Managing volunteers from home with Damian Leneghan from SeniorLine

Damian Leneghan is the Programme Manager with SeniorLine, a confidential listening service for older people provided by trained older volunteers. Here he tells us how COVID-19 has affected their service and how they have adapted their volunteer programme.



Tell us a little bit about SeniorLine and how you engage volunteers generally.

Usually we have 178 SeniorLine volunteers, all older people themselves, who answer the support line in 3 hours shifts in one of our 3 Dublin locations. They answer calls from older people on a range of issues including: loneliness, bereavement, suicide, elder abuse and family conflict among other things. Each volunteer does one shift every 3 weeks and always work in pairs meaning that 2 volunteers are on duty at each centre at any time. Volunteers received 5 days of intensive training, have support materials with them on shift and always have the ongoing support of SeniorLine staff.

How has COVID-19 affected how you manage your volunteer programme?

The biggest impact on our programme has been the need for all of our volunteers to do their shifts from home. Luckily, we already had a ‘work from home’ system in place for holiday periods which allows us to use a platform to redirect calls to volunteers at home. Now we have had to move to using this system full time until we get back to normality. We offered the option to all of our volunteers and 109 of them signed up to volunteer from home. This has been brilliant as it means we can still deliver our service but it does involve more work and higher costs on our side.

Volunteers working from home naturally require more support. Volunteers now receive updates twice daily from the Programme Manager via text. It means we can provide that extra support and keep the lines of communication open, although the use of a bulk testing service has increased costs considerably.

How have your volunteers handled the change?

One of the biggest changes from the volunteers’ perspective has been the loss of the social side of volunteering and the support that volunteers provide each other. However, all of our older volunteers have been amazing! Although some were apprehensive and there were a few tech teething errors, everything has been running relatively smoothly. We call each volunteer after their shift which gives them great support – according to them! Our volunteers are themselves older people – the vulnerable group, cocooning, having shopping delivered to their homes, isolated and so on– and yet they are offering their time and experience to their peers – it’s great!

What advice would you give a volunteer manager who has never engaged volunteers virtually/from home?

The most important thing to remember is to keep connected. Give volunteers extra support, call them after their shift, have regular check ins. Never assume all is ok – always ask how they are. It’s also vital make sure volunteers are very clear about their boundaries when at home – their safety and security is priority. And as always, preparation is key. Do a risk assessment and identify how volunteering from home is different than in an office and make it as supported an environment as possible.


Managing volunteers remotely with Emma Barnes from Aware

Emma Barnes is the Training and Recruitment Manager with Aware, a national charity that provides support and education for those experiencing low mood, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. Here she tells us about managing a team of volunteers across four services and how they have adapted to COVID-19.

Tell us a little bit about Aware and how you engage volunteers generally.

Aware is a national charity that supports people experiencing low mood, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. We have four services supported by volunteers; a support line, local support groups, a support email, and the Life Skills Online programme. The latter two services are delivered virtually by volunteers although in person training still takes place before volunteers take up their role. The support helpline is delivered from our offices in Dublin 4 while local support groups take place around the country.

How have you adapted your volunteer programme since the onset of COVID-19?

We were actually in the middle of training a new intake of volunteers for our Life Skills Online programme and our support helpline when the restrictions began. We had to adapt very quickly and within days we had moved the training online. As we had a big group of volunteers, we split them into smaller groups of 10/15 volunteers and completed the training through Zoom. We are lucky that given the nature of our roles, our volunteers are quite tech savvy so most of them adapted quite quickly.

We have changed the helpline to work through an app on volunteers’ mobile phones – all secure and encrypted – so they can take calls during their shift while at home. We have made the importance of shifts very clear – if a volunteer is on for a three hour shift then they finish when the three hours is up. When you’re fulfilling your role at home, the lines between ‘on’ and ‘off’ can become blurred so we have been very clear about maintaing boundaries.

