All Volunteer Managers are liars

FeaturedAll Volunteer Managers are liars

Yes, you heard me right, all volunteer managers are liars.

OK, not all of them. But those who I hear saying that people don’t want to volunteer, they are liars. They perhaps don’t realise they are lying, but they are.

People today do want to volunteer. They just don’t want to volunteer to do the things we are offering them.

Look at the latest data from NCVO. It highlights two key things.

First, one of the most common reasons why people volunteer is because they had time (28% of respondents).

Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer
Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer

Second, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering is people having other things to do with their spare time (35% of former volunteers and 36% of those who have volunteered once a month).



Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering
Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering

Why this contradiction? Simple. Plenty of people do have time to give, they’d just rather spend their spare time doing anything other than volunteering1. They would rather spend their precious leisure hours with their family, seeing a movie, going on a city break, reading a book, going out for a meal, watching their favourite sports team – anything but volunteering.

Our job as leaders of volunteer engagement is to try and market volunteering to people in such a way that they want to spend some of their spare time volunteering with us.

Which brings us back to the idea of all volunteer managers being liars.

I don’t really think they are at all. It’s a headline that got your attention. And it isn’t original. I stole it from Seth Godin and his excellent book, “All Marketers Are Liars”. I’ll let Seth explain:

“I wasn’t being completely truthful with you when I named this book. Marketers aren’t liars. They are just storytellers. I was trying to go to the edges. No one would hate a book called All Marketers Are Storytellers. No one would disagree with it. No one would challenge me on it. No one would talk about it.”

Seth Godin
Seth Godin

Seth goes on to explain why stories are so powerful in marketing:

“All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better – and look cooler – than $20 no names. . . and believing it makes it true.”

In other words, as recruiters of volunteers, we need to get a lot better at telling compelling stories that make people believe that volunteering is great and make them want to give us some of their spare time. Over to Seth again:

“Marketing is about taking something people may or may not want and telling a story to turn that something into a thing people definitely want.”

Here are two things I think leaders and managers of volunteers can learn about volunteer recruitment from “All Marketers Are Liars”.

1 – Don’t try to change someone’s world-view

You do not have the time or resources to convince someone who firmly believes they don’t have time to volunteer that, in fact, they do. A much better approach is to identify a population with a certain worldview and frame your story in terms of that worldview.

Consider this example. A divorced father sees his children for a weekend every two weeks. He thinks he doesn’t have time to volunteer because of the demands of his job and his desire to spend his spare time with his children. This dad also wants to do interesting and exciting things with his kids when he has them.

The smart volunteer recruiter tells the dad a (true) story about how their organisation’s family volunteering scheme is a great way to have fun and spend time with your children doing something meaningful. This message will likely resonate more with the father – increasing the chances of him signing up to volunteer with his children – than a message asking him to spare a few hours he doesn’t think he has.

2 – Make the most of influencers

“You have no chance of successfully converting large numbers of people to your point of view if you try to do it directly. But if you rely on the nearly universal worldview that people like being in sync with their peers, you are likely to find those who believe your story will share…with their peers. If your story is easy to spread, and if those you converted believe it’s worth spreading, it will.”

This observation from Seth Godin is really important. It’s a validation, at least in part, of the power of word of mouth advertising, one of the most effective forms of volunteer recruitment. It suggests a belief that I have long held about how to influence people to volunteer: instead of encouraging people to volunteer through stories about and images of people in the public eye – typically celebrities – we need to show potential volunteers that people just like them volunteer.

Let’s go back to our divorced dad. A message from a celebrity dad in a similar situation isn’t likely to win him over to volunteering. But if we can show the dad someone like him, someone he can identify with, someone who probably faces the same pressures he does, someone who despite all that still manages to find time to volunteer and has a good time doing so, then that might go some way to convincing our dad to think about volunteering.

Instead of turning to people in the public eye, let’s turn to our existing volunteers. Let’s get them to share their volunteering stories with their friends and families. Maybe see if some of them are willing to be featured in your organisations bigger marketing efforts? It can’t hurt to try and chances are it’ll be more effective than another poster campaign saying, “Help! We need volunteers”.

Front cover of "All Marketers Are Liars"
Front cover of “All Marketers Are Liars”

So all volunteer managers aren’t liars. But we are wrong if we think people today don’t want to volunteer. To get them involved we need to create opportunities that match people’s interests and availabilities. We need to provide a great volunteer experience. We need to tell stories about those great experiences we have available in a way that resonates with the people we want to recruit.

All of this can be a big challenge for us but it is also an amazing opportunity.

Let’s get started.

  1. In fact, the top barrier to volunteering is work commitments (59% and 61% respectively) which is another way of saying people have other things to do with their spare time.
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Is access to volunteering making a comeback in the UK?

In mid-April, Third Sector magazine reported that the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement have, in their new “Ties That Bind” report, recommended creating an Access to Volunteering (A2V) scheme. This would be similar to the existing Access to Work scheme for paid staff.

It is, however, important to recognise that an A2V scheme would not be new.

In 2009, following a recommendation from the Commission on the Future of Volunteering’s Manifesto for Change, the then Labour government ran an Access to Volunteering pilot (which the new Conservative led coalition subsequently scrapped as part of their austerity cuts).

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Whilst it’s just a select committee recommendation at the moment, I hope that if the new A2V scheme comes to fruition the government will take the time to read the March 2011 “Evaluation of the Access to Volunteering Fund”. This report outlined the operation, successes and learning from the A2V pilot and noted some key findings, including:

  • An estimated 67% of the disabled people involved in Access to Volunteering funded initiatives were new to volunteering.
  • The Fund has been successful in involving new organisations with no volunteering experience or experience of working with disabled people.
  • The majority of grant recipients were either disability-related or community and welfare organisations, suggesting that Access to Volunteering has not diversified the organisation types involving disabled people in volunteering.
  • The Fund was unsuccessful in attracting very small organisations (average annual income of under £10,000).
  • There is evidence that Access to Volunteering created sustainability amongst organisations that received funding. 25 of the 28 organisations spoken to in the evaluation said that they would continue to support disabled volunteers.
  • Access to Volunteering delivered flexibility by encouraging organisations to apply for funding for a wide range of initiatives specific to their needs and aims.
  • Access to Volunteering has primarily helped organisations remove logistical barriers, such as poor accessibility and lack of specialist equipment.
  • There is evidence to suggest that over time, attitudinal barriers, such as lack of understanding of the ability of disabled people to volunteer, have increasingly been removed.
  • Some funded initiatives implemented highly innovative programmes creating long-term means of overcoming negative attitudes to involving disabled people in volunteering or work, and of encouraging social inclusion.
  • Access to Volunteering has improved the wellbeing of disabled volunteers, helping them to ‘move on’ to a better quality of life.
  • Volunteering increased the confidence and sense of self-worth of the volunteers involved, which impacted positively on employability and health outcomes.
  • Where becoming employable was an aspiration for volunteers, Access to Volunteering developed employability primarily by increasing confidence and providing experience of being in a working environment. 11% of organisations indicated that their volunteers had found employment after taking part in Access to Volunteering.

The select committee’s recommendation to revisit Access to Volunteering is a very welcome and long overdue development. I hope the government heed their call and that any new scheme learns from what went before.

I shall be watching developments with interest.

NB. The evaluation of the A2V pilot is not easy to find. Like so many key documents on volunteering from the last fifteen years, documents that should be available to us all, they seem to have no online home. If you would like a copy of the report please get in touch and I’ll send it to you.

Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

Developing good role descriptions is a lost art

The demands to constantly find new volunteers leave Volunteer Managers little time to think clearly and carefully, before recruitment starts, about the actual work those volunteers will be doing.

