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?
- Quantify and share the added value of volunteers and not just their financial value to the organisation.
- 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.
- 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.