Tuesday, 10 December 2013

She's Electric

One of the things I love to do in my work and my writing is showcase examples of the volunteering people do. I'm a big believer that people can inspired to volunteer by seeing and hearing about example of people just like them who manage to fit volunteering in to their busy lives.

To that end, this posting is from guest blogger and friend Katriona Bailey. Kat shares her experiences of volunteering and I hope others will be inspired by it.


It is April 2011, I am sitting in my car looking at the building in front of me. I am debating whether to go in or whether to drive home......inside is a man called Graham Main - and he has had the idea to start up a community choir in my home town. I am curious but terrified. My curiosity gets the better of me and I make my way in....there are a total of around 12 people who have shown up to find out more.

Fast forward to July 2013 - Wickerman festival - headlined by Primal Scream - but also playing to a packed tent are Dumfries community choir - all 100 of us. We go down a storm. Hours later, as I bop around to Dexy's Midnight Runners, a man approaches me - "they're good" he says "...but you guys were better".

This would all be an achievement in itself but the choir is now only a small part of what Graham and his colleagues do. It turns out there was a hunger in the town for a creative outlet and Graham has built "Electric Theatre Arts" from nothing and I am proud to say that I am the company secretary, a voluntary role that I LOVE. As a mother of 2 who works full time, I was unsure about taking on this role - where would I find the time? But let me tell you - I do find the time - and I get so much more out than I put in.

My role is varied, sometimes I have lots of things to do, sometimes not so much. Being a board member allows me to pop in and out of the building, to interact with the users of the service and to see the difference it makes in peoples lives. I love being involved and even though I have lived here all my life, I have never felt a strong sense of community here until I got involved.

Electric theatre arts is a non profit community interest company. We run youth theatre groups for kids and young people from 5 - 25, music groups for pre school kids, we have adult Spanish classes, samba classes, you can come in and learn the piano, the drums, the guitar, we will rent you a rehearsal space for your band. And all of this is done at the lowest possible cost to make it accessible for all. We now have a full time employee who is going out into the poorest areas of the town and to outlying regional towns to try and set up creative opporunities for the young people there.

It is a pleasure to be involved. I would recommend anyone to take on such a role if an opportunity presents itself. it will pay you back tenfold.

You can find more information on the organisations mentioned in this blog at www.electrictheatreworkshop.com, www.Dumfriescommunitychoir.com,  www.Dumfriesyouththeatre.com.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Has the time finally come to stop talking about job substitution?

Job substitution is a theme I've written about quite a few times (see these examples from this very blog). For those unfamiliar with the term, job substitution is used in the volunteering world to describe a situation where volunteers replace paid staff. It is a flawed term (as I argued in a posting back in May 2012) and it leads to a parallel and worryingly common belief that volunteers should only complement and supplement the work of paid staff. This position is even enshrined in a charter between Volunteering England (now NCVO) and The Trade Union's Congress (TUC).

It is this doctrine of 'complement and supplement' that I want to focus on in this post.

There are two reasons for this.

First, I attended a joint meeting of EVDC and NNVIA last week where we were invited to suggest policy positions NCVO might take with government in the run up to the UK's 2015 general election. One of the tables said that we might have to change our position on job substitution as it no longer matched the reality that many volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) face. Too many VIOs just cannot afford the levels of paid staff they once had and volunteers need to be a realistic option for delivering the organisation's mission in future, something the 'complement and supplement' position can make difficult to consider.

Instead of disagreement there seemed to be general agreement in the room.

To me this was brilliant news. It signalled that finally people might be ready to have a grown up and intelligent discussion about the roles of paid staff and volunteers in organisations. It signalled that the days of people being slapped down for trying to have a debate might finally be over. It signalled that instead of a wall of silence when this issue gets raised in blogs, volunteer managers might actually be ready to get stuck into the complex and delicate issues involved.

The second reason for writing about the issue again was Susan Ellis' excellent December 2013 Hot Topic, "Don't Let The History Made By Volunteers Fall Through The Cracks Of Time".

I was recently running a workshop in London with a predominantly female group. Over lunch, discussion turned to the 'complement and supplement' doctrine with many people saying how they completely agreed with it. So I asked the women present if they thought they would have the right to vote if we'd argued that the suffragettes should only have complemented and supplemented the work of paid staff.

In the UK, women have the right to vote because of the dedication, hard work and sacrifice of volunteer suffragettes. They weren't paid and to suggest that they should only have complemented and supplemented paid staff is an insult to those involved in the suffrage movement.

You see, as Susan Ellis is fond of saying, nobody gets paid to start a revolution. Social change happens, more often than not, because of the efforts and sometimes sacrifices of volunteers. They may not be called volunteers, they may not be recognised by history as volunteers, but do not be fooled into thinking that the major changes in our society are made exclusively or mainly by paid staff.

