10 questions to help engage volunteers

How do you work with volunteers? Whether in your personal or professional life, knowing how to make them feel valued, listened to and recognised is crucial.

Hopefully it goes without saying that communicating at the right time and enabling them to give their views is top of that list too!

Today I’ve got a guest post to reveal how the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has turned to technology to unite its volunteers.

It’s been written by the ace Laura Sutherland, FCIPR Chart.PR, Chief at Aura and Founder of #PRFest.

Here are her 10 top questions to ask when thinking about volunteer engagement:

  1. What do the volunteers really think?
  2. What can you take from this insight?
  3. How can you harness the goodwill and experience of volunteers?
  4. What tools can you provide volunteers to make their role easier and rewarding?
  5. Is it a two-way conversation? It can’t all be one-sided!
  6. How will you measure success?
  7. What resource do you have internally or are there volunteers who have skills and experience who can help?
  8. How will your ideas and strategy fit in with existing infrastructure and commitments?
  9. How will you maximise every opportunity?
  10. Finally, how will you get buy-in of the very people who you are trying to engage?

I’ll hand you over to Laura…

Engaging volunteers is key to organisational success

Last April at a CIPR Council meeting, I was given approval to progress with research amongst the 300 volunteers who work year-round to assist the CIPR in its purpose and objectives, to advance professionalism in public relations by making its members accountable to their employers and the public.

Having served as a volunteer for a number of years, as a Scottish committee member, Scottish Chair, and on Board and currently Council, I ‘get’ everything about the organisation and the work expected and indeed carried out by the volunteer community. After all, it’s an organisation for members and run by members.

After setting up a small working group, three objectives were established for the project:

#1 Integrate communications across all groups and levels of CIPR work

#2 Make it easier to share, find relevant members, ask for help and suggestions

#3 Retain previous quality volunteers by ensuring they feel valued and achievements are recognised

A survey was designed and the CIPR distributed it to Board, Council, Group Chairs, standing committees and asked everyone to share with their committees.

We got 144 responses which is over a quarter of the CIPR volunteer network. We gathered information as to who responded, what type of membership they held, how many years they had volunteered etc. This gave us some insight as to how they may have developed their responses.

Insights were gathered and used to develop the final plan, such as the motivations for volunteering:

  • Networking
  • Giving something back/supporting the industry
  • Develop own career/professional development

Out of the research responses, three priorities were identified and agreed.

  1. Acknowledge, value, recognise and respect volunteers
  2. Develop a volunteer induction which explains the role of the CIPR, the role of groups, expectations and resources.
  3. Create a community – for sharing, helping, connecting, collaborating and listening.

CIPR has agreed to #1, and #2 is well underway.

Meaningful discussions
The biggest piece of work is around creating a community for volunteers to share, collaborate, discuss and have meaningful discussions. It’s about building social capital and reinforcing relationships.

My proposal was to develop an online platform for volunteers. A hot-hub of discussions and segmented into groups, plus a discussion forum for all.

Jenni Field, (pictured), CIPR Inside Chair and I set out the scope of requirements which was approved by Board and after research into suppliers and models, we went out to a number of suppliers to ensure they could fulfil the scope of requirements and work within our budget.

We quickly realised that not all software would be priced in the same way, which made matters a little more complicated and indeed we saw pricing rocket on a few packages.

A small number of us trialled different platforms, ensuring the user experience was easy, there was room for customisation and it really did tick all our boxes. We also had to be mindful of further growth of the community and development of the site, should it be relevant.

On presentation of a proposed supplier who could fulfil the requirements and work within our budget, plus the findings of our research with a full supplier list demonstrating best practice, the CIPR appointed the recommended supplier and I got to work fleshing out the site framework and functionality.

Its working name was CIPRNet and that’s ended up being the name, after consulting the community and exploring other options.

Along the way I’ve sharpened my experience and skills on a number of internal and external matters.


Firstly, resource and skill set. Does your organisation have all of this internally or do you need to consider external support, which may involve a cost? Or, do you have suitably skilled and willing volunteers to assist?

This project is big. In fact, for me, it’s almost like a retainer client! Putting timelines in place and specific actions has helped me manage the whole process and indeed stick to deliverables. I’ve had help along the way from other volunteers, like Jenni Field and the CIPR’s Phil Morgan and Sarah Ion have been hugely supportive and helpful. (Thank you!)

