Friday, 14 December 2012

What impact have your volunteers had in 2012?

As 2012 draws to a close, our colleague and good friend Martin J Cowling of People First - Total Solutions provides some food for thought to help us all evaluate the year gone as we start to look to what 2013 may hold in store.


The end of the years gives us a chance to reflect on a lot of things. For those who involve volunteers in delivery of services, I strongly encourage people to consider what has been the impact of this voluntary effort over the year.

I want to suggest that volunteering has three impacts:

  1. It impacts the wider community
  2. It impacts your organisation
  3. It impacts your volunteers

So how has that manifested for you this year?

Firstly, how is your community better off as a result of your volunteers' service. Can you measure the impact?

Too often we measure the impact in hours worked or money saved. These are poor measures.

What is more meaningful is the lives impacted, the environmental improvement, the people supported, educated, encouraged, or rescued. How do you measure that? For example, in the last year our service has provided meals to 5,000 people worth £60,000. Then get personal testimonies of the impact of those meals by recipients of your service. The factual and the story help to underscore your success.

Martin J Cowling, CEO People First-Total SolutionsThe second impact of volunteering is on the organisation the volunteers serve. People often suggest that volunteers save their agency money. Let's be clear - volunteers do not save anyone money. They allow an organisation to expand services beyond funding base. Notice the difference in language?
Volunteers also bring ideas and contacts to an organisation, They contribute financially through their donations and gifts. Have you considered measuring these impacts on your organisation?

Finally, volunteering impacts volunteers themselves. Have you asked your volunteers what volunteering has done for them? Many will describe the impact of the services they have given, the people they have touched and the difference they feel they have made. How do you celebrate these with them? How do you reassure those who have found volunteering to be not so rewarding this time around.

These questions are not too late to be considered for 2012. You may also want to start considering how you ask them for the end of 2013.


Thank you Martin.

So, over to you.  Have you asked these questions during 2012? If so, what answers did you come up with? Did those answers help you in your work, for example in giving volunteers more meaningful recognition or perhaps arguing for better support for the volunteer programme?

You may also be interested in Susan Ellis' December 2012 Hot Topic which also looks at how volunteer managers can measure and report on the contribution volunteers make to an organisation.

If all this has got you thinking about how to evaluate your volunteer programme then might we be able to help so please do get in touch to discuss your needs.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Six ideas from online dating to help with volunteer recruitment

One of the things I've noticed in the last couple of years is the increasing use of dating as an analogy when people talk about volunteer recruitment and retention.  So, when earlier this year I found myself back in the single life once again, I thought that I might have an opportunity to use this change in circumstances to write my own blog on dating and volunteering.

After being with my ex-partner for nearly twenty years, getting back into the dating game was and is a daunting prospect, not least because one of the common ways to meet new people these days is through online dating sites.  Not only did they not exist the last time I was single, the internet didn't even exist, at least in a form accessible to the general public in the always-connected way it does now (and I'm still the younger side of 40!). So my take on dating and volunteering is to look at six things I think online dating sites can teach those of us recruiting, engaging and leading volunteers.

Sites get to know people first and then using processes to match up people

When you sign up for dating sites you are prompted to tell them all about yourself.  For the bigger sites this includes quite extensive questioning about your interests, tastes, preferences in a partner and so on.  For me there are three takeaways for volunteer management arising from this extensive questioning by the site:

  1. Dating sites use a process to help learn about the individual.  They then use that knowledge to help match the person to others.  Critically, the process supports the person, helping to learn about them and their motivations. Sadly, many people who are volunteering encounter bureaucratic, impersonal processes that seem to ignore the individual, partly because their purpose is to cover the organisations backside if things go wrong. How much more attractive volunteering would be if we focused on getting to know the potential volunteer and their reasons for giving their time more than whether they've filled our forms in correctly.
  2. People are not averse to filling in forms because they expect the payoff at the end of it will be worth it.  Those of us on dating sites have a bigger purpose and if we view the process as an inconvenience then we'll put up with it because we hope the results of doing it will be worth the time spent.  Is that the experience volunteers have of giving their time to your organisation, or do they just give up when faced with your processes and go off and do something less boring instead?
  3. The whole process can be done easily online.  If you can't finish the form on a dating site in one sitting - and some are rather long - you can save them and come back later.  It is a seamless, joined up and easy process.  It might almost be said that filling these forms in is a pleasure (see my last point about payoff) - would that this were true for volunteer applications!

Selling yourself online

One of the most difficult things about online dating is writing a pithy personal advert. Aside from the fact that we Brits are not the best at speaking about or promoting ourselves, many people really seem to struggle with this task. In fact, cast your eyes over many such personal adverts on dating sites and you'll notice that many follow the same format, make the same kinds of points and don't really stand out.

One that caught my eye recently - out of professional rather than personal interest! - started, as many of these statements do, by saying that the lady concerned had no idea what to write about herself. Her solution? She gave it to a friend to write instead! A brave move but an inspired one.

Sadly, many volunteer recruitment adverts - both online and offline - resort to the the same formula, making them hard to stand out to prospective volunteers. What's more, they invariably advertise the volunteer opportunity by stating what the organisation seeks to gain from someone volunteering, not what the volunteer might gain. Imagine that on a dating site - how going out with someone would make their life better but no regard given to your experience, feelings or interests. Or going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves.  Both those scenarios sound like a shortcut to lifelong solitude.

So, how can we write more engaging and distinctive personal adverts for our organisations and our volunteering opportunities? How can we come across as engaging, interesting and worthy of someone's precious time? Would you be brave enough to hand this task over to someone else - an existing volunteer perhaps - and see what they write about you?

The power of pictures

Personally, I don't respond to an online dating profile that contains no pictures. It's not that looks are everything to me in a potential date - they're not - but they are a crucial element of the wider 'sell' of someone's profile. If I can't see the person then all the words in the world won't make a difference because I feel like I'm missing a key element of the wider picture, of who they are.

In the US a social network called Pinterest is showing the value in volunteer recruitment of visual storytelling. By uploading images of happy volunteers enjoying their work, organisations are seeing interest from others who 'want some of what they're having'.

So when we recruit volunteers, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the imagery we use. Do we show engaging images, images that show that real people volunteer here and have a great time doing so? Or do we rely on lots of text or, heaven forbid, job descriptions to try and hook people in? Even worse, do we use attractive images to hook people in that bear no relation to the reality they actually experience volunteering with us?

Levels of engagement

One thing dating websites understand is that you don't want to rush into a date with a total stranger without having built some rapport first. Making first contact with someone and instantly asking them out for a meal risks coming across online as desperate or making people run in fear that you may be some complete nutter.

Dating sites get round this by providing different ways to engage with people. You can simply 'like' or 'favourite' a profile to signify your interest. Or you give a digital 'wink', although personally I find this a bit creepy - would you wink at a stranger in a bar as your first contact? Then you can email and/or instant message with someone, developing that rapport to the point that you both might feel comfortable to meet face-to-face for a date.