In history, as Susan argues, volunteers have played a crucial role in shaping the world we live in. If those individuals had sat around waiting for someone to be paid to make the change or had decided their efforts should only complement and supplement the work of paid staff then we would still be in the dark ages.

In modern society we face challenges unprecedented in human history, from global poverty & hunger to an ageing population, from wealth inequality to the environment. By suggesting that the efforts of volunteers should only 'complement and supplement' the efforts of paid staff working on these challenges is to vastly reduce the pool of knowledge, talent and capacity to find solutions. That is to all our detriments.

My sincere hope is that as we enter a new year the time really has come for the debate about job substitution to move on and grow up.

Monday, 18 November 2013

What's in a word?

I've recently finished reading The Institute for Volunteer Research's (IVR) excellent new report on microvolunteering. Yes, that's right, something about microvolunteering that I am enthusiastic about.

As I have said in other blogs, microvolunteering is often portrayed as the knight in shining armour come to save the damsel in distress that is volunteering. It is claimed to be the magical solution that will engage people who are otherwise put off volunteering and start them down a long and happy road of lifelong service. It is evangelistically portrayed as the best thing ever to happen to volunteering without a single shred of meaningful evidence to back those assertions.

In their accessible and readable report, IVR take a more measured look at microvolunteering. They cut through the hype and hoopla to explore the realities of the concept, identifying opportunities and challenges for volunteer involving organisations and seeking out evidence to back up the claims the microvolunteering evangelists make. Its a great report and well worth a read.

We're also promised practical guidance on microvolunteering, drawn from a number of case study organisations IVR worked with in their research. Thsi is due late November and will add to the existing resources of organisations like Help From Home so that leaders and managers of volunteer can judge for themselves whether microvolunteering is for them and their volunteers.

One aspect that IVR touch on is the re-branding by organisations of some existing shorter term volunteering opportunities as microvolunteering. This is could be a consequence of organisations "sexing up" what they already offer by playing on new and trendy language.

One one level there is nothing wrong with giving something a new name to fit with in-vogue terminology. It is certainly nothing new, whether to volunteerism or any other walk of life. But I think we need to be really aware of the potential consequences.

Here are some examples.

A few years ago when the then government started developing more ideas about mandatory volunteering as part of citizenship or welfare requirements, the position many in the volunteering movement took was "so long as government don't call it volunteering it's ok". That was intended to protect the values of volunteering (and act of free will being key) from corruption by government. To an extent it worked but there have been two significant consequences.

First, government now feels they can get away with any such scheme so long as they don't call it volunteering. This has led to more of these initiatives which they defend accordingly. Except the public don't necessarily make the same distinctions we might. They see people working unpaid and being forced to do it and they make associations with volunteering anyway, in part because the media might still use this language even if ministers do not. So instead of facing up to a real debate, the volunteering movement could be accused of ducking the issue whilst the protection of volunteering they thought they were establishing hasn't been as effective as they thought.

Second, by saying "so long as you don't call it volunteering were not bothered", the volunteering movement has marginalised itself from having any relevant voice into policy circles that decide on such initiatives. After all, so long as they don't call it volunteering, why should ministers seek to engage with volunteering bodies over their ideas. As a result we get new schemes dreamt up with no real though given to the execution or resourcing of these by volunteer involving organisations.

Another example is around the more recent debates about internships.

In large part these debates have become higher profile because use of the word intern, especially in an unpaid context, has become more prevalent in recent years. From what I can see this seems to be for two reasons: individuals describe their volunteering as an internship because that term carries more weight with potential employers than the v-word does; organisations re-badge their volunteering opportunities as internships to attract more people as a result.

The consequence? First, by colluding with the idea that internship sounds more professional than volunteering we collude with the devaluing of volunteering, subordinating it to a lower class status below real work (i.e. paid) and internships. Second, we open up a can of worms such as that created by the recent debates on unpaid internships which - and let's not ignore this at all - risk fundamentally undermining the concepts of volunteering many of us hold so dear.

So back to microvolunteering.

As I said earlier, I really like the IVR report. There is much in there that I comment to anyone interested in the topic. But I want to add a real note of caution around the emerging trend for organisations to take what they alreday do and call it microvolunteering in order to attract people by using this sexy new word. Because if what organisation are doing is renaming something but still delivering the same unrewarding opportunity, doing little or nothing to change their actual practice in volunteer enagagement, then just as in the examples above, we risk real and potentially serious consequences. We risk deceiving people into volunteering with us, getting them all excited about our volunteer opportunities and then they get past the hype and sexy new words and find the same old things being done that never attracted them to volunteering before. That risks not only turning people of volunteering with your agency but with any orgaisation.

What's in a word? Potentially everything. Let's think really carefully about the words we use and the bandwagons we jump on. They may take us to places we don't want to go.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

We should all remember, remember to sing the praises of volunteer managers

5th November is International Volunteer Managers Day, an annual day that recognises the contribution of volunteer managers around the globe.

