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The British Red Cross volunteer

journey: Reflections and learning
Voluntary Sector and Volunteering
Research Conference 2014

Sarah Joy, British Red Cross
Andrea Brittain, British Red Cross

At the British Red Cross, we believe everyone should get the help they need in a crisis. We provide different
services across the UK to achieve this, for example:
We respond to emergencies, such as fires or flooding, and support people and communities to prepare
for and recover from them.
We provide first aid services at major events, as well as training for individuals and communities in first
aid skills.
We provide support to older people at home to help them to live independently after, for example,
being discharged from hospital.
We support asylum seekers and refugees to access essential services and to adapt to life in a new
We have an international family tracing service that works through our global network to put families
separated by war or disaster back in touch.
The British Red Cross is a volunteer-led organisation. Volunteering is a key priority, and is fundamental to
delivering our goals and mission. There are many different roles for volunteers, supporting a range of
services and service users. These include older people, refugees and asylum seekers, and people in need of
emergency support after a disaster. We also offer fundraising roles, office-based volunteering, and
volunteering in our charity shops across the country.
As of February 2014, over 25,000 people were registered as volunteers at the Red Cross,
based in the UK across all of our services. Retail services, independent living, and event
first aid currently attract the highest number of volunteers (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Distribution of Red Cross volunteers across the different services

Source: PeopleSoft database 2014 (n = 25,646)
Who are our volunteers?
There are more women (69%) volunteering at the Red Cross than men (31%) and,
although volunteers represent a wide age range (from 15 to over 80 years), around half
are either under 26 (22%) or over 66 years (25%).
The demographic breakdown does vary by service: independent living and fundraising
have a higher proportion of older volunteers (65+); and, perhaps unsurprisingly, more
under 26 year olds are attracted to youth education services. In terms of gender, almost
a third of women are attracted to volunteering in retail services (30% compared with
20% of men). An equal proportion of men are attracted to event first aid (30%
compared with 16% of women).
This paper conveys the findings of two interlinked research studies that explored volunteering at the Red
Cross. The first study aimed to determine the elements of quality volunteering and identify approaches to
best support volunteers and staff to deliver our work. The second study focussed on motivations for, and
barriers to, volunteering at the Red Cross. A mixed-methods approach was employed for both studies.
Research aims and methods
2.1 Quality volunteering at the Red Cross

Research aims
This study explored the essential elements we need to focus on as an organisation if we
are to enhance the quality of volunteering and make future volunteering roles available
and accessible. Specific research aims were to achieve:
> Increased understanding of what quality volunteering means at the Red Cross from the
experiences of volunteers, staff and service users.
> Enhanced sharing of internal (and external) good practice and learning, to build upon and feed
into the implementation of the Red Cross corporate strategy (2010-2015).
> Understanding of some of the key indicators for measuring progress towards quality
volunteering at the Red Cross in the future.
A mixed-methods approach was employed, incorporating the following phases:
> A review of internal and external volunteering related research
> A mapping of existing practice and processes in place across the, then, 21 Areas of the Red Cross
> Thirteen staff focus groups and an online survey of service co-ordinators, generating 159
responses - a response rate of 40%. We wanted to identify staff perspectives on supporting
volunteers, and to capture what managers feel is most effective and most challenging in their
existing approaches to managing volunteers.
> Sixteen volunteer focus groups and a telephone survey of 456 volunteers to understand the key
elements of volunteer satisfaction, and gain further insight into how best to engage volunteers
within the British Red Cross.
> Semi-structured interviews with eighteen service users to explore their experiences. Views were
gathered from a range of different services: refugee support, independent living, emergency
response, as well as attendees on first aid courses.
> In-depth interviews with volunteer support staff in seven other national volunteer-led
organisations were conducted to hear about their successes, challenges and perspectives on the
future of volunteering and volunteer management.
2.2 Volunteering at the Red Cross: Motivations,
triggers and barriers
Reseach aims
This study explored motivations around volunteering at the Red Cross, and how
changes in the wider society may influence peoples decision to volunteer at the Red
Cross now and in the future. Specific research aims were to understand:

> What influences peoples decision to volunteer at the Red Cross?
> What (if any) barriers prevent people from volunteering at the Red Cross, or volunteering at all?
> If people volunteer for other organisations, why did they choose these instead of the Red Cross?
A mixed-methods approach was employed, incorporating the following phases:
> A review of internal and external volunteering literature, focusing on types of volunteering,
motivations, triggers and barriers to volunteering
> 19 focus groups with volunteers from a range of services and across eight different geographical
locations in the UK. These asked specifically about volunteers motivations and how they came
to volunteer at the Red Cross. We also explored any lifestyle factors or barriers that may have
influenced volunteering choices.
> In-depth interviews with 21 senior managers and service co-ordinators who work directly with
volunteers. These interviews helped to provide further context for the themes arising from the
volunteer focus groups, from the viewpoint of staff working in a volunteer support role.
> An analysis of questions asked in a Red Cross monthly public survey. This was used to explore
the views of non-volunteers and potential barriers to volunteering at the Red Cross and
Findings: The Red Cross volunteer journey
The combined findings of the two research projects, Quality volunteering and
Volunteering at the British Red Cross: Motivations, triggers and barriers are outlined
below. We focus first on how, and why people, choose to volunteer. We then take a
look at the early days and the induction process within the Red Cross, to explore how
this can impact on someones decision to progress into volunteering, or deter them
from continuing. Finally, we focus on volunteers experience of their role once they
are fully on board and explore what influences people to stay or why, indeed, they
might be inclined to leave.
3.1 The influencers: Why join?
We found that people are motivated to volunteer for the Red Cross for a range of
reasons. These motivations tend to be commonplace and are not specific to a particular
demographic characteristic or geographic location.
The top four motivations most commonly mentioned by our volunteers were:

Developmental goals. Many volunteers were looking to build skills and
experiences, to undergo training and develop confidence. Some were also
motivated by the opportunity of a different type of experience, or level of
responsibility, to their everyday paid work or previous employment background.
To fill a void in life. A number of volunteers expressed being at a stage in their
life where they had time to fill, and this was sometimes linked to wanting to
meet new people or socialise.
A desire to do something worthwhile. Volunteers reflected on the act of
helping others, which underpinned their motivation to volunteer. They spoke
about the sense of personal satisfaction they gained through seeing the effects
of their volunteering on service users or seeing changes in their local area.
A Red Cross connection. Some volunteers had personal experiences that
linked them to the organisation, such as a friend or a relative who was a current
or past volunteer. Others were driven by the reputation of the Red Cross,
including its international presence, or they had an affiliation with the Red Cross
We asked volunteers to describe the pathway that led them to volunteer for the Red
Cross. This helped develop our understanding of the specific triggers that influenced
their decision-making.
Some common triggers described by our volunteers were:
Informal word of mouth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the most common
direct trigger. Volunteers often reported speaking informally with friends, family
and colleagues who gave them information about, or encouraged them to join,
the Red Cross.
Formal contact with Red Cross volunteers and staff. Some volunteers
reported that direct interaction with the Red Cross, for example at first aid
training or outreach events, had encouraged them to join up.
The internet. This was the predominant indirect trigger to volunteering,
through its providing a source of information about, and a way for people to
apply for, volunteering roles. However, both volunteers and staff recognised
that the internet as a trigger may be limited to people who had already
considered volunteering (i.e. existing interest had sparked their decision to go
online and find out more).