There's a definite parallel with volunteer recruitment here. Often our recruitment efforts come across like asking someone to marry us the first time we meet. We ask for a long term intensive commitment from day one. Then we wonder why people run for the hills!  Instead, could we provide a scale of engagement, giving people easy, no/low commitment ways to try us out, see if they like us, build rapport and perhaps move to a point in the future where they feel comfortable making a longer term commitment? It may take longer to get people to make the commitment we want, but investing that time early in the relationship with our volunteers will yield dividends later on.

Not knowing where you stand if people don't reply

One of the most frustrating experiences for me with dating sites is finding someone you really like the look and sound of, plucking up the courage to drop them a line a say hello, and then never hearing back from them. Did they get my message? Did they not like my profile?

The same applies to volunteering. Someone plucks up the courage to get in touch and enquire about volunteering with you. And they hear nothing back. Did you get their email or voicemail? Were they not suitable? Why not? What could they have done that might have caught your attention?

Too many organisations seem to think that it is totally acceptable to respond to people within a few days or weeks - or even never - after their enquiry. Yet we live in an immediate world. People expect a reply, even just a holding reply, within a few hours at most. 28 days delivery might have met consumer expectations twenty years ago but next day delivery is the benchmark now.

How can you ensure you respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers? Can you use email 'out of office' messages to provide instant holding replies? Perhaps you could involve volunteers to help you manage the prospective volunteer enquiries?

Advice on how to get the most of the experience

One thing I liked after being on a certain dating site for a couple of weeks was that they sent me an email giving me suggestions for how to get the most from my membership. OK, it was a template, impersonal email but the advice was really good and helped me to find my feet in this new online world I had entered.

Do we, should we, or could we do something similar for volunteers? Do we help people new to our organisations to find their feet, settle in and feel at home? Or do we just drop them in at the deep end, let them get on with it and then get frustrated when they don't do what we want them to?

So there you have it, my thoughts on what volunteer managers can learn from dating websites.  Now I'd love to hear your thoughts, preferably about what leaders of volunteers can learn, how have you dealt with these issues, what's worked and what hasn't worked.

That said, I'm open to dating tips too!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Team GB to be 'forced' to volunteer ahead of Rio 2016

A couple of weeks ago the always awesome CEO of the Directory of Social Change, Debra Allcock-Tyler wrote a great piece for Third Sector magazine.  In the article, Debra suggested a reality check was needed between the day-to-day reality of the volunteering that happens across the UK and the "street party" nature of volunteering during the London 2012 Games.  Debra concluded by challenging the government not to "...set up yet another blooming agency to foster the post-Olympic volunteering legacy. You don't understand volunteering and you don't know what you're talking about".

A few days later one of my daily Google alerts flagged a story from the Daily Mail, reporting that Maria Miller MP, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Support had come up with a wizard wheeze.  Ms Miller announced to the Conservative Party conference that Team GB athletes aiming for Rio 2016 who are in receipt of lottery funding would have to do five days of volunteering in schools or sports clubs.

The announcement focused on the usual rhetoric of encouraging and inspiring the next generation and building on the legacy of the 70,000 Games Makers who did such great work this summer.

But hang on a minute.  This means Team GB athletes are being forced to volunteer if they want to stand a chance of going to Rio 2016.  Is this what we want the Olympic volunteering legacy to be about?  Is making people volunteer, whether they want to or not, really the headline we all would love to see about volunteering post-London 2012?

And how about practical implementation of this proposal.  Let's say Jess Ennis or Mo Farah don't 'volunteer', or don't complete five days of such 'volunteering'.  Will they not be selected for 2012's Team GB?  And are the schools and sports clubs geared up to make really effective use of the 5,000 days all these athletes are apparently going to give?

It seems Debra Allcock-Tyler's remarks to government were bang on (as usual) - they don't understand volunteering and don't know what they are talking about.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Interview with Javed Khan, CEO of Victim Support

Earlier this year Third Sector magazine ran an interview with Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Victim Support.  The article caught my attention as Javed talked about the importance of volunteers to the organisation's work and in particular noted that this was so important to him that he made a point of making his first task every day to be to write to some of Victim Support's volunteers.

Such open and constructive engagement in an organisation's volunteer programme by the CEO is sadly quite rare - at least in terms of it being publically acknowledged - so I arranged to speak to Javed to dig a bit further into his views on volunteering.  In this blog post I want to share the highlights of my conversation with Javed in the hope that those of you reading this might find something of value that you can share with your own CEOs and senior managers so that they become more supportive of your organisation's volunteer engagement work.

In the interview you did for Third Sector you were reported as having underestimated the challenge of managing volunteers. Tell me a bit more about that.

First, having moved from the public sector  into the voluntary sector I was unprepared for the number of volunteers an organisation like Victim Support involves.  We have five times the number of volunteers as paid staff here and that is quite a shift from my experience of the public sector.

The other big change was in the way you work with volunteers to get things done.  In the public sector, working with largely paid staff, you effectively pull a lever and the staff do what is asked of them.  That simply isn't the case for volunteers.  There is much more work to be done to win their hearts and minds so that they are prepared to do what needs doing.  That means getting out there and meeting  the 7,000 volunteers face to face, not simply sitting behind a desk and issuing requests for action.

What are your thoughts about the public sectors' attitude to volunteers, especially in these recession hit times of budget pressures and cuts?

In the current climate there hasn't really been much of a shift in public sector attitudes to volunteering.  I think the only reason that many public sector bodies are showing more interest in volunteering is because they see it as a way to save money.  That mindset may well exist in the voluntary sector but generally speaking the sector is more committed to the ethos and principles of voluntarism so involving volunteers is part of the way organisations do things, not just a way to cut costs.

You said that you make the first email you send each day is to a volunteer.  What do you use that opportunity to say to them?

I make sure they know three things.

First, that they matter.

Second, that I am listening.  Volunteers can have some great insights into the challenges and opportunities we face and I want to hear those ideas not limit input to my top management team.

Third, that I write these emails personally.  I don't get my PA to do it.  As CEO it is important for me to invest my time in engaging with our volunteers.  Having someone else do that on my behalf simply isn't appropriate.

So far I've had a very positive response from volunteers.  We can't do everything they suggest and they appreciate that because they know I am interested, I am listening and, where we can do the things they suggest, we do them.

Volunteering continues to face a bit of an image problem. With your interest in diversity, what do you think could/should be done to help diversify the volunteer base of many organisations?

Volunteering happens everywhere but it varies in type.  Those groups who are often labelled as being under-represented in volunteering are already giving time, just not in ways that the mainstream recognises.  It may also be that those people don't identify what they do as volunteering, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons.

What we need to do is to help people recognise that what they do is volunteering, perhaps through awards schemes that celebrate their contribution.  That would be a great way to thank the volunteers and to raise awareness of the breadth and diversity of volunteering and those who give their time to society.

I also think organisations could partner with others to help raise their profiles in more diverse communities.  That would enable not only great new partnerships between organisations but help to open up access to services and support that may not otherwise be available to some.

Quite often top executives don't think strategically about volunteering in the same way they may do for, say, fundraising.  What are your thoughts about this?

We've done some strategic work on volunteering at Victim Support which has resulted in a four year strategy for volunteering, the first time the organisation has had such a strategy for volunteering.  So, for example, we are looking to diversify the roles volunteers have within the organisation, with volunteers taking on some administrative tasks that might previously have been done by paid staff who are now focusing on other things.  This is partly in response to having more young people showing an interest in volunteering, perhaps as a result of studying for law or criminology, subjects clearly linked to what we do as an organisation.