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.” – McCurley, Lynch and Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

New research might help

I was interested to read an article from Stanford Business School in the USA, “Beware of Workplace Policies That Kill Motivation”. It draws on recent research that highlights how subtle changes in the language of employment contracts can have a powerful psychological effect and influence on a range of ways employees behave. Significantly, to quote the article:

“The research found that designing a contract to specifically curb an employee’s counterproductive behaviors can, ultimately, exacerbate counterproductive behaviors”.

Although the article focuses on paid staff and the language of contracts, the lessons are equally applicable to volunteer management.

What’s wrong with volunteer role descriptions?

Role descriptions for volunteers are typically controlling documents, instructing volunteers what to do and not do, giving little scope for the volunteer to bring their own skills, talents, experience and ideas to the work. As one volunteer once said to me, “The problem with volunteer management is that it has become all about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Such a controlling approach to volunteer management is often driven by misconceptions of volunteers being well meaning but unreliable amateurs, people who need controlling if we are to avoid problem behaviour and poor performance. Yet, the research highlighted by Stanford suggests approaching volunteer roles like this this actually risks making problem behaviour and poor performance more likely.

Three ways forward

How then, can we construct and articulate roles for volunteers that address anxieties about the competence and reliability of volunteers but also empowering them to be creative, autonomous and successful?

To answer that question I have copied three key quotes from the article and outlined my thoughts about the application of these to volunteer management.

1 – Mindset shift

“From management’s perspective, contracts are too often used merely as a way to exercise control over the workforce. But management could also use contracts to motivate employees. Our research explains how employers can achieve both ends with the same tool.”

My thoughts: A mindset shift is needed. We need to challenge the belief we and others may hold about volunteer competence and risk. Competence does not relate to how much someone gets paid. Volunteers, properly recruited and trained, present no more of a risk that paid staff and so do not need to be controlled more than anyone else. In fact, as motivation is such a key part of volunteer management, we must find ways to make our volunteer roles more meaningful and motivating, and that means being less controlling.

2 – Be more vague (sometimes)

“Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

My thoughts: If we want to retain volunteers, if we want them to achieve more, generate new ideas, be more motivated and work well with others, then we need to use more general language in our role descriptions. This could mean suggesting tasks they could do rather than telling them exactly what to do. It could also mean focusing more on the results we want them to achieve and less on the specific tasks we want them to perform.

3 – When to not be so vague

“Typically, contracts contain both “control” and “coordination” clauses. Control clauses tell you what you can and can’t do at work, while coordination clauses help you align expectations. In other words, coordination clauses let workers know what employers want, while control clauses tell them how to do it and, quite often, what not to do.

“An example of a control clause run amok can be found in a 2003 Department of Defense employment contract for pastry bakers. The 26-page document specifies the number of chocolate chips each cookie should contain, but nowhere does it mention that the cookies should taste good.”

“The key is to remember that greater specificity can be helpful in coordination clauses by making sure both sides are on the same page, but it can backfire in control clauses by dampening an employee’s feelings of autonomy.”

My thoughts: If we are going to use more general language, then we should do so with control clauses. Being too prescriptive when telling people what we want them to do reduces autonomy and motivation. On the other hand, being specific in the language we use in co-ordination clauses can enhance motivation & clarify agreement between the volunteer and their manager about what the volunteer is expected to achieve.

In other words, making the results we want volunteers to achieve really tangible and being less prescriptive when explaining the tasks we want volunteers to perform would both be good steps to take.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your reflections on this point and the article that inspired it. Please leave a comment below.

Can we help?

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation develop meaningful and motivating roles for your volunteers then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

Look after number one

Look after number one

I’ve been working in volunteer leadership and management for almost 24 years. That’s more than half of my life spent in the service of volunteers and those who organise them. It’s not just a series of jobs but a career, a vocation.

Over the last few months I’ve been working with Adrian Murtagh of Just Smart Thinking, a fellow traveller – himself an experienced volunteering professional of over 20 years, a qualified nurse, counsellor and life coach – exploring how we can work together to develop new opportunities and ideas.

