At The Charity Retail Consultancy we recently undertook a survey of almost 300 charity shops to find out their biggest reopening challenge post COVID-19. Resoundingly, it was a lack of volunteers returning to the roles they had before lockdown.
Why are volunteer numbers down?
Understandably, people are nervous and scared to return to normal. Many volunteers working in charity shops are over 70, and although there is no official guidance to say these people can’t return, having been seen as ‘vulnerable’ all through the pandemic it is natural that they feel worried and perhaps more susceptible to the virus.
For those who have been shielding very vulnerable friends and family members, going back to work in a public facing role is something that doesn’t seem possible just now.
Generally, coming out of lockdown is a challenge for many of us. Young or old, we have been living a different life over the past few months, mainly in the safe nest of our homes. Stepping out into the big word again feels odd and even dangerous.
Volunteering is fundamentally something that people do through choice – they are under no obligation to do it. If we are looking at how to manage non-essential contact to keep the virus under control, volunteering could be seen to fall into that category.
What does this mean for charity shops?
For some, it simply means they are unable to reopen at all. We know of several charities who are either remaining entirely closed, or are just able to open some of their shops on reduced hours. St Gemma’s Hospice, Leeds spoke eloquently on our You and Yours feature about the impact on their chain of 24 shops and how they were able to open just 9 shops with primarily paid staff as many of their volunteers couldn’t or didn’t want to return.
Pic: Nicola Woodgate, Head of Communications at St. Gemma’s Hospice speaks to BBC Radio 4
So what can charity shops do?
All is not lost – there are ways to help improve the situation and we have worked with Dan O’Driscoll from Engagement Consultancy to produce some tips and ideas for you here.
Supporting the volunteers you already have.
A great idea shared by several charities is to invite volunteers to the shop before reopening so they can see what precautions you have taken and the safety measures in place. This can also be done after reopening but outside of trading hours.
Having all the right PPE and safety measures in place for your volunteers is a must. Taking time to source comfortable masks and/or visors, providing gloves for sorting, hand sanitiser for the back room as well as shop floor and easy to follow safety instructions will all help the team feel safer to return.
Pic: Highland Hospice, Dornoch Shop
For those charities who have connected with their volunteers during lockdown on social media via platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook, this is a great opportunity to share information and swap success stories. As a national charity, Oxfam has had phased openings across the country, and volunteers in earlier opening stores have been able to tell of their experiences via a national Facebook group, which has helped reassure others waiting to return.
10 practical tips that you can do to support volunteer recruitment, retention and engagement.
1 Start with your team – It’s easier to retain a volunteer than to recruit a new person. Whilst in lockdown, everyone has been taking the time to engage and communicate with their volunteers, in a way that hasn’t happened at scale before. Now that we’re phasing out of lockdown, it can be easy to stop engaging and communicating with your team. For some volunteers, now is not the right time to come back, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be volunteering in the future. It can be hard to juggle communicating to volunteers who are back and those that aren’t, but it’s vital that engagement is continued.
2 Going back to your existing contacts and getting in touch with them again. This could be local corporate partners, organisations that you have had relationships with before or previous volunteers. Start communicating that you are open for business and that you need people to support you. Write out a template that you can email and personalise
3 Be clear with your ask. What do you need right now to get you through this period. You may have to balance recruiting volunteers who have specialist skills against volunteers who have time. What is the greatest need in your shop? For the short term, you may just need to recruit someone who is able to staff the front door of the shop to manage customer numbers. Is it essential for you to recruit a specialist book volunteer now? Plan out what are the essential roles to recruit for.
4 Flexible volunteering / short term. Being flexible in your offer is really attractive to potential volunteers. Some people might have a few weeks or more left until they are off furlough. Can you advertise that you are able to take on people on a short term basis so that they are able to make a contribution. This could be four shifts in total, but it could mean the difference between opening and closing the shop. Can you offer micro volunteering roles? Do volunteers have to come into the shop? Are you able to create virtual volunteering opportunities that people are able to complete at home?
5 Researching what are the places that are open in your local community. Supermarkets might be the only places that are busy. Communities are reopening differently, therefore knowing what’s happening where you are is key. If locals are just going food shopping, can you contact Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, etc to see if they are willing to let you advertise roles? Can you drop some materials off for their staff to share?