Have you faced any challenges adapting your volunteer programme?

For some volunteers, particularly those who don’t typically deliver our online services, technology has been a challenge. In these cases, we offered extra support to help the transition but in some cases the volunteers felt it was best to wait until things are back to normal to continue their role. This is completely fine and we have engaged these volunteers in other ways by asking them to spread the word about our services online and by word of mouth.

Another challenge has been to ensure we are looking after our volunteers’ mental health. As a society, we are all going through something quite difficult and unprecedented so it’s critical we are minding the mental health of our volunteers as well as our service users.

We have created a ‘buddy system’ whereby a more experienced volunteer will check in with a volunteer at the end of their shift to see how they are, how they got on and if there were any challenges. This is really important as one of the most enjoyable aspects of volunteering for many is the social side where they make connections with other people – this doesn’t replace that but ensures the volunteer feels supported and connected.

Do you have any advice for anyone trying to manage their volunteer programme remotely?

Communication is key. There are lots of different ways to engage volunteers remotely but it’s vital to be clear about what you’re asking them to do and how they’ll be supported throughout the process. Ensure they’re comfortable with change but if they’re not, make sure they know it’s ok to opt out. And that they there is a place for them when everything returns to normal.

Be clear about expectations and boundaries. Make sure volunteers don’t take on too much and encourage them to practice self care. This is a trying time for everyone and people are so willing to help in any way they can. As volunteer managers we have a really unique job in harnessing that spirit, engaging volunteers effectively and making sure they are supported.

If you’d like to volunteer with Aware, you can learn more here. If you’re looking for support from Aware, you can learn more here.

Blood Bikes East and COVID-19

Aidan Collins, Communications Officer with Blood Bikes East tells us about the impact COVID-19 has had on their organisation. Established in 2012 Blood Bikes East is an Emergency Medical Transport Service. Staffed entirely by volunteers, they offer a free out of hours delivery service under SLA for 22 hospitals in the Greater Dublin area.


How has the COVID-19 emergency impacted Blood Bikes?

We have seen a big increase in demand for our services. Since the beginning of the year our cars have done over 35,000 miles – most of that in March. We have recently added an extra overnight shift to cope with the volumes of samples coming from the regional hospitals to the National Virus Lab in Dublin via linkups with the other Blood Bike groups.

We primarily run an out of hours service because all of our volunteers have day jobs but we have now added day shifts during this period providing support to Beaumont Hospital and St. Michael’s in Dun Laoghaire. We have also added an extra shift for a scheduled weekly collection – which often takes place in the middle of the night. Thankfully we have a wonderful group of trained volunteers and we have had no problems filling shifts!

Has COVID-19 impacted the organisation in any other way?

Our fundraising traditionally takes place through on street collections or bag packing in the supermarkets – two close contact activities that are off the table for the moment. We have moved our fundraising online by adding a button to our website and Facebook page. Our volunteers are also doing a great job raising money through their own social channels.

We are very lucky in Blood Bikes East to have the support of some great sponsors. Annesley Williams have given us a free 4×4 every year for the last 5 years while AXA Insurance covers the cost of insurance for our bikes. Maxol have recently come on board to cover the cost of petrol – our second highest overhead – for the duration of the emergency. Our other overheads continue to increase as the vehicles need an increased level of maintenance and parts due to the increased mileage so a regular income is more important than ever.

Have you needed to recruit more volunteers?

We have had over 90 requests from people looking to volunteer with us over the last few weeks which is great. Given we provide such in depth training for new volunteers, it hasn’t been possible to bring many new people on during this process. We’ve been lucky that we’ve had a few Garda bikers and motorbike instructors apply and have been able to take them on given they have advanced rider training already. We have invited anyone else who wants to volunteer to start their prep work for the advanced rider course which can take a lot of time so is perfect for this period. We’re sure a lot of our volunteers could use a break once this is over and we’re looking forward to welcoming new volunteers then.