I’ll admit it, when I first heard about it I thought “not another international day of something-or-other. Aren’t there enough of those already?” I was challenged to think about it more deeply though when Rob Jackson spoke up in favour of the day and invited me to write this blog post.

The bigger picture

I first turned my thoughts to other “days”. The ones that immediately came to mind were International Women’s Day, Nurses’ Day, and World Aids Day. 
These three seem to sum up what most “days of” are about:
  • shining a light on a marginalised group
  • bringing our attention to a group of people providing an important service
  • or shouting about an important cause that needs its profile raising.

But how can volunteer managers compare with that?

Are volunteer managers a marginalised group? Are we providing a service? Do we need our profile raising? In my opinion, the answer to all three is a resounding yes.

In need of recognition

Last week I met a volunteer manager who had had to fight to have her job graded on the same level as those who managed staff, because she “only” managed volunteers. This is backed up by evidence elsewhere which shows that volunteer managers often aren’t on the same grade as those who manage paid staff. As a result, volunteer managers often miss out on a place at the table for important discussions and decisions. In this sense, we are marginalised.

What about providing a service? As the website of International Volunteer Managers Day says, volunteering can’t survive in a vacuum. Volunteer managers are not the extra bit on the side. We’re essential. We enable volunteering to happen by developing positive volunteer roles, providing day to day support, and ensuring volunteers have a positive experience. In short, we enable volunteers to volunteer. I’d say that’s a pretty good service.

As for profile raising, if you say to many people that you work for a charity they will immediately assume you’re a fundraiser. People just don’t think of supporting volunteers as a role. What’s more, in this age of cuts and austerity, a lot of people unfortunately see volunteering as a cost-cutting exercise and believe it is free. They don’t see the costs involved in supporting volunteers or the value of supporting volunteers well. The profile of volunteer management needs raising.

To me then, it seems that volunteer managers are worthy of their own international day, but what does that really mean? And what can it achieve?

It’s up to us

Few international days produce concrete outcomes, but the successful ones do go hand in hand with improvements in the situation. That only happens because of hard work and action, all year round, and on the international day in particular.

If we are going to capitalise on this opportunity and make International Volunteer Managers Day mean something we have to do something. We may not be going to march to Downing Street to demand change, or run TV adverts shouting about our cause, but if we want the day to achieve something we have to make it happen.

Hold an event, tell your friends, blog about it, but most of all spread the word to volunteer managers, volunteers, other charity workers, and, most importantly, beyond! Not just on IVMDay (it’ll happen again on 5 November 2014), but all year round. Only that way can we raise our profile, reduce marginalisation, and be recognised for the important service we provide.

For my part, today I’ll be tweeting, posting on Facebook, and generally shouting about it to anyone who’ll listen! And I’ll keep going for the next twelve months too.

What about you?

Kirsty McDowell is a consultant, specialist in volunteer involvement and the founder of Fish Quay Consulting. You can read more of Kirsty’s musings at www.fishquayconsulting.co.uk/blog.html 

Friday, 11 October 2013

NCVO gives evidence on Olympic Legacy around volunteering

In response to a recent posting I made on LinkedIn sharing a news article from Third Sector about the volunteering legacy for the London 2012 Games, Mike Locke of NCVO kindly shared with me the transcript of evidence he recently gave to the House of Lords Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Committee.

You can access this twenty page transcript on the Committee's website where you can also access RSS feeds on the Committee's work and sign up for email updates. Interestingly Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is due to give evidence to this committee on 22nd October 2013.

You can also watch Mike giving evidence to the committee via the video below.

What do you think of Mike's evidence?

What would you add to what he said?

Did the committee ask the right questions?

How would you have answered them differently?

Monday, 9 September 2013

It's time to ditch the word retention

Volunteer retention. It's one of those areas that people always ask about.

  • "How can we benchmark our retention rates against somebody else's?"
  • "How can we keep our volunteers for longer?"
  • "What can we do - what distinct action can we take - to retain volunteers?"

All good questions. All questions that seem simple but anyone with experience of working with volunteers will know are difficult to answer.

  • Why is it good if you hold onto someone for longer than I do? What if they stay longer but contribute less? Your retention rates may look better than mine but the actual impact of volunteers may be lower.
  • Do you want to keep your volunteers for longer? Sometimes I hear people wishing they could get rid of some of their volunteers? Sometimes a bit of turnover is a good thing.
  • Is there a discrete action we can take, a magic wand we can wave to make volunteers stay? I don't think so, for me retention is the outcome of a well managed volunteer programme. Lead and manage your volunteers well and they will want to stay.

The problem is the word retention. I'd like to ban the it from the volunteer management vocabulary all together.


