Thursday, 27 October 2011

An open letter to the Hairy Bikers

Dear Si and Dave.

Hi there.  My name is Rob and I have spent seventeen years working in and around volunteers and volunteering.  I am also an active volunteer myself, serving as a chair of my local primary school's governing body.  You can find out a bit more about me here if you're interested.

I have recently enjoyed your series focusing on Meals on Wheels.  To be honest I enjoy most of your programmes but this one had me more interested than usual because of the focus on volunteers.  As volunteering is what I spend my professional life working on I was fascinated to see how your show dealt with the subject.  Normally TV does a fine job of reinforcing all the stereotypes about volunteers that make so many people today think "that's not for me".

I am pleased that your show was different.  You clearly demonstrated how volunteering can be effectively 'sold' to a new generation of volunteers through a little creative thinking and bags of passion.  You challenged stereotypes by portraying young people as having something to give society and not just as feckless youth always on the take.  You highlighted the power of the generations working together for the good of society and the benefit of others.  And you showed that volunteering can be fun, rewarding and fit into the lives of busy people - it isn't about a level of worthy self-sacrifice beyond the reach of us mere mortals.

What you probably don't realise is that you have given those of us who work to lead, organise and manage programmes that involve volunteers so great examples to help us demonstrate the value and power of what we do.


Because you were volunteer managers yourselves.

When you went into the kitchen in Surrey it seemed that nobody had responsibility for volunteers.  You not only turned around the food side of the service but understood the strategic need for volunteers, developed a plan to meet it and got out there and drew in new volunteers.  That's what volunteer managers do, mobilising communities to get stuck in.

(By the way, that green baize recruitment board was brilliant in its awfulness.  There are far too many of them in use for volunteer recruitment and the contrast between your use of it and the meeting you had in the staff canteen was a striking illustration of how volunteering needs to be marketed much better).

In Yorkshire you supported those ladies to use their abundant talents and connections to start a service from scratch, changing the lives of local residents.  That's what volunteer managers do, empowering and enabling others to make a difference.

Without the important catalyst you provided the change we all witnessed wouldn't have happened.  You commented on how challenging it was compared to what you expected, clearly illustrating that leading and managing volunteers isn't easy and requires a complex mix of skills, experience, patience and hard work.  At which point volunteer managers across the country could be heard to cheer in agreement!

So as a professional working in volunteer leadership and management I want to thank you for the way your show demonstrated that volunteer management is an essential part of any initiative involving volunteers.

You may be interested to know that volunteer managers in England have their own professional body, The Association of Volunteer Managers.  You may also be interested in the discussions your show inspired online between volunteer managers - take a look hereherehere and here - not all of it positive but it certainly got people talking and I think the overall feeling was a good one.

I hope you choose to learn more about leading and managing volunteers so that if you embark on a project like this again you can be even more successful in future.

Thank you.

Kind regards,

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd

Friday, 21 October 2011

Are Volunteer Centre brokerage services under threat?

There is a great discussion going on over on i-volunteer about the perceived threat to Volunteer Centre's from the current growth in online brokerage services.

I would encourage readers of my blog to go and take a look at the full discussion.  However, I also want to share my response to it here so a wider audience can see my views on the issue.  as ever please do share your thoughts in response by posting comments below.


Brokerage may the first of the six core functions of a Volunteer Centre (VC) but that doesn't make the it the most important.
For a long time I have said that brokerage is actually the outcome of other VC core functions. Brokerage services depend upon VCs working with Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) to develop meaningful opportunities that people want to do, helping VIOs to develop their practice in engaging people effectively as volunteers, and marketing volunteering locally so people know about the option of volunteering.
Brokerage alone does not help address a key (if not the key) problem facing volunteering today - a lack of suitable opportunities that people actually want to do, that they can fit in around their busy and complex lives and that still meets the needs of VIOs. we know that via VCs, interest in volunteering went up 87% a couple of years ago. There hasn't been anything like the same level of increase in volunteering according to the citizenship survey. That speaks volumes. People want to volunteer, they see what's on offer and they say 'no thanks'.
The growth of online brokerage site is not a threat to VCs but an opportunity. An opportunity for them to show the added value of what they do. An opportunity to show how they develop volunteering, not just broker it. An opportunity to show their strengths in supporting people into volunteering who wouldn't use online brokerage systems.
Sadly a number of factors work against VCs in this.
One is that they are largely funded (if they are still funded at all) to put bums on seats and broker people into placements. Until funders of all kinds realise that successful brokerage relies upon these other elements (good practice, marketing, opportunity development etc.) they are always going to struggle to change, especially in hard financial times.
A second factor is that this funding regime focuses VCs onto brokerage can create a victim mentality when other providers come along with new models (including online) and get funding for them.
And you can understand why.
If I run a VC and I do so on what little funding I can get from local government and some whizzy new media types come along and set up an online brokerage system that barely does half of what I do but gets a small fortune from government (or the lottery or whoever) for it, I'd be narked too. And that's what's happening. In fact, government want those new media types to be given - for free - the opportunities VCs post to Do-It so they (the new media types) can broker the opportunities to organisations who pay them for the privilege. That's not fair when VCs work hard to source the opportunities and someone else gets paid for filling them.