We both love seeing the light bulbs go on as people gain new insights into how to involve volunteers to change the world, one donated minute at a time.

We both love seeing lives changed, the lives of volunteers and those they serve.

Volunteering is good for you

Studies abound on the benefits volunteers get from helping others. Just a quick Google search will reveal that volunteering will help you get a job, fight loneliness, make you live longer, make you happier, improve physical and mental health, stave off depression, fight the effects of dementia, and even give you a better sex life!

Is volunteer management good for you?

What you won’t find are studies about the health and wellbeing benefits people get from managing volunteers.  You won’t find studies around the benefits strong self-resilience can bring to you in the management role – improving your quality of life inside and outside of the work environment. Adrian often talks of the powerful me, we and us concept, but what happens when the “me” is not being supported, guided or ignored?

You see, leading and managing volunteers is great. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, we don’t talk about it. We’re often so focused on our volunteers that we don’t take the time to focus on ourselves. You won’t find many (any?) conference workshops dedicated to helping Volunteer Managers look after themselves. Nor will you easily discover hints and tips to resiliently deal with the challenges that arise in the human-focused systems and environments in which we work and live.

All our literature, all our training courses, all our conferences: they all focus on how we can support others. Very few tackle the subject of looking after ourselves.

Looking after number one is a bit selfish though, isn’t it?

Adrian and I don’t believe so. We work in a sector, a profession, that is about altruism, service, putting others first, helping people. All the more reason to make sure we are OK because our work matters. It really matters. If we’re not on our A-game that can have serious consequences for others. If we don’t look after number one, how can we effectively look after everyone else?

Through our wealth of knowledge and years of experience, Adrian and I believe it’s time this changed.

Help us to help you

We are exploring how we can help leaders and manager of volunteers – you! – to look after number one, how to take care of your own wellbeing so you can better support your volunteers.

To help us in this process we want to get your input. We’ve designed a short wellbeing survey that you can complete online. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete and your participation will help Adrian and I to develop some tools and resources that will really help you and others working in volunteer management.

Free prize inside

As an incentive to take part were giving away five copies of my book, co-written with Susan J Ellis, From The Top Down. Simply fill in your name and contact details at the end of the survey (this is optional) and we’ll enter you into the draw (UK respondents only).

Please complete our survey before 13 April 2018.

Thank you in advance for your support.

Risk – learn to love it

Risk – learn to love it

Risk is everywhere. From dawn to dusk we live with risk all around us. Consider – 450 people in the USA die from falling out of their beds each year and more than 1,000 people die every year in the UK after falling down stairs?

How do you respond to that information? Will you now avoid going to bed or using stairs? I doubt it. Instead, armed with that knowledge, you’ll adapt to the risks you face and respond accordingly.

“The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen” – The Oxford English Dictionary definition of risk

Likewise, if you know electricity and water don’t mix then you don’t sit in the bath with an electric fire on the edge of the tub. If you know what a car does when it hits a human body, then you’re likely to wait for the crossing to be clear rather than just wandering into traffic. This is risk management.

Risk avoidance, not management

Yet that isn’t how risk plays out when it comes volunteering. All too often I see organisations practice risk avoidance, not risk management. To continue our examples, they avoid bed, avoid stairs, avoid baths (no wonder these organisations stink!) and avoiding crossing roads, never seeing the possibilities on the other side of the street.

A story from New Zealand

I saw a wonderful – but maddening – illustration of this in New Zealand last year.

A lady I met volunteers with two environmental organisations, located on opposite sides of a road. One organisation is community run, the other is a local government run. In the community organisation, volunteers use all the machinery and equipment (there are no paid staff), but only once they have been properly recruited and trained. In the local government project volunteers are not allowed to use the machines and equipment because it is deemed too risky – only the paid staff can use it. It doesn’t matter if they are trained and qualified to use the kit from the organisation across the road (and many people volunteer for both groups), because they are unpaid their use of the machinery is too much of a risk.

