A few words of introduction

I have thought long and hard about publishing this article but, in the end, I decided to take the Duke of Wellington’s advice, “Publish or be damned”.

From the outset I want to be clear that this piece is not about allocating blame or directing criticism towards people or institutions. We don’t have time for finger pointing right now. Instead, it’s a mix of my getting stuff me off my chest, having a rant and, in doing so, attempting to help consider the lessons to be learnt for volunteer engagement when Coronavirus / Covid-19 (C19) starts fading into memory.

Please take what follows in that spirit of reflection and learning and, if you add your thoughts with a comment, apply that same spirit to what what you contribute. Thank you.


Like all of us I’m watching the news every day with a mix of emotions.

I’m worried about my family and loved ones, including older relatives who are housebound for twelve weeks.

I’m worried for friends around the world, for their health, for their livelihoods and for some who are in awful circumstances with seriously ill loved ones in hospital who they can’t see because of C19 restrictions.

I’m worried about my business and my friends who run small businesses because our income for the foreseeable future has dried up, but the costs remain.

I’m concerned about the voluntary sector I love and how it will weather this storm.

I’m inspired by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people signed up to volunteer to support the NHS as Volunteer Responders in less than twenty-four hours.

I’m in awe of our health care workers who are battling C19 every day.

I’m full of gratitude for the key workers who are keeping our country running.

I’m hopeful that when we get out of this situation we will celebrate the people who really make our country run every day, not the celebrities, reality TV personalities and super-rich who we seem to have become obsessed with.

I look forward to the outpouring of national relief and celebration that will be felt someday (hopefully soon). I think we’re going to party like they did at the end of WW2.

I’m professionally frustrated too, at government, Volunteer Involving Organisations and Volunteer Managers (a group in which I include myself). Here’s why.

Government

For the last ten years the UK government in Westminster has not treated the voluntary and community sector as a genuine strategic partner. The sector’s role and voice has been diminished in government policy and practice. The Compact was scrapped. The Office for Civil Society has been downgraded over and over again, as well as being pushed from pillar-to-post across different departments.

Perhaps as a result, charities seem to be at the back of the queue for C19 financial help. As I write this Government are yet to announce meaningful economic support for the voluntary sector. NCVO and others estimate charities in England will lose more than £4billion of income in the next twelve weeks. Organisations that help the most vulnerable and marginalised in society could potentially be closing their doors soon and forever.

Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts to funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on on bare bones resources that diminish year on year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best but capacity is much reduced.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Involving Organisations

For as long as I can remember CEOs, board of trustees, Executive Directors and senior managers of Volunteer Involving Organisations all around the world have paid too little attention to the strategic importance of, and need to invest in, effective volunteer engagement. Many of us have argued long and hard for this to change, with very little success.

Yes, government are currently letting the sector down in the UK. But the neglect shown towards volunteering by so many organisations over so many years needs acknowledging too. It has left us woefully under-prepared for what we now face and that’s on us, not government.

Whilst charities rightly highlight the sudden and dramatic decline in fundraising income over the last few weeks, they also fail to acknowledge that they could have taken steps long ago that might have softened this blow. With a more integrated approach to supporters, all those volunteers who have had to stop giving time because they need to self-isolate might have been open to being asked to donate money instead of time. Many of these volunteers are, of course, worried about the impact of C19 on their finances, but a strong relationship with the organisation (thanks to a well supported leader of volunteers) might well have helped. What these volunteers might have given wouldn’t fill the £4bn hole in funding, but it would be of some help. Similarly, a more integrated supporter approach would enable charities to ask their financial donors if they’d consider stepping up to fill the gaps in service left by volunteers having to step back at this time.

Instead of taking such a holistic view of all their supporters, organisations have kept them firmly in the donor and volunteer camps, where never the twain shall meet. Our siloed approach that puts the donated pound ahead of the donated hour means we aren’t able to deploy all our resources effectively at a time of great need.

In too many cases, volunteers are still seen as nice-to-have add ons, not core assets and members of the team. Here’s one illustration of this.

