Monday, 25 January 2016

Why how we think about volunteer diversity might need to change

Certain groups of people are under-represented in formal volunteering. We all know that right?

Quite rightly we are often called to open up our organisations to these under-represented groups. We are challenged to broaden the diversity of our volunteer teams and to tackle any practical barriers to the engagement of a wide pool of volunteers. Barriers like expenses so people aren’t financially disadvantaged through giving their time, or adaptations to premises or ways of working that can remove physical barriers to some people getting involved.


Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Diversity is good. We should strive for it in our volunteer teams. But I worry that by doing so we may be inadvertently disregarding the great volunteer work people in these under-represented groups already do.

Take disabled people as an example. They are generally under-represented in formal, ‘mainstream’ volunteering. The associated assumption made all too often is that disabled people therefore do not volunteer. This is wrong. They do. A lot. They are involved in advocacy, self-help support networks, campaigns for disability rights and lots more. What they do flies under the radar of many people because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the (for want of a better phrase) establishment’s neat definitions of volunteering.

Consider another example. The UK’s Labour government of the early noughties had a goal of one million more people volunteering. That goal could have been met when roughly that number of people marched through London in 2003 to protest (as volunteers) against the imminent invasion of Iraq. But that wasn’t the kind of volunteering that the government wanted to see, so it didn’t get counted.

To me, this kind of discrimination is far more subtle, far more common and far more insidious than not providing ramps into a building or only making opportunities available at times that suit certain types of people.

Often without realising it we effectively say to these so called under-represented groups, “what you already do isn’t valid so come and do what we want you to do instead”.

So yes, let’s see what we can do to remove the very real barriers to diverse involvement of volunteers in our organisations. But let’s also take a moment to reflect and see if there are less obvious barriers created by our personal and / or organisational beliefs about volunteering. They are perhaps the barriers we need to challenge first.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Three questions to ask about your learning plans for 2016

In this guest post for the start of 2016 our friend and colleague Sue Jones shares her thoughts about learning and development for Volunteer Managers. Sue challenges some assumptions we might make about learning and poses some questions to help us reflect on how we can make the most of our learning opportunities throughout 2016.

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Now we are back into the swing of a new year, it’s not unusual for us to focus on some of those thoughts and ideas we may have been musing over regarding changes we might want to make, courses we want to take and how we might embark on 2016 in a way that enables us to feel revitalised and focused.

One step we might be considering is to embark on a learning programme, or to at least be thinking about what workshops or conferences we might want to attend this year. Thankfully, the field of Volunteer Management has come a long way from the days of limited training options and few opportunities to learn and connect to others. There are in fact, lots of ways to access learning and development, including online, which is definitely something to be celebrated. Unfortunately though, this doesn’t necessarily translate into participation for everyone, or that we will receive the type of learning intervention that we really need.

Some of the biggest issues I see around learning relate to the assumptions we make, collectively and individually about what it is, and how to go about it.

For example:

  1. Learning is simply about acquiring knowledge.
  2. Learning means training, and training means attending courses in a classroom, often requiring travel to London or another major city.
  3. Learning is expensive and takes up valuable time which we cannot afford.
  4. Learning is just about getting a certificate to prove you can do a job.
  5. Learning is something that should be paid for or provided by the organisation and I know they won’t.

These are just some of the messages I regularly hear from individuals and organisations when discussing learning and development opportunities. And there’s a tone of negativity and resignation, which if followed, can be damaging.

It’s important for us all to recognise that learning is not a luxury add-on, only to be afforded and enjoyed during the good times. It’s actually essential to our growth and development as individuals and organisations; and we have a duty to our volunteers, our client groups and communities to remain invested in ourselves and our work, so we can deliver the best at all times.

Throughout my years of designing and delivering training and working with Volunteer Managers and organisations, the most successful and satisfied individuals I have worked with are those who have taken a lead on their own learning and development. And, the most successful and thriving organisations understand the true value and impact of supporting their workforce to learn. I would argue that we need to take this approach more than ever before and to challenge our assumptions about learning because they are in fact holding us back.

So, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I really think about the role of learning?
  2. How important is it for me today, this week, this year? 
  3. And, what assumptions might I be making about what learning needs to look like and what my manager or organisation thinks about it?

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If you’re interested in finding out more about learning opportunities in volunteer management, check out our website for information on the training available from Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd.

Sue and I also tutor an online introduction to volunteer management course. This takes six weeks and is great value compared to traditional classroom based training. The next course starts on Monday 15th February and you can book your place now on the course website.

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 union 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.  ↩