Three lessons this story teaches us

  1. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because they are volunteers. If someone does not get paid it does not mean they are less competent. Pay, and how much someone is paid, is not a determinant of competence.
  2. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because of ignorance about good volunteer management practice. Competent Volunteer Managers recruit the right people for the role, equip them with the training, skills and tools to do the job properly and safely, and regularly check in to make sure everything was going OK. They manage risk.
  3. Organisations miss out on a huge pool of talent, ideas and resources to fulfil their missions if they practice risk avoidance. Not allowing volunteers to do something because there might be a risk is not the same as being cautious and taking steps to minimise that risk.

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

Of course, not every organisation thinks this way, but many do. I passionately believe that if we lead and manage volunteers then need to advocate more forcefully to overcome such ignorance and prejudice towards volunteers.

An example from Australia

Last year I had a workshop participant explain that her organisation wouldn’t let volunteers do a certain role because they can’t get insurance for it. I urged her to go back to the organisation and explain that insurance is not risk management. Insurance provides a pay out if risk management fails.

I urged them to go back and lobby for some proper risk management to take place, asking questions like:

  • How big a risk would it be for a volunteer to do that role?
  • What might happen if things go wrong?
  • How likely is that?
  • What could they do to reduce the likelihood?
  • Are they comfortable with the retained, net risk?

The point being that the organisation could probably secure insurance cover if it could demonstrate good risk management. Not doing so actually revealed a resistance to engaging volunteers – insurance was just the excuse.

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

Looking back history we can see the huge societal changes that have come about because volunteers took a risk. For example, one hundred years ago women in the UK gained the right to vote because many people took huge risks volunteering to fight for that right. Today, volunteers serve in risky situations and save lives doing so – look at lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and volunteer firefighters across the globe, to name just three examples.

We need to learn to love risk, to embrace it as a marker of the potential for the world to be changed.

We need to help our organisation rediscover their pioneering, life changing, world shaking possibilities.

The potential of those who give time to transform the world is too great for us to stay silent.

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

The 2018 Volunteer Management Progress Report (VMPR) is full of insights about volunteer leadership and management.

Now in its third year, the VMPR is the only tool that explores global trends and issues that leaders and managers of volunteers face.

Key findings

The four most striking findings from the 2018 report are:

  1. The satisfaction of Volunteer Managers and their intent to stay in the profession directly relates to how engaged their co-workers are in supporting volunteer engagement.
  2. Those who lead and manage volunteers are spending less time doing so, often because they have other responsibilities beyond their volunteer management duties.
  3. Almost 10% of respondents have no budget for volunteer management and 21% don’t know if they have such a budget!
  4. Diversity is an issue, both amongst those who lead and manage volunteers and amongst volunteers.

”Volunteer Retention is a Challenge on the Rise – Anecdotally, leaders of volunteers increasingly note the challenge of maintaining volunteer involvement over longer periods of time and point out that volunteers increasingly appear to prefer short-term, episodic assignments.”

Challenges

According to the report, the top five challenges leaders of volunteers face are:

  1. Recruitment: Finding enough volunteers & the right volunteers for specific roles
  2. Respect and “Buy-In”: Lack of executive support /understanding & co-worker resistance to volunteer involvement
  3. Retention: Fulfilling commitments to service & volunteers “aging out”
  4. Roles & Matching: Designing impactful roles & meeting volunteer interests
  5. Time: Splitting time between competing priorities & not enough paid staff

If the findings and challenges from VMPR 2018 ring true for you then we can help.

How we can help you

Since 2011, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd have been engaging and inspiring people to bring about change, delivering expert support that is passionate about the potential of people. Our consultancy and training services are aimed at helping you give people a great volunteer experience, make the most of the valuable time they give you and, above all, achieve your goals.