I ran a Twitter poll between 20 and 27 March which asked if respondents organisations included volunteer engagement in their continuity / emergency management plan. 54% of respondents said their organisation did, 16% of didn’t and 19% said their organisation does now, which suggests – however well intentioned – that the inclusion of volunteering is a C19 related afterthought.

So, whilst the 54% figure is good news, we can also imply that before all this kicked off, more than third of organisations had no mention of volunteering in their continuity / emergency management plans. I find that shocking.

At a time when we need our volunteers more than ever, many Volunteer Managers face barriers to engaging, supporting and communicating with volunteers that are created by their organisations. Now they have to work from home, these Volunteer Managers can’t easily access their volunteer data which sits in spreadsheets on computers in an office they can no longer go to. Why? Because their organisations have refused to spend just a few hundred pounds on a proper volunteer management system, one that is cloud-based and allows volunteer management to be done from home, as well as enabling volunteers to stay in touch, organise their work, update their data, undergo training etc.. It may have been a risk to have yet another IT system in place, especially when it’s only for volunteers, but that risk pales in insignificance against the risk that organisations are now struggling to mobilise, mange and safeguard their volunteers.

I’m also aware of leaders of volunteer engagement being excluded from organisational emergency planning meetings, Volunteer Managers being laid off and furloughed, and other examples of our profession being sidelined by their employers who clearly don’t grasp how important volunteer effort is right now.

The long and short of it is that too many in organisational leadership have neglected strategic volunteer engagement for too long. As a result, their organisations are weaker and less able to help the people the serve at the time they are needed most.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Managers

We may not like to acknowledge it but we Volunteer Managers have to shoulder some responsibility here as well.

For too long we’ve been too timid in making a robust argument to our organisations about why they need to take volunteering more seriously as a strategic priority and invest accordingly. Look at this article I wrote over three years ago – we had a golden opportunity and we didn’t seize it.

We haven’t been vocal enough in challenging the growing risk-avoidance culture we work in and the associated escalating bureaucracy that makes it harder for people to volunteer, not easier. If we’re honest, we’ve sometimes been complicit in adding to this bureaucracy and the barriers it creates for people wanting to volunteer.

We’ve been slow on the uptake of technology in our work. Perhaps because we have projected our anxieties about technology onto our volunteers, claiming they won’t like using tech so we don’t have to? Consequently, some of us are now scrabbling to pivot to online and virtual volunteering when we could have been doing this years ago.

That may also be why we haven’t embraced online volunteer management systems or pushed our organisations to invest in them. As a result, we can’t act fast enough when needs change, or respond in a way that meets people’s expectations. Consider my recent experience:

  • On 24th March I signed up to be an NHS Volunteer Responder. It took less than ten minutes on my iPhone and I received an instant email response. I was approved to get started in 30 hours.
  • I also applied to volunteer with a local organisation in urgent need of volunteers. On 19th March I downloaded a PDF application form that I had to fill in and email back. I didn’t hear anything until 22 March. This article was published on 3 April and, at that point, I had still heard nothing . Remember, their need was urgent.

We’ve spent too much time navel gazing about what is and isn’t volunteering. At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?

We’ve failed to engage seriously and intelligently in the debates about job displacement & replacement, falling into line with the idea that volunteers must never ever do what paid staff do or did. So we’re now slow to respond in mobilising volunteers to fill the gaps left by staff who are off sick or being furloughed. We also risk being stuck in now meaningless existential debates about whether volunteers should be involved in public services when the NHS and social care system needs help like never before.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.


As I said at the start, this article isn’t about allocating blame, pointing fingers and criticising. It’s me (selfishly) having a good old rant and (less selfishly) trying to highlight some of the issues that C19 has revealed which we must do something about in future.

Because, if we don’t change we won’t be ready for whatever comes next, whether that’s a more mundane day-to-day reality or another pandemic, disaster or significant societal change.

Because, if we don’t change, we will have squandered a major opportunity to do better, to be better.

That would be unforgivable.

2 thoughts on “Look Back to Look Ahead

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