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Successfully Engaging Volunteers – The St John Ambulance Experience

20 March 2017 at 2:20 pm
Rob McManus
For volunteer-based organisations, rapidly changing technology means not-for-profit organisations have no choice but to adapt, writes Rob McManus from St John Ambulance in Victoria.

Rob McManus | 20 March 2017 at 2:20 pm


Successfully Engaging Volunteers – The St John Ambulance Experience
20 March 2017 at 2:20 pm

For volunteer-based organisations, rapidly changing technology means not-for-profit organisations have no choice but to adapt, writes Rob McManus from St John Ambulance in Victoria.

Volunteers are at the heart of many Australian not-for-profit organisations and are hugely beneficial to the community.

But in the face of rapid technological and societal developments, the charity landscape has had no choice but to adapt, and the recruitment of volunteers has never been more important.

Research shows 86 per cent of not-for-profit organisations are struggling to get the volunteer numbers they need, caused by high expenses and lack of flexibility. This creates a significant challenge for those tasked with recruiting volunteers.

Having provided first aid services to Victorians for over 130 years, St John Ambulance Victoria understands the importance of keeping volunteers engaged. Our 2,400 skilled volunteers provide first aid at thousands of events each year. They are at the front line of local and major events, and our event first aid offering has benefited significantly as a result of the commitment of our volunteers.

We appreciate that the process of attracting, training, nurturing and retaining our volunteers is a challenge, but we have learnt a lot in refining the process.

Engaging with technology

Having a strong method of communication with volunteers is vital in terms of creating a supportive and enjoyable culture for volunteers.

While social gatherings and uniforms were traditionally used to create a team culture for our volunteers, we couldn’t ignore the growth of technology and social media as an effective form of communication.

We have a volunteer intranet where volunteers can manage their membership and learn more about news and upcoming events. It also doubles as a fantastic platform to brief our volunteers before events.

Similarly, social media has also changed the way we can communicate with our volunteers, and is also a cost-effective solution if price is a barrier. It’s fast, up to date, and can provide a wealth of information to our volunteers, up to the last minute.

Recruiting the young

With 130 years of service under our belt, St John Ambulance has witnessed a number of changes in the societal landscape. Staying relevant is hugely important to us and engaging with young people ensures that fresh new ideas are constantly coming through.

Recruiting young people can be achieved in a number of ways. We have our cadet programme which inspires younger people to get involved in their community, as well as initiatives like Aspire – a partnership we have with La Trobe University whereby potential students who have volunteered with St John Ambulance can gain priority access to bachelor degrees.

These initiatives are important in keeping young people engaged, while also showing how much they are valued. We really want our volunteers to learn and grow with us and this is a good way to achieve this.  

Opportunities to grow

A positive spin-off for a number of our younger volunteers is the potential to learn and grow significantly in their capacity as first aid professionals. Similarly, to being in a paid role, a lot of people seek the same opportunities in their volunteer role and not for profits shouldn’t forget this.

We like to help our volunteers as much as possible in this. They don’t just receive first aid training – we also encourage them to make the most of opportunities for professional development. As an example, a number of our volunteers will progress to the level of event commander, which makes them responsible for overseeing an entire event and ensuring it is smooth running – a significant opportunity to develop skills that will assist them in their careers. We also offer training for other roles, including for our bicycle emergency response team (BERT) and to become a communications operator or support our logistics team.

We also like to educate our volunteers as much as possible through mentoring and training opportunities in order to help them achieve their own goals. Not only does it provide them with the drive to progress through the ranks, but they can also apply this knowledge in their own lives outside of volunteering.

Efficiency is key

Potential volunteers could be paramedics, parents or university students, and knowing how busy they can be, streamlining our volunteer application process has been vital to encouraging applications.

Since receiving feedback that our application process was simply too long we have made a commitment to fast-track the process. While necessary regulatory checks are being completed, we work through interviews and assessments at the same time. This technique has made a big difference in increasing our volunteer numbers.

In changing the method by which we recruit we have recognised the importance of assessing the application processes objectively – asking most recent applicants how they found the process is the best way of determining this.

Appreciating commitment

It’s important to acknowledge that our volunteers are giving up their own time entirely for the benefit of others. This is no small feat – some volunteers really go above and beyond and this should not be overlooked.

Having a strong internal process in acknowledging your volunteers is important – this can be achieved in many ways, be it giving them a personal phone call to thank them, a reward of some kind or a letter from the CEO. All of these ways show you are not taking the volunteer for granted and truly appreciate the work they do.

There are some volunteers who really do go the extra mile – one in particular has been volunteering with our organisation for more than 20 years, and has been involved in an array of events over the years, some that have caught the nation’s attention, being heavily involved in the rescue operations of Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. It is people like her that really deserve some kind of external recognition – and she received by being awarded a National Emergency Medal last year for her incredible commitment.

Sometimes budgets are an issue in having the capacity to acknowledge volunteers, particularly in not for profits – but the importance of appreciation cannot be more important in maintaining a strong workforce.

About the author: Rob McManus is the general manager of event health services at St John Ambulance Victoria, and has a background in operational leadership across the public health, leisure and retail industries. In his current role, he coordinates a team of 2,400 people to deliver world class event health services at over 4,600 events across Victoria each year.

Rob McManus  |  @ProBonoNews

Rob McManus is the general manager of event health services at St John Ambulance Victoria.

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