‘The new normal’. Everyone is saying it. Personally, I dislike the term. Every day is a new normal and always has been. But there is a new term I like, coined by Gethyn Williams on Twitter in late August 2020 – ‘the new formal’. What does it mean?

To me, ‘the new formal’ describes the changes needed to the pre-pandemic process-heavy, systems-oriented approach to volunteer engagement. One of the good changes Covid-19 brought about was to sweep away layers of bureaucracy so people could just get stuck in and help out. Old orthodoxies about form filling, risk avoidance and checking the criminal records of anyone with a pulse disappeared as communities mobilised in a matter of days and 700,000 applied in a week to be NHS Volunteer Responders. I was one of these eager volunteers and in under 24 hours was cleared to perform tasks that just a few days beforehand would have required Olympic standard hoop jumping to get involved in.

Like a piece of elastic that is stretched so hard and so fast it can never regain its original shape, so the formalities of volunteer engagement have changed forever thanks to Covid-19. This doesn’t mean abandoning safeguarding, never conducting a DBS / PVG check again, and putting the needs of volunteers before the safety of clients. But it does mean taking a long, hard look at what we do, when we do it and why, thinking afresh about our practice. Hence the ‘new formal’.

Here are three aspects of volunteer engagement that we could start thinking about:

1 – Application forms & interviews

Why exactly do we ask questions on an application form and then ask the same questions when we interview volunteers? Can we not ask the questions once, face-to-face and fill in the form as a record of the conversation? Not only would that save paperwork, it’d help open up volunteering to those who can’t write, have a sight loss, have poor literacy or don’t use English as their first language. Two birds with one stone – a step toward greater diversity and less bureaucracy.

2 – Safeguarding in stages

Instead of taking references, conducting criminal record checks and all the other screening steps as soon as someone starts volunteering, why not do it in stages? Rather than viewing anyone unpaid as risky (why else do we check absolutely everyone who isn’t paid but often subject paid staff to far less scrutiny?), why not bring in appropriate screening at different stages as people depend their involvement with us?

That means someone volunteering one-to-one with a vulnerable client gets the full suite of checks, but someone checking in event participants for a few hours just has to give us an emergency contact and enough information for Track and Trace to do their thing.

3 – In volunteers we trust

An absence of pay does not mean an absence of competence. Likewise, paying someone does not automatically make them better at what they do, more reliable, more trustworthy etc.. So, perhaps we need to ease up on the fear and worry about what volunteers might do wrong and instead trust them to do things right. After all, if you’ve done a good job recruiting, selecting and training the volunteer, aren’t you trusting in your own abilities as much as theirs? What message does it send if you don’t trust your own work?

I’ve shared three thoughts on how we might adapt volunteer management to the ‘new formal’ but I know there are many more ways we could ease up the formality of volunteering without sacrificing the safety of volunteering.

What else would you add to the list? What have you done already or what are you planning to do. Share your thoughts in the comments or in response to wherever you found this article on social media.

2 thoughts on “Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

  1. I was having this discussion with Volunteering Northland’s Bart last week, and talking about How North Haven Hospice adapted before COVID19. Interviews for me provide the earliest opportunity to listen to the prospective volunteer, this initial 30 minutes also lays the trust groundwork on both sides, the application form should underline the conversation and be embellished by it. Staging entry into a role takes thought and planning, it offers up the opportunity to review how we engage, looking at our value proposition to a possible volunteer. Sadly too many organisations see risk first and not relationship development.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great piece Rob (and delighted to have made a small contribution!)

    With the surge in informal volunteering during Covid, it may be tempting for Volunteer Engagement Professionals to feel a little threatened. Is Mutual Aid style volunteering now the only game in town, feted by politicians sceptical of red tape? Is this the end of formal volunteering and management?

    Of course it isn’t. But we are in a bit of a different world (I love the elastic band analogy here). The recent rise in informal gives formal practice the opportunity to look sensibly at what we might streamline – three great starting points in Rob’s post.

    I think formal and informal could learn from each other. There are some great examples of this happening during Covid. I wrote a little about this myself recently – here if you are interested: https://www.gethynwilliams.net/new-blog/2020/9/17/moving-at-the-speed-of-trust-five-reflections-on-how-covid-19-is-changing-volunteering

    Liked by 1 person

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