There was general agreement from staff that the Red Cross is good at attracting
volunteers and that the organisations reputation is a big help in doing so. We asked
current volunteers and staff what they perceive to be the barriers that would stop
someone from initially joining the Red Cross.
Two prominent barriers emerged:
Awareness of volunteering opportunities. Public awareness of the Red
Cross is often related to our international work, and many volunteers
reported they werent aware of local volunteering opportunities before
they joined. Potential recruits wont seek out the Red Cross if they arent
aware of what we do and how they can get involved. However, it was felt
that awareness of some roles, for example emergency response or first aid,
is higher than others.
Attracting volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds. This can be a
challenge; for example, expanding our reach into different communities
and accommodating volunteers who need more flexibility or can only make
a limited time commitment.
It was clear that life stage and events influence peoples availability and time, and was
integral in the motivations, triggers and barriers to volunteering. For example, caring for
children, employment status, studying, retirement and bereavement were just some of
the factors that influenced the decision and timing of volunteering.
3.2 The volunteer experience: What is it like?
The early days
Volunteers and staff highlighted that maintaining volunteer interest during the early
stages was critical. Volunteers sometimes felt that, initially, they were hanging around
either waiting for training or for references and checks to come back. The logistics of
organising induction and training days was also reported to be a common cause of
Many volunteers agreed that they were keen to do more in this period and that good
communication throughout the process is essential to avoid people dropping out.

Volunteers who had the opportunity to observe and shadow others during this time
remarked how useful this was for their learning.

Im on board!
There were a number of areas where volunteers and staff felt that the Red Cross is
doing well. Volunteers reported what they enjoyed and appreciated about
volunteering at the Red Cross. Staff also reflected on the things they felt were positive
about our approach to volunteer support and management. We highlight four
commonly mentioned successes below.
Making volunteers feel trusted, valued and appreciated
The overwhelming majority (97%) of volunteers surveyed in the quality volunteering
research felt trusted to carry out their role. Being valued was also important to
volunteers and the majority (87%) reported feeling valued by Red Cross staff.
Furthermore, many volunteers stressed that supporting our service users and seeing
their appreciation was second to none.
A supportive environment
The majority (89%) of volunteers felt they could access support when needed. This
support could come directly from their manager, or from other staff and volunteers,
and need not be formally structured. Support from lead volunteers and peers was
seen as very important, particularly being able to talk things through with others who
are in the same boat as you.
Good quality training and development opportunities
Training and skills development were seen as very successful and perceived as a real
benefit of volunteering at the Red Cross. Nine in ten volunteers reported that the
training they received was of good quality. Both volutunteers and staff highlighted the
importance of having a range of training and development opportunities to suit
individual volunteer as well as organisational needs.

A significant rise in the number of young volunteers
The rise in young volunteers (aged between 15 and 25) joining the organisation was
identified as a success of recent campaigns and initiatives. The number of young
volunteers now stands at over a fifth (22%), and this growth is supported by the
desire from volunteers and staff to work and engage with diverse groups of people.
Volunteers and staff also identified some areas where they felt improvements could
be made to enhance the volunteering experience.
Improving the clarity on volunteer progression routes
Some volunteers reported limited awareness of development opportunities available
to them within the organisation. In addition, volunteers didnt always feel their skills
were being used effectively and felt they needed more information or signposting to
know how they might progress on their Red Cross volunteering journey. Nearly half
(49%) of volunteers responding to the quality volunteering survey said they would like
to know more about how they can progress as a Red Cross volunteer.
Communicating and engaging effectively with volunteers in larger services
Good communication and ensuring information is disseminated well was noted by
both staff and volunteers as a challenge, particularly in services with large numbers of
volunteers. Staff acknowledged that the structure and location of volunteer centres
can influence effective communication with volunteers. Communication and
engagement problems were accentuated in Areas that were geographically vast, with
fewer centres and a higher ratio of volunteers to staff. Some volunteers felt there
could be more consultation with volunteers on matters of importance. Four out of ten
volunteers reported that they wanted more opportunities to express their views.
Promoting engagement with former volunteers
Some volunteers described difficulties after moving home and trying to re-join the
Red Cross in a different area. A more sophisticated way of maintaining links with
volunteers, coupled with a comprehensive and accurately maintained volunteer
database, could help to make this transition smoother. We asked 112 former
volunteers whether they would consider coming back to the Red Cross. Nearly two

thirds (64%) said they would consider volunteering for the Red Cross again at some
point in the future. This indicates the potential benefit of exploring and investing in
ways to make it easier to re-engage and re-activate former volunteers.
Encouraging short-term volunteers to stay
When exploring why volunteers come to the Red Cross, it is apparent that a number
are looking to gain training or work experience. Although many volunteers continue
with the organisation, this does present challenges around how we keep volunteers
once their short-term development need has been fulfilled. In addition, staff
acknowledged that we need to find better ways of embracing short-term volunteering
opportunities that benefit both the volunteer and the Red Cross. This may demand
greater flexibility to adapt roles to suit shorter-term goals, as well as a shift from the
traditional Red Cross focus on the long-serving volunteer.
Limited resourcing
Volunteers and staff both acknowledged that volunteering isnt free. They
emphasised, while good guidance and organisational direction on how to support
volunteers is essential and welcome, the structures for volunteer support also do have
to be resourced properly. Staff capacity was identified as a challenge. The focus is
often on keeping the day-to-day operations running, with little extra time for strategic
planning, creative reflection and engaging more with volunteers. Volunteers and staff
also acknowledged sometimes not having enough people to adequately cover shifts,
which increased the pressure on volunteers to perform. More resourcing for
volunteer leaders, in terms of appropriate training and resources to carry out their
role, was felt to be something that would also enhance the overall success of
volunteering across the board.
The potential impact of delivering services under funded contracts on our
Certain volunteers, whose motivations were heavily underpinned by a degree of
altruism or wanting to help others, experienced conflict around the emerging
payment or contract element of some services. They reported that this made
volunteering feel less worthwhile, or reduced the amount of satisfaction they derived
from helping others. Many also felt the payment or contract element damaged how

they were perceived by service users, or other external organisations who may be
competitors in the funding market.
3.3 The decision: To stay or go?
The Red Cross has many long-serving volunteers. Over a quarter (28%) of them have
been volunteering for over 10 years. However, at the other end of the spectrum, just
under half (46%) have been volunteering for under three years. We identified a group
of volunteer leavers in order to explore their main reasons for stopping volunteering.
The top five reasons cited were:
Personal reasons, such as a change in family life, work or study (21%)
Health reasons (21%)
Lack of time to volunteer (13%)
Finding paid employment (13%)
Moving out of the area (12%).
Seven per cent of all leavers said that they stopped due to being dissatisfied with their
experience of volunteering. Dissatisfaction stemmed from a variety of mostly unrelated
reasons, including differing role expectations, and volunteering pressures.


4 Recommendations
The research identified five key elements of quality volunteering from the perspective
of Red Cross volunteers and staff. A number of ideas for improving practice were
identified and a sample of these ideas is presented for each element.
4.1 Attract, recruit and integrate volunteers
There is a need to raise awareness of the available volunteering opportunities at the Red
Cross to attract new volunteers with relevant skill sets. Moreover, during the recruitment
process we must aim to minimise the delays and red tape, and ensure that potential
volunteers are not deterred from progressing during this initial stage.
Volunteers and staff identified the need for efficient and timely recruitment processes.
This includes forward planning, having clearly identified mutual expectations upfront,
and selecting the most suitable volunteers to deliver Red Cross services guided by our
values. We also need to ensure volunteers are quickly integrated into the context and
content of their work, and are made fully aware of Red Cross expectations, values and
the fundamental principles.
Some ideas for improving practice
Capitalise on all potential opportunities to use word of mouth and social media
for encouraging volunteers to join the Red Cross.
Challenge perceptions around the amount of time that volunteers need to
commit and raise awareness of lower intensity roles.
Build positive, personal relationships with well-targeted external organisations
that can help to spread the word about volunteering opportunities.
Ensure a mutual expectations document is signed by staff and volunteers to
clarify commitment at the outset.
Enable new volunteers to buddy up with current volunteers as soon as possible
and encourage them to join social forums or groups. This will help to integrate
new volunteers and share information about volunteering roles and
4.2 Deploy volunteers flexibly and responsively

In order to support our services, volunteers should be encouraged and fully supported to
volunteer in different roles or services within the organisation if desired. Volunteers and
staff identified that flexible deployment would ultimately maximise opportunities to
respond to and support our service users. Flexible deployment would entail recognising
volunteers existing skills, and identifying opportunities for their use across the range of
volunteering roles and services. This flexible approach could also enable the Red Cross to
respond better to changing personal circumstances and challenges faced by volunteers.
Some ideas for improving practice
Ensure volunteers are fully aware of opportunities that exist in other services.
Ensure there is good co-ordination across the different services to increase the
potential for volunteers to move between services when they want to.
Promote increased use of Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) to
encourage the use of existing skills and maximise opportunities to move
between roles.
Enable all staff across all services to have access to volunteer management
Challenge the perception that volunteering roles are specific to those who have
certain skills given that volunteers may be looking for a different role outside
of their everyday skills base.
4.3 Build supportive relationships between staff and
The need to build supportive relationships emerged as one of the most significant
elements for quality volunteering at the Red Cross. Volunteers and staff felt it was crucial
to have access to support when needed, and to feel recognised, appreciated and valued
in their work. They also highlighted a need to have effective mechanisms in place to
enable volunteers to express their views, and to feel heard, responded to and
represented. Effective engagement, free flowing information and overall good
communication were clearly highlighted by all in this study as pre-requisites for quality
Some ideas for improving practice
Social gatherings are not to be underestimated. Organise coffee mornings and
gatherings to bring volunteers and staff together.

Encourage greater engagement and involvement of volunteers in staff meetings
and forums to break down some of the perceived barriers.
Develop leadership and coaching skills for lead volunteers and staff. These skills
were felt to be more important than supervisory and management skills for
supporting volunteers.
4.4 Ensure accessible development opportunities
for volunteers
Staff and volunteers highlighted the importance of having a range of development
opportunities to suit individual volunteer and organisational needs. We need to ensure
that these opportunities are accessible to all volunteers who want and need them.
Some ideas for improving practice
Conduct face-to-face consultations with volunteers to better understand
development needs and pathways.
Clarify the opportunities for volunteers to develop and progress. For example, a
visual training route-map could help to clarify expectations and expected
timelines for progression.
Expand thinking on what a good development opportunity is. Include structured
but informal skills development activities and events that are accessible and
Encourage flexibility around access to training in different geographical locations
to ensure uptake and availability.
4.5 Embrace diversity and create opportunities for
engaging with a diverse workforce
The Red Cross would benefit from expanding our reach and attracting, recruiting and
retaining volunteers from traditionally untapped groups. We also need to find the
right roles and provide appropriate support to suit differing volunteering styles,
preferences and needs.
Some ideas for improving practice
Use established personal connections and regard for the Red Cross in a way that
will appeal to different groups.

Encourage greater recognition that different styles of volunteering can meet
our organisational needs, and develop more roles to suit these needs (e.g. short-
term volunteering).
Develop a clearer understanding of our diversity profile with regard to
volunteers and service users, alongside a notion of what we are aiming for and
5 Conclusion
The two projects explored how the Red Cross could develop its volunteer proposition
by considering every step of the volunteering journey. The experiences of both staff
and volunteers have, in turn, helped us to identify key elements and ideas for
improving practice. Following consultation with teams in the areas, the organisation
has taken active steps to incorporate some of the recommendations into practice, and
others have been marked as priorities for the future.
We have taken a positive step to identify what it means for the Red Cross to have a
quality volunteering offer in place, and we recognise the main areas on which we should