A good role description clarifies the responsibilities and support arrangements for a volunteer. It helps volunteers to be clear about what is expected of them and feel confident in their role. A role description also outlines how the role fits in with relation to the broader goals of the organisation.  

A good role description is not simply a list of tasks that the volunteer will undertake, and does not need to contain reams of information about your organisation. It should be clear, concise and easily readable in plain English.  

Instead of listing tasks, try to define the volunteer role in terms of what the volunteer is responsible for achieving. It is far more empowering and will give both the volunteer and the organisation far more freedom, flexibility and room to grow the role if the areas of responsibility and objectives of the position are outlined, rather than a list of tasks.  

As a leader of volunteers, you can always offer guidance or more detail about individual tasks. By focusing on responsibilities, you will also be leaving room for creative solutions. 

Role descriptions are typically written, but some volunteers may need them in another format, such as in large print or as a video. 

Role descriptions should be consistent across your organisation and follow your volunteer policy. 

What do you want the volunteers to do?  

When involving volunteers, it’s important to consult with staff and any existing volunteers to help identify roles and tasks that need doing. You could ask them the following questions: 

  • What activities and projects have you wanted to do but have not had the capacity for? 
  • What would you like to see done that no one has the skills for? 
  • What could be done to enhance the service you are offering? 
  • Are there specific tasks or projects that volunteers could take on that would help support the staff or service users? 

It is also worth looking at any of your future strategies - is there scope for involving volunteers in this work? Finally, when identifying roles, remember not to make assumptions about the task. Stuffing envelopes may be terribly dull for some individuals, whilst others may find the role therapeutic and relaxing and something different from the stresses and pressures of life and previous jobs. 

What to include in a role description 

Once a role description has defined the purpose and goals, it is then important to look at how and when the role will take shape and what considerations and support can be given to the volunteer.  

A role description should include: 

  • Title of role 
  • Aims and expectations of role 
  • An outline of the role's tasks and responsibilities 
  • Role boundaries and any activities volunteers need to avoid 
  • If you will pay expenses and for what 
  • What can a volunteer hope to gain from their volunteering with you 
  • Location and hours  
  • Any unique details about the role; for example, do the volunteers need their own transport or equipment? 
Legal issues with volunteer role descriptions 

It’s important to remember that a role description for volunteers has to reflect a balance between how the organisation wants to involve the volunteer and creating an interesting and fulfilling opportunity for that volunteer. Paid staff have a person specification and job description. A volunteer role description is a combination of these two documents.  

You must also be careful not to imply a volunteer is under contract to perform specific tasks. If it looks like you treat them as an employee, they may be eligible for full employment rights. You could also find yourself in breach of employment law. 

Language  

When writing role descriptions, choose language carefully You may be concerned that some people will be discouraged from applying for roles which have been documented in sophisticated language, such as older volunteers or those whose first language is not English. Use language that is professional and in plain English so you can speak to your target audience. Anticipate who your role might appeal to. Take care not to exclude certain groups. 

Reviewing and building in flexibility 

Once you have the role description in place, look at the final draft or better yet, get someone else to look at it for you. Is the role realistic, is it too simplistic or more commonly, have you accidentally created something that is more akin to a paid role? Are the skills you are looking for meeting the needs of the task?  

Consider where there might be scope for flexibility. For example, if a volunteer can only make a certain time of day, are you able to change it? If they don't have all the required skills, can their development in that area be accommodated? Also consider where the role can split between two or more volunteers if you able to support more than one volunteer. If you are able to be flexible, it is worth stating where this flexibility can be built in, after all it would be shame to put potential volunteers off, just because they couldn’t make a certain day! Equally where you are unable to be flexible it is important to explain why.  

And finally, when your volunteer has been with you for a while, review the role with them at appropriate intervals, for example every three months. This will provide you with the best feedback on the success of the volunteer role. 

Giving volunteers a good experience 

When writing your role description, make sure it offers a good volunteering experience. This will make sure the role is attractive to new volunteers. 

In January 2019 NCVO published itsTime Well Spentreport on volunteering. This found eight things that make up a good experience for volunteers. 

  • Inclusive of everyone 
  • Flexible around people's lives 
  • Impactful and makes a difference 
  • Connected to others, the cause and the organisation 
  • Balanced, doesn't overburden the volunteer 
  • Enjoyable and makes people feel good 
  • Voluntary, not an obligation 
  • Meaningful to volunteers' lives, interests and priorities 

Check your role description against this list to make sure it will appeal to new volunteers.