Sunday, 21 June 2015

The implications of the Olive Cooke case are so much bigger than fundraising

On 20 May 2015 a story broke in the British newspaper The Daily Mail that has been making big waves for UK based charities. It was the tale of Olive Cooke, a volunteer who sold poppies for the Royal British Legion for 76 years but who killed herself, apparently in part due to feeling hounded by charities asking her for money.

“Mrs Cooke, from the Fishponds area of Bristol, dedicated 76 years of her life to raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies. She also supported numerous charities and at one point received 267 charity letters in one month asking for cash, leading to suggestions the hounding for money pushed her to take her own life.”

Olive Cooke, 92, who jumped to her death into Avon Gorge after suffering long term issues with depression, an inquest heard today 

Mrs Cooke’s family have been reported as saying that “the amount of contact from charities was starting to escalate and get slightly out of control, and the phone calls were beginning to get intrusive, but there is no blame or suggestion that this was a reason for her death” but this has not stopped the media and politicians from arguing hard that fundraising self-regulation is not working. Queue lots of hand-wringing, discussion, debate and promised action within bodies such the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), Institute of Fundraising (IoF) and occasional contribution from NCVO, ACEVO and the like.

Fundraising does indeed have some lessons to learn from this case. Self-regulation isn’t perfect, improvements do need to be made but, frankly, nobody within the system has ever claimed it to be perfect. Having spent six years as a member of the IoF Standards Committee I have seen the development of fundraising self-regulation from the inside. I can personally testify that issues which at first appear simple and obvious are rarely so and that those calling for quick and easy solutions simply reveal their ignorance of the fundraising world.

But this blog is not a defence of fundraising and attempts by fundraisers to self-regulate. No, my fear is that by following the tragic death of Mrs Cooke with a myopic focus on fundraising, the voluntary sector (third sector, civil society or whatever you want to call it) will miss some key lessons that should be learnt.

Lessons that speak to the fundamental nature of professional [1] charities in the 21st century.

Lessons that arguably have a more profound impact on public trust than whether the mechanics of fundraising self-regulation are completely effective (if that were even an achievable or realistic goal).

You see in all the reporting and subsequent discussion & debate about the implications of Mrs Cooke’s death, nobody in the sector seems to be placing any value on the 76 years of committed volunteering service she gave to the Royal British Legion. These many years of service get barely a passing reference in the developing narrative about what lessons can be learnt.

I believe this speaks volumes about the current state of British professional charities. Charities where the donated hour of a volunteer is given subordinate status to the donated pound of a donor.

Look at the language there.

Donor is someone who gives money. Giving is the act of giving money. Time doesn’t factor. Giving time doesn’t count. Who cares if Mrs Cooke had 76 years service as a volunteer, so long as she upped her donations by a few pounds a week [2].

Charities have all kinds of resources at their disposal to achieve their missions. The moment any mission driven, non-profit organisation sees money as the main or sole driver of them bringing about social change is the moment it becomes no different to a for-profit corporation.

Businesses have to have money to grow, to develop, to produce, to serve etc.. Charities do not. Sure, money is nice and it allows us to do things we might not otherwise do, but it is not all there is.

21st century professional charities have to accept that people are getting less and less tolerant of being asked to give more and more money when they have less and less to spare. They have to develop and strengthen alternative ways of resourcing their work, letting go of outdated orthodoxies that money is all they need.

Volunteering is one such alternative resources and I would of course argue needs to taken far more seriously. In fact that is a regular theme of my blogging as frequent visitors to this blog and my writing for Third Sector online will know. But it needs to go further than that. An attitude shift across the sector is needed, not just amongst fundraisers.

For example, if senior managers push fundraisers to generate more and more income because those managers have no concept of how anything can be achieved unless it is paid for by cold hard cash, then it is unsurprising if the public feel might hounded for donations.

If staff are wasteful with money (as sadly they can be) then that contributes to the need to generate more and more income.

If staff refuse to consider working with any / more volunteers, insisting that only paid people can do anything meaningful in a charity, then they also contribute to pressure to raise more funds.

Fundraisers alone cannot be held responsible nor can they be the only ones expected to learn from this. If they are then I fear the sector will learn little from the sad death of Olive Cooke.


  1. I stress professional here because when we talk about ‘the sector’ we tend to be talking about the small but high profile minority of charities who have fundraised incomes and paid staff. The vast majority of good causes have little or no income and operate solely through volunteer effort.  ↩

  2. I should point out that the Royal British Legion whom Mrs Cooke volunteered for has not be accused of being one of the charities who pursued her for donations. No link between her volunteering for them and them pursuing her for money is drawn or implied.  ↩

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The volunteer is always right? Wrong!

I've recently been reviewing my training material on dealing with problem behaviour by volunteers. It's not my favourite course to run because I much prefer to work with clients to help them try and avoid problems with their volunteers.

Sadly, however, dealing with problem behaviour remains a common issue when it comes to working with volunteers. There can be all sorts of causes for this.

I've seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of organisations focusing so much on processes around volunteering that they fail to remember that volunteering is a people business and thus fail to treat volunteers as individuals. Instead, volunteers are viewed almost like widgets at the end of a process, faceless units of production who should keep quiet and get on with things.

I've seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of organisations slashing the resourcing for the volunteer programme, leaving no capacity to engage and support people effectively yet assuming that volunteers will do as they did before. They are free after all, aren't they?

I've also seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of staff (including volunteer managers) treating volunteers with kid gloves. I see it in agencies that will not challenge problem behaviour in case the volunteer leaves, in agencies that think they can't hold volunteers to account for what they do and in agencies that think you can never sack a volunteer. In these organisations, volunteers are often seen as always being right.