We've had some push back from paid staff on this, typically suggesting that volunteers are unreliable.  That's a myth.  Some volunteers may be like that but so are some paid staff.  People are no more likely to be unreliable simply because they don't get paid, in fact the opposite may even be true - those working for no money may be more committed and reliable because of their passion for the cause.

What are the top three things you have learnt about the strategic importance of volunteers that you would want to share with other CEOs?

  1. Quantify and share the added value of volunteers and not just their financial value to the organisation.
  2. The CEO and senior management team do not have a monopoly on good ideas.  Often the simple solutions come from the frontline and that means volunteers as well as paid staff.
  3. Values, values, values.  They are what drives this sector and what drives volunteers.  We have to work hard to clarify them, communicate them and align them with the motivations and interests of our supporters.

What advice would you give volunteer managers in volunteer involving organisations?

Well, first of all I have to say that investment in volunteer management is absolutely key.  Volunteer managers are the main face-to-face contact volunteers have with the organisation and so are key in communicating our brand, building commitment and motivating people to continue to support us.

So organisations should be investing in their volunteer management functions.

In terms of what I say to volunteer managers themselves, first of all, volunteer managers need to understand and apply the importance of winning volunteers' hearts and minds.

Next, they need to have huge respect for volunteers.  This means taking the time to speak to and meet with them, invest in their training and working hard to get appropriate systems in place to support them.

Finally, volunteer managers need to work hard to help volunteers enjoy what they do because if they enjoy their volunteering they will want to keep doing it and maybe even do more of it.

Monday, 13 August 2012

A moment to shine

So that's it.  After seven years of hype and anticipation, the London 2012 Olympic Games are over.

They have been a Games that have provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for the UK to stand front and centre on a global stage.  Even I, cynic that I was in the run up to the Games, have found myself caught up in the wonderful atmosphere of positivity and enthusiasm, something we Brits are not normally known for.  I hope this continues beyond today and beyond the still-to-come 2012 Paralympic Games too.

Essential to the running of the games is an aspect of the modern Olympics that first featured back in London 1948 - an Olympic volunteer programme.  It is these volunteers - or Games Makers as they have been called - who have played an immeasurable role in making the Olympics the "friendly games".    

It is quite right that the largest cheers at last night's closing ceremony were reserved for the volunteers.  70,000 Games Makers will have contributed thousands of hours to making the games a success, from working in anti-doping units to marshalling crowds.  They have been on the front line, engaging with visitors from around the world whilst VIPs shelter in plush corporate hospitality.  One estimate I've heard is that without the volunteers it would have cost LOCOG £1.5billion to employ staff (at minimum wage) to do the work of the Games Makers.

In their distinctive uniforms, the Games Makers stood out from the crowds in a busy city. My hope is that this visibility will now permeate through the whole of our society.

Put simply, life in this country would not be the same without volunteers.  No Samaritans.  Not lifeboat crews or mountain rescue - people would literally die!  No magistrates.  No school governors.  No sports clubs.  No amateur dramatics and arts groups.  Immeasurably weaker community life.  No Red Cross, St John Ambulance and the like.  No Scouts and Guides.  The list goes on.

Yet we do not celebrate volunteering publicly in the way other countries do. 

Until now.

We do not hold up our volunteers as everyday heroes of our society.  We kind of keep quiet about it.  

Until now.

The Games has given us an opportunity as a nation to put volunteering front and centre in the national consciousness, to recognise that without volunteers our society would not be the same, in fact it would be a poorer place.

The Games have been a moment to shine for the athletes.  

The Games have also been a moment to shine for our country.  

The Games have been a moment to shine for volunteering, a moment that will provide a legacy in transforming our nation's understanding of and attitude towards volunteering.  

Doing that will require big changes in our sector's attitudes to volunteering. 

We need to invest in creating great volunteering experiences that enthuse and engage people as the Games Makers have been enthused and engaged.

We absolutely need to stop talking about using volunteers.  We use things, not people.

We need to rethink our attitudes to what volunteers do with us.  Games Makers held a huge array of jobs, from the menial to those with massive responsibility.  We can't just give our volunteers the former and save the latter for those we pay.

We need to start really valuing volunteering, not just using warm words about it when really what we want is someone to give us a cheque.

Are you up for the challenge?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What gets Volunteer Managers up and going when their get up and go has left the building?

For this post we're pleased to welcome guest blogger Kate James who share's her personal reflections on why volunteer managers do what they do.


I think I started identifying myself as a Volunteer Manager long before I even knew what one was! My first experience as a volunteer was in my late teens. I had the opportunity to help out at the school my mum was working in at the time which was for children with a range of disabilities. It was the most amazing thing that I have ever done. Giving my time to bring a little bit of sunshine in to their lives was incredibly rewarding. Come rain or shine, through my own health problems, I was in the classroom day after day for weeks until the end of term came around and the school closed for summer. During that time, I learnt so much about these inspiring kids but also a lot about myself. I spent a lot of time thinking about my motivations for volunteering and what exactly it was that was getting me out of bed in the morning. I was making a difference.

Careers advice at school wasn't great. The majority of young teens don't know the answer to the question “what do you want to be?” or “what do you want to do?” and when I was at school I don’t think volunteer managers even existed! It certainly wasn’t a recognised career path and people who worked with volunteers were seen as cardigan wearing do-gooders who didn’t really understand what professionalism was. Thank goodness things have changed!

Today, I find myself managing volunteers from all walks of life. Each volunteer I have the pleasure of working with has chosen to volunteer for their own reasons and my motivations for being involved with volunteers haven’t actually changed all that much. The reason I do what I do is because I care. I care about individuals and I like to think that in some small way I can make their world, our world, a better place. We all have a responsibility to leave a legacy regardless of who we are, where we are from or what we do. This can be profound, such as the incredible achievements of some of our Olympic heroes or something as simple as smiling at a stranger and making their day.

All too often, this legacy is measured in financial terms or in how high someone can climb the career ladder, what car they drive or how big their house is. Take all this away and what are you left with? A simple soul. That’s why I think volunteering is so powerful, such an inspiring, exciting, fulfilling activity that enables any, every, simple soul to leave their legacy and in my career I am in the privileged position of being able to support others to do this to the very best of their ability

Until fairly recently, although I suppose I have had a recognised job title, I have found it really hard to identify myself as a ‘professional’ with a career, even though I have grown more and more passionate about professionalism as the years have passed. I considered myself a failure academically as I didn’t go to university and in many ways a failure professionally because I had predominately ‘just’ worked with volunteers in the voluntary sector whilst my school friends had gone on to travel the world and have seemingly glittering careers and fantastic lives. But managing volunteers well and working with them to make their difference takes a whole heap of skills and personal qualities that take time, effort and practice. It takes dedication and willingness, strength and patience. I learn every day and if all of this doesn’t make me a professional then what does?!

Yes, I get extremely frustrated at the hoops we all have to jump through. The paperwork and procedures, the way volunteering is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the press, the way it falls in and out of fashion depending on who is residing at Number 10. But what keeps me coming back for more are the volunteers I get to meet as I travel my journey of volunteer management.