For me, the word retention still carries with it that sense that we are striving to hold on to our volunteers for as long as possible. We want to get them through the door and then do everything we can to try and prevent them from leaving. Sometimes that's great - giving them a great experience, a good environment to work in etc. - and sometimes it's not so great - laying a guilt trip on them that if they leave the whole organisation will fall apart without them.

I just don't think that mindset is working anymore. In fact, as new generations of volunteers come on board - what Tom and Jonathan McKee call The New Breed of volunteers - I think the idea of retention is fundamentally flawed. Try and retain volunteers in the traditional sense (keep them as long as possible) and watch your volunteer base dwindle like sand slipping through your fingers.

My thinking goes something like this.

June is a new volunteer with your organisation. June's a busy person, balancing running her own business with other volunteering, family and all the other things that take up the time of a typical person in the 21st century.

June has just heard that at short notice (everything seems to be short notice these days!) she has to go out of the country for a month for work. Being conscientious June gives you, her volunteer manager a heads up about this as soon as she can. Your response?

"Well we were really counting on you to fill those shifts in the next few weeks. If you're not here we may have to cancel them and that means our clients will really suffer. Can you say no? Can you re-arrange and work around your volunteering?"

Put simply, my answer is no. And frankly, June resents your inflexibility. She loves her volunteering but her world doesn't revolve around it. It is, after all, something she does in her spare time, her precious spare time that she also has to fill with other things, like family and friends.

So June goes on her business trip and, when she gets back, she doesn't bother getting in touch with your organisation again. Instead she goes looking for someone who will give her the flexibility to balance her volunteering with the rest of her life whilst still making a difference to a good cause. Someone who, when June has to go away again, will say something like:

"Thanks for letting us know June. That's not a problem. We'll figure something out. Just let us know when you're back and we'll pick things up from there if you're still free."

That organisation has, in my view, the right approach to the R word, because retention isn't about handing onto people anymore, its about letting them go. Give people that flexibility and they'll keep coming back for more because so many others are training to retain them like they did in the past.

In short, to keep people volunteering we have to be willing to let them leave.

Of course this presents challenges for volunteer involving organisations. But all change does. Embracing the challenges and overcoming them is what we need to do.

Successful organisations and managers of volunteers will adapt, embrace flexibility and become more volunteer centred.

Those that still talk about retention, well I don't think we'll be talking about them for very much longer.

What do you think?

Have you changed the way you think about retention? How has that made a difference to your volunteers and your organisation?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.,

Monday, 2 September 2013

A new beginning for Do-It

Last week saw the announcement of the new home for Do-It, the English national volunteering database.

For over a decade Do-It has been the go to online resource for people to find out about volunteering opportunities in England. Every 45 seconds someone finds a volunteering opportunity through Do-It and 30% of them have never volunteered before. All this has been possible through the hard work of a dedicated team at YouthNet, the owners of Do-It, and their partners (mainly local Volunteer Centres).

However, in March 2013 YouthNet announced plans to find a new owner for Do-It and last week this was announced as a partnership led by the team behind ivo.org, the network for social change connecting people, companies and organisations that want to change their world.

I think this is an excellent piece of news for the sector.

For starters, ivo.org's CEO, Jamie Ward-Smith, has a strong track record in this arena. Not only was Jamie instrumental in the establishment of Do-It back in 2001 but he has a strong track record in working with the local volunteering infrastructure, initially as CEO at Volunteer Centre Kensington ad Chelsea but also as a senior civil servant in the Blair Labour government when the Russell Commission was conducting it's work.

These strong links should not be underestimated in their importance. Put simply, without the information supplied by local Volunteer Centre's Do-It would not have the volume or quality of  volunteering opportunities that it does. Key to Do-It's continued survival and essential to it's future development is the relationship it has with Volunteer Centres and Jamie is well placed to drive this forward.

The there is the track record Jamie and the ivo.org team have in driving social innovation in our sector. In just a few short years ivo.org has become a key resources for volunteers and leaders & managers of volunteer programmes. That has built on the work of the Red Foundation, an initiative Jamie ran prior to ivo.org and that I had the pleasure of working with on the Modernising Volunteering National Support Service whilst I was at Volunteering England.

Just as the link between Volunteer Centres and Do-It is important for the future, so it the creativity of the new partnership to innovate, especially around the development and integration of social media and microvolunteering. This is something I think ivo.org and their partners are uniquely placed to deliver.

So this is good news for all of us, whether volunteer or manager of volunteers. Good news doesn't come along very often these days. Let's take the opportunity to celebrate with the new team behind Do-It as we wish them all success for the future.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The CEO as board chair - my response

Thanks to the team at Vantage Point I recently became aware of an article in the US publication Non-Profit Quarterly. The author, Mike Burns, asks whether non-profit CEOs should also serve as chairs of their boards. 