Wrong!

If we don't hold volunteers to account for what they achieve they we effectively say we don't care what volunteers do because it has no value!

If we say we can't fire volunteers (and that should always be a last resort) then we effectively say any behaviour by volunteers is acceptable.

The reason I was prompted to write this post was an article I read recently from a customer service blog I subscribe to. The article is entitled "The customer is not always right, but is always a customer". I encourage you to go and read it now but replace the word 'customer' with the word 'volunteer' and think about the article in the context of your volunteer programme, then come back to this post.

American colleague Jayne Cravens has written about why people often see no complaints from volunteer as a measure of success. In the same way I think we mainly see problem behaviour by volunteers as a bad thing and the absence of problem behaviour as a good thing. Yet as winthecustomer.com argue (and I've made minor edits to make it fit our volunteering context):

"Negative feedback is the best place to start working to make your organization or team even better. Some people just never complain, they won’t say what bothers them, even if something really does. A volunteer complaint, expressed to you or not, is an opportunity for a competitor to take your volunteer. A volunteer who is bothered by something you do or don’t do, will leave the door open for someone else to try and meet their wants and needs." 
"Be open to the complaints, the negative feedback, the upset people. Show them you care, ask them to be involved in the process of making things better. Get ideas from them on what would make their experience perfect. Then get to work on making it happen. You’ll make yourself better, your team better, your product, good, or service better. And in the process, create loyal, committed, passionate volunteers who believe in your cause because they know you truly care about them, not just the time they give."
So to summarise, volunteers are not always right. Sometimes they can be a royal pain in the butt. Yet every time you get a 'problem volunteer' situation you encounter a brilliant opportunity to learn, develop your programme and make volunteering with your organisation an even better experience.

Now isn't that a better way to look at the issue of problem behaviour by volunteers?

See also - The lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My thoughts on the Australian National Review of the Definition of Volunteering

The following blog post is taken from a contribution I was asked to make to Volunteering Australia's recent consultation on changing their national definition of volunteering. The original can be found on the Volunteering Australia website.

I'm sharing my contribution to Australia's review following my article for Third Sector online in March 2015 where I called for a similar review here in the UK. I think it's important we re-visit these issues more regularly than we are doing but they cut to the core of what we as a society and sector stand for in volunteering. Because, as the old adage goes, if we don't stand for something we will fall for anything.
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I commend Volunteering Australia for holding this consultation on the Australian definition of volunteering. In our ever changing world where nothing stands still for very long, to still be using a definition that is almost 20 years old is quite amazing.
Much has changed in just the last few years and the time is right to take a fresh look at an issue often viewed as obscure, irrelevant to all but the most conceptually minded people and more philosophical than practical. I couldn’t disagree with such views more: there is nothing as practical as a good theory!
In determining a new definition of volunteering I think a fundamental question needs to be asked: What do we want this definition to do for us? What is it’s purpose? Who will benefit from it? OK, that’s three questions but you get my point.
For example, if we want to come up with a standard way of measuring volunteering across multiple organisations then we develop a nice, easy definition that constrains volunteering within measurable bounds. The International Labor Organisation has sought to do this with its’ efforts to standardise the financial measurement of volunteering around the globe.
Unfortunately, in such an approach we reduce volunteering to less than it’s whole. Problems subsequently arise. If we see volunteering in such small terms we miss out on the richness of the larger scope and diversity of voluntary activity.
Much of the debate in the excellent issues paper which accompanies Volunteering Australia’s current consultation focuses on the advantages to the establishment of a new definition. By that I mean that many views are put forward about how bodies such as government, Volunteer Resource Centres, State peak bodies, Volunteer Involving Organisations, Volunteer Managers and others would benefit from a new definition.
Widening the definition of volunteering widens the constituency existing infrastructure bodies can claim, increasing their influence and strengthening their argument for better support.
Widening the definition of volunteering can widen the influence Volunteer Managers have, as noted above, and can position the profession more positively within Australian society.
Do we want the new Australian definition of volunteering to suit the definers (my concept of establishment) or the nation as a whole? The issues paper acknowledges that, “the current definitions does not reflect how significant numbers of Australians give their time, nor is it well aligned to the Australian community’s view of how they ‘volunteer’ ”.
So my question is, should the purpose of new definition be to help Australians see that the way they give time already is in fact volunteering?
I admit I am a fan of this approach. In helping others to see that their time giving is volunteering we raise awareness of the diversity and breadth of volunteering.
If more people see themselves as volunteers more people take an interest in volunteering issues – more people ask their politicians about volunteering, engage in dialogue with others using the v-word and in doing so change our associations with the concept volunteering to fit 21st century society.
The establishment will surely benefit from this although such benefits may take longer to realise as the new definition has to permeate into Australian culture and across society.
So what could such a definition be? I always plumb for the one articulated by the late American volunteerism thinker, writer and leader, Ivan Scheier:
“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good”.
Ivan’s definition is a masterpiece of brevity, openness and clarity all in one sentence. It does not need a further set of principles to explain (a concept I’ve always found odd, surely a definition should be definitive?) and allows me to define if what I do is volunteering or not. It is not bound by sectoral boundaries. It includes the concept of free will, as the individual defines it. It doesn’t subjugate volunteering as a second class activity after paid work as many others do.
Of course, Ivan’s definition isn’t perfect. No definition will be. But it is elegant in its simplicity.
I commend it to you Australia for your consideration.