I have recently worked with a volunteer who has decided to completely rethink her life. She has a well paid job in the city with a well respected company but has had enough of the continual stress and unrelenting pressure to chase profit all day long. It gladdened my heart to know that she had had such a positive experience and her words made me beam: “Isn't it strange how something so simple as volunteering to do data entry can trigger a change in life's course?  But I guess that's what makes life so interesting”

As we know, each volunteer has a different reason for giving their time and it is part of our role as good volunteer managers to understand these motivations but I think sometimes we need to take a step back, look in the mirror and remind ourselves of our own journey. Our numbers are now growing and we have resources, networks and qualifications. We have a voice. But what gives us a reason for being is all the amazing people out there who want to make a difference. This is what makes me get up day after day and it is volunteers themselves who inspire me to be a better person and be better at what I do.

Kate James is a happy, Hertfordshire based Volunteer Manager who has been working with volunteers for over 10 years. Kate has worked in the fields of mental health and disability and is currently supporting volunteers across the UK for a national charity.  You can contact Kate by email or via her Twitter account.  

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Giving White Paper: One Year On - an analysis

The government recently published its “Giving White Paper: One Year On” report, outlining progress since the white paper was released and plans for the next couple of years. 

As I wrote an analysis of the original paper I felt a similar look at this progress report was a good idea.  What follows are my initial thoughts and I’d love for you to add your own via comments at the end.

Giving isn’t just about money

One of the most striking aspects of the new paper is the relative paucity of reference to volunteering compared to a year ago.  It seems government, like many in the sector, seem to be (increasingly?) blind to the fact that people give time as well as money.  In fact many give both – and volunteers give more money than non-volunteers – but this is ignored with an almost sole focus on giving money apparently at the heart of government thinking.

Thanks in part to the Give It Back George (GIBG) campaign, the much vaunted – and often delayed - Giving Summit appears to have focused exclusively on giving money, and within that been dominated by the GIBG which, according to the treasury, only concerned approximately 340 donors.

In the new One Year On paper volunteering gets little attention.  There is mention of it in respect to criminal record checks and proposals for these to be portable (although it is still unclear if these would remain free to volunteers).  There is also, and quite interestingly, mention of volunteering in regard to Waitrose who are apparently extending their ‘green token’ scheme so customers can vote for which organisations they want Waitrose staff to volunteer for.  Quite what Waitrose staff seem to think about being voluntold by shoppers is conveniently glossed over. And of course we have National Citizen’s Service which, it should be noted, is only partly about volunteering and largely about conditioning young people into how government thinks they should be.

There is, at first sight, some glimmer of hope as government refer to a priority for the coming year to be supporting providers of opportunities to make giving easier, but further reading reveals this to only be focused on providers of opportunities to give money.

Government’s complicity with many in the sector to make giving synonymous only with giving money is a worrying development, not least because it supports the sidelining and subordination of the giving of time at a time when we perhaps need volunteers more than ever and where donors (of money) are in ever shorter supply.

Baby Boomers

Last year I welcomed the White Paper’s inclusion of baby boomers in addition to the ever present focus in the UK on young people volunteering.  As I noted at the time, demographic shifts in the population are resulting in many more older people than younger people, now and in future.  Couple that with the interests, motivations and expectations of the boomers being very different from their parents (who have been the mainstay of many organisations core volunteers for years) and we have a growing market of potential volunteers who need much more consideration. 

Whilst everyone’s favourite (former) Big Society Czar Lord Wei has recently proposed a National Citizens Service for retirees, the One Year On paper fails to mention boomers at all.  Instead we get a sole focus on youth engagement, including volunteering – socially engineering a generation of givers through expensive national programmes that, in Opposition, the Tories promised would not happen on their watch.  I’ve already highlighted my anxiety with constantly talking about volunteering to a generation facing unprecedented levels of youth unemployment and the government doesn’t say anything here to alleviate those concerns.

Quality and ease of giving

Last year I acknowledged the original Giving White Paper for giving attention to the importance of the giving experience.  If people give – time or money – and have a great time doing so, they are surely more likely to do so again.  Conversely, if they don’t have a great experience not only may they not give to that cause or organisation again, they may in fact be turned off giving altogether.

A year on and this focus on the giving experience is gone, replaced by the increasingly dominant view that the priority is to make it easier to give, with apparently little focus on the quality of the experience.

From my perspective, this approach over the last year has resulted in an almost bewildering array of new (mainly) websites through which people can find opportunities to donate time or money.  Does this ever expanding number of websites make it easier or more confusing?  Does it result in more giving, or do we simply see people pledging to give (as with the recent Jubilee Hour) but not always following through on that pledge?

In her July 2012 Hot Topic, Susan Ellis look at whether such a focus on pledge programmes and calls to action really make a difference to volunteering or whether they are, in fact, just the Emperor’s New Clothes?

It is all well and good for government to highlight the work of Future First who are helping schools develop alumni programmes which, One Year On suggests, will create a pool of 75,000 volunteers.  The key questions, however, are; what will 75,000 volunteers do in our schools?; how are schools being supported to develops opportunities for these volunteers?; what resources will schools have to manage these volunteers?; etc. etc.

What we need is not more schemes to dress up volunteering as something sexy and new. 

What we need is not new campaigns to try and encourage more people to give. 

What we need is organisations to be encouraged not to cut their volunteer management posts at the first sight of tightening budgets.

What we need is investment (by organisations primarily but government showing willing and leadership wouldn’t hurt) to increasing the capacity to involve volunteers in ways the meet the goals of volunteer involving organisations and fit with the interests and availabilities of people in our 21st century society.

We should be transforming the country’s attitude to giving time by giving people great opportunities which they enjoy engaging with and want to do again and again, not by developing more and more websites or running campaigns to show willing but little action.

Sadly however, there is nothing in One Year On about volunteer leadership and management.  Nothing.  The support of the last government for volunteer management now seems a distant memory.  We appear to have it all to do again.

Impact measurement

In keeping with the zeitgeist, the One Year On paper makes reference to the importance of impact measurement in stimulating giving.  To an extent, this is a good thing.  Organisations that can demonstrate the difference the contribution of time and/or money can make to their mission are in a strong position to secure support, especially if they can demonstrate how people can make such an impact through giving in ways the fit with their complex and busy lives.

However, there seems to be little acknowledgement of the need for any kind of assessment of the impact of the work the government has supported over the last year.  We’re not saying there hasn’t been any, but with £millions spent and £40million more promised to "mobilise large numbers of people to get involved with good causes", it would be good to see some evidence that what government has supported and wants to support in future has/will actually make a difference to all forms of giving in the UK.

Which leads on to…

…Civil service volunteering

The One Year On paper makes passing reference to the government’s pledge last year to get thousands more civil servants volunteering.  But that’s all we get – a mention of the proposal.  No report on progress.  Has anything happened?  What impact has it had so far?  Or is it a case of the sector must do impact reporting but government doesn’t have to?


It hasn’t been a great year for volunteering infrastructure since the launch of the original Giving White Paper.  We’ve seen some Volunteer Centres close or scale back their services and most recently there has been the announcement of the “loss” of Volunteering England as they merge into NCVO.  This could be a good thing for volunteering as I suggest in my blog on the proposed merger, but even if it is we will still see the loss of a distinct national infrastructure body for volunteering (in England at least) as opposed to the voluntary sector, the first time we will have no such body in over forty years.

