Q&A: Behind the doors of Abbotsford House with Volunteer Coordinator Karen O’Brien-Barrett 

News, Nonprofit, Recruitment, Retention, Technology in third sector

Written by Katie Taaffe

As we begin to step into a new post-pandemic phase, there is a sense of hope and optimism in the volunteering community. After several years of uncertain and unpredictable times, it seems what we are craving most of all is “business as usual.” Volunteer teams are firing on all cylinders to get back on track since funding gaps and the lack of social contact – amongst other factors – contributed to the decline in volunteer contributions. 

So, looking forward, what are the new challenges that organisations face when engaging with and recruiting volunteers? How can we get creative in our strategies? And how can we use technology to leverage recruitment and engagement? We spoke to Karen O’Brien-Barrett, Volunteer Coordinator at Abbotsford House – the incredible home of the great 19th Century novelist and fashion influencer Sir Walter-Scott – to get more of an insight. 

What does volunteering mean to Abbotsford house? 

Our volunteers mean everything to us; we wouldn’t be able to run a successful, five star visitor attraction without them. Quite simply we wouldn’t exist – volunteers outnumber staff and support across all area of the Trust. 

In the Visitor Centre our volunteers support all aspects of ticket and retail sales, direct visitors around the estate and support them to access our audio guide. The Visitor Centre is also the home of our minibus drivers who assist visitors in their journey to and from Abbotsford. 

A team of around 25 volunteers help maintain our paths, woodland, grassland and gardens whilst volunteer stewards and tour guides offer support and a wealth of information to visitors to the historic house.  

We run a number of ambitious events during the year such as ScottFest and the Christmas Markets which are supported by volunteers and it’s volunteers who assist with some of the administration of the Trust’s activities. 

The volunteer programme is managed by our Heritage and Engagement Manager, each volunteer area has a Volunteer Manager and the administration of the volunteer programme is currently undertaken by me in my role of Volunteer Coordinator. 

“Our volunteers mean everything to us; we wouldn’t be able to run a successful, five star visitor attraction without them. Quite simply we wouldn’t exist”.

How did the pandemic change volunteering for you? 

With the first lockdown our volunteer programme was abruptly brought to a halt. 

When we reopened, we ensured that our volunteers, staff and visitors were kept as safe as possible so numbers of visitors to indoor spaces were limited with strict covid control measures in place across the site. Even though we (and the volunteers) felt that we had done as much as we could to mitigate the risk there were still some volunteers that were shielding – some of these haven’t yet been able to return and some have chosen not to which is sad for all of us. 

We weren’t able to run a recruitment programme until this Spring but still find that many new volunteers prefer to be out of doors which puts pressure on volunteer numbers for our indoor activities. 

How are you engaging with volunteers that may have temporarily stepped back during this time?  

We have maintained contact with volunteers through regular updates via Assemble’s messaging feature, as well as reaching out on the telephone. We share general news and updates on the Assemble news feed to keep volunteers informed of project updates, development within the Trust or items of general interest. Volunteers have also been invited to attend volunteer meetings using Assemble’s events functionality. 

What are the changes or new challenges organisations face with volunteer recruitment?  

It does seem to be that outdoor volunteering opportunities are more popular. We have more enquiries for these than the indoor roles so there seems to be a nervousness about being indoors. 

One recruitment event per year generally attracts the volunteers needed to replace those that have moved away or retired. Since the pandemic we have lost more volunteers than normal so are looking to other channels of recruitment such as social media and holding stalls at local markets as well as our standard recruitment events. 

Is there the opportunity for volunteers to work virtually? 

It’s difficult for us to offer virtual volunteering since the focus is very much on a physical site. However, we held a Father Christmas Experience for the first time in 2021 which required lots of gift wrapping and some of our “resting” volunteers helped with that so we’re considering how we might involve them again with volunteering from home. We’re also expanding our events and will be developing a new play trail which could offer more opportunities for outdoor volunteering.  

As things are finally beginning to open again in Scotland, do you plan to grow volunteer numbers? If so, how?  

We have plans to explore ways to ensure that Abbotsford remains visible locally, nationally and worldwide. Our initiatives will require volunteer input, so we do hope to grow volunteer numbers beyond what we currently need.  

Abbotsford House has been recognised and awarded for its volunteer programme. Can you share a few of your top tips on volunteer recruitment and retention?  

  • Ensure that your organisation effectively demonstrates how they support volunteers through training, benefits packages, reimbursement of travel costs etc.  
  • Welcome, love and respect your volunteers – they’re people not a commodity.  
  • Always be interested in them – they often have knowledge and skills in other areas beyond their standard volunteering role and are usually happy to offer additional support, so it’s important to know about them as individuals.  

How will technology like Assemble play a part in how you move forward with volunteer recruitment and engagement?  

Assemble has certainly sped up our recruitment process and has eliminated the need for unnecessary paperwork. It has made the process more efficient which is vital when you want to keep the interest of enquirers whilst you take them through the application process. 

Assemble is a one stop shop for everything volunteers need to support them in their role in areas such as rotas, training and expenses. It cuts out much of the email traffic and removes the need for cumbersome spreadsheets or the local storage of documents. It also means that volunteers don’t need to remember staff email addresses and offers a secure and efficient way for them to communicate with each other should they wish to. 

How can anyone looking to volunteer at Abbotsford House get involved? 

You can visit our volunteer opportunities page here or get in touch by emailing volunteering@scottsabbotsford.co.uk