Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Volunteers - let's be 'aving you

At the start of November I noticed a small flurry of blog posts and media mentions focusing on volunteering in policing.

The first that got my attention was on the BBC New website, “Volunteer Army may swell police ranks”. This reported on the recent Home Office consultation “Reforming the Powers of Police Staff and Volunteers” which, in a volunteering context, seeks to:

“…enhance the role of volunteers. We are consulting on ending the anomaly whereby volunteers can either have all of the powers of the constable, as a Special; or have none of the powers, as a police support volunteer. We will instead allow volunteers to mirror the roles played by police staff, for example as Community Support Officers.”

The BBC article tells the story of Alan Hunt, a volunteer with Dorset police who monitors CCTV between 730pm and 4am every Friday and Saturday night. Mr Hunt, who has been in the role for five years, radios officers to attend any disturbances caught on the cameras.

It also mentions a volunteer with the National Crime Agency (the UK’s equivalent of the FBI), who uses his skills as a security adviser with and insurance firm to help give a different perspective on projects to the regular NCA officers.

Another article I noticed from my home county of Lincolnshire explored the role of students in a new volunteering scheme with the county’s police force. In this scheme, the police and the University of Lincoln have partnered to to give students the opportunity to volunteer as Volunteer Police Community Support Officers or Police Campus Drop-In Centre volunteer.

Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Hardwick is quoted as saying that this initiative is not about getting unpaid volunteers to do the work of paid officers:

“There are no officers who would come and sit in the drop-in centre so the idea that the volunteers are doing their work is totally wrong. The volunteers will be able to engage with students far better – the students are their peers and part of that community."

Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police, Neil Rhodes, adds:

“What’s different about today’s initiative is that it’s aimed at young people who will be able to act as an interface with us as volunteers policing the streets of Lincoln and at the drop-in centre.The scheme is about having a bridge between the force and the university. Sometimes it can be quite daunting to approach a police officer whereas if you can speak to one of your fellow students who can help you access our services, that should be easier.”

Sadly (but unsurprisingly) the unions seem less enthusiastic. In the BBC article Ben Priestley, Unison’s national officer for police and justice services, raises concerns about competence and accountability.

“There’s a general question about whether the general public believe that policing should be carried out by, in many cases, well-meaning amateurs. Policing is a serious business, dealing with serious crime, and our members who work as police staff are fully trained, they’re fully vetted and they’re very, very committed to the job they do. If you’re a volunteer, you’re not under the direction and control of a chief constable, as police staff and police officers are, and that’s a very real problem, and I don’t think the general public would be happy about that.”

Mr Priestly makes mistakes common to those within the Union movement when it comes to volunteers [1]:

  1. He confuses amateur with incompetent i.e professional means competent. I’ve blogged on this before so do take a look at that post for my thoughts.
  2. He implies volunteers within the police will just be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. Read the two articles I have already referenced to see that this isn’t the case, police volunteers are properly trained, vetted and supported. Volunteers, when properly recruited, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff.
  3. He suggests volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid police officers. Interesting. Doing a job for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed!
  4. He indicates that volunteers would not be ‘under the direction and control’ of a chief constable in the same way as police staff and officers. Why? Volunteers in policing roles are already under such direction and control and held to standards of conduct and behaviour. Mr Priestly is assuming that you can’t control volunteers or hold them responsible and accountable, an assumption that is simply wrong.
  5. He does what all union people who speak out about volunteering do, which is to fail to recognise the the very movement and organisation he represents runs on volunteer labour. As they state on their webiste, Unison employs 1,200 staff and have 1.3 million members, relying on volunteer activists. Without them Unison would not be able to function. Or are all Unison volunteers untrained, unsupported individuals who can’t be managed or controlled?

My own view is that the role of volunteers in policing, indeed in any public service, is incredibly valuable and should be enhanced. Volunteers don’t simply complement and supplement the work of employees, they bring something else. For example, that could be a distinctively different credibility with the community by virtue of them being unpaid, such as the student volunteers in Lincoln that the Chief Constable highlighted in the remark quoted earlier.

Crucially, the role of volunteers should not be expanded because they are a free or cheap form of labour. That is lazy and wrongheaded thinking that harms both volunteering and the people those very public services seek to help. Where such ill-considered decision making is concerned it should be challenged and we Volunteer Managers should do more to speak up, challenge and help those making the decisions to do so in a better way.

