By Kat Shepherdson


When I speak to organisations, the one thing they always say is ‘We need volunteers, can you get us some?’ I always follow up by asking if they have a volunteer policy and role description in place. You get two answers to this question either– Yes, which comes with a proud smile or you get blank faces, followed by the reasons why they don’t.


The issue is, that these are two important tools in any volunteer manger’s pocket, with the role description being the one which is thought to be not utilised enough to be worth the time and resources you really need to spend on it. While many organisations need volunteers, they also need to recruit suitable individuals and to keep them in place for as long as is appropriate.


Without this tool many organisations end up in this awful circle of needing volunteers, getting the odd unsuitable volunteer, losing volunteers and needing more - with the volunteer manager losing the will to live in the meantime. Alternatively an organisation finds itself in a sticky situation, with a disruptive volunteer who is feeling restless because they don’t know what they are meant to be doing. All these issues can be supported with a good effective role description.


A role description is such a useful tool. Not only does it help you as an organisation to understand why you need a volunteer in the first place, it allows you to measure those volunteer applicants against your organisational needs to ultimately work out who would support your organisation in the most meaningful way. Let’s face it, if this was a paid role you wouldn’t hire someone without a job description!


While role descriptions are vital in recruitment, they are also useful in the retention of volunteers.


Something we all can be guilty of with volunteers is using them to do the ‘other jobs’ which you find and give to your volunteer because they don’t come under the remit of paid staff and they need doing, last week. While having a volunteer do these jobs can be helpful in the short term, in the long run, if a volunteer does this too much it tends to end two ways, either the volunteer never returns, or they start to play up and cause you a headache.


A role description keeps everyone focused on the tasks which are suitable and beneficial for a volunteer to be doing. Therefore, each role description must be reviewed regularly to make sure it is current. This can be a lot of work. However, it can be included in any supervision or catch-ups you have with the volunteer. An annual review of the roles that volunteers play within your organisation, can then look at all of them, including the volunteering policy and strategy.

Role descriptions can also be used to show what the difference is between your volunteers’ roles and paid staff jobs within the organisation. As its states on the Charity Commission’s website:


"Your charity could get into legal problems if you don’t clearly distinguish between its paid staff and volunteers. It’s possible for volunteers to claim they have the same rights as employees, including claiming unfair dismissal for example."


So many organisations are scared of being taken to court or doing something wrong and the law crashing down around them. However, it’s not that scary if you make it very clear what the volunteer’s role is within the organisation. This is where you can highlight that there are no expectations nor commitment and no monetary reward for their support to your organisation.  This can be included in a role description and if it is kept updated will stop any issues arising and protect you from any nasty come backs.


Generally, a good role description allows you to state what you’re looking for, what your organisation needs and allows you to keep those who benefit your organisation engaged while also protecting yourself.