Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service

Dan, a colleague of mine at the volunteer management software provider, Better Impact, recently recommended a new blog to follow called "Win The Customer". Initial impressions have been good so I've added it to my already lengthy list of blogs I follow.

Here I want to share one early highlight, a post entitled Three Retail Experience Trends That Will Change Your Service Approach.

I highly recommend reading this article before you go any further with my post as I want to highlight three parallels for leaders and manages of volunteers. So, off you go and I'll see you back here in a couple of minutes.


Right, I hope you liked that. Here's my thoughts on three applications of those lessons for us in our work with volunteers.

The Rise Of The Mobile Wallet
In retail the use of mobile devices as a method of payment seems to be growing. How is is or could this be manifesting in volunteer management?

Well, online searching for volunteer opportunities is nothing new. The soon to be re-launched Do-It is a teenager already and similar sites exist across the globe.

What is less common is online signup to volunteering. So many organisations, if they even have a good webpage dedicated to their volunteer programme, still ask people to download a form and submit it via email in order to apply to become a volunteer. 

The aforementioned Better Impact system enables volunteers to fill in a form online and apply directly into the organisations volunteer database. No more print and send. What’s more volunteers can do this, and manage there profile, sign up for shifts, log hours etc., via a smartphone.

Mobile use of the web is skyrocketing and the expectations we all have to manage our lives on to the go - from banking to online shopping - continue to grow too. Volunteering is not immune. Volunteers want to manage their volunteering online and not being able to do so could increasingly turn people off your organisation.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned things like paying you volunteers’ expenses via mobile payment systems like PingIt or people applying to volunteer direct from Facebook with their applications populated automatically with the data Facebook holds on them (which is probably more than they even know about themselves!). 

Brick-And-Mortar Gets Interactive
The point the original article makes here is how can we enhance a shopper’s experience in store via mobile technology? For example, wan we give them free wifi and augmented reality apps so they can virtually try on that item of clothing and see all the different colour choices available, perhaps including those not available inshore?

In volunteer management terms I think there are two ways we can consider this trend, both relate to that period between the volunteer signing up and actually starting their role, a period that can be drawn out if intensive screening is involved.

First, how can we use online and mobile technology to provide or enhance the induction and any training we offer. Could volunteers take a virtual tour of the site via a YouTube video? Is there online learning material specific to their role that they could be working through? 

Second, if the vetting period takes a while, are there roles volunteers could be doing online that would be suitable for them until vetting is completed? What needs doing that could be packaged as a short-term, bite-sized opportunity that could lend itself to mobile? For example, monitoring the social media feeds of similar organisations to broaden the new volunteers awareness of the issues they will deal with (whilst at the same time perhaps gaining insights into ‘competitor’ behaviour for you).

Harnessing The Power Of Social Shopping
We’re all used to rating our shopping experiences online. Amazon has provided that facility for years and whether its a war and peace review or one of those “quick delivery” two-worders, chances are most of you reading this have rated something somewhere online.

I remember the idea being mooted a few years back that volunteers should be able to rate their experiences online on sites like Do-It. The reaction from Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations was less than enthusiastic. Perhaps because the Volunteer Involving Organisations involved are all too aware that what they offer volunteers is far from satisfactory and their ratings would reflect this?

Social media has opened this up regardless of whether a formal rating system exists. If someone has a bad time volunteering with you they can be straight onto their social network of choice ensuring their friends, family and colleagues don’t repeat their mistake.

Conversely, however, give volunteers a great time and they may be all to happy (perhaps with a little encouragement) to share their positivity about your agency with their networks.

Erik Qualman, in his book Socialnomics, refers to this as both ‘Word of mouth to world of mouth” and “Word of mouth on digital steroids”. In other words, social media is not to be feared so much as embraced as a key way to enhance the form of recruitment that consistently comes out as most effective around the world - word of mouth or personal recommendation.

You can do simple things like give your volunteers a hashtag to put on any posts they make about their volunteering, or give them some simple guidelines on what is appropriate for them to post on Instagram or Pinterest when they are volunteering?

So, there you have it, my three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service, or at least adapted from the blog Dan shared with me.

What lessons can you share from customer service for volunteer programmes?

Specifically, what ideas do you have for how the customer service experience we give our volunteers can be enhanced via online and mobile technology?

Finally, if you’ve embraced online and mobile in this way, what did you do and what did you learn?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Five things I'd like to say about calculating the economic value of volunteering

Since incorporating Volunteering England into their work, NCVO have started producing some good blogs on volunteering. These are mainly written by their Executive Director of Volunteering & Development, Justin Davis Smith (former Volunteering England CEO) but good material from other authors appears too.