And finally, as a busy volunteer with a family and full time job, how do you manage it all?!

I’m not going to lie – it has been fairly manic. Luckily my day job is a global role so I’m used to video conferencing and working odd hours so I’ve been able to share my expertise with the committee. I’m also lucky that we have such a great group of committed volunteers so I have been able to concentrate on communications and administration over the last few weeks and haven’t needed to take on a biking shift. Volunteering with Blood Bikes East, especially at a time like this, allows you to see the very best in people which has been such a positive during such a crazy time!

Volunteer Management in Extreme Weather Conditions

snowy weather

In extreme weather conditions we are reliant not just on local authorities and emergency services; but also on volunteer bodies such as Mountain Rescue, Irish Coast Guard, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Civil Defence, First Responders, 4×4 Response Groups and many others that support our local communities in times of need.

There are many volunteer-led groups around the country that do great work to help those in need at these challenging times. As Volunteer Managers we need to ensure that we are looking after volunteers’ health, safety and welfare. This checklist will help you reflect on things you might consider when working with volunteers in extreme weather situations:

The right person for the right role – People often offer their services in times of needs like this, but we must ensure that we have the right person for the role. Volunteers need to be competent, as well as physically and mentally fit to carry out the task required of them. Quite often people think they can do more than they are actually able to do. Ensure that you have clear role descriptions to define the role of your volunteers.

Insurance – Does your insurance policy cover your volunteers when they are engaged in a hazardous area or programme?  There may be additional risks not present normally. If the current volunteer role differs from what your organisation has been set up to do as outlined in your Memorandum and Articles of Association, you should check with your insurance company to ensure that volunteers are covered and that they will pay out in the event of an accident.

Rest and Recuperation – Volunteers can sometimes be over enthusiastic with their energy to support others at times of need.  You might need to reconsider the length of volunteers’ shifts, reducing their length and ensuring volunteers do not push themselves too hard.

Expectations – Volunteers might want to solve all the problems caused by the extreme weather conditions and stay out in all weather conditions to do so, putting themselves at risk.  Manage the expectations of volunteers in line with the policies and procedures of your organisation.  Be realistic and ensure that your volunteers aren’t pushing themselves too hard.

Preparation, preparation, preparation – You can never have enough of it, that’s why good volunteer programmes carry out drills and practices year round to ensure that volunteers are trained and aware of what is expected of them when a severe weather condition comes along.

Welfare – Your concern might be about helping those who are most at need in our communities, but you can’t do that without volunteers. Your primary concern should be the welfare of your volunteers. Ensure they get hot refreshments and food. Be aware of those who insist they don’t need anything and want to battle on without refreshments or a break.

Mental Health – Lots of issues can present themselves at a time like this, all of which can take a toll on a volunteer’s mental health. You might be fine, but what about your volunteers?  People experience things in different ways and it is often the quieter volunteer who needs the most attention.

PPE / Equipment – The onus is on you to ensure that your volunteers have all the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need. That might include thermal hats, gloves, jackets and boots.  You can’t expect people to have that equipment lying around at home. Maybe set up a pool of equipment to have for such situations. A Hi-Viz Jacket, for example, only serves one purpose and will not keep you warm. Do your volunteers need mobile phones? Do they have spare batteries? Do you use two-way radios? How long is their range? Is that range shortened by weather conditions?

Transport – Are volunteers using their own vehicles as part of their volunteering? Are they insured and roadworthy to do this?  Remember even if you own a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle it doesn’t mean you can drive anywhere. You need to be experienced at driving safely, and your responsibility as a Volunteer Manager may be to ensure that your volunteers are trained to do so.

Sign in and Sign out – Before any volunteers go out on shift ensure that you have their emergency contact details, as well as details of any medical conditions you should be aware of. Do you have a process in place for them to sign out at the end of the shift if they are not returning to the base?

Volunteer Management – Are we just paying it lip service?