We have training courses and workshops directly related to the top challenges from VMPR 2018. Here are just five examples:

  1. ‘Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers’ will help you recruit and retain volunteers in our ever-changing world
  2. ‘From The Top Down for Volunteer Managers’ will help you influence peers and senior managers to lobby effectively for volunteer engagement
  3. ’Developing Meaningful Roles For Volunteers’ will help you create great volunteer roles that will attract and keep volunteers
  4. ‘Time and Productivity Management for Volunteer Managers’ will help you manage yourself and your work for maximum impact
  5. ‘Measuring Volunteering’ will help you build a case for more support as well as provide more meaningful recognition to your volunteers

Learn more and get in touch

For more details download a copy of our training information, testimonials and rates or get in touch to discuss your needs and how we can help through our consulting services. We’d love to hear from you and help you reach even greater success in delivering roles that make a difference for your volunteers, your organisation and it’s clients.

Nine reasons the Steve Holiday report into full-time social action is a disappointment

Nine reasons the Steve Holiday report into full-time social action is a disappointment

February 3rd saw the publication of Steve Holiday’s much anticipated report into Full-Time Social Action (FTSA) for young people. The report is the result of an independent inquiry into full-time volunteering commissioned by the government a little over a year ago. It is the same piece of work I mentioned in a recent article on this blog that looked back on 2017.

I started drafting this article shortly after reading the report but have held off publishing it until now to allow myself to calm down and reflect on the contents. You see my initial response was mix of anger, disappointment and frustration. Whilst there is some good in the report, much of it is weak and, frankly, poor. So here, tempered by a few days of reflection and re-writing, are my top nine reasons (in no order of importance) for feeling so disappointed by the report.

1 – No mention of family volunteering

Whilst it speaks about the role of government and education providers in encouraging young people to embrace volunteering, the report barely mentions the importance of families. Family volunteering is recognised as great way to instil values of service and volunteerism in young people, yet it doesn’t even warrant a mention. Yet again, an initiative to explore engaging more young people in volunteering places all responsibility on the state.

2 – The role of National Citizens Service (NCS)

I am concerned that the Holiday report places too much emphasis on NCS as a framework for developing full-time volunteering. I worry about the independence of a report commissioned by government that seeks to strengthen the argument for a government scheme, funded in excess of £1billion, and with big questions still to be answered about its efficacy. Whilst I see the sense in not creating yet another new organisation, questions still remain about the effectiveness and value for money of NCS. For example:

  • A key NCS volunteering metric is that eight million hours of volunteer time have been given. However, nothing is said about the impact that time had and the difference it made to young people and their communities.
  • 64% of NCS graduates would consider engaging in social action. This is touted as a success but, as I argued in my recent article about the problem with volunteering pledges, considering future engagement in volunteering does not mean they will actually go on and do more volunteering.

3 – Quality vs. quantity

Throughout the report there are calls for further evidence before action is taken. Yet this demand for evidence weakens significantly when it comes to discussion as to whether the quality of a volunteer experience is more important than how many people engage in volunteering, and how such time they give.

“Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity. However, intuitively, the more a young person engages in voluntary activity, the greater the impact will be – although we need more research to substantiate this belief.”

Basic common sense would argue that if the quality of the experience is not good then it doesn’t matter how many people participate, they will not gain from it as much as they would if they had a great experience. Evidence surely isn’t needed to substantiate this?

Furthermore, I noticed in the call for evidence responses on page fourteen of the report (“What impact does full time social action / volunteering have on young people and providers in comparison to part time social action / volunteering?”) that the arguments for full-time volunteering over part-time volunteering relate to how well designed volunteer roles are (quality) and not how long people spend doing them (quantity).

4 – A missed opportunity regarding volunteering infrastructure

Page six of the report briefly notes the the inadequacy of infrastructure support to help young people engage in volunteering.

Since 2010 funding for volunteering infrastructure in England has been slashed, resulting in the closure of many local Volunteer Centres and, in many, cases a reduced service from those that remain.

