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.