Discover + Connect + Take Action = Leadership

Stuart Garland is Volunteer Ireland’s Training and Programmes Manager. Having worked as a Volunteer Manager for a number of years, managed a Volunteer Centre and been a volunteer himself he has a unique insight into the current volunteering landscape.

Back in September 2008 when the recession hit Ireland’s economy CEOs of NGOs were left with difficult decisions to make about staffing levels in their organisations.  Many had to reluctantly let staff go. In a number of cases the first person to be let go was the Volunteer Manager. One would almost expect the next step was to fire all the volunteers, but that didn’t happen.

Fast forward 10 years – has the landscape changed? Have we learnt anything? Are we valuing our volunteer programmes?

Problems in volunteer programmes often relate to unrealistic assumptions of what the organisation thinks the volunteers want to do and how much time they have to commit, without ever asking the volunteer for their input. Unclear or no role descriptions as well as volunteer policies which read like rule books written in 1863 do nothing to speak to today’s volunteer.

Excellence in volunteer leadership is about understanding the motivations of volunteers and using active listening, mentoring, evaluation and reflection to develop and support the volunteers.

The days of volunteers committing to volunteering for the rest of their life are over, and we need to start changing our programmes to adapt. Informal volunteering is starting to surpass formal volunteering in some countries around the world.

Here’s some reflective questions to ask yourself, which might help point you in a new direction

  • Do your organisation’s mission and values actually speak to the volunteers about the value they bring to the organisation? Does it talk about the impact they can make to your organisation? Does your mission speak volumes about the value you place on volunteers or are volunteers just an afterthought?
  • Does your Volunteer Policy speak to volunteers or does it read like a rule book?
  • How reflective of society is your volunteer programme – how diverse is your volunteer pool? (There are over 535,000 non-Irish Nationals living in Ireland representing over 200 different nationalities)
  • Do you offer flexibility in your roles? 58% of volunteers are looking for short term, episodic roles.
  • Volunteer motivations are very different to those of employees, however there must be clarity between all roles.
  • Feedback is key to the success of your volunteer programme – not just asking for it, but acting on it and sharing those experiences.
  • Are you struggling to recruit new volunteers? Remember that successful programmes don’t struggle with recruitment as their volunteers speak positively about their experiences to potential new volunteers.
  • Do you support and encourage CPD for your Volunteer Managers?

Providing leadership for volunteers can be exhilarating, challenging, exciting, tedious, rewarding and demanding, all at the same time. Volunteer leadership is about recruiting the right people for the right roles, engaging them in the organisation and then most importantly empowering them to be ambassadors for your organisation.

Investing in your volunteer programme is not just about supporting and resourcing your volunteer programme, it’s about investing in a future for your organisation.

If you’re unsure of how well your programme is doing why not check out Volunteer Ireland’s Volunteer Health Check or Volunteer Impact Assessment? You can contact Stuart about these tools on [email protected].


A Day in the Life: A Volunteer Manager

Barbara KilbrideBarbara Kilbride, Coordinator of Volunteer Services at St Francis Hospice, tells us about a day in her life.

On my drive or walk to work (depending what Hospice I’m in) I mentally go through my diary for the day ahead, what meetings I’ll be having and some items that need to be actioned.  However, every day can be very different as a volunteer coordinator, you never know what will land on your desk, who will pop up to the office, a conversation you may have and also in between all that, some multi-tasking!    A few years ago Volunteer Ireland ran a campaign about explaining volunteer management – “one job, many hats”, and that exactly sums up my job!

Daily my role includes chatting to the volunteers to see how they are getting on, and thanking them for all their help. Liaising with department managers, holding initial interviews, team meetings and reviews of volunteer requirements.  Training is an important aspect of our volunteer programme and it is very important to us that volunteers feel supported in their volunteer roles. As you can imagine with over 300 volunteers, this takes some coordination.   Also there is the exciting fun element, like organising Long Service Awards, Christmas parties, volunteering study days and running around with chocolates on special days like International volunteer day!