It’s a good article and well worth a couple of minutes to read. Mike is a consultant in non-profit governance and planning with 35 years of experience so I assume he knows his stuff, he certainly provides a sensible take on the issues involved. He doesn’t seem to resort to crude assumptions that paying people results in better quality work than relying on volunteers, an ingredient of almost every argument put forward by advocates of paid charity governance here in the UK.

The blog by Vantage Point that drew me to Mike’s article contained their own response to his thoughts. The core of their response was that the core os the issue was not about organisational structure but engagement. I agree.

For me, the centre of Mike’s arguments in favour of CEOs chairing boards is that most CEOs he has encountered seem to think that it would be much easier and more effective to work with the board if they ran it themselves, rather than having a volunteer chair do it for them. 

This argument isn’t new to leaders and managers of volunteers. Most Volunteer Managers (VMs) will have worked with paid staff colleagues to develop volunteer roles and heard them say something along the lines of “but it will be so much quicker and easier if I did it all myself”.  The difference in Mike’s article is that the paid staff concerned is the CEO not the office manager, social worker, team leader or other more junior colleague. The CEO-as-chair argument suggests it’d just be quicker, easier and more effective if the CEO did it themselves.

Extending the argument further would seem to suggest the question, ‘shouldn’t CEOs do all the important roles if they think they can be more effective at them?’ Of course in small agencies where the CEO is the only employee - or may in fact be a ‘senior’ volunteer - then this is perhaps an inevitability. However, in organisations with paid staff teams, the implication would be that CEOs shouldn’t need fellow senior executives, heads of department etc. if they think they could do the job better. 

Of course in practice that’s ridiculous, no CEO in a sizeable organisation would ever seek to do everything themselves. When an organisation gets to a certain size, competent people are hired to lead certain key functions within the organisation such as fundraising, finance, HR, volunteer management (!), service development etc.. CEOs realise that delegating these key responsibilities to someone capable of addressing them is preferable to doing it all themselves.

As a wise person once said:

"Learning to work with volunteers is like learning to ride a bike. At first it is awkward and difficult and it would be quicker to walk but, once you get the hang of it, riding a bike is far superior to walking."

So, let’s return to the issue of chairing the board. Why should the board chair’s position be any different from that of, say, Director of Finance? If the management and leadership of the governance function is as critical to an organisation as effective management and leadership of its finance function, why should the CEO feel they have to step in and run it themselves yet not feel the same need to do that with the finance department?

To answer that, let’s return to a I sentence I used earlier: 

When an organisation gets to a certain size competent people are hired to lead certain key functions within the organisation”. 

The key word here is competent. When paid staff are hired to lead a function, it is a given that they should be competent at that role. Why then is it assumed that someone recruited to be a volunteer board chair would not be competent? Why would the CEOs think they should do that role, not find a competent person to do it on a voluntary basis instead?

In fairness, Mike addresses this issue at the end of his blog when he says:

“By and large, the volunteers selected to be board chairs do not have the core experiences and skills necessary to effectively manage a board of directors. Clearly, training could inform and prepare those who would be, or are, Chairs, which might make the idea of replacing them with the CEO unnecessary.” 

But why is this only a training issue? Why is it not a recruitment issue? Why is the advice not to recruit competent people, people with the right mix of skills and / or experience, to do this important role in the first place? Why is the CEO stepping into this more preferable as a solution?

I think there are two possible reasons (at least).

First, despite what I suggested earlier when I said Mike didn’t pursue the ‘employees = competent, volunteers = incompetent’ argument, there may be some prejudice about volunteers at play here, even if it is subconscious. Why else would the competence of a volunteer board chair be seen as something trainable rather than something selectable, something to be found in the right candidate?

Second, perhaps CEOs see volunteer management as beneath them. Just as many paid staff still view volunteers as nice-to-haves not essentials for an organisation, as the people who do the menial make-work not the core tasks to fulfil the mission, perhaps CEOs (and other senior executives?) see leadership and management of volunteers as similarly menial and non-core to their role.

I’ve long held that some of the issues CEOs want to solve with boards - diversity, effectiveness, challenges finding people to join the board etc. - could be solved with the application of good volunteer management. After all, they are the same issues Volunteer Managers deal with day-in, day-out. But CEOs don’t turn to their VMs. They don’t turn to volunteer management consultants either. They go to governance consultants instead. Yet the problems don’t ever seem to get solved. Interesting.

So is the answer for CEOs to chair the board? In some circumstances the answer may be yes. But I’d much rather see real effort by CEOs to apply the principles and practice of good volunteer leadership and management first before we go down the road of blurring the boundaries of executive / board responsibilities in the non-profit world with little regard to the potential long term implications.

What do you think?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Technology can connect us

One of the things that bugs me in my work is the assumption that often seems to be made that I work in London. This is most commonly made by people who work in London but that isn't always the case. 

