Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Value, cost and volunteer management

I was recently reminded of a blog post my good friend Martin J Cowling wrote last year about his experiences of running training when the host organisation has offered the session for free.  In a nutshell, Martin argues that training offered for free results in more people not turning up, more people leaving early and more people not really engaging in the training.

A couple of days later I  read an article on "How e-learning can help charities provide staff training on a budget".  I've got nothing at all against e-learning but the sense conveyed by the headline is that this is a good option when belts are being tightened.  In other words, e-learning is cheaper than 'conventional' training (whatever that is!).

In both cases the issue of value seems not to factor.  e-learning may be cheaper, but is it good value?  A free course with Martin would be a really good deal (he is a superb trainer) but if you don't engage in the session because it's free then it isn't going to deliver any value to you.

All too often we hear colleagues and/or management say that they can't justify that training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost?  So a cheaper option is found or nothing happens at all.  But is any consideration given to the value each option would return?  A training course may cost (let's say) £200 more than a cheaper option but it is so much better that the improved performance of the trained person recoups that cost in no time.

At this point some of you may be thinking "that's all well and good, but we have a lot less money than in the past and simply can't afford a more expensive option".  I understand that mindset completely.  However,  when times are financially tough the argument for basing decisions on value more than cost are even more important.

With, less money than before there is surely even more of an imperative that it gets spent on things that will return real value to the organisation?  For example, spreading a much reduced training budget thinly on a wider range of cheap options isn't necessarily going to bring a great return, just lots of people going on average training.  Instead, send a smaller number of staff whose roles are key to the sustainability and growth of the organisation on some more expensive, high quality training.  That approach may well deliver better value.

Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality.  I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting.  A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value.  By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering much nicer wine.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too.  We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost.

This isn't just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment or whatever.  It is also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our fiscally challenged organisations.

Sadly it is all to true that, when the income drops, one of the first things to go is the volunteer manager.  That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs without any appreciation of the value of that function.  But do we quantify and communicate that value effectively so our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if the cut the volunteer management function?

In 2009 and 2011 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment.  The studies showed that organisations who cut the funding for their volunteer programmes struggled much more than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.

I think we need research like this here in the UK.  Research that validates the importance of organisations investing in volunteering and volunteer management in tough economic times because of the value they will derive, rather than cutting support because of the money it costs.

In its absence we need volunteer managers who can provide programmatic evidence and articulate this effectively to their leaders.  Evidence that doesn't just put across the (often flawed) financial value of volunteering but that demonstrates wider value as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.

What do you think?

Does such research exist other than in Minnesota?  Please share links if you can so others can access it.

Have you been actively demonstrating the value of your volunteer programme to your organisation's leadership?  How did you do it?  What lessons can you share with others?  Did it work?

Please share examples below so others can learn from your success (or failure - go on, be brave!).

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