Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Are we youth obsessed?

In May the UK government published new draft policy directions for the Big Lottery Fund and opened a consultation[1] on their proposals.

Michael Birtwistle at NCVO has provided a good analysis of the proposals and what they mean that is worth spending a few minutes reading.

As Michael outlines, one of the draft priorities is, “engaging young people in volunteering and supporting youth sector infrastructure”. This is what I said in response to his article:

“Sigh. Why is engaging young people in volunteering a priority? Everybody is doing this. NCS has £1.2billion to do this. vinspired had £millions for this under Labour. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem encouraging young people to volunteer. But they are a small proportion of our population. What about the huge numbers of baby boomers? What about Generation X? Where is the funding to engage them more in giving time as volunteers? Perhaps the assumption is that they’ll give just like their parents did? In which case a brief read of the final report from the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing is worth a read. For once it would be nice to see a major funder or a high profile combine breaking away from our national youth obsession and realising that there are millions of others who do and could give time that would welcome more support.”

I make this point frequently when I speak on volunteering. Ever since the demise in 2003 of the failed Experience Corps initiative, little attention has been given and almost no funding provided on any significant scale to engage our huge baby boomer population in volunteering. Schemes like Volunteer Matters’ Retrired and Senior Volunteer Programme continue to do excellent work but the majority of effort and funding is directed at people under 30.

The aforementioned Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing issued it’s final report fifteen months ago and little seems to have happened since.

So, I want to ask, what do you think?

Have we become youth obsessed when it comes to volunteering in the UK?

What should we be doing to engage with a wider demographic of people in volunteering? What are you doing right now?

How should funding and support be directed best to help organisations engage baby boomers and Generation X in volunteering?

Over to you.


  1. The consultation closes on 12 August.  ↩

Monday, 20 June 2016

Influencer marketing and volunteer recruitment

I am a regular reader of the Buffer Blog. Produced by social media scheduling company Buffer, the blog regularly shares practical, inspiring content about social media, a key marketing tool in our 21st century world.

Social media is a topic I train and write on regularly. It’s a subject I find many people who lead and manage volunteers can be uncertain about or even afraid of. Yet, whilst it won’t completely replace more traditional ways to promote volunteering in our organisations, it is an increasingly important way to reach out to people, and not just those under the age of 30 - some of the biggest growth in social networks like Facebook is from those aged 50 and above.

So I want to share with you an excellent recent Buffer blog post by Ash Read on Influencer Marketing.

Ash starts the blog post by arguing that marketing is essentially about the spread of ideas. In volunteering terms this means we want to spread that idea that people should volunteer for a given cause or organisation. This is what Ash says [with some contextualising for volunteering from me]:

“Success in marketing often comes down to one simple concept: getting your ideas [that people should volunteer with you] to spread. Traditionally, mass-media adverting is the go-to way to spread ideas. Here’s how it works (in theory): you buy some ads, put those ads in front of your audience [potential volunteers], and that’s how your idea spreads. The problem with this approach is that we live in a time where choice is abundant and time is sparse. Consumers [potential volunteers] are spoiled for choice when it comes to what to spend their money [time in our context] on and have too little time to consume content and engage with adverts. What this means is that most advertising is just ignored.”

Just read that last line again.

Most advertising is ignored!

That means those recruitment posters and leaflets you lovingly crafted to. It means that swanky new TV or radio campaign your organisation has spent a small fortune on to get people to volunteer or donate money. They aren’t simply dismissed but ignored altogether.

So what do we do instead?

As Ash’s points out, we’re more likely to buy a product if it’s recommended by a friend than pushed at us by an advert. In volunteering parlance that’s word of mouth.

We’ve always known that word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of volunteer recruitment. Simply put, if I have a great volunteering experience then I want to tell others about that. So I share enthusiastically with friends and family and encourage them to get involved so they can enjoy the volunteering experience too.

Social media, as Erik Qualman puts it in his book Socialnomics, is word of mouth on digital steroids. Or, another way he puts it: word of mouth to world of mouth.

Think of it like this: when I share my great volunteering experience with friends and family, that includes posting about it on social media. My friends (all around the world!) see this. Some will like or react to it. Some will share it. Either way word spreads about how great volunteering with that organisation is without the organisation doing anything other than delivering a great experience and perhaps encouraging me to tell my friends.