It bugs me primarily because people seem to assume that anyone really serious about being in business or working with civil society is based in the capital. "You're not based in London? Why on earth not?" seems to be the subconscious thought that flies through their heads when I tell them I am based in Grantham, Lincolnshire. I've even experienced people who are surprised that I have clients who are not based in the capital

It also bugs me because people make the assumption that I can go to their office for a short meeting like its just popping down the road. In reality, it is often quicker for me to get to some parts of London than it is for some Londoners - Kings Cross is less than ninety minutes from my house but when I commuted and worked there full time some of my colleagues took longer to get in from other parts of the city. Yet it isn't cheap. At short notice it can cost me £100+ to get to the capital. Even buying a ticket in advance usually costs about £50 plus £11 for parking. And then there is the time lost, usually at least half a day to attend just a one hour meeting.

It also bugs me because it suggests a London centric way of looking at the world - "If you are not prepared to come to the city then we are not prepared to work with you". I can understand that if a potential client is based in London but if it's an infrastructure body seeking to engage with stakeholders then they should be getting out into the rest of the country not expecting us to go to them.

Of course, in the modern world we can harness technology to help break down this London / rest of the country divide. A telephone meeting can take place. Even better a Skype call so we can see each other. Perhaps something like GoToMeeting can be used which enables telephone and video conferencing without the premium rate telephone costs that fund the apparently free alternatives. Google Plus hangouts can be used too - I particularly like Voluntary Arts England's use of these. And most of these technologies don't cost much or anything at all.

I have a number of strong friendships and professional working relationships that I maintain via technology, connecting with people around the globe. I work with people I have never even met using technology, for example as part of the organising committee for International Volunteer Managers Day whose members come from the UK (me), USA, Australia and New Zealand. Only last month when I was in the States I met about half a dozen people for the first time yet I had know them for years just via email. It was like meeting old friends - because I was!

So are we harnessing the potential of technology in the voluntary and volunteering sectors to break down these divides of distance? Yes and no.

On the no front, I was recently contacted by someone based in London who was reaching out to their organisation's network of consultants, of which I am one. They wanted to arrange meetings to develop closer working relationships. I suggested dates I was in London. They didn't suit this person. I explained that I wasn't currently planning to be in London on any other dates before the end of 2013 so perhaps a Skype call would be a good way forward. They responded by indicating that it had to be face-to-face (i.e. physically present in person) if it was to achieve the aim of a closer working relationship. I had to go to them at my cost or the meeting wasn't happening. So, the organisation concerned seems to be happy to limit themselves to only having close working relationships with their consultants who are within cheap and easy reach of London. What potential will they miss out on from those of us based further afield, with experience of working in the vast majority of the civil society world that does not inhabit London?

On the yes front, look at Thoughtful Thursdays. An initiative originally born from Warrington Voluntary Action's work during the European Year of Volunteering 2011, Thoughtful Thursday's (or #ttvolmgrs in Twitter speak) connects volunteer managers across the UK (indeed now across the globe) in a weekly discussion on a topical theme related to leading and managing volunteers and volunteer programmes. Friendships have been built, strong work connections developed and offline initiatives born through a network based on technology that was developed in a part of the UK where much of the innovation in volunteering seems to be happening, the North West, specifically in and around Manchester - not London.

So, to be clear, I don't live in London. I don't always work in London. I can't always come to London. But that doesn't mean I can't develop a good working relationship with people there, or anywhere else for that matter. If we embrace technology and use it intelligently we can build strong working relationships with colleagues in our country and around the world. Perhaps it is time for more of us working in civil society to realise this.

What do you think?

How have you used technology to break down barriers of distance?

Have you develop strong working relationship with people online rather than face-to-face in person?

What lessons do you think we can all learn to make our work more effective?

I'd lvoe to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The missed opportunity of London 2012?

Over on my Third Sector online blog this month I’ve written an article about the lost opportunities of the post London 2012 volunteering legacy. This draws on recent research from Join In which showed that:

  • 29% of people would like to volunteer but haven’t done so
  • 51% have been unable to find out about local volunteering opportunities
  • 2% had done more volunteering as a result of the Games
  • 71% agreed that more volunteering by the general public in their local area was important to ensure the Games Makers’ legacy lives on

Beyond the issues I talk about in my Third Sector online blog there is also the interesting matter regarding the public’s apparent (in)ability to find out about volunteering.

First up, almost a third of people surveyed would like to volunteer but haven’t. Sorry but my skepticism kicks in here. When faced with a researcher asking questions like this surely some people don’t want to come across as uncaring so they say, “Sure, we’d love to volunteer, we just haven’t done it yet”. It’s like the classic question, “Why don’t you volunteer?” to which people say, “Well I don’t have time”. That’s not a reason not to volunteer, its an excuse, a simple way to deflect a question that makes them uncomfortable.