The One Year On paper is relatively silent about infrastructure, at least in terms of its importance in enabling volunteering to happen.  As I’ve highlighted already there seems to be a focus on technology and website as a short-cut solution to good brokerage.  Whilst investment in long standing sites like Do-It is welcome, not everyone is online, not everyone wants to find out about volunteering online and sometimes we know face-to-face support for those who want to volunteer is far more important and necessary.

Local volunteering infrastructure gets two main mentions in the One Year On paper.  First is in regard to the government’s Transforming Local Infrastructure Fund.  Yes, this fund should have some positive impacts on volunteering locally but it is primarily focused on infrastructure support for the voluntary and community sector and that is not the same as support for the volunteering sector.

Second, is the reference to an opportunity for "pioneering Volunteer Centres to test ideas for modernising their offer" via funding from the NESTA innovation in giving fund.  On the face of it this is much more positive but the key question is what does this mean?  What is a pioneering Volunteer Centre?  What does modernising their offer mean - more brokerage done online?  So a cautious welcome until we see the detail.

Finally, towards the start, the One Year On Paper states that:

“We have also got to recognise that this a time when many people feel they have less time and money and may be reluctant to do more”. 

Interesting considering recent research seems to indicates that the act of volunteering makes people feel like they have more time.  As the researchers put it:

“Ultimately, giving time makes people more willing to commit to future engagements despite their busy schedules.”

Perhaps the thinking that inspired at least some of the Giving White Paper is already out of date?  Or is this an area where evidence based policy making isn’t really done?

So, what do you think of the One Year On paper and the issues it raises?

Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said?  Why?

What are your observations on the government’s attempts to get people to give more, whether time, or money or both?

Let’s hear what you have to say.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Postcard from New Zealand

I'm really excited about this blog post in which we hear from our New Zealand colleague Claire Teal about the work Volunteering New Zealand is doing to support and develop volunteer managers.  Their work is innovative and exciting and, in my view, provides a model that we other countries could (should?) replicate in their own contexts in order to raise the profile of the important role leaders and managers of volunteers play in society.

But enough of my views, over to you Claire...


Let me just say from the outset (with love, and humour, and all that) that development work amongst managers/leaders of volunteers is akin to herding cats. Our first response when asked about professional development is to cry out for a qualification. Pursue that a bit further and we become adamant that having a qualification will alienate volunteer managers of volunteers and/or create hierarchies between us and/or just take something away from the essence of what we do. We want a qualification, but we don’t want a qualification. Actually, we want development but we don’t want development. We are quick to rally for more recognition of our role and what we do, but equally quick to resist any attempt to change things. Doing this, we say, takes time we don’t have, takes the focus off the volunteers and, again, alienates volunteer managers of volunteers. Oh, and don’t forget our diversity…one size of development is never going to fit all, you know. Wow…what to do?

In New Zealand, our answer to that question has literally been to put a line in the sand and say we either need to accept that change will happen as a result of those demands, or stop demanding. We knew, through two conferences (2009 and 2011), some major research assignments canvassing over 800 New Zealand managers/leaders of volunteers and a whole lot of talking that there were some clear priorities for action here. Those clear priorities just needed to be outworked in a way that respected and reflected both the huge diversity of roles and the differing levels of desire for increased opportunities and recognition present in our field. The work we’re doing at Volunteering New Zealand around this is still very new, but the response we’ve received so far from managers/leaders of volunteers, wider organisations, and stakeholder groups as a whole across the country indicates that we’re on the right track.

So, what has our approach been?:

  1. To focus on the total inseparability of individual development for managers/leaders of volunteers from development of the groups and organisations they work within.
  2. To respond directly to what New Zealand managers/leaders of volunteers have said they want, without making anything compulsory or forcing it on those who aren't interested (but at the same time trying to bust the whole ‘volunteer managers of volunteers will get left behind’ myth. Who says these people don’t want to take charge of their own professional development?! Then why do we always assume they don’t?).
  3. To collaborate as much as possible, by doing all work through national working groups, by getting on the road and facilitating workshops for managers/leaders of volunteers around the country, and by seeking feedback every step of the way.

As I said, our work is still new, but in three years we’ve covered a lot of ground.

Many managers/leaders of volunteers seem to at the idea of a qualification because they see it as one clear leverage point from which to demand the status and recognition they deserve. Maybe one day our work here will progress to a qualification, but right now we’ve pulled back from the qualification debate to focus on the questions managers/leaders of volunteers are actually asking about their professional development. Things like:

"As a manager of volunteers, how do I find out what training and study opportunities I should be looking for to help me develop the skills I want to develop? Are there even opportunities out there?"

To use their words, New Zealand managers/leaders of volunteers want a learning pathway that they can use for their own, individual professional development. A pathway suggests movement, and to show movement, you need something to act as a marker or baseline. To create markers, we've been working on a set of competencies for all New Zealand managers/leaders of volunteers. They are high-level, not task-focused, and they map out four key areas of skills/values/attributes that managers/leaders of volunteers demonstrate in their work. Our goal is to work these competencies into a self-assessment tool that will make it easier to find the best-suited-to-you learning and development options that already exist, including assessment/recognition of prior learning. This will result in managers/leaders of volunteers being able to make informed choices about their own professional development from the day they enter the field through to the most advanced level.

The competencies are still under feedback and consultation in New Zealand, and so there is a high chance what you see below will change. However, here’s a quick sneak preview of a little bit, so you can see how we’ve structured them:

Base Knowledge

Base Knowledge Applied

Adaptive Leadership

Strategic Leadership
Competency 3:
Leadership Within Organisations

Managers of volunteers demonstrate organisational vision and values, and influence people to achieve them (both paid and volunteer staff)

You know the organisation’s vision and values
You apply the organisation’s vision and values to your own and other’s roles and tasks
You seek input from the team into current and future activities, and how best to align these to the organisation’s vision, values and strategic direction
You engage with others from both within the organisation and across the community to get their input into strategic direction and ideas for collaboration

Developing ourselves as managers/leaders of volunteers is one thing, but what about the groups and organisations we operate within?

Again, our method has been to draw another line in the sand and say hey, it doesn’t actually matter if organisations are big or informal, or if the manager/leader of volunteers is paid or a volunteer themselves. If you are serious about effectively involving volunteers, then you need to be serious about recognising, resourcing and supporting both these volunteers and the person providing the skilled leadership they need.

To speak into this, we are developing best practice guidelines for organisations. These aren't guidelines for how to manage volunteers well. They are tips and strategies for groups and organisations to use to ensure everything to do with volunteers (manager/leader of volunteers and volunteers, and all they do) is recognised, resourced and supported as a vital part of the organisation. Obviously, implementing these guidelines effectively means engaging across organisations much more widely than ‘just’ with the manager/leader of volunteers. It requires buy-in from Chief Executives and Boards, Senior Management, and so on. As an incentive, we are creating a category of Volunteering New Zealand Champion Organisation; organisations to hold this title will be those who can demonstrate commitment from a whole-of-organisation foundation to the principles of the best practice guidelines.

