Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Reflections on a conference

I recently attended the excellent Strategic People Conference in London. Organised by Agenda Consulting who run the regular Volunteer Counts benchmarking study, the conference brought together HR and Volunteering Managers for a day of workshops and keynote addresses that inspired and challenged in equal measure.

In this blog post I want to share four reactions to the day. I also invite you to comment and add your thoughts, in particular from any readers who were at the conference.

1/ The number of Volunteer Managers in attendance

I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people at the event who were leading volunteering at a wide range of organisations. In fact, during the afternoon workshops, the session on volunteering was in the main plenary room because there were so many of the conference attendees who wanted to be at the session (it was delivered in a very enjoyable way by Dan O’Driscoll from Oxfam).

For a conference mainly sold as being about Human Resources Management it was great to see so many Volunteer Managers in attendance on the day. It goes to show that, done well, a ‘mainstream’ sector conference can be done well and provide good content for those in the volunteering movement rather than simply bolting on unsatisfactory workshops to a programme more geared towards other management disciplines.

2/ What this may mean for HR / volunteering synergies

The presence of so many Volunteer Managers at an HR conference did give me pause to think that perhaps this is a sign of ever closer integration between HR and Volunteer Management in some organisations. Such integration is often dismissed out of hand as bad for volunteer management yet, if done well, it can work. Some organisations even go as far as to put an experienced volunteering person in charge of the overall people function, reinforcing Steve McCurley’s accurate assessment that:

“We shouldn’t treat our volunteers like our paid staff, we should treat our paid staff like our volunteers”.

Yet it is also important to note that volunteering and human resources don’t always play well together. Here’s what Susan Ellis and I have to say on the issue in the UK Edition of the book, From The Top Down:

It is useful to consider the connection between the volunteer manager and the agency’s head of human resources or personnel (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). There are both similarities and differences between these two functions. Structurally, as already noted, both recruit and place workers into your organisation. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify expectations of paid and volunteer personnel. But think carefully if you are leaning toward placing the volunteer office within the human resources department. Here are some cautions:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers will always be given lower priority than employees - perhaps little attention at all.
  • Human resources staff take job descriptions designed by others in the organisation and try to fill those slots with the best people who are then completely delegated to each department or team. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactively suggesting ways volunteers can support the work to be done, be much more creative in finding people with expertise or the potential to become an expert, and find placements for people who unexpectedly offer useful talents (the human resources folks can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary).
  • The volunteer manager may also be much more involved in a range of day-to-day organisational activities and supervise some volunteers directly.

As one final illustration of how HR and volunteer management can differ, I often note that not many HR departments have responsibility for people aged 5 or 95, focusing as they do on people of working age (16–70). Yet such extremes of age are often commonplace for Volunteer Managers and throw up a different set of challenges from those faced by HR colleagues.

3/ The language used around volunteering

Two things frustrated me about the language that was sometimes used in regard to volunteering on the day.

First, the phrase ‘use volunteers’ was heard on a number of occasions from a variety of people. This is a real bugbear of mine and I outlined my thoughts about it in a blog post in 2011. Some people think I can be a bit over the top with this one, that policing the word ‘use’ is not the most important issue the Volunteer Management profession faces. And I agree, it isn’t, but language is important and repeated and frequent talk of ‘using volunteers’ puts them on a par with disposable assets like staplers and office furniture. As the Twitter hashtag for this issue says, [#weusethingsnotpeople](

Second, on a couple of occasions when presenters were discussing time given by professionals using their skills to assist an organisation they used the term ‘probono’. On one level I have no issue with this. Probono is a long established term. However, probono is volunteering, so why don’t we call it that? It seems that whenever some people talk about what they see as more meaningful volunteering they refuse to use the v-word as if that’s only suitable for envelope stuffing and tea making roles.

The more we allow and endorse a different language for certain kinds of volunteering the more we allow the often inaccurate stereotypes of ‘volunteering’ being nice but non-essential work that makes little or no meaningful contribution to an organisation’s mission.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the appalling term, skilled volunteering.

4/ Our obsession with processes and risk avoidance

In the morning I attended a fascinating workshop all about a Hospice community volunteer initiative. The scheme has volunteers out in the community, supporting those affected by illness, doing a wide variety of tasks some of which could be quite challenging. The presenters were keen to stress that the scheme ran in a very light touch way, recruiting and screening for the right people as volunteers and trusting them to make intelligent decisions about the wide array of situations they might face.

Whilst the scheme was interesting, what I found fascinating was the reaction from many of the other Volunteer Managers in the room. It seemed that the default setting of many Volunteer Managers was not to respond by saying something like,

“Oh, that’s interesting, how could I make that work in my organisation?”

Instead the response was,

“We can’t possible do that due to Health & Safety, risk, because paid staff should do those tasks not volunteers etc.”.

Has our profession has become so obsessed by systems and processes, rules and regulations that we fail to spot any potential in new ideas? More worryingly, do we fail to spot the potential in volunteers? As one person who gave evidence to the Volunteer Rights Inquiry said - “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Obviously the rules and regulations, systems and processes are there for a reason and I don’t advocate scrapping them all. But when they dominate, when they stop us doing things that could benefit clients because of some often ill-defined and seldom realised risk, when they hold us back from even considering something new, then those processes become a serious barrier to our work. We are surely about enabling the community to make a difference, not telling them how they can’t make a difference because, to misquote Little Britain, “process says no”.

So there you have it, my four observations on the Strategic People Conference. If you were there then please add your own comments below. If you weren’t there but want to add your thoughts then please feel very welcome to do so.

Over to you.