I want to conclude with the words of Justin Davis Smith at NCVO who wraps up his excellent blog post, “We need a better vision for volunteering in policing” like this:

The modern police force was born out of volunteer involvement in the 19th Century. We have a glorious opportunity to re-shape our public services for the 21st Century by harnessing the power of volunteers alongside our paid professionals. It is not a zero sum game, but a complementary, symbiotic relationship, where volunteers and paid staff do what they each do best, operating in consort to deliver a more effective and efficient service better in tune with the community in which they operate.

  1. For more of my blogging about job substitution / displacement / replacement issues, please take a look at the relevant tagged posts.  ↩

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Three things I want to say about controlling volunteers on social media

I’ve just read a great blog from Kevan Lee in the team at Buffer [1]. The blog explores the concept of 360 degree advocacy and the future of social media. Kevan looks at how brands can maximise their social media potential thus:

“A business feels personal not when it speaks like a person but when it reflects the persons that make up the business.”

This line really got my attention because I think it hits upon a key belief I come across regularly when the subject of volunteers and social media arises. You see, quite often when I train on social media in a volunteering context I am told that volunteers cannot be involved in an organisation’s social media work because what they say and do cannot be controlled. The fear is that volunteers will be loose cannons, firing off any old tweet or post that might cut across the carefully controlled brand the organisation wants to project.

There are a three things I want to highlight in response.

First, it isn’t just Communications / Marketing / Branding and / or Senior Management staff I hear this from. It is sometimes from Volunteer Managers too. That might be out of fear or ignorance about social media but sometimes it’s born of a real concern that volunteers won’t be able to be controlled on social media. To me such comments speak volumes about what volunteer management has become to some people, a means of organising people to control their involvement in as low a risk setting as possible rather than inspiring and enabling people to achieve the most for our mission & cause.

Oh, and why by default assume what volunteers say online about you won’t be positive? What does that tell you?

Second, to steer clear of involving volunteers in social media because of an anxiety that we cannot control them is to fundamentally misunderstand social media. As I frequently say in response to such anxieties, control disappeared on 4 February 2004, the day Mark Zuckerberg turned Facebook on. For more than eleven years we’ve had less and less control of what people say about us as more social networks have appeared and more of us join them.

The appropriate response is not to foolishly try to shut the gate a decade after the horse has bolted but to learn to work with the lack of control and manage it appropriately. People, including volunteers, are already talking about you on social media - if you do not or are prevented from engaging with this key communication tool you just won’t know what they are saying. It’s the digital equivalent of putting your head in the sand and hoping it’ll all be OK.

Third, not engaging volunteers (and indeed other supporters) in social media might mean you are failing to realise an emerging key aspect of the very purpose of social media in an organisational context. This is where Kevan Lee’s blog post comes back into focus.

You need to read the post in full to get the complete picture but this quote sums up the key issue:

“Fundamentally, they [businesses, in our contact Volunteer Involving Organisations] are not a person, they are not a human being. What they are is a collection of humans.The individuals that make up the company are what also make the company unique, approachable, relatable. And for a really long time, the best practice for social media marketing has not been about embracing these awesome people. Wow, what a big miss! With a full view of social media advocacy, I think it raises the question: What if this changed? What if we began inviting individuals to contribute to the voice of the brand?”

In other words, we’ve been getting it all wrong if we’ve been trying to control the brand / message on social media and only engage people who are prepared to toe that party line. Instead of running scared that volunteers may say something ‘wrong’, what we perhaps should be doing is finding a way for the corporate voice to be made up of all the individual voices of staff, volunteers, donors and other supporters.

For example, on Twitter, a non-profit organisation maintains a list of all it’s supporters who have Twitter accounts. It then retweets what it’s supporters say that chimes with the brand, making use of those peoples’ own unique voice rather than trying to control what they say. In fact, in a charitable context, doesn’t this make even more sense as often volunteers and other supporters have a persona connection to the cause and so speak with far more authenticity than a social media employee in the central communications team?

Put like that it sounds so obvious. Well it does to me anyway. We need to stop trying to do the impossible and control what people say about us online and instead inspire and enable people to use their voice to help our cause. Just like our approach to volunteer management needs to become less about control and fear of risk and more about empowerment and enabling opportunity.

As Kevan says:

“Brands can embrace the individuality of their team and become more relatable to their audience. The team can have a positive impact on the quality and variety of content the brand shares. I’m particularly excited about how wholeness, personality, and diversity can fit into the equation here, too. For all the work we aim to do with refining and perfecting a social media strategy, perhaps this exact type of variety is the next frontier for brands to engage on a deeper level with the wonderful, creative, unique individuals that make up an audience.”