Let’s face it, if 71% of people think its important that people volunteer in their local community why aren’t they doing it? Either because they don’t know how to, or they think its someone else’s responsibility, or perhaps the idea of personally volunteering is so unattractive that they would never see it as something for them. 

Second, half of the population have been unable to find out about local volunteering opportunities. This isn’t surprising given the cuts experienced by local volunteering infrastructure in the last few years. Despite significant evidence of their importance, Volunteer Centres have seen substantial cuts in income and many have had to close their doors, like in Milton Keynes, where the VC announced its closure last week after 37 years.

Instead, government has invested financially and politically in new initiatives such as Join In. I did a quick search on their website for volunteering opportunities near where I live and discovered just eight opportunities, all taking place between the end of July and the middle of September and all oriented around netball. 

If that’s the public’s experience of trying to find opportunities, the only surprise is that its only 51% who struggle to find something locally.

By comparison, Do-It (who source the majority of their opportunities from VCs but seem to feature less and less in publicity around volunteering as initiatives like Join In steal the spotlight) has 152 diverse opportunities within five miles of where I live.

All of that is just considering local infrastructure’s role in online brokerage. We know VCs have a high success rate at working with those who might struggle most to engage in mainstream volunteering - people with disabilities, BME communities etc. - and all VCs are accredited on their wok in supporting organisations to develop volunteer opportunities, raise standards of good practice, campaign on behalf of volunteering locally and market & promote volunteering to the public.

Perhaps the best way to have capitalised on the volunteering legacy of London 2012 would have been to invest in and support the existing infrastructure rather than vanity projects of the kind that government were so quick to criticise when in opposition. If only someone had been telling LOCOG and government that - oh wait, that’s exactly what Volunteering England (and others) did since before the bid to host the 2012 games was won by the UK in Singapore.

One final word. The Join In research, like most studies done on volunteering, only talked to adults. So once again the millions of people under the age of eighteen get missed out of the picture despite the fact that we know many such young people volunteer.

What are your thoughts on the post-London 2012 legacy?

What lessons do you think we can all learn?

What would you have done differently and why?

Friday, 31 May 2013

Convestival 2013

"Convesti-what?" I hear you ask


Part conference. 

Part convention.

Part festival. 

Convestival - brainchild of the Volunteering and Community Involvement (VCI) team at The National Trust.

The quiet before everyone arrives (and the tour bus!)
Convestival started last year as a way to bring together people with responsibility for volunteers and volunteering from across the Trust to network, learn, share and innovate. The event received great feedback from those who attended and those Trust properties who sent a delegate saw a bigger increase in their volunteering KPI scores than those properties that didn't go to Convestival.

So Convestival came back for 2013 and was held again at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. 

As I have been working with the Trust over the last few months I was invited to attend Convestival to run a couple of masterclass sessions. What I found was quite unlike any event I've ever witnessed in the world of volunteer leadership and management.

For starters there was no breakout room B or conference room 6. Instead we had sessions taking place in marquees named things like "the inspiration zone" which were all located around a single tented meeting area. There was even a tour bus doubling as a chill out space and workshop space for session exploring social media.

Next, the sessions didn't have dull titles like 'engaging new audiences' or 'working with change'. Instead we got sessions named around a theme of journey related song titles: Moving On Up; Stairway To Heaven; Come Fly With Me; Ticket To Ride, Wherever You Will Go etc..

Third there was a palpable sense of fun to the whole event. I'm a big fan of the idea that we learn best when we're having a good time and the Convestival buzz really sought to create that feeling, kicking things off with a recreation of the Queen's starring role in the Olympic opening ceremony, this time featuring the Trust's Director General and the suave Mr Crosby (aka one of the VCI team).
Thrill Collins in full swing

This sense of fun extended into the evening festivities. Superb pop-skiffle band Thrill Collins provided the entertainment whilst convestivites ate great food, drank cider made by volunteers at Trust properties and consumed beer from Calke's own local brewery.

All of this is without mentioning the starring role of Cyril the Squirrel who went on a UK tour to promote Convestival; the use of Facebook to engage participants before, during and after the event; the fetching day-glo pink tabards of Convestival crew; the engagement of a team of external speakers and facilitators so the event didn't feel too in-house; and the logistical foresight to have convesitvites pre checked in to hotels so nobody had to queue for ages to check into rooms late a night. – we even had our room keys delivered to the convesitval site.

As I said, Convestival was quite unlike any other volunteer management event I've ever attended. It was certainly light years away from any in-house conference on volunteer management I've ever attended by any organisations I've ever worked for.

Reading this you may be thinking, "well good for the National Trust but we could never afford to do that". You'd be missing the point though. Sure, the Trust's VCI team had a budget for this that most likely exceeds some peoples' volunteer management budget, let along their events budget. But they practice what they preach and volunteer involvement was key to their success – I volunteered my time, volunteers made the welcome banners, the events company volunteered some of their time. They extended the budget through volunteer involvement.