The most important factor I feel as a volunteer coordinator is to have time, time to give to the volunteers, time to listen, support, engage and for them to know that we are grateful to them for all they do.  There is always time and our doors in St Francis Volunteer department are always open.

To me, I feel privilege & honoured to work for St Francis Hospice and also more privileged to coordinate such a wonderful group of volunteers.  They give so much to St Francis Hospice and I get so much positivity from them daily.

In St Francis Hospice we have over 300 wonderful volunteers who work across 45 volunteer roles.  They are an integral part of St Francis Hospice and honestly we couldn’t do the work we do without them.   Every volunteer role enhances the quality care we give to our patients.

If you are interested in the volunteer programme in St Francis Hospice please contact us on (01) 832 7535 or email [email protected]

“The lads” that give us a hand!

Lisa Dolan is an Archivist and Volunteer Project Coordinator at the Military Archives and she tells us about her much loved volunteers.

It’s so easy for me to identify the positives of working with our Military Archives’ volunteers aka “The Lads” (Richard, Denis, Jim, Gerry and Tony)! My role as volunteer project coordinator is hugely rewarding both on a professional and personal level; it’s given me an opportunity to develop people and project management skills and learn from the vast knowledge held by our volunteers on aspects of military history and military life.

I’ve been with the Military Archives since 2008 and it was my first time working in an archives service that had, at its core, a desire to both attract volunteers in the first instance and a desire to nurture that relationship for as long as possible.  I put the focus of NVW 2017 “Do Good, Feel Good” campaign to our present volunteers in the Military Archives and once we got chatting about the benefits of doing good works for our health and well-being, we all quickly realised that our present arrangement does make all concerned “Feel Good” about what we’re at! (phew!) . Richard, a retired Defence Forces Officer, said that he “enjoys the variety of work and the opportunity to work with nice people” –he further added that his engagement with the Military Archives has also given him “the sense of feeling productive”.

Our Archive volunteers “Do Good” in carrying out tasks that help us deliver an exemplary archives service to members of the public. They have created thousands of catalogue records which in turn has allowed us to introduce key collections to the researching public.  During the early years of the Military Archives when staff levels were low, the volunteers helped to keep the show on the road and on occasion, provided much needed light relief and welcome company to a hard pressed staff. Although we have expanded our services, increased our staff numbers and diversified in some ways, our commitment to having volunteers on staff is unwavering. Our volunteers tend to carry out their work ‘behind the scenes’ and it may not be entirely clear to anyone visiting Military Archives that we have volunteer staff.  Opportunities such as this blog post, and most recently, an award ceremony organised by us and An Cosantóir army magazine to acknowledge the work of Mr. Denis McCarthy, gives us a chance to highlight the great and good work carried out by our volunteers.

The Military Archives is not alone in managing archive volunteers and the phenomenon of cultural volunteering has gone from strength to strength.  It has been enriched no doubt by the energetic community efforts which focused on the 100 year commemoration of the 1916 Rising – the archivists at the Military Archives had the great privilege of assisting many of these community driven projects over the past two years.   I sincerely hope this blog piece inspires any aspiring cultural volunteer to touch base with their local archives or local studies service and give archive volunteering a go. We are just four years into a busy commemorative programme and there’s plenty of scope, variety and opportunities to learn and make a positive impact in your local community.

Do Good, Feel Good! Happy National Volunteering Week everyone!

A Day in the Life: Senior Helpline

Anne Dempsey tells us about a day in the life of Senior Helpline volunteers.

At 9.45am, the doorbell will ring at the Senior Help Line Dublin announcing help line volunteers arriving for duty. They will be buzzed in by our administrator who will walk down to the floor below to welcome them. Each volunteer will then settle into their soundproof booth and wait for the calls to come.