Now you may be sceptical about the idea that anyone - especially a stranger who might happen across my social media post via a friend who shared it - would respond to my enthusiastic posting by enquiring to volunteer at the same organisation. But why not? As Ash points out in his article, “92% of consumers trust recommendations from other people—even if they don’t know them personally—over promotional content that comes directly from brands.”

Just think for a minute about when you’ve bought something online. You probably read a review online, for example from someone on Amazon or TripAdvisor who also bought that book or CD or booked that hotel or ate at that restaurant. Did their review sway you to go ahead with your purchase or not? The answer is probably yes. Did you personally know them? The answer is probably no. So if our online buying decisions are influenced by someone we don’t know why wouldn’t someone trust my enthusiastic review of volunteering and want to get involved themselves?

Back to Ash’s blog post - what then is influencer marketing? Simply put, it’s word of mouth but focused through someone who will be an influencer to that audience. So if you want to more young people to volunteer with your organisation you find someone who has influence within this group to share your volunteer recruitment message on social media. That doesn’t have to be a member of One Direction but someone who has influence within their peer group, for example another young person. As Ash puts it, “influencers act as a mutual friend connecting your brand with your target consumers”.

Ash’s post goes on to explain more about influencer marketing in his blog post which I encourage you to read and reflect on. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this topic and how we can apply the concepts of influencer marketing to volunteer management.

Over to you.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Have we got our national standards right?

For UK Volunteers’ Week, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled “What makes some people more likely to volunteer than others?” Within that piece, which mainly looked at volunteer motivation, Justin Davis Smith (former CEO of Volunteering England) made a really vital point. To quote directly from the article:

Ultimately, “it’s about constructing a really worthwhile, meaningful opportunity for people where they can make a difference,” Davis Smith says. “Don’t do that in isolation, do that with volunteers. They can help co-produce and co-construct the experience they engage in. Make it meaningful, make it attractive, make it worthwhile.”

That got me thinking. Do the national standards we have for working with volunteers encourage such an approach? Do they emphasise the importance of developing great volunteer roles and experiences? Do they promote co-production with volunteers? Do they ultimately make volunteering with out organisations meaningful, attractive and worthwhile?

Lots of countries have some form of national standards, either for the practice of volunteer leadership and management or for the organisational readiness to engage volunteers. For example:

This is of course just a sample and I’ve only picked one from each territory. The UK also has national competencies for volunteer management as well as the organisation Investing In Volunteers standard, and New Zealand has organisational best practice guidelines as well as competencies for Volunteer Managers. I’m sure there are more and please do let me know if there are any I’ve missed (you can leave a comment below).

Any effort to raise the standard of volunteer management and create a more pro-volunteering culture in volunteer involving organisations is a good thing. Yet what all of these have in common is an emphasis on processes, risk management and the like - the bureaucratic side of working with volunteers. Less prevalent is a consistent focus on our ability to work well with people, the skills and competencies that make someone a great leader of people, able to co-produce influence, negotiate and, well, lead.

Sure, some of the standards above contain elements of this people & leadership focus. But not all. And often this is given less prominence to the process stuff.

Now I understand that good processes should support meaningful and worthwhile volunteering opportunities. They should keep people safe and provide a context and structure to volunteering that enhances it’s value to the volunteer, the organisation and the beneficiary. But note that I said good processes, not simple processes.

All too often I come across people working with volunteers for whom the processes they work within (whether established by them or by the wider organisation) are a barrier to giving people great volunteer opportunities. Two examples:

  • Putting people off before they even start by requiring everyone to complete a long and detailed application form before they can start. In some instances this may be appropriate but do we need to do this for those just giving us the occasional hour of their time now and again?
  • An approach to risk that is about avoiding it all together rather than managing it. So family volunteering is dismissed because children could get hurt without any consideration that parents who volunteer with children continue to look our for their welfare just like at any other time and so the risk to an organisation is probably much lower than if they just involved the children without the parents.

As one volunteer I met once said, “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

If our national standards consistently focus on processes do we reinforce this culture of volunteer management being a process business not a people one? Should they place a heavier and more consistent emphasis on people and leadership skills to balance or even counteract the danger of becoming a ‘computer says no’ profession?

I come back to Justin’s challenge that we must make volunteering meaningful, attractive and worthwhile. Take a look at your national standards for volunteer management. Does they emphasise the right things to rise to this challenge, or do they focus on things that will get in the way?

What do you think? Leave your comments below so we can discuss these questions further.