills that s/he would like to use or develop as a volunteer! Aim to involve specialist volunteers in the wider organisation in the same way you would other volunteers; for example if you send out regular updates by email or have a social get together with the team then let all your volunteers know. By helping specialist volunteers feel part of what’s going on, they may continue to support your organisation in another way once their role comes to an end.

Find out, too, whether the individual would be interested in taking on a similar specialist opportunity in future. Whether or not the volunteer stays with your organisation, think about how you can offer further support by providing a reference for future work or volunteering roles.

It’s also important to think about how you can best recognise the contribution that the volunteer has made and reward the individual in an appropriate way. Make sure the reward you offer for a specialist role is equivalent to a reward for any of your other volunteering opportunities so that you don’t inadvertently send out a message that a more highly skilled role is more valuable.

Think about how you can celebrate the success of a specialist volunteer role, particularly if this is a new approach for your organisation. Take the opportunity to show colleagues how specialist volunteering can make a difference. This could change the culture of your organisation to empower volunteers and involve people in new ways, which is something many organisations aspire to. By introducing more specialist roles, you may also increase the capacity of your organisation to work towards successfully reaching operational aims and goals.

Planning Aid for Scotland recognised their support for specialist volunteers from the planning sector by gaining Investing in Volunteers accreditation. If you’re involving volunteers in a field that wouldn’t usually be recognised as part of the voluntary sector, this is a great way to highlight your work. Find out more on our Investing in Volunteers page.