Monday, 24 February 2014

Four ideas for educating new staff about volunteers

One of the regular training gigs I have is to run a half-day 'working with volunteers' seminar for people who are thinking of working in the non-profit sector.  The seminar is part of a course NCVO are contracted to run for people transitioning from a career in the armed forces to civilian life. Over a week it promotes working for civil society organisations as a positive career option and explores some of the key issues organisations and individuals face.

When I was invited to run this seminar for the first time I asked myself 'How often does a chance like this come along?  A chance to positively influence how people outside our sector view volunteers before they take the step of working for a charity?'.  The answer was, to my mind, 'very rarely' and came to me about as quickly as it took for me to say 'yes' to the invitation.

I’m very aware that few of us will get such a chance.  We are more likely to only get an opportunity to influence new paid staff after they have started work for our agencies, sometimes long after they start. Let's face it, meeting with the leader and manager of volunteers comes way down the corporate induction checklist.

So how can we make the most of the opportunity we do have an how can we get more of these opportunities?

Here are four ideas:

1/ And now for something completely different

Give new starters something out of the ordinary that will make them sit up and take notice of the volunteer programme.

In one agency I worked at, new starters were never short of paper at the end of the corporate induction course.  When it came to volunteering, we gave them an audio CD, produced to a professional standard by volunteers, that features real volunteers talking about what they do, why they do it, what they get out of it and why someone else should do it  - in under 10 minutes! It was accessible to all (I worked for a sight loss charity), easy to access, quick to listen to and stood out from the small forest of manuals and processes people were supposed to read at their leisure (but probably never did).

2/ Get a slot on the induction programme for new staff

Ask for a slot on your organisations induction programme. Sell it by setting out the impact of the work your volunteers do and the added value they provide to your organisation. If volunteers are that important why not ensure all new staff have at least a basic knowledge of how you engage volunteers?

Once you have your foot in the door, get new starters to think about their own volunteer work, what it means to those agencies and draw parallels with the importance of volunteers to your organisation.  This will help to root their understanding of your volunteer programme within the context of their own experience rather than just bamboozle them with statistics.

3/ Choose your words carefully

Don’t mislead people with the information you give but don’t use language that will turn people off before you have a chance to get started. Steer clear of anything that might worry new starters about volunteers replacing staff. For example, “our volunteers do all this and only cost us 10% of what it costs to employ people”.  Also be careful about saying how highly motivated and dedicated your volunteers are. It may be true but it often implies that paid staff aren’t motivated and dedicated to the cause.

4/ Do your homework

When middle and senior managers start with an organisation they normally have a series of one-to-one induction meetings arranged with other key managers.  Make sure you are one of them.  Avoid using this meeting to find out what the new manager does - do your homework first and instead spend the time helping them see how volunteers could make a real difference to achieving their objectives.

What ideas do you have?

What has worked for you?

How else could you influence new people so they become supporters of your volunteer programme?

Please comment in the space below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Volunteering and the floods: questions and lessons

As is typical when disaster strikes, volunteers are right there in the front line of relief efforts. The current flooding in the UK is no different. Whilst official agencies are criticised for being slow to act, volunteers are getting on with the job of practical help and support to those affected. 

Note: Nobody is complaining about job substitution now!

This volunteer led support is being woefully under-reported by the bad-news-fixated media. The best example of reporting I could find was from Tuesday when Sky News reported on their website how flood victims were being helped by the ’best of British’

Interestingly, from my searching online this morning I could find little information from the existing volunteering infrastructure - NCVO, volunteer centres etc. - on how people can get involved in flood relief efforts. 

What reference I did find was largely related to pre-existing, formal volunteer roles that require training and official deployment. For example, Do-It make mention of flood volunteering on their site, directing people to the British Red Cross and Community Resilience. Both links send people to information on opportunities that look like ones which don’t really seem geared to people who spontaneously want to help. The Red Cross itself has a news story online about how its volunteers are supporting flood affected communities. This links to information on becoming one of their emergency response volunteers - also a role that requires training.

What about spontaneous volunteering, people just wanting to help because they see a need and want to get involved without going through weeks of training and induction?

Interestingly this is where there was more information, but none of it linked to the existing volunteering infrastructure. Instead the main focus was on a new initiative called Flood Volunteers

Flood Volunteers has been set up by the private sector entrepreneurs behind TaskHub, a site for finding professional services such as plumbing etc.. According to the Metro newspaper and, the Prime Minister asked the founders of TaskHub to set up Flood Volunteers to aid the support efforts. People simply say how they are willing to help and affected people can link up with them for help.