Senior Help Line is open every day of the year from 10am to 10pm with two volunteers on each rota duty. The first call will often come a few minutes after 10am.  It may be a regular caller, who has passed a lonely night and is delighted we are there to hear how he is, and learn about his day.  Or it may be someone who has recently heard of the service, and is calling because she has a worry, or is in crisis. Each caller is welcomed with courtesy and warmth, and our volunteers too gain a lot from their role.

Mairead Flanagan has been volunteering for almost three years: “At this time in my life, I realise that many older people suffer the pain of loneliness, and opening it up through talking is essential.  I absolutely love my work on the help line. I realise the value of talking to someone else when you have a problem or are on your own. I think it is a great service and very essential,” she says.

The calls may be coming very regularly as lunchtime draws near, presenting issues big and small.  Some callers may want practical information and are signposted to another relevant service, while also being invited to share whatever is on their mind. At 1pm, a new pairing of volunteers arrive and take up duty. Senior Help Line has 170 trained volunteers, our unique selling point being a peer service – older people listening to older people –  and the shared understanding that often confers.

At 4pm, it is all change again, with afternoon volunteers working until 7pm.  Callers may now be in a different mood, some not looking forward to nightfall, (particularly during winter months), others wanting to tell us of their day.   Senior Help Line receives over 800 calls per month, a range of issues including loneliness, isolation, health or financial worries, family conflict or elder abuse.  As well as helping individual callers, the service gives a voice to callers – and to older people generally – by advocating on their behalf to government.

The last rota begins at 7pm. Two final volunteers arrive, and settle into listening to whatever comes.  Some callers are nervous and need reassurance, others may be sad or worried, and many phone to say ‘good night’,  glad that we are there.  At 10 o’clock, our two volunteers switch off the lights in their room, and depart for home.   Most will feel their duty has been rewarding, and Stephen, a volunteer, speaks for many: “If I get even one call, where I feel I have made a difference by listening and keeping someone company, it has been worthwhile,” he says.

Senior Help Line is currently looking for volunteers in Donnybrook, telephone 087-7450721 to know more.

Senior Help Line  1850 440 444 Open every day of the year 10am to 10pm, no landline call costs more than 30 cent. 

Why it’s important to recognise your volunteers

Jill Lyons, Communications and Marketing Manager with Breakthrough Cancer Research, tells us about mother and daughter volunteering duo Trish Larkin and Eimear Tynan and how the Volunteer Ireland Awards help charities give back to their volunteers.

In December of last year Trish Larkin, along with her daughter Eimear Tynan, took to the stage in Dublin City Hall to accept their award in the Campaigning & Awareness Raising category from Volunteer Ireland. Both mother and daughter are cancer survivors and dedicated volunteers with Breakthrough Cancer Research. The well-deserved award was recognition of their lengthy commitment, nearly 25 years between them, raising awareness and funds for cancer research.

They were thrilled; their family and friends were delighted; but the great appreciation my colleagues and I, the scientists in our cancer lab and our patients feel for Trish, Eimear and all our volunteers simply cannot be put into words.

As is the case for most charities, volunteers are the life blood of Breakthrough. We could not continue our vital research into poor prognosis cancers without their on-going support through street collections and fundraising events. We can write thank you notes and acknowledge their work at events. However, recognition from the Volunteer Ireland Awards is much more than a thank you. Being recognised publically for their dedication and commitment, takes a thank you to a different level and is something, we as a charity could not do on our own.

The response on Facebook and Twitter to Trish and Eimear’s success was overwhelming with message of congratulations from other volunteers, the Breakthrough community and beyond. They were also featured on RTE’s Morning Ireland as well as by a number of local Cork papers.

The Volunteer Ireland Awards are a great opportunity for charities to give back to volunteer like Trish and Eimear who give their time, their passion and their commitment so generously to help make a difference in the world.

We will definitely be nominating more of our amazing volunteers again this year!