As I said earlier, we see a total inseparability of organisational development from individual development. We can have the most highly professionally developed managers/leaders of volunteers in the world, but if our organisations still don’t get what we do, then what have we really achieved?

This is very much a once-over-lightly look at what we volunteer management advocates are up to in New Zealand. I know (and many times, am reminded the hard way) that this is a contentious topic. There is no set template for what management/leadership of volunteers looks like in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world, and it’s hard to introduce change and development into the ‘field’ without many people assuming you want to create one. Trying to grow and develop management of volunteers means balancing the managers/leaders of volunteers who do want to see the field develop and those who might not be as interested in this, or are concerned about its implications. It also means encouraging both ends of the continuum and everyone in between that the stand-point we all hold is okay!

At the end of the day, we are all in it for the same reason - because we believe in the power of volunteering and we want to ensure the best possible experience for volunteers we work with.

About Claire:
Claire is a passionate advocate for the important role Managers and Leaders of Volunteers play in the design and delivery of effective volunteer programmes. She brings nearly two decades of experience working in the Community and Voluntary Sector in both paid and volunteer capacities to her role as Programme Manager at Volunteering New Zealand.
Previously she worked as Service Manager at the Central City Branch of the Wellington Citizens Advice Bureau, leading the volunteer team and taking a key role in the development of several collaborative community projects. Prior to this, she held roles as a statutory social worker and in community engagement in primary health care.
Claire is currently Deputy Chair of Volunteer Wellington, on the Leadership Team of Women in Leadership Aotearoa, and on the International Volunteer Managers Day Committee. In 2011, she was an invited international faculty member at the Australasian Advanced Retreat for Managers of Volunteers. This year, she is a participant in the Leadership New Zealand Leadership Programme.

Friday, 22 June 2012

NCVO and VE in formal talks about merger

So, the news I have been expecting for so long has finally been announced: Volunteering England and NCVO are in formal talks about a merger which could happen as early as 2013.

Ever since the coalition decided to phase out funding for its strategic partners, the writing was pretty much on the wall for those organisations who were heavily reliant on state funding, such as VE.  The cuts in spring 2011 were necessary but it was inevitable that further cuts would come and, from my view as a former director of the organisation, the time would come when merger would become inevitable.

NCVO is the natural choice and not just because VE currently shares their building.  They are perhaps the best capitalised of all the national sector infrastructure bodies and so their sustainability, even through tough times like these, is pretty much secure.  Similarly they cover a range of areas in their work - infrastructure, leadership, funding, training and development etc. - and so the fit with volunteering, which crosses all fields and sectors, is a good one.

What is sad to see in the coverage of the story by the media is, yet again, the complete absence of an reference to VE's formation back in 2004.  Way before anyone else thought it was a wise thing to do, well ahead of merger becoming a topic of open conversation in the sector, before ChangeUp even, VE was born from the merger of the other organisations.  Not because funding was tight or diminishing, but because those organisations felt it was the best thing to do to move volunteering forwards in England.  In fact the Charity Commission still use VE's creation as a case study of good practice on their website.

Of course in 2007 VE undertook another merger, this time with Student Volunteering England, a piece of work I had the privilege of leading.

So merger is not new territory for VE or indeed for NCVO.

What might the implications be?

Well one potential downside is the loss of a unique voice for volunteering.  Volunteering is not confined to the voluntary sector, it happens in the public and private sectors too. That's why the term volunteerism is sometimes used as an alternative to voluntarism - the former denotes any area where volunteering happens, the latter speaks to anything concerned with the voluntary sector.  There is a great article by Susan Ellis that explains the difference better than I can.

VE becoming a part of NCVO does risk, if not carefully managed and monitored, the voice of volunteering being lost within wider sector debates.

Another way of looking at this though is that the potential merger might well put volunteering at the heart of some key voluntary sector debates.

I am on record as being frustrated that the sector's response to the current and future challenges it faces, especially in terms of funding, has been to try strategies from the past to solve problems of the future.  So we see organisations desperately trying to raise more money from a society that has less to give.  We see frantic campaigns to protect income for the few rather than efforts to help organisations adapt to the new reality.

Volunteering needs to be a part of the solution for the sector.  Volunteering is changing as the people who volunteer change and the society in which they live - and so the context in which they give their time - changes.  In my view, organisations ignore this at their peril.  Perhaps VE becoming a part of NCVO will enable volunteering to take a central, indeed its rightful, place at the heart of the sector's thinking about how it survives and thrives in future.  This would be especially useful if  volunteering retains a clear policy voice that becomes properly integrated within NCVO's policy and campaigning work.

Where might the proposed merger leave volunteer management?

To be honest, this has been one of the less developed areas of VE's work.  Since it was created, the section of VE's membership with the loudest voice has been the Volunteer Centres and so volunteer management didn't get much of a look in.  Of course some good work got done, not least the work Capacitybuilders funded in 2010/11 as part of the last governments dedicated volunteer management funding.

In reality though it is AVM and, more recently, the superb work of Voluntary Action Warrington that has been pushing forward the volunteer management agenda in England.

So I'm sure there are opportunities for NCVO to get more involved in the volunteer management arena but it has to be in a way that complements the good work already happening, not seeking to duplicate or replace it.  Knowing NCVO as I do I don't think that would happen, but the point needs making in case others are looking at that territory with hungry eyes.

Where does the proposed merger leave Volunteer Centres, especially as most are now a part of local Councils for Voluntary Service (or similar) and so are run by members of NAVCA?

Well, I did note that one of the VE trustees who has been involved in the discussions with NCVO is Tessa Willow of VC Liverpool.  I have a lot of time and respect for Tessa and in my view she is one of the best possible people to be representing the VC network in these discussions.  So VCs should, as much as possible, be reassured by that.

However, there are inevitable questions about the future of VCs within VE.  Is now the time for NAVCA to make a play for VCs, bringing them formally into the fold, linking them with NAVCA's developing quality standards and advocating for VCs as a distinct voice of the sector?

As with the rest of this news, I guess only time will give us the answers.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to go on public record as saying that my thoughts are first and foremost with colleagues at friends at VE as they face another period of uncertainty and change.  Good luck guys.

So, over to you.

What are your thoughts on the proposed merger?

Good news?

Bad news?


Let's hear what you think

Monday, 18 June 2012

Family Lives, Part Two

In part two of our brace of blogs from Family Lives, we hear from Pepper Harrow, Volunteer Co-ordinator, who gives an insight into the development of their new Instructions Not Included toolkit.

Part Two - Pepper Harrow, Volunteer Co-ordinator, Family Lives

“We all know that family life doesn’t come with instructions.  Dealing with problems such as children’s difficult behaviour, money worries, time pressures or health problems can make anybody feel overwhelmed. Being a new parent or taking on caring responsibilities for someone else’s children can leave people isolated and confused as they try to adjust to their new circumstances and navigate the services that are out there. Family Lives has 30 years’ worth of experience of empowering people who have experienced these issues to help each other cope with the ups and downs of family life through volunteering. Historically, our volunteers have supported other parents on our helpline by emotionally supporting them using empathy and providing a listening ear.