[See my post on The Giving White Paper earlier this year for more information on this]
And VlOs don't care so long as they get volunteers.
A third factor is that as VCs become part of other organisations (commonly Councils for Voluntary Service - CVS), often all that remains unique about their volunteering infrastructure role is brokerage. So that's all they have left to focus on. The development and marketing is done by the host agency staff and that's normally aimed at developing voluntary sector organisations not volunteering (which happens across all three sectors). The evidence shows that independent VCs provide a broader range of services, more of the core functions, and are better funded than those run by other bodies. Yet only a third of VCs are independent agencies compared to half five years ago. And with the cuts, that number is probably even lower.
As you can see this is a complex and emotive issue - I know, I lived and breathed it for six years. Some will blame Volunteering England, some will blame government, some will blame the new players on the brokerage block, some will blame everyone.
Who is to blame is not the point. What is done next is the key thing.
For me one of those key things has to be much closer work/dialogue between VCs and VIOs. I remember VCs refusing to go to conferences with VIOs because they didn't see they had anything in common with them. That was never true and is quite frankly a suicidal attitude in this day and age. VIOs need volunteers. VIOs need support to grow their good practice and develop opportunities suitable for 21st century volunteers. If VCs don't help them, someone else will.
The world is a different place from just a few years ago and the old models of doing things need to change to fit that world.
VC brokerage may be under threat but complaining about it won't solve the problem.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Yes, research microvolunteering, however...

Yesterday my good friend and colleague from the USA, Jayne Cravens, posted an entry in her excellent blog responding to the announcement that The Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) are going to be exploring microvolunteering.  

Microvolunteering is a topic I have commented on previously both on this blog and on my monthly blog for Third Sector online.  

On this occasion, Jayne summed up my feelings about IVR's project so perfectly in her own post that I want to encourage you to read it here because I am in complete agreement with What Jayne says.

Please do share your thoughts via the comments facility below and/or on Jayne's blog.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Pathways through Participation – what it means for volunteer managers

In September, NCVO published a report of the Pathways Through Participation project.  This lottery funded piece of work, undertaken in partnership with Involve and the Institutefor Volunteering Research, gained some sectorpress coverage for its finding that government encouragement “deters people from volunteering”.

However, look behind the perhaps obvious headline and there is much to be gleaned from the summary report that is useful to volunteer managers, although the focus is on many forms of participation not just volunteering. 

The researchers conclude that participation takes place when four elements are present: a personal motivation, a trigger, resources and opportunities.  Perhaps the most immediately relevant to volunteer managers is motivation.

The report highlights six motivations to participate: helping others, developing relationships, exercising values and beliefs, having influence, personal benefit and being part of something.  They then go on to expand on the social dynamic of participation, stating that:

A desire to make and/or embed social connections, meet new people and combat isolation or loneliness led many people to get involved in a collective activity. The human desire to be with others in a joint endeavour, and the strength and quality of the relationships between fellow participants that grow through belonging to a group, came through vividly in our research.”

This reinforces one of the headline findings of Volunteer Canada’s Bridging theGap report from earlier in the year.  People increasingly want to volunteer in groups, either a pre-existing group coming forward to volunteer, or to engage with others and form groups through volunteering.

As volunteer managers we need to provide opportunities for people do just that through volunteering with our organisations.  Indeed, the report also observes the potential for groups to help with volunteer retention, noting that “the relationships that are built in groups are a crucial sustaining factor in people’s participation”.

The researchers also highlight that “people’s participation is dynamic and constantly evolving  as of people’s motivations are complex and change over time, something Bridging the Gap also noted but many other studies of volunteer motivation fail to do. 

“Almost everyone we spoke to had experienced some degree of fluctuation in the levels of intensity and frequency of their involvement, depending on what was happening in their lives. Participation was characterised by ebbs and flows, starts and stops, a mix of one-offs, short- and long-term commitments…”

Often organisations make varying degrees of effort to understand a volunteer’s motivation when they first recruit them and then fail to re-assess this over time to see if motivations have altered and therefore whether the person’s volunteering needs to adapt accordingly. 

As Pathways Through Participation highlights, such complexities in motivation are “crucial to understanding motivations for participation” as “any attempt to encourage participation must take into account the differing and multiple motivations people have for becoming and staying involved” for we must provide “the environment, conditions and opportunities for an individual to translate their motivation into action”.

Equally significant is the finding that, apart from these factors of changing motivations, “a good quality participation experience was the single most important reason interviewees gave to explain their sustained participation”.  Additionally, “people participated in order to specifically achieve something”.

In other words, give volunteers roles that make a difference and a quality experience and you greatly enhance your ability to continue to engage people in giving you their time.

This validates the importance of volunteer managers investing time and effort into developing meaningful roles for volunteers.  As Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch put it, "The primary ‘problem’ in volunteer involvement right now does not lie in finding new volunteers, it lies in enabling those who are already involved to accomplish productive work."

Organisations have to offer opportunities that fit with people’s complex lives, meet the needs of organisation and/or client group/beneficiary and deliver a great experience, when that could mean different things to different people.  This isn’t science, it isn’t an A+B+C=D process driven approach with predictable outcomes.  It is more akin to alchemy with a complex interplay of frequently changing factors that must be juggled and balanced to achieve a one or more outcomes for all concerned.

When seen in this way perhaps the question is not whether organisations can afford a volunteer manager (as many all to readily ask when times get tough) but whether they can afford not to have a volunteer manager.

“Improving participation opportunities requires starting where people are and taking account of their concerns and interests, providing a range of opportunities and levels of involvement so people can feel comfortable with taking part, and using the personal approach to invite and welcome people in.”

In conclusion, my view is that Pathways Through Participation is telling is us as volunteer managers that we need to consider: how we can engage people in groups or in group work; how we are aware of and responding to changing motivations; and how we create and adapt opportunities for volunteers that given them a great experience.

Pathways Through Participation adds to a compelling body of research, anecdotal and experiential evidence that should be stimulating organisations and volunteer managers re-think their approach to engaging and keeping volunteers.

Please do feel free to share your views on the Pathways Through Participation report by leaving your comments below.

If you’d like to talk to Rob about how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help you think through these issues in regard to your own organisation please do drop him a line.

[NB - The Pathways Through Participation team have produced their own summary of findings relating to volunteering].