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?