Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Can the voluntary sector learn from the army?

Just a few days ago colleague Kirsty McDowell published and excellent posting on her blog, “Can the army learn from the voluntary sector”. Kirsty rightly argues that the challenges faced by the military to recruit more reservists (volunteers) to the army could have been reduced if they had taken time to learn from what works in volunteer recruitment.

Good customer service, speedy responses to enquiries, an online applications that works, well briefed frontline staff - we all know that these things make a big difference to effective volunteer recruitment and, where they aren’t present, can act as a significant barrier to prospective volunteers.

But can it work the other way? Can the voluntary sector learn from the army?

The answer is yes.

Consider for a moment that much volunteer recruitment is still focused on messages like “help, we need volunteers”, or “help, we urgently need volunteers”. All the good systems and processes in the world won’t be worth much if we can’t inspire people to consider giving us their time in the first place.

The army, on the other hand, may not have the best systems for handling new reservist recruits but they do have a compelling and inspiring way of marketing their roles. Let’s face it, they have to if they are going to convince people to sign up for something where they may well find themselves laying their lives on the line - just like this famous advert Ernest Shackleton used to recruit volunteers to his Antarctic expedition:
No “we desperately need your help” there, instead it challenges, it inspires and it makes it abundantly clear to many (including me) that they are not the ones to volunteer for that particular challenge!

Beyond the front end of the posters, radio, internet and TV adverts the Army uses to attract their kind of people, their recruitment website highlights some lessons many volunteer involving organisations could learn:

Training and development - the army is up front that its recruits have a wealth of opportunities available to them from apprenticeships & learning a trade to a multitude of specialist roles. Do our organisations explain how we can help our prospective volunteers to learn their role and develop during their time with us?

Roles tailored to the interested of the individual - army recruits have access to thousands of jobs, and hundreds of careers. Do we offer choice and flexibility to our prospective volunteers during their 'career' with us or do we lock people into the role we need and keep them there forever?

Information for families - the army are very clear about how they can provide welfare and support services to their troops, family care for their dependents and how they can helping people move on at the end of their army career. Do we explain what support we’ll give to the volunteer? Do we show that we can be flexible and adaptable to the other needs in their lives (family, friends, work etc.)? In particularly emotionally demanding roles, do we explain the welfare and support we’ll provide to volunteers? Do we ever offer them support to find new volunteer roles when they decide to leave?

Socialising and fun - the army explicitly promote events, activities and leisure to their recruits, showing that a career is more than just the job but the social side of what they offer? Are we explicit about this with potential volunteers? Do we involve them in social activities? Or are volunteers expected to just turn up, do their role and then disappear rather than becoming a part of the team?

So yes, the army can definitely learn from us. But we can also learn from them. I’ve only touched on a few areas here - I haven't even touched on leadership - so please do comment and let me know how else we might learn from the army (and other armed forces) when it comes to working with volunteers.