Once again, you really need to read the whole of Kevan’s blog to get a firm handle on what he is exploring. I highly recommend you do this.

Afterwards, pop back here and let me know what you think about his ides in a volunteering context. I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe discuss these ideas further through my blog’s comments function.

  1. Buffer is a company which provides a social media scheduling tool. They also produce an excellent blog on social media issues that is both informative and highly practical.  ↩

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Please, no more research into volunteer motivation

Just the other day I was browsing volunteer management stories online and came across an article published by ProBono Australia entitled, “QLD to investigate volunteer numbers”.

To put the article in context, earlier this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported the first ever drop in the numbers of people volunteering in Australia: 31 per cent of Australians volunteered compared to 36 per cent just four years ago[1].

In response to this decline, the recent ProBono Australia article states that:

Researchers at Cancer Council Queensland and Griffith University have received a $220,000 Australian Research Council grant to improve understanding of motivations for volunteering. Cancer Council Queensland CEO and lead researcher Professor Jeff Dunn AO said the study could help to improve social and economic well-being by stimulating volunteering.

This grant is one of only nine awarded the ARC Linkage Grant nationally (in Australia) in the field of psychology, and one of two in Queensland.

Professor Dunn is quoted as saying:

“Not for Profits such as Cancer Council Queensland rely heavily on volunteers to carry out work in cancer control, ensuring the delivery of vital community services and fundraising events - which is why it’s imperative we invest time and research into this area.”

“Our aim is to address knowledge gaps about short-term volunteering, to improve uptake of regular volunteering, and to evaluate the economic and social impacts of volunteering."

“It is critical that we understand how we can make short-term volunteering a satisfying experience to encourage longer-term relationships."

“The findings will inform recommendations for sectoral policy and practice on volunteering.”

“At the moment, little is known about why people take up volunteering, and the factors that inspire them to volunteer on a short or long-term basis."

I think these aims are laudable ones. Much more work needs to be done to develop better ways of measuring the impact of volunteering. Research that helps Volunteer Managers and volunteer involving organisations transition people from shorter-term to longer-term (i.e. regular) volunteering is also needed. Both are topics I have blogged about before[2].

However, I do have a major issue with that last quote from Prof Dunn, “At the moment, little is known about why people take up volunteering, and the factors that inspire them to volunteer on a short or long-term basis."

What, you mean like these studies and articles?

Or perhaps Prof Dunn means the 260,000 search results from Google Scholar when you type in “volunteer motivation research”!?

The fact is that the motivation of people to volunteer is the most over-researched topic in volunteering research. In my opinion it also one of the least helpful areas of research to help Volunteer Managers in their day-to-day work. Why? Because such studies are so generic they actually help you when you have a mix of people wanting to give time all of whom have differing motivations and interests.

As Susan J Ellis says:

“I question the relevance of the question why do people volunteer?; when asked generically. Too many studies (not only those on motivation, I might add) approach volunteers as if they are indistinguishable from one another and are interchangeable parts of some monolith. After all, do we think it’s interesting to ask, why do people take paying jobs?”

I firmly believe that all anyone needs to know about volunteer motivation can be summed up in five points:

  1. Every person’s motivational mix is different
  2. Every person’s motivation mix changes
  3. Every person has a differing mix of altruistic and egoistic reasons for volunteering
  4. Nobody wants to have their time wasted, not matter how little or how much they give
  5. Everybody who volunteers wants to make a difference

So please researchers, no more studies on motivation.

Please funders, no more giving significant amounts of money to study topics that have been explored to death already.

Instead, I encourage anyone who wants to do some academic research on volunteering to take a look at this blog post by Susan J Ellis from 1998 and the associated article Susan wrote for the Journal of Voluntary Action Research back in 1985!

I’ll end with three questions for you to consider and respond via the comments below:

  1. What research questions would you like to see studied?
  2. If you could communicate with academics, what would you want them to know that would be helpful to you?
  3. Have you read any studies that you were able to apply to your work?

  1. For an excellent analysis of the decline and what it might mean for volunteering in Australia take a look at Volunteering Tasmania CEO, Adrienne Piccone’s, excellent blog post, “Is the decline in volunteering cause for panic?”.  ↩

  2. See these three blog posts for example: Five things I’d like to say about calculating the economic value of volunteering; Volunteering: measuring what counts; and Short-term thinking on long-term volunteering.  ↩