Volunteers and Extra Support Needs

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Volunteers have all kinds of abilities, strengths, interests. Some are able to “hit the ground running” whereas others require varying levels of support, possibly at the initial stages while they settle in. By offering some support and flexibility and making some adjustments, organisations can benefit from the skills and abilities of a huge pool of talent. As well as offering their skills many volunteers with additional support needs have the potential to offer an insight and understanding of your clients and your organisation in a way that paid staff cannot. They can also act as a positive role model to your clients.

What does "extra support needs" mean?

Volunteers with extra support needs is a term often used to describe individuals who may have:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental health problems
  • Physical disabilities
  • Been through drug or alcohol rehabilitation
  • Reformed offenders

Involvement of volunteers with extra support needs

Open-minded attitude

Try to think: “How can we involve this person and what needs to be in place for that to happen?”. It is not always possible to place everyone who would like to volunteer – all we can do is seriously investigate the possibilities.

Volunteer tasks and volunteer role description

You might like the idea of having one volunteer who can do everything. But perhaps your recruitment would be more successful if you split the opportunity into smaller tasks. Or can you think of smaller tasks that need doing on a regular basis for example watering the flowers or doing the recycling? Often people are wary of asking for help with some tasks but you never know – your task may be exactly what someone is looking for.

Support and Supervision Capacity

Make sure you are realistic about how much capacity you have to support a volunteer. If you are going to be stretched, perhaps there might there be a Volunteer Buddy (a colleague, another volunteer or the volunteer’s support worker, friend or relative) who could work alongside the person.


Potential volunteers and their situation

Find out as much as possible about the potential volunteers and their situation:

  • What are the person’s strengths, interests and motivation to volunteer
  • Ask the person about their areas of expertise, experience, expectations, what they would like to do etc.
  • Be realistic and honest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – are there concerns about them carrying things in a café? Are they able to talk clearly on the phone in an office?
  • Ask about support needs and who is available to support them but try not to focus on the barriers or limitations. Will a support worker work alongside the volunteer for a few sessions or accompany them more permanently? How does this fit with your capacity? Will the same person come each time?

If you decide there is a possibility of the person volunteering

  • Invite the person and their support worker along to look around the project.
  • Offer a taster shift or temporary/probationary position.
  • If you haven’t spoken to them already ask permission to make contact with a support worker.

If you decide to go ahead and recruit the volunteer


Clearly identify what you want the volunteer to do through a clear, realistic task description and agreement. Make sure they know what is expected of them and what they can expect from you. You might need to spend a bit more time with the volunteer at the beginning of their placement and break down your initial induction into smaller parts over a few sessions. Try to identify any potential problems or worries (such as periods of ill health, timekeeping, dress code).


Find out what the volunteer needs to make their volunteering successful – how is it best to give instructions? Can they be written down step by step?

On-going Support and Supervision

Be aware the volunteer might need extra support during the initial stages. Try to schedule regular meetings to discuss the work possibly five minutes at the start and end of the session rather than longer monthly meetings. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their disability and how you can help them participate. It might be that they would like you to explain things to the team. Give honest feedback and be clear when correcting and giving advice. If you think there are reasons why an individual is unsuitable for a task, tell them why. Give people the chance to change their behaviour and learn from being in a 'normal' working environment, discussing problems as and when they arise rather than letting them build up.

Support for You

Do not attempt to be an expert in every aspect of disabilities - speak to agencies providing specialist advice and information, individual support staff or the Health and Wellbeing Team.

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More help?

If you would like more help or advice please contact Volunteer Edinburgh on 0131 225 0630 or email: hello@volunteeredinburgh.org.uk
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