6 Using digital advertising to your advantage. How can your existing team support you in spreading the word in your community digitally? Having a presence locally either through your social pages or being part of online community groups (e.g. resident Facebook groups) can further your reach and engagement. Have you set up your own social media accounts? With businesses having to adapt their offer and moving services online, how can you react to that? Local business networking meetings are still happening, but they’ve moved online. Can you join and talk about your shop and your offer? Are you able to talk to local businesses?
7 Are you able to review your processes to take on volunteers quicker? Some charities are adapting their processes during reopening to make it easier for new volunteers to join. This may be a temporary change and you must still make sure that you’re safe and legal in recruiting volunteers, but what can you do to speed up the process of them joining and making a contribution, e.g. getting references over the telephone instead of email/letter. Is this an opportunity to cut down on some on the internal bureaucracy?
8 Talk about the difference that volunteering is going to make to your beneficiaries. Volunteering isn’t always about gaining skills for your CV. We’ve seen the power of volunteering in bringing people together during the pandemic. For many, this could be their first time volunteering. How can you showcase the impact of what that person can do whilst they are volunteering for your shop?
9 Keeping it local. A report published by the New Local Government Network highlights the impact that local community groups or Mutual Aid Groups (MAGs) have had on communities during Covid-19. What the report demonstrates is how important the local community is in bringing people together and supporting each other. Making sure that your shop is part of that conversation within your local community is paramount. If you’re not part of your community, then you’re not going to be able to engage with your potential new volunteers.
10 Last but not least, is to have a plan. Whatever approach you take, write down what you’re going to do, what support you need and when you’re going to do. Writing down a plan makes it real and you’re far more likely to follow through and do it. Don’t give up, persistence is key. If something isn’t working then it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it might not be the right time for that approach. Move on to the next idea and keep trying 🙂
If you need a recruitment plan template, then please get in touch.
Here are some links to resources and great examples from across the sector
We worked with the You and Yours team at BBC Radio 4 to put together a feature on volunteering in charity shops. St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds did a great interview from their Moortown shop and listeners were pointed to how they can help. You can listen to it here.
The Charity Retail Association, in association with corporate member Wil-U, has set up a fantastic new site where people can sign up to be a charity shop volunteer. Details are passed to relevant local member charities to make contact and set up arrangements to get started. There have been 1000 sign ups so far, showing how much interest there is in helping out.
The RSPCA have created a fabulous micro volunteering offer. It’s been so successful that the roles have all been filled, however their role profile is a great example of a template that you could use.
Cancer Research Wales have taken the opportunity to revamp their volunteer role profiles during lockdown. Working with Vicki from our Consultancy, they put together some fab roles such as “Shop Superstar”, “Driver’s (Best) Mate” and “Merchandising Maestro” to help attract new volunteers.
St Barnabas Hospice in Lincolnshire put out this great press release encouraging school leavers to volunteer in their shops https://www.facebook.com/StBarnabasLinc/posts/2995997283801
Save the Children have developed a great new role of Volunteer Greeter to encourage people to join the team and help with social distancing and queue management as part of the new safety measures.
We loved this image shared by Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Retail Team on Twitter, showing how how volunteering has lots of different benefits
Shelter have launched this great new recruitment campaign, picking up on the kindness shown and felt throughout Lockdown
The sector has so far had a really successful reopening, but there’s no doubt that getting the right volunteers in the right place at the right time to support the shops into the future is a challenge. But we have seen from the many examples in this blog that charity retailers are resilient and innovative people and we are sure that the sector will be back to full strength again soon.
About us & contact details
Voted Supplier of the Year 2019 in the Charity Retail Awards, we provide a range of services to support charities and other not-for-profits to make the very most from their retail and trading operations.
We are charity retail experts and can help you with all aspects of your reopening and beyond.
To learn more or to arrange an informal chat, contact us at email@example.com, visit our website or call us:
Vicki Burnett – 07985 574904
Jayne Cartwright – 07598 243210
We specialise in strategic planning, audience engagement and learning & development interventions. Focusing on volunteering, staff and supporters in the not for profit and higher education sector. Dan also works as an Executive Coach to improve performance, unlock potential and support new recruits in their first senior leadership role.
Daniel O’Driscoll – 07515 395683
Main pic: Phyllis Tuckwell shop, Guilford