However, we wanted to take the idea of volunteers supporting families using our ethos of listening and empathy even further. How could we empower people to volunteer face-to-face with families? Could we set up systems to have people volunteering in family homes, rather than having to travel to one of our call centres? How could we reach those families who needed a longer term service that helped them to make positive changes over time?

The ‘Instructions not Included’ project, launched twelve months ago, allows us to reach families who need support over a longer period of time and offers a face to face befriending service within the family home or somewhere else within their community. Volunteers are matched with families who need support; they may have come to us through one of our other services or through a professional like a GP or Teacher. Once the volunteer and family start to meet, they can identify issues that they want to work on and set goals that they want to achieve throughout the befriending relationship. This can be anything from getting a child back to school to getting out of the house more after a period of isolation.

The overall aim of the project is to give people the support they need by having someone there for them whilst they work though their problems. Volunteers are not professionals, they will keep the contents of sessions confidential (unless, of course they feel that someone may be in danger) and, most importantly, they do not pass judgement on families or parents for being who they are and having the problems that they do. They also do not represent any type of authority, something that is so important for families who may have had problems engaging with professionals before.

We aim to match volunteers with families that share their experiences like having a large family, being a single Mum or being a Dad who has little access to his children. Our volunteers have been there themselves and have had our extensive training to help them to help others. They are also recruited from the area in which they will be volunteering which means that they are part of the same community, understanding the issues that the family faces even more deeply.

As befriending takes off in our project locations, more and more parents are coming forward not only to receive some support but to volunteer themselves. We are also hoping that those who receive the service may go on to give their time to another family in need once they have been supported with their own issues.  Families in the project tell us that the support they receive helps them build their confidence in communicating with each other, makes them feel safe and non-judged and allows them to offload.

All of this work allows us to spread our message that asking for help with your family is a sign of strength rather than weakness. As the project continues, we are also helping to prove to government, the voluntary sector and families themselves that, sometimes, volunteers are best placed to support people to access that help. “

Family Lives runs a campaign “Instructions Not included” that encourages people to take up family support, information and advice.  Visit

Monday, 11 June 2012

Family Lives, Part One

For our next two blog posts we are featuring guest posts from the organisation Family Lives who have just made available a new toolkit, Instructions Not Included, to help people working in volunteer management for programmes providing family support.

In the first instalment we hear the story of Georgina, a parent and former service user who now volunteers for Family Lives.

Next week we'll hear from Pepper Harrow, Volunteer Co-ordinator at Family Lives, who will provide an insight into the development of the toolkit.

Part One: Georgina Thompson, A Befrienders Blog

Not for one second did I ever imagine I would become a volunteer.  Let alone for a family support organisation.  I was part of your average family with two children.  An everyday stay-at-home mum with a partner always out at work or elsewhere.  I often felt as though my partner was never really interested when he came home from work.  I’d be at home all day raising two energetic children and would often want to offload but sensed from my partner that being a mum was not valued.  Not a ‘proper job’ as it were.  There always seemed to be a competition between mum & dad about who worked the hardest.  For me, being a parent was an isolating experience.  I was expected to get on with it.  I wasn’t able to cope with my children’s behaviour and often felt that I was shouting and getting frustrated a lot. I realise now, that my children were just being children I just didn’t have the requisite parenting skills to respond.   I’d often seek to admonish my children by dishing out empty threats which would not be carried out.  Everything seemed stressful.  Getting up for school, getting the family round the breakfast table, settling the kids in the evening, ready for bed and then doing it all over again the next day.  When my third baby came along, my second child kept saying thing like “I hate him.”  I was completely stumped by that.  I had no idea how to deal with sibling rivalry. I didn’t even know it existed.  It was at this point that I started to question my whole approach to parenting.  I felt there had to be a different way of doing things in addition to that which I had picked up from my own mum.  Acknowledging these feelings of concern about my parenting skills was a light bulb moment for me.   I didn’t know what the problem was, but knew something needed fixing.  I saw a poster in my child’s school advertising Family Lives services which seemed like a life line and booked onto my first of many Family Lives group sessions.

The Family Lives facilitator provided a safe and warm environment where I, along with other group members, could share the family conflict issues that were causing all of me so much stress, making me feel isolated and in a downward spiral of both a lack of confidence and depressed feelings.  It transpires that I had such low self-esteem that when I joined the group, the safe environment of the parent workshops proved invaluable in enabling me to build up friendships with other parents.  Through the course I was empowered to recognise and understand my feelings.  I was unaware how to address those feelings at first. As mentioned, I was either feeling either sad or angry – but there was a lot of frustration in between.

I’m now a volunteer befriender for Family Lives’ providing emotional support and on anyone day I’m meeting families face-to-face on a one-to-one basis, visiting children’s centres and community venues to talk to parents, helping Family Lives staff to set up parent support groups and signposting parents to services that can support them. Training as a volunteer means I’m able to talk to other parent, grandparents or carers who are struggling and I can offer emotional and practical support. The befriending has the benefit of feeling like I’m giving something back, being useful. It's a real satisfaction to share the skills and tools I have learnt and put into practice and see how it can change a family for the better and improve relationships.

The Family Lives support sessions taught me a new vocabulary of parenting.  To say what you want, rather than what you don’t want.  Seeing it work with the children.  Learning to respond rather than react.  To have your feelings acknowledged is incredibly powerful stuff.  To do the school run without being stressed.  If I help one other parent out there with low self-esteem – that would be so rewarding.  I know how much was given to me freely.  It’s great isn’t it? Being able to share it.”

Georgina is now a single mum who works part time and volunteers for Family Lives.

Monday, 21 May 2012

International exchange - do it!

I recently took part in one of those online meetings that reminds me how awesome the internet and associated technology is.  On the call were myself; President of Volunteer Squared, Tony Goodrow; Kathy Cahill, President elect of AL!VE; Rob Bonesteel, current Presdient of AL!VE; and Karen Buenger, President of Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV).

When I started in volunteer management back in the mid-1990's we had no email, internet or Skype and  international exchange with peers was only possible with the aid of a very healthy travel budget now I can connect with colleagues in the USA, Canada and Australia in real time, working on a common document we can all see at the same time.  Of course poor Karen was up in the very early hours of Saturday morning for the call - technology is great but it can's solve the time difference we all had!

The call was convened by Kathy to discuss international links in the volunteer management community.  It was a great conversation with some fantastic ideas and great connections made.  We all agreed there was real value in trying to connect via the web the professional bodies and associations for volunteer management.  We all felt there was real value in those organisations exchanging ideas and providing support to each other.  Equally there was agreement that no one organisation should try to establish themselves as an international body for volunteer managers, hoovering up all the other associations.  Instead, we discussed potentially influencing IAVE to better reflect the importance of volunteer management in effective volunteer engagement.

I was very happy to share the great work of our own Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) with international colleagues and I hope AVM will accept the invitation offered to them to take part in future calls which will take place quarterly.

I also shared the work done by Sue Jones (of Warrington Voluntary Action) and her team of Volunteer Management Champions.  They've done fabulous things during EYV2011 and into 2012 to raise the profile of volunteer management, to support networking between volunteer managers (principally via Ivo and their Thoughtful Thursday's on Twitter) and to show that the consultants and gurus in our field don't have the monopoly on good ideas, enthusiasm and leadership for the sector.  Again, I hope Sue will join the next of Kathy's meetings in July.

