The cost of living crisis: Minimising the impact on your volunteers and volunteer programme

The rising cost of living is impacting everyone, but particularly individuals and families on low incomes and it looks like the situation will worsen over the winter. Data from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau shows that more people are hitting crisis point than in previous years. Prices are rising, especially energy, food, broadband, water, council tax and more. Inflation is outstripping wage and benefit

Increases. Here are some experiences and tips that were shared during a recent VCTH training session “The Cost of Living Crisis: Minimising the Impact on your Volunteer Programme”.

Many organisations reported that some of their volunteers, in all age groups, were dropping out, to seek paid work. People who are volunteering from home were reporting struggling with increasing heating bills and even charging laptops and affording internet charges. Volunteers with young children are concerned about childcare costs.

At an organisational level, many local organisations are experiencing rising costs, which means services being cut or reduced. Some have had to make staff cuts, resulting in less capacity to support volunteers. The impact on staff is also very real, with mental health implications. As one training participant put it: “Everyone has a dark cloud over them.”

Within each organisation’s volunteer pool, there will be a wide range of volunteer experiences. Some volunteers are financially well off, others are starting to struggle, some are already in crisis, relying on food banks, or even being made homeless. Older people might have to go back into work if their pension is no longer sufficient. Catering for all these different needs can pose a challenge for Volunteer Managers. So what can you do?

As a starting point, talk to volunteers to understand what their particular issues and needs are, and any barriers to volunteering.

Volunteer expenses: Review your Volunteer Expenses Policy. Any caps on the amount that can be claimed should be reviewed to take into account the current costs of travel and purchasing a hot, healthy lunch locally. Proactively offer to reimburse expenses, don’t expect volunteers to ask you, as some volunteers might feel embarrassed to ask for expenses, especially if they didn’t claim before. You might consider having an ‘impersonal’ system, for example one organisation has a folder in which volunteers can put their expenses form during their shift. This has helped in making it feel less awkward than having to ask for expenses. Volunteers who don’t want to claim expenses can donate expenses back to the organisation (with gift aid).

Reimburse expenses quickly, ideally on the day. This would ideally involve having a petty cash system. Some organisations allow staff to pay the volunteer from their own pocket and then claim back the money through staff expenses. However, this can put an unfair financial burden on staff, so this process should also be reviewed.

Some volunteers may not be able to afford the costs upfront, so organisations could offer them a cash sum up front, with the agreement that the volunteer returns the balance with receipts. This issue can also be overcome by providing pre-paid oyster cards, pay-as-you-go sim cards and food vouchers for local cafes. An alternative could also be to provide lunches (but watch out for dietary requirements). Travel costs can be reduced through encouraging car pools and the use of cycle taxi services (e.g. Bikeworks).

If your organisation does not currently reimburse volunteer expenses, make it a priority to build in volunteer expenses in all fundraising applications alongside other project costs. In the meantime, you might focus on recruiting local volunteers who would not incur travel costs, or offer remote (home-based) volunteering.

Funding: Many organisations are experiencing higher costs, while funding remains the same. You could consider approaching funders to discuss the implications of this. Unless the funding can be increased, the service will have to be consolidated within the budget, which will effectively mean a reduction in the service.

Recruitment. When recruiting volunteers, be clear and transparent on what expenses will be reimbursed. Emphasise the benefits of volunteering, such as the social aspects of the role, (e.g. ‘friendly team’), a warm space to volunteer, the skills that will be developed and training provided. Consider whether you can offer any flexibility to suit the volunteer, such as in-person or remote volunteering (to minimise travel costs and caring costs), regular or ad hoc shifts, if there is flexibility in timings (or not), opportunities to catch up on missed training, and whether you can accommodate family volunteering. Have an open and honest conversation with potential volunteers about the commitment and any barriers they might have, to avoid disappointment and financial issues later.

Connectivity (mobile and data poverty): Offer alternative methods of communication e.g. text messages as well as email or online portals. Use off-line as well as online recruitment methods, to engage with people with limited connectivity. Consider providing volunteers with data sim cards, access to hotspots and free Wi-Fi in the building (or partner organisations’ premises).

Retaining current volunteers: Communicate with all volunteers about the cost of living crisis. Check again with all volunteers about expenses. Integrate questions about wellbeing and claiming expenses into volunteer supervision sessions. Offer flexibility if volunteers need to reduce their hours. Suggest a temporary break, rather than ending volunteering. Full days instead of half days may help to reduce travel costs. Offer in-person volunteering to keep warm. Have a warm space in the office for volunteers to hang out. Provide lunch and/or hot drinks and snacks.

Offer referral support to all volunteers for example information on food stores, food banks, debt advice, benefits advice, employability support etc. Offer opportunities for socialising and peer support. Making volunteers feel valued and thanked is more important than ever.

Employment: Volunteers may be looking to increase their income through (better) paid work. You can assist with this by designing volunteer roles with skill development in mind. Offer roles that develop different skills e.g. office, practical. Ask volunteers what skills they want to develop (don’t assume). Have clear role descriptions, thorough inductions, ongoing training, clear progression routes, access to internal job vacancies, help with CVs and interview preparation, and signposting to specialist employability support. Look at the skills and assets that people have and look to build on them.

Freebies /discounts/tips: Research local organisations and spaces offering discounts, freebies or vouchers. Consider having a place where volunteers can access this information and share their own ideas (e.g. intranet, website, noticeboard, WhatsApp group).

If you would like to receive a list of local services where volunteers could be signposted to and resources/information that could be helpful for organisations or volunteers, please contact Evelyn Rodrigues, Training & Best Practice Manager on [email protected].