Just a few weeks ago a new blog post appeared entitled "Five things you need to know about calculating the economic value of volunteering". This post summarised a paper from Jakub Dostál and Marek Vyskočil of Masaryk University’s Department of public economy and administration which won the prize for best paper in the New Researcher’s Session at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference 2014.

In the post there are five tips for "confronting economic calculations in your work or in someone else’s". As I read the article I started to feel downhearted yet again at the lack of awareness of the dangers of perpetuating the myth of economic value of volunteering and the absence of vision or ambition to do any better.

I'm not going to attempt a full analysis of the pitfalls of attributing notional wage 'values' to the work of volunteers. My American colleague Jayne Cravens has written an excellent commentary on the problems of valuing volunteers in economic terms. I've also written an analysis of the well intentioned by flawed efforts by the International Labor (sic) Organisation (ILO) to capture economic measures of volunteering globally in their Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work. If you are interested in exploring this topic in more depth then both those sources are good starting points.

What I do want to do is provide five responses to the five things the NCVO blog (author unknown) tells us we need to know about measuring the economic value of volunteering.

1 - Remember it's an estimate
Yes it is, but everyone from the ILO down seems so wedded to it that almost no energy is being invested in coming up with something better. Economic value is measured because it's easy, not because it's the best thing to measure. That speaks volumes about the actual value placed on the contribution of volunteer to society when so little effort is willing to be spent trying to get more accurate.

2 - Estimates rely significantly on the type of replacement wage
I absolutely agree with the author here. They flag up why economic measures of volunteering are not only an estimate but a poor one at that. The ILO manual does try to standardise this but in practice that's an approach that is far more complex and involved than people are usually willing to be. Remember, this is an area where we can't even be bothered to develop a decent measure, just the easiest estimate.

3 - There are still good reasons for using the concept of replacement wages
No there aren't!

First of all, economic measures focus on wage replacement methodologies (i.e. attributing a notional wage value to the work done by volunteers) don't actually measure an output or on outcome. Rather, they attribute a financial amount to an input, namely the time that volunteers give. In my view they therefore fail to calculate any kind of meaningful value to the work of volunteers. Rather they ascribe an economic amount to something we'd never pay for anyway. Even if we did accept that there was some kind of value in these measures, it is calculated on the same terms as paid work, from which we know volunteering is distinctive.

In an age where demonstrating actual value - the contribution made to society, the difference made by giving time - is increasingly critical, whether in effectively recognising volunteers for the work they do or for securing income from funders, we have got to get better at evidencing this for volunteering. Replacement wage calculations do not do this and need replacing with something much better.

Second, the author argues that we should use economic measures because there are existing "statistical systems and surveys". That's following the same line of reasoning as before - we'll measure it because it's easy not because it's the right thing to do. They try to justify this by saying that in the absence of any other methodologies we should go with what we've got lest we end up with something of lower quality, done without academic support.

Frankly, this is someone saying, "Look, this is what we are prepared to measure. If you don't like it then we think you couldn't possibly come up with something yourselves and because academics wouldn't be involved if you did it wouldn't be any good".

4 - Ask for more: don’t forget future research
Here, the article's author accepts that there may be a better measure out there and that we should always ask for more. In fact, they say the academic world should ask for more but given the attitudes we've seen thus far I'd argue that it is the volunteering movement that should ask for more. For more interest in this topic by academics. For more vision and ambition that just settling for what's easy to measure. For more respect for the intelligence of leaders and managers of volunteers rather than assuming superiority over us.

They also argue that what we have now is better than we've had in the past. I'd make two observations here.

First, what we have now is not that different than we had 15-20 years ago. Progress on measuring the true value of volunteering is glacial. We may well ask for more but if we carry on as we are we're looking at decades passing before we get anything better.

Second, is what we have now actually better than not having economic measures for volunteering? Do statements like "Volunteers are worth £500m to the NHS" help? Do they instead suggest to ill-informed decision makers that they could cut budgets and get volunteers in for free instead? Big Society anyone? I'm sure many could do without these problems which we encounter because flawed economic measures of volunteering are so common.

5 - Not everything that counts can be counted
Here, the author acknowledges that other methods of calculating true value such as SROI exist. Again though, they state that these, "measure the social impact of volunteering, but it is extremely difficult to cover all the many types of benefits". So they conclude their article with an admission that its hard, so we'll stick what what we've got. Easy is better than meaningful. Again! Sigh.

What do you think?

Are there better ways to measure the value of the contribution volunteers make to society? What are they and how do they work?

What's been your experience (good and bad) of using economic measures of volunteering?

Is there anything else you'd like to say?