For me all this raises some important questions:

  • Why is the government not turning to the existing volunteering infrastructure for help in deploying spontaneous volunteers? 
  • If it did, does the volunteering infrastructure have the resources to be of help at times like this?
  • What should be the role of national volunteering infrastructure bodies like NCVO and NAVCA (to name just two) in co-ordinating with government and the relevant agencies to ensure the great British public’s spontaneous help is directed most effectively?
  • What plans do the existing volunteering infrastructure have in place so that they are prepared to be of real help in times like this by channeling spontaneous volunteer support to the right places?
  • Who is ensuring that the spontaneous volunteering that is happening is being done safely and actually helping, not hindering, relief efforts? We might not realise it but people wanting to help can actually cause more problems than they alleviate, a situation explored in detail by Jayne Cravens on her webpage, Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters.
  • Who is monitoring whether people actually follow through on the pledges of support? Take a look at this story (again reported by Jayne Cravens) following the floods in Queensland, Australia three years ago where this was an issue.
  • What is being / will be done to see if these spontaneous volunteers who are making a real difference in flood affected communities might want to put their time into volunteering when the flood waters subside?

Quite rightly the focus now is on on helping those affected by the floods. As the efforts move in the coming weeks into cleaning up and moving on, the media will inevitably focus on the lessons learnt from the floods. There will be calls for better flood defences, more funding for flood hit communities, an examination of the political point scoring that seems to be more important to some politicians than helping the people in need.

But will we in the volunteering movement learn any lessons?

Will we be more prepared next time? 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Warning! The volunteers are coming

Earlier this week friend and colleague Lynn Blackadder shared with me the latest issue of National Museums Directors' Council newsletter. Within the newsletter there was a heading reading,"Volunteers may run libraries, parks and museums warns local government chief". Underneath it was the following text:

Writing for the Daily Telegraph the Chairman of the Local Government Association Sir Merrick Cockell warns that it will be impossible for local councils to keep paying for all the services they currently offer as cuts increase.  He writes “with half of local government’s savings still having to be found before April 2016, and more cuts promised thereafter, it will no longer be possible to keep slicing away at budgets without services suffering or, in some cases, disappearing completely.” 

“We now need to be asking whether people are prepared to take a direct role in providing other services like the running of local museums, sports classes, the upkeep of parks and green spaces and the management of allotment sites.” The Telegraph reports that the LGA estimates that local councils will have to find a further £10bn savings from their budgets, on top of the £10bn cuts already made. Telegraph (Sir Merrick’s article), Telegraph (commentary)

In the last few years, whilst the purse strings have been rapidly tightened following the global financial crash, the debate about volunteers making a greater contribution to the delivery public services has been focused almost exclusively on the risks of these volunteers going paid staff out of work. In public fora, leaders and managers of volunteers have remained largely silent on the issue except for occasional support for the position that volunteers shouldn't do the work that paid staff once did - as if the argument were that simple. In fact Lynn and I tried to address this complexity in a piece for The Guardian back in 2011.

Rarely has anyone spoken about the upside to volunteer involvement in public services. The more positive aspects of the (in many ways rightly) much maligned Big Society agenda that focused on local people having more of a say in how services are delivered & taking more ownership of those local services have seemingly been forgotten.

This leads me to think that if we'd had an intelligent, open and informed discussion about volunteer involvement in public services a few years ago we perhaps wouldn't have to resort to the interesting language you may not have noticed in the headline to the article quoted above  - "Volunteers may run libraries, parks and museums warns local government chief".

Why is this something to warn us about? Are volunteers such scary people that we should be in fear of them when visiting the local museum in future?  Or is it a warning that 'the volunteers are coming, be in fear for your jobs'? Or perhaps its a warning to the public, the old 'volunteer or lose it (the library, park, leisure centre etc.)' recruitment tactic.

Either way I can't help but feel we've got a situation of our own making here. With either total silence or well intentioned arguments against job substitution from the volunteer management community, we have perhaps missed a huge chance to speak up and educate. We have perhaps missed a golden opportunity to say how volunteers - either on their own or working alongside paid staff - need not be a threat but an opportunity to transform public services for the better.

The good news is that opportunity need not be entirely a missed one. We can still speak up and be heard. In our own organisations, in online forums, in comments to news articles, on social media, at conference and events, we can take a more positive line on how volunteers can add real value to public services.

Interestingly, the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is developing a code of conduct for its members (and if you work with volunteers here in the UK you should be a member of AVM) which, if adopted, would require them to "advocate on behalf of volunteers at all times". In other words, we would be compelled to take a positive stance for volunteers in the delivery of public services as a matter of professional conduct.

So my question to you is whether you are ready to do this? Are you prepared to counter the warnings about volunteer involvement and champion the value they can add and good they can bring? Indeed, have you done this before and got tips to share? If not, what kind of information and support do you think you'd need to be confident in fighting the corner of the volunteer?

Please share your responses below.

If you'd like to read some of my blogs on job substitution (or, as I prefer, job displacement & replacement) please see  my previous posts on this issue and my column for Third Sector online too.  I've also stuck my head above the parapet and commented on stories about more volunteers working in libraries