What impressed me most though was the Trust's passion to invest time and effort in their volunteer managers. At its heart Convestival is an event that is about building the capability of the Trust’s volunteer managers. It has to deliver tangible performance improvements like the previous year’s KPI uplift. But I was struck by the creativity and inventiveness that went into doing that, into ensuring the event was rewarding, enjoyable and stimulating. I was struck by their willingness to make themselves open to external perspectives rather than keeping it all in-house. I loved the fun. I loved the vibe. I loved the food and the beer.
Helen Timbrell welcomes convestivites

My challenge to you reading this blog is, regardless of the financial means at your disposal, how can you foster a culture of creativity, enjoyment, challenge, passion and inspiration amongst your colleagues, your volunteers, your volunteer management peers.

Convestival 2013 has changed my way of looking at volunteering events. I hope we see more events like it in future.

If you are interested in Convestival then you can check out their website – www.convestival.org.uk - or their Facebook page (just search Convestival) or contact Director of Volunteering and Community Involvement, Helen Timbrell, via helen.timbrell@nationaltrust.org.uk.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Five problems I have with Dan Palotta’s TED talk

The non-profit world seems to have been buzzing lately at the TED talk by Dan Palotta, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. It’s easy to see why. Dan puts forward some compelling arguments that the cultural attitudes which view ‘admin costs’ (or overheads as he terms them) as a bad thing rather than as an essential part of a charity’s work. I particularly like Dan’s observations about confusing morality with frugality and his quote, “When you prohibit failure you prevent innovation”.

Of course, Dan’s arguments are nothing new. I can recall hearing fundraising expert Prof. Stephen Lee speak on this very topic years ago. He argued that when people object to, for example, 10% admin costs, fundraisers should respond by saying something like, “Thank you for your donation of £100. We spent £90 helping our clients and are using the other £10 to help raise another £100”.

For all that’s good about Dan’s talk - and it really is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it yet - I have five problems with it.

First, he seems to assume for-profit is bad and non-profit is good. His examples illustrate a mindset that private business is out to make things worse for people whilst non-profits are out to make things better. Of course, he isn’t entirely wrong - there are some truly appalling companies. But the truth is that there are for-profit businesses that genuinely want to make the world a better place (and make some money in the process) just as there are some non-profits who, sadly, exist to benefit the few at the exclusion of the many. In a world of grey, Dan’s assumption of black and white absolutes is flawed.

Second (and related), Dan seems to work from a basis that there are clear delineations between for profit and non-profit. Perhaps that comes from a differing cultural start point - he is American and looks at the issues in a USA context, hence the lack of reference to a public sector - but surely the boundaries are increasingly blurred. Take Dan’s own start point of social entrepreneurship as a case in point, a concept that sees private and voluntary sectors blurring together in different ways from old concepts of them being distinct and separate.

Third, Dan seems to assume that non-profits are driven to change the world, addressing the root causes of the problems their beneficiaries face rather than just treating the symptoms. But is that really the case? For some organisations the answer is a resounding yes. For many though, I’m not so sure. 

If you genuinely want to solve the problems of the world - or at least a group of individuals - then your fundamental belief has to be that your purpose it ultimately put yourself out of business. Why? Because your non-profit will no longer be needed when the problem is solved. 

When NSPCC sought to do this via their Full Stop campaign (seeking to end child cruelty) they were criticised by some for being naive in assuming that such a goal could ever be achieved. 

We also seem to have a worryingly prevalent mindset in some corners of the sector that charities exist to give people paid employment. Losing a job is a painful process - I know, I’ve been there - but if it is so the vulnerable can be better served then objections indicate that we actually believe that sector jobs are more important than the people we are employed to support?

Fourth, Dan seems to imply that large organisations are good. His argument is that whilst non-profits are hampered from growing so they are being limited in what they can achieve.  In other words, the bigger a charity is the more it can do to change lives. This may be true sometimes, but where is the evidence? Some large non-profits are incredibly wasteful, inefficient, unresponsive behemoths out of touch with the beneficiaries. And some aren’t. Big does not automatically mean better.

Finally, Dan speaks as if the only resources that can be deployed to solve social problems are those that can be bought. In keeping with the general trend in the narrative about the UK voluntary sector, he keeps talking about money raised as if it is the only way to resource the work of non-profits. This simply isn’t true. Such a belief misses out on the incredible riches of volunteering. 

The vast majority of the UK voluntary sector is led, driven and run by volunteers, not paid staff. Only a comparably small number of charities employ people but, because of their size, the have a disproportionately loud voice so they are the ones we hear about. Failing to acknowledge the contribution of volunteers to good causes is to ignore perhaps the most precious and valuable asset any non-profit has. This is the key missing ingredient in Dan’s otherwise helpful talk.