There has been a large element of consulting and testing. As with any project which is to be successful, time needs to be dedicated to engaging those who will be using the platform so they have bought into the idea and have been a part of its development.

I’m lucky that I’ve got a lot of practical experience in digital and CMS work, so learning about a new platform hasn’t been challenging, although it has of course been time-consuming.

Then there’s the integration of any new part of IT into the existing infrastructure. Working with CIPR’s IT Manager, Jim Riches, we’ve managed to ensure we’ve aligned the new platform and have integrated it within the CIPR. It also poses an opportunity to make other software redundant, which is a cost saving and allows the new platform to have maximum use.

In addition, there are times when gaps show. Gaps can be challenges but I think it’s also an opportunity to turn them into opportunities.

For example, it’s very difficult to have an up-to-date and complete database of 300 volunteers, with committees changing throughout the year.

A database had to be developed so we had a way of mass adding everyone to the site, but it also made us more aware of the necessity for this information as a matter of course. It’s both the committees/groups and CIPR’s responsibility to ensure this is maintained on a regular basis.


Working with external suppliers is common place and I have to say, the supplier has been hugely helpful.

Weekly calls were scheduled to ensure the project is delivered on time. The calls lasted over an hour and the supplier shares screens with me so we can actively develop the platform as we talk.

The beauty of working with a supplier which offers a fully customisable site has been that we really have made it our own. Thanks to Sarah Ion who had the new identity for CIPRNet developed.

Indeed the purpose of this post is to let others know that this approach to volunteer engagement has been thought through, informed by the very audience we are trying to engage, activated by a volunteer and the concept and process will be worthwhile.

Give me a shout if you want to chat further.

Launching a social networking platform

So, after a few months of hard graft developing the platform, there has been a phased approach of adding people to the site.

First a small testing group to feedback and try out the functions.

I then recorded a screencast of the draft platform, which takes users through the main aspects of using the site and where everything is placed. That’s prominent on the homepage and I’ve also written a Quick Start Guide for those who’d rather read instructions.

Then, Group Chairs were added – to get to know the platform, populate content (committee notes, agendas, images, news and events). Shortly followed by CIPR Council and Board.

Last week, we finished adding all other volunteers to the site and everyone received a welcome message with a link to get them to complete registration on the site. We’ve added a poll to the homepage and encouraged everyone to complete it, so we can use it as a benchmark as we continue to develop the site as requirements change.

As an administrator, I have access to reports. The reports will make for interesting reading to see who is using the site, what comments are being left, what people are searching for and what each user is doing on the site. It’s a whole load of insight we can make good use of to keep developing the site to be more relevant and more valuable.

We have used email, blog posts and CIPR news to launch the platform and we’ll revisit with Group Chairs at their meeting in May, by which time they will have had a chance to get feedback from their committees.

Ongoing engagement

Although the site will mainly be user-generated content, it’s essential to keep the enthusiasm alive. We’ve already started to chat about ideas for the future, how we can incentivise using the site.

Although it shouldn’t be seen as that, some may deem it a chore to log-on and interact. This attitude should change over time, as more people get used to the site and see a definite value. Coming back to building social capital, CIPRNet is a ‘tool’ to create and harness the value of volunteer work and make it integral.

As for the rest of the membership, they should see a value to their own groups. By sharing and collaborating, the volunteers should use the platform to make their roles easier.

No longer reinventing the wheel, but collaborating with other groups to offer members more. The possibilities are endless, and I for one, can already see the benefits, having used it for a month to progress the project.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me with the project. Between the research, the objectives of the project and the outputs we’ve delivered, the impact across the volunteer community should be evident in a short space of time.

Feedback already received on the open forum

Hub is great and this is what the groups are crying out for and has promise”

“Just a quick note to say well done on all your hard work on this – this is a great platform and a brilliant resource.”

“This will be a great resource and platform! Well done.”

“Loved the video – really helpful in terms of navigating the site, thank you.”

The poll

The poll closes on 12 May, once everyone has had a couple of weeks to try out CIPRNet and feedback. At the moment the ratings are 21.1% Excellent, 52.6% Great, 15.8% Good and 10.5% Could be better.

Those who have already voted in the poll have been asked for further feedback.

Post author: Laura Sutherland.

Thank you Laura, best of luck with CIPRNet, I hope it continues to go well,


First published on the All Things IC blog 3 May 2017.

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