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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Do volunteers have a place monitoring and securing the UK border? That is the question raised by a new idea under consideration by the UK Government – “Border Force Special Volunteers”.
Border force volunteers?
According to the BBC, who reported this story on 31 December 2017, there are concerns about the UK Border Force’s capacity to cover smaller ports and entry places into the country. An assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, published in July 2017, looked at 62 normally unmanned ports on the east coast and found that Border Force officers had not visited 27 of the sites between April 2015 to June 2016.The report also revealed the number of clandestine migrants detected at the ports had almost doubled in 12 months.
One option under consideration to plug this gap is a scheme similar to the Special Constables, often volunteers who work for Police Forces throughout the UK. The Home Office has said that if it was to introduce volunteers, they would be used to “bolster” Border Force staffing levels and would not be used by Immigration Enforcement.
“Urge great caution before seeking to adopt a model like that used by the police, with special constables. Border security is a skilled job, which takes many years of training.”
There are two things that concern me about this idea which, to stress again, is currently under consideration and not due for immediate implementation.
My first concern
First, I find Mr Elphicke’s remarks astoundingly insulting to volunteers. As a politician, volunteers are essential to Mr Elphicke’s work. They are the ones who knock on doors and beat the streets campaigning for him at election time. He represents a constituency where there is a strong culture of volunteering, where people give of their time to help others and strengthen the community.
Yet Mr Elphicke chooses to caricature volunteers as bumbling, incompetents like those in Dad’s Army. He further suggests that border security is a skilled role and so incompatible with the model used in the Special Constabulary.
I assume the police would disagree with Mr Elphicke’s inference that being a Special Constable is an unskilled role. A quick look at the Kent Police website (Mr Eplhicke’s constituency is in Kent) makes it clear that Specials in the county have to undergo training lasting six to eight months, including 12 days on operational attachments and eight training modules, four of which are two-day weekend sessions. This hardly implies an unskilled role.
My second concern
My second concern is the thinking that developed this idea in the first place. This idea smacks of a ‘volunteers are free / cheap’ mindset.
I’m all for volunteers being involved in significant roles in society. The extent of volunteer involvement in public services in the UK is always vastly underestimated and without volunteer effort many aspects of daily life in the country – such as education, health and social care, coastguard and criminal justice – simply wouldn’t operate in the same way.
Volunteers don’t always complement and supplement paid staff, they can do things paid staff cannot. But I see no evidence of this in the Home Office’s thinking, at least as far as the story about the UK Border Force has been reported. I see no evidence of anyone exploring why volunteers would be the best way to meet the need identified in the July assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Here are just two questions I’d like an answer to:
What is it that volunteers would bring to these roles that paid staff can’t?
If the money was there, would paid staff be hired rather than volunteers?
What this story illustrates is a likely lack of intelligent thought behind why volunteers should be involved in roles such as the proposed Border Force teams. Perhaps the Home Office should engage some expert support on volunteering to help them think this through? I wonder who might be able to help 😉
The story also highlights the ignorance of an elected official who most likely spouts platitudes about volunteering in his constituency and his parliamentary work but reveals his apparent ignorance in his remarks on this matter. I suggest Mr Elