September has turned into guest post month here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog. Last time Andy Fryar’s shared his tips for Volunteer Managers looking for a new job. Now, Chris Reed from the British Red Cross explores whether it’s always a good idea to consult with volunteers when seeking to improve your volunteer engagement work.
Back in June Rob wrote about leaders of volunteer engagement needing to put pen to paper or alternatively, as I’ve done, finger to keyboard and ‘share our views, opinions and insights on anything and everything’. I responded on Twitter violently agreeing, as I do with so much of what Rob says, and now here I am!
I must confess, Rob and I have history! Our paths have crossed on many occasions, we’ve both been Trustees of our respective charities over the years – Rob on my Board when I ran a Volunteer Centre and I on his when he was at Volunteering England. Since then I’ve spent a bit of time (understatement alert) dabbling in volunteering at a few household name charities.
With all this under my belt and a commitment to craft a blog what was I going to write, where do I start, what will strike a chord, what will be of interest?
Early days of volunteer management
When I started out in the world of volunteering there was no Association of Volunteer Managers, there was no Volunteer Centre network (we weren’t even called Volunteer Centres back then) and networking opportunities were quite rare. What did exist was UKVPMs (an email group for UK Volunteer Programme Managers) set up in 1997 by, you guessed it, Rob! It was realistically one of my only sources of help and inspiration in my early career in volunteer management.
UKVPMs gave me chance to see what others were thinking in the sector, to read opinions, views and gain insights from folk I thought far more knowledgeable than myself. Over time my connections and networks grew, I moved on from the volunteer centre and began working for household name charities. As a Head of Volunteering I had my own volunteers and wasn’t just advising other organisations on how best to look after theirs. These volunteers were the lifeblood of the organisation, without them we couldn’t deliver our mission.
This is where for some of you I may start to get controversial.
Every volunteer manager, whether new to the role or long in the tooth will know of a time where your organisation hasn’t had enough volunteers. Either the recruitment process is taking too long (if you’re able to measure it) or you’re losing too many people (if you can measure that). So we diagnose a recruitment and retention problem and, having identified the problem, say ‘right, in order to fix this we’re going to set up a working group of volunteers to find a solution’. This has the added benefit of allowing us as leaders of volunteers to demonstrate a real commitment to volunteer involvement, showing the rest of the organisation how it’s really done.
But wait! Remember the title of this article – beware your existing volunteers. In the situation I describe you absolutely don’t want to be engaging with your traditional consultative group of longstanding volunteers, for three very good reasons:
- If recruitment is your problem, what does a volunteer you recruited twenty years ago know about what it’s like to go through your recruitment system today?
- Your longer standing volunteers might be the ones who are the ‘go to people’ for consultations but you should be thinking about those that have only just joined you, ideally those who started the process, but gave up (non-volunteers).
- If retention is your problem, what are you doing talking to your existing volunteers, they are the ones who have stuck around. Get to those who left! They will be the ones who have the stories to tell about whether you’re actually offering a good quality experience or not.
The benefits of thinking differently
As far as retention is concerned, doing some digging with those who have left you may well reveal that you have delivered such a great volunteering experience people have used it to go on and get a paid job. On paper that’s a retention problem, but in actual fact by talking to people who are no longer your volunteers you’ll find out whether there is really a problem with retention or that you’re success at getting people into work means you’ll just have to live with always refilling a bath with the plug out. You can then focus on how to turn the tap on more and bring more people in at the front end. (Very oversimplified I know, but you get what I mean.)
You can be more nuanced in how you benchmark good and bad. After all, a good volunteer recruitment process for your volunteer with twenty years service may not be the same as a good experience for today’s tech savvy social media user who, if you’re too bureaucratic, will simply get a load of their online friends / followers together and set up their own social movement (#activism).
You’ll get the benefits of an external perspective – do you have marketing experts in your organisation and, more importantly, have you ever talked to them? If not can you get some pro-bono volunteer support in this area? Ask them to help you find out what the outside world, your non-volunteers, think about your volunteering proposition.
At some point though, despite the title of this article, you should engage with your volunteers. They are the ones who know what it’s like today. They know what works and what doesn’t (and have probably found workarounds for the latter completely unbeknown to you!). For this their experience is invaluable, but be cautious, use their skills, knowledge and experience in conjunction with and not at the expense of other equally valuable sources of insight.
Take a step back and think hard about who are the right audiences to engage in the right things and at the right time. What’s the exam question you’re trying to answer as you transform your volunteer programme to make it fit for purpose, or indeed just keep it on track and up to date? And, for goodness sake, talk to others in the sector. At best someone will have done what you’re doing before, at worst, someone else will be tackling exactly the same problems as you and you can share the pain. So don’t just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, be curious and read as well, network, engage and share, and good luck!
PS Thanks Rob for the challenge of writing this, its been a pleasure (for me at least but hopefully for the reader too).
Chris Reed is Director of Volunteer Mobilisation at the British Red Cross, one of over 190 Red Cross/ Red Crescent Societies across the globe. Chris’ previous experience includes Head of Volunteering positions at Barnardo’s and St John Ambulance and Chris was Chief Executive of Volunteer Centre Westminster.
His voluntary roles include Trustee of Horsmonden Social Club and Committee member for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups.
Chris has been a Trustee/ Board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), Volunteering England and Greater London Volunteering.
All the views expressed in this blog are Chris’ and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organisations Chris has worked or volunteered for.