Our volunteers are absolutely integral to RSPB’s organisational performance. They’re a fundamental part of what we do, and how we do it.

By headcount, volunteers comprise 81% of RSPB’s workforce, and contribute 25% of all time worked to help deliver our vision of a shared world where wildlife, wild places and people thrive. Our volunteers are therefore central to our charitable mission and objectives.

Our volunteers are involved in any and every kind of work the organisation has to offer. We don’t have a strict demarcation, whereby certain activities are the preserve of employees and others are left to volunteers. Instead, we see it as a partnership between the two elements of our workforce (employees and volunteers) to achieve desired outcomes: “One Team for Nature,” you might say.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that volunteers are in our DNA: we were founded in 1889 by a group of ladies who got together to fight the use of egret feathers in the millinery trade – so, the idea was that if you went to church with egret feathers in your hat, you could end up receiving a rather stern letter from one of our founders, explaining how those birds had to suffer and perish for the decorations on your garment.

Today, we are a large organisation with an annual income of more than £140 million – but that initial model of people giving freely of their time to support our cause continues. Every year, we receive about a million hours of donated time and talent from our volunteers.

Clarity and communication

To channel those hours and skills into meeting our performance targets requires a well-managed engagement programme. And for that, we do something quite similar to what you would do for a salaried workforce: we pinpoint something that needs doing, we identify the skills, capabilities and competencies that are required to do it, and then we go out and recruit volunteers who can answer those needs.

We have a system to bring in volunteers via an e-recruitment tool. Much as though you were applying for paid work, if you go to the RSPB website, you can search for volunteering opportunities by location or interest, for example.

But we're very clear about what we need – and about what the ask is in terms of time commitment. We appreciate that potential volunteers don't write blank cheques with their time. They want to know when they will be required, and for how long.

So, we’re very clear on whether we’re asking for, say, an hour a week, an hour a month or four days a week – and we also try to be very clear on how you will benefit as an individual: which skills or competencies are you going to learn through volunteering with us? Which team would you be a part of while performing the relevant activity?  What support will you get whilst volunteering? What are the benefits to nature of you undertaking this role?

In that sense, the programme is quite task led – but it’s also built around ensuring that people understand the expectations when they volunteer with us, and what sort of support will be available: if you join us as a volunteer, you'll have a line manager or other type of supervisor responsible for ensuring you have a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

Overlapping policies

So, how do we ensure that our volunteers are on the same page as our employees and liaising with them effectively?

Well, the simple answer is that we try not to draw too much of a distinction between one and the other – which applies equally to the standard of performance we’re looking for and the standard of behaviour we expect.

While we do we have a few policies and procedures that are different for volunteers, the crucial point is that they’re not different where they don’t need to be. For example, as a matter of policy, use of our intranet is open to you whether you’re paid or unpaid. Our code of conduct for volunteers is almost identical to the one we have for paid staff, but leaves out a few non-applicable points around pay and pensions.

So, where our policies, procedures and ways of working don’t need to be different, they aren’t, and where they do need to be different – because we want to maintain a bit of distinctiveness between contracts and volunteering – we keep that subtle distance.

Do we upskill our volunteers and provide them with additional training and development opportunities? Absolutely. Do all of our volunteers want that? No, not necessarily. That all depends upon their motivation for volunteering, which tends to relate to their life stage.

If you're a career changer – a young person looking to volunteer because you want to switch to the conservation and environmental field – then you would probably be interested in that personal growth and acquiring new skills through as many new experiences as possible.

However, if you’re newly retired from a high-pressure job, you may be more inclined to say: “Actually I just want to be part of a five-person work party every Thursday and be told what to do – so, just for a change, I won’t have any direct leadership or management responsibilities.” And that’s absolutely fine.

Some volunteers may start off giving an hour or two of their time just to see what it’s like: “How am I going to be treated? What kind of support will I receive? What’s the team like? And what will they ask me to do?”

If you do feel at home with us, there would certainly be an opportunity to have that development conversation: “What else have you seen that you may like to get involved with? For example, if we trained you in the use of a brush cutter, chainsaw, or all-terrain vehicle, you could deliver so much more for the organisation – is that something you’d be interested in?” It’s all about having those catch-ups so our volunteers feel not only that they’re making a contribution, but making a difference, too.

Calculating impacts

How to measure performance effectiveness in volunteering is a question that has always stirred extensive debate in our sector. But we use a number of metrics, such as the overall number of volunteers, the number of hours donated – plus the extent to which those who give their time to us would recommend volunteering with RSPB to their family and friends.

We also use a variety of what I’d call more ‘performance output’ metrics, depending on what our volunteers are up to – for example: how many surveys have they completed? How many metres of boardwalk or hedging have they laid? To what degree has the management of our nature reserves benefitted from their contributions? What work has been delivered that would not otherwise have been possible without volunteer input?

We also measure how many complaints we receive, because occasionally the relationship doesn’t work out and we need to evaluate that.

The numbers side is interesting territory, because you could argue that the more volunteers we have, the greater our opportunity for enthusing people about nature. But the flipside is that if we have a million people giving one hour each, that would arguably consume far more management bandwidth than 1,000 people giving 100 hours each.

It’s all about how we balance and support those volumes – which is why we often have volunteers serving as managers and leaders of other volunteers.

If I were to sum up what volunteering with the RSPB is all about, I would simply quote this Greek proverb:

‘A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.’

In a nutshell, that’s what our volunteers are doing – saving nature for future generations.

Voices from our community: Alan Murray FInstLM is head of volunteering and employee engagement at RSPB.