In this article I welcome guest writer Jennifer Cathcart who shares the story of recent work she has been involved in to drive up excellence in volunteer engagement in a fundraising context. This is an area of working with volunteers that often gets little attention so I’m grateful to Jenn for penning this contribution to the profession.
I received a card in the post this week from a colleague thanking me for my support on a project. It was a lovely surprise, hidden amongst the visa bill and mail order dishwasher tablets, and it struck me yet again what a warm fuzzy feeling we get when we are re praised or thanked. In that one simple gesture, I knew that my time was valued and appreciated. We get this when it comes to volunteers but often forget it when we think about paid staff colleagues. Here at Marie Curie, we are changing that and I want to explain why and how.
Working as a Fundraiser or a Volunteer Manager in any setting can be really busy. Most days are spent in a blur of meetings, returning calls and trying to manage the to do list. After two years of rapidly changing Covid restrictions, personal stresses and collective uncertainty, taking time to make small gestures like sending a card can seem impossible. It feels like the thing that it is ok to push down the to do list as unimportant. Yet protecting time for those gestures with our volunteers is one of the most important aspects of our role. Our volunteers freely give their time and are vital in allowing us to provide our services, so our relationships with them deserve to be nurtured.
The demands on our time have only increased over the pandemic. From the very start, we had to quickly adjust plans to accommodate changes in restrictions and create plans for every eventuality. We needed to make sure we were always empathetic towards our volunteers’ fears around Covid-19, fears which we as paid staff often shared. Many teams were reduced due to furlough or self-isolation, and it would be easy for the quality of volunteer management to have slipped.
The Fundraising Volunteering Team at Marie Curie is responsible for the strategy, resources and processes of all things volunteering within fundraising, and to support our community fundraisers in rolling out new initiatives and supporting the volunteers in their area. Our priorities for 2021 were clear — re-engage with our volunteers, making sure they were kept up to date and on board for the future while we worked on creating new initiatives. This included launching online information sessions, holding engagement events, improving our newsletter and making sure our fundraisers had all the information they needed to connect with their volunteers. These were essential priorities for that time, but with 2022 approaching we had an ambition to grow our volunteering programme in new ways.
Ask our Community Fundraisers what they love about their job, and most will say it’s working with their volunteers. They tell us it is their volunteers’ enthusiasm, passion and creativity that fuels them on the tough days, that their observations about their community leads to new opportunities and that their networks allow us to be part of their community. Yet, we weren’t routinely celebrating their role and skills in volunteer management.
That changed in November when we chose to celebrate the 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day. We felt the day could be used as a springboard to celebrate the excellent volunteer stewardship we knew existed already — but what did the theme of “excellence” really mean? Had I been a volunteer, was it demonstrated in the card I received last week? Where is the line between what is good practice and what is truly excellent in volunteer management? If we can define it, what are our expectations in how often we do each? Is it possible to be excellent all the time by consistently ticking the good practice box, or is it by providing peak moments that can elevate our practice into excellence (much like those suggested by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “The Power of Moments”?
We brought our community fundraising team together on the day to try and find the answers to those questions. Through our first early breakfast (aimed to allow space for learning before the call of the inbox) and lunchtime meetings, we explored our own experiences and what they represented to us. Many of us were brought to tears as a fundraiser talked about calling a volunteer on Christmas Day as she knew he was not looking forward to spending it alone.
The day culminated in the launch of our new awards for Volunteer Managers in fundraising. The scheme will run all year, with fundraisers nominated by their peers when they’re seen to have shown excellence in their work with volunteers. The awards encompass the whole team, from those with more than twenty years’ experience to those in their first fundraising post. Those newer to the team bring fresh ideas we can all be inspired by, and those with long standing respect from their volunteers and peers can remind us of the importance of small actions over time. All can embed excellence in their work with such ease that they don’t always recognise it with the respect it deserves.
Although we’ve set up these awards to celebrate excellence across our fundraising team, we also feel a responsibility to help grow excellence across the sector too. The experience a volunteer has in any setting impacts their passion for continuing to volunteer, be that in their current role or in the future. It will also influence how they reflect on their volunteering, and the reflections they share with others who may consider volunteering. As leaders in volunteering, we all have a part to play in ensuring volunteering continues to grow, adapt and be celebrated.
With that goal in mind, we set up an informal network for fundraising volunteer managers. The network provides a space for those responsible for volunteer strategy within fundraising teams to come together, share good practice and ensure we learn from the wider volunteering sector as we strive to build consistently excellent volunteer management within fundraising.
I write this as we channel hop between the Six Nations Rugby and the 2022 Winter Olympics – watching people who have dedicated their lives to being the best. Striving for excellence in their field. I don’t think volunteer managers are any different — we need to learn and grow, and it’s important to have a space to celebrate and share successes. There are the skills we need to put into practice every day, but there is also a need to be continually striving to evolve beyond the basics. To be continually inquisitive in trying new things so we are not left behind (quite literally if you’re talking about an athlete and the latest technology in trainers, but equally if we’re volunteer managers who fail to embrace new digital opportunities).
For me, my passion for volunteering was renewed when I was furloughed. With a sudden excess of time on my hands, it was volunteering I turned to and I found a welcoming home as a “furlonteer” at Blood Cancer UK. I had a great few weeks and was reminded how much volunteering can enrich your life. Not only did it give structure to my otherwise empty diary, but I was reminded of the sense of purpose you can find in using your time for good, and the chance it offers to learn new skills and make new friends.
Volunteering enriches lives and we, as volunteer managers, have a responsibility to ensure it continues to do so. We need to work together, always striving for excellence to ensure that volunteering continues to be appealing and rewarding to those who generously give us their time, skills and enthusiasm.
After all, where would we and our organisations be without our volunteers?
Closing note: If you are reading this as a Fundraising Volunteering Leader and would like to find out more about our new network, email us.
Jennifer Cathcart is Fundraising Volunteer Development Manager at Marie Curie and has been in the role for four years, having previously held other roles in the charity. Jenn can be contacted through LinkedIn or Twitter.