I think we need to remember that despite the cuts and economic woes we face in the UK, we have much to offer the world of volunteer management, as well as much to learn.  Exchange with each other is important and so is exchange with our peers in other countries.  I know from personal experience that seeing the issues we face reflected in the mirror of a different setting and culture can be an incredibly valuable learning experience.

I will keep you posted on how the conversations with this group of international peers progress.  In the meantime, what can you do to start some conversations with volunteer managers in other countries?

Here are some quick suggestions:

  • Join one of the sister bodies to UKVPMs.  There is OzVPM for Australia & New Zealand and CyberVPM in the USA.  Also look for the various volunteer management groups set up to aid professional networking and exchange on LinkedIn.
  • Take part in a future Thoughtful Thursday and keep an eye out for posts that run into Friday.  These are normally from overseas colleagues working a different time zone to us.  Perhaps some of them would be useful connections.
  • Check out the resources available on the Energize website that signpost to volunteer management groups and networks internationally.
  • Subscribe to some of the great newsletters and journals produced internationally.  Perhaps start with the Volunteering New Zealand newsletter as they are doing some awesome work around volunteer management, and perhaps subscribe to, an international journal on volunteersim.
  • Don't forget our near neighbours in Europe.  Check out the European Volunteer Centre (CEV) and the Volunteurope networks, both of which hold events that needn't cost the earth to attend thanks to low-cost airlines.

Let us know how you get on.

Friday, 11 May 2012

We need to think differently about job substitution

In April Volunteering England, in conjunction with other strategic partners of the Office For Civil Society,  published "A Guide To Avoiding Job Substitution".  The guide aims to "help organisations ensure volunteers are not substituting for paid staff when services are being cut".

This whole issue is a thorny, complex and emotive one.  It is an issue that mainly effects voluntary and public sector organisations and it isn't a new one.  Sadly it is also an issue that many in the sector, including volunteer managers, shy away from.  Because of its emotive, complex and challenging nature, job substitution is often a topic that, if given any time at conferences and the like, provokes such strong views that few want to face the conflict it raises.

Last summer I wrote an article for The Guardian with colleague Lynn Blackadder entitled "Dispelling the myths around job substitution by volunteers".  Lynn and I wrote the piece to try and constructively help organisations facing the reality of cuts to think through the issues associated with volunteers doing work that was once done by paid staff.  Out intent was good but, as you'll see from some of the comments, we were criticised none the less.

So Volunteering England are to be commended for taking a constructive stance on the issue.  Their guidance is sound, if perhaps a bit brief given the complexity of the matter.  Their exhortation to plan well in advance of any changes from paid to volunteer 'staff' is certainly one that is not heard enough.

What I am less comfortable with in Volunteering England's document are some of the underlying assumptions about volunteering and job substitution.  These aren't unique to VE, I've come across them before, but I do think they need highlighting and perhaps challenging if we are to get the matter in perspective.  I want to pick out the three main ones.

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.”
- Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

First up, right in the first line of the Volunteering England document, it says the issue has become critical.  Really?  Is it that serious?  However challenging an issue it is, I don't see or hear of it so often that I'd say it's critical, and I like to think I have my finger on the pulse of volunteerism.  Sure there have been some high profile cases - notably Surrey libraries - but there is also a lot of baseless scaremongering too, usually union driven and linking a modest increase in the number of people volunteering with an inevitable removal of all paid work in an area.

With the levels of paid staff growing again in the sector (after a 40% rise in the first decade of this century) and with volunteering levels largely static, the statistics suggest it isn't that big a deal.  In fact, what may be a bigger issue is volunteers being replaced by paid staff!

Second, the term job substitution doesn't help.  It implies that one volunteer can be brought in to substitute for one employee.  This almost never happens and demonstrates a misunderstanding about volunteering.  

In the article Lynn and I wrote for The Guardian we talked about job displacement and job replacement rather than job substitution:

• Displacement – when paid staff make way for (are displaced) so that volunteers can fill their roles. 
• Replacement – when work previously done by paid staff is reallocated to volunteers, i.e volunteers replace employees as the means of delivering a service.

In my view this is a much more helpful way of looking at the situation.  If paid staff are being deliberately removed so volunteers can do the work instead then I think most people would have an issue.  If, however, the paid staff are going - perhaps because of inevitable cuts - and the choice is to stop the service or bring volunteers in to pick up some of the work paid staff used to do, then I'm sure most people would recognise that the latter option is preferable to the work stopping all together.

To be fair to Volunteering England, this terminology of replacement and displacement does occur in their guidance and they do helpfully make the point that the boundaries between the two can sometimes be very thin.  But why wasn't this terminology used throughout?  Why do people who are supposed to be standing up for volunteering insist on using unhelpful 'substitution' language instead of making a clear argument about the issues?

Take the example from page one of VE's guidance:

"There are a range of scenarios that could be considered job substitution. At one extreme, an organisation may decide to cut jobs and recruit volunteers to fill the gaps. At the other, when a service has been withdrawn due to funding cuts, members of its community or service-users may volunteer themselves to run services which meet similar needs." 
"The first case is clearly a direct replacement of paid staff, and it is therefore likely that the organisation would receive objections from staff and trade unions, and find that volunteers do not want to be involved. In the second case, volunteers are, to some extent, providing services previously delivered by paid staff, but now as a new group taking over the service. This service could, however, be significantly different from the one delivered by paid staff." 

The first case, when looked at as job substitution, may appear to be a case of volunteers displacing paid staff.  But will it be one volunteer for one employee?  Very unlikely.  And what if this were a case of replacement rather than displacement?  Looking at it that way puts a different complexion on the situation.

Interestingly, the logic of the second case suggests it would be acceptable for a public service to make staff redundant, convert to a co-operative set up staffed with volunteers and that would be alright!

Third, the Volunteering England guidance states that:

One of the key principles of this charter is that the involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff.
This is common language around job substitution and it's language I detest.  It totally fails to recognise the distinct value that volunteering can bring compared to paid staff.  It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and simply subordinates it to a second-class activity next to paid work

I've worked in programmes where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of the clients that paid staff could never have, a credibility that comes from the client viewing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who is paid to spend time with them.  That is distinctive to volunteers.  It isn't about them supplementing or complementing paid staff, it is about them bringing something to the organisation that paid staff cannot.

As long as we perpetuate this second class status through our use of language, then volunteering will bee seen as nothing more than the poor cousin to paid work, and volunteer managers as poor cousins to other professionals.

In conclusion then, please be clear that I am not having a dig at Volunteering England.  As I said at the start, I commend them for publishing this guidance.  Rather, I am commenting on the philosophical basis on which their guidance and many other people's practice is based.  I am doing this to stimulate debate, to challenge thinking and, above all, to try and help us all (myself included) to do a better job of standing up for volunteering in the challenging environment we face.

So what do you think?

Do you agree?

Am I talking a load of codswallop?

Please don't be silent, join the debate by leaving a comment below.

As this is an emotive issue and one I have seen result in hurtful comments in the past, I will please ask for comments to be respectful of others views, even if they don't agree with you.  Thank you.