It would have been good for an independent report such as this to acknowledge that the impacts of austerity on volunteering infrastructure have had, and will continue to have, long-term and significant effects on support for young people to engage in part- or full-time volunteering.

5 – Recommendation two – is there an echo in here?

“To ensure that social action is accessible to all, we recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions supports Job Coaches, to proactively inform young people who are Universal Credit claimants of their right to reduce their job-seeking hours up to 50 percent to participate in voluntary activities. We also favour extending this right to all benefit claimants and ask that the crucial role of volunteering is better recognised by this department. The Department for Work and Pensions should explore this and report back on implementation plans within 12 months.”

Different words may have been used on this occasion but that’s the same recommendation countless reports have made to the Department for Work and Pensions and it’s predecessors over the last 20 years. Still nothing has changed.

Reading the DWP ‘ statement in the report – which I can only assume is included to show they are responsive – I am struck by their failure to acknowledge that the rules aren’t the problem, it is how individual advisers interpret them. Doing what we have always done will get what we have always got. New thinking is needed to get DWP to change and I see no evidence of that here.

6 – Recommendation four – I’m sorry, what?!

“…the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should lead an activity with NNVIA, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers and V-Inspired to develop non-mandatory guidelines specific to 16-25 year olds with support and encouragement from government. This could include of ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses, setting realistic targets, good recruitment and safeguarding processes and reiterating that completion of social action programmes does not guarantee employment. Furthermore, they should develop a plan that encourages charities to operate transparently with young people, and encourage charities to provide better information, advice, guidance and support to young people during their social action journey.”

Whatever this ill defined activity is, this kind of work has been ongoing since Millennium Volunteers was conceived in the late 1990s. Exhibit one, the 1996 book pictured below from the National Centre for Volunteering, based on a year-long research project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996
Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996

I can’t help but think that energy directed towards this recommendation will reinvent wheels. Much better would have been a focus on helping Volunteer Managers to create relevant and engaging full-time volunteering opportunities and support them in challenging the institutional barriers many would face in doing this e.g. paid staff feeling threatened that full-time volunteers will take their jobs.

Recommendation four demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding about volunteering and volunteer management, not surprising given no leaders of volunteers were on the inquiry panel.

7 – Recommendation eight – know your history

I was astounded to read this in recommendation eight of the report:

“…FTSA programmes are still in their infancy in the UK…”

Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters, has been running full-time volunteering programmes since 1962. Something fifty-six years old is hardly in its infancy!

8 – What about the clients?

The report talks extensively about the benefits of full-time volunteering to the volunteers and the organisations that involve them. Not once does it mention any benefit to the clients and beneficiaries of the organisations people volunteer for.

In fact, the only time this ever gets a mention is a point made (I assume by a young person) in the consultation with young people (page 17) which says:

“…full time social action opportunities need to have greater impact, led and developed by the communities they work within.”

Cliched it may be, but volunteers want to make a difference to the lives of others. Missing this element from the discussion of full-time volunteering is a significant omission.

9 – What’s in a word?

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted I have talked throughout this article about volunteering, not social action. That’s because I am a firm believer that we do not need a new word for volunteering. What we need is to reframe volunteering so it is more relevant for people.

Page fifteen of the report states:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”

In other words, whilst they may of heard of it half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem?

Furthermore, on the same page, social action is shown as distinct from volunteering by this statement:

“Social action is distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights. It is often personal to each young person, and that is the biggest motivating factor to getting involved.”

Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s).

Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment).

Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.

Because volunteering is never a personal act. I’d give an example to challenge this but I don’t even know what point is being made. How is giving your time not a personal act?

Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.
Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.

So there you have it. As you can tell, I am less than impressed. But what do you think of the Holiday report? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment below.

And before I go, for a different spin on the Holiday report, take a look at Shaun Delaney’s assessment on the NCVO website.