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Volunteers in Community Archives

Volunteers in Community Archives

Reimagining volunteering for archives

Broadly speaking, volunteering is unpaid activity, which is either:

  • Voluntary work: Like paid work, but for which you give up your rights to pay. You may be doing it for a registered charity, public body or faith or community group
  • Volunteering: Unlike paid work, in that it's not structured into roles. It has no chains of management, no fixed hours and no ongoing obligation

From our point of view as community archives, and using the definitions above:

  • We consider helping to run an organisation or its projects to be voluntary work
  • We consider helping people with events or similar to be volunteering

There are a few special cases you must know about:

  • You cannot allow someone to volunteer in a structured role for a commercial organisation. This would breach the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. For example, if a retired worker agrees to manage the archives of a business, this must not become a 'structured role'. Otherwise, the person should be being paid by the business and paying any tax on their earnings.
  • People in certain legal situations may have limits on how much volunteering they can do. For example, a person in receipt of certain benefits, or with no access to public funds (like people who are seeking asylum). Before you give someone a role, you should check with a welfare rights advisor that they have no limits on what they can do. Both you and your volunteer could face penalties if you get this wrong.

There are regulations around welfare rights advice. You can't provide it unless you are qualified. If in doubt refer your potential volunteer to a suitable organisation like the CBA, or refugees support bodies.

Are our members volunteers?

If your archive group is a membership organisation, your group members may not initially think of themselves as volunteers. This has advantages and disadvantages; but you might put some people off with the membership model.

You should talk in terms of volunteering with your organisation instead of joining it as a member. It may offer a way into your group for people who wouldn't normally see themselves as members.

Who volunteers and why?

You should try to develop a good understanding of what reasons people might have to volunteer. This will help you create opportunities and experiences that fulfil the needs of potential volunteers. This in turn can help you attract the right people.

You can identify several types of volunteer based on common characteristics:

  • Traditional volunteers - Retirees and part-time workers
  • Passion led volunteers - People who care most about an issue
  • Wellbeing based volunteers - they may be socially isolated, have mental health challenges or be neurodivergent
  • Career development focused volunteers - Students, young professionals and career changers

These types of volunteer fall into two broad categories:

  • Development-focused volunteers - those who need to get something out of volunteering for their own personal future, like education, work experience or skills development
  • Experiential volunteers - those who care more about the volunteering itself than any plan for their futures. This includes people who are volunteering for wellbeing reasons, and ones led by a passion

Understanding why people volunteer and what your organisation can offer potential volunteers can help you adapt your messaging and help you recruit the right people.

Find out what you already know

Before recruiting new volunteers, you should establish what you know about your current volunteering programme.

You can ask new volunteers about their motivations and skills at the recruitment stage. You need to do this without either excessive questioning or making assumptions about people. This means it can be harder to do with existing volunteers who have been with you for some time, especially if that isn't something you normally do.

Ideas for collecting baseline information:

  1. Have a conversation with your group and make some notes about what you know about your current volunteers. How do you collect that information now? It is reliable?
  2. Be honest - if you need to create a baseline from scratch tell your members this. They will understand
  3. Host a brief discussion of how you could establish a baseline - perhaps using mind mapping techniques.
  4. Document the state of your existing knowledge and use it in your gap identification work.

Identifying your needs

This will be the starting point for many groups. We suggest that you take note of the skills you already have, and the tasks you need completing. The way to do that might be through a formal survey exercise for a large organisation, or just a conversation for a small one. This will allow you to know what your needs are.

Then you can ask:

  • What can you offer someone, to convince them to give you what you need?
  • What kinds of people might want to do these tasks, and why?

You should also consider your volunteers' transferable skills. For example:

  • Instead of thinking your treasurer needs to be an accountant, it could be anyone with experience of managing money
  • Instead of thinking that you need a volunteer good with technology to manage social media, it could be someone who can train your existing volunteers in how to do that

When you know what skills you need, you can work out the roles you would like to fill. Then you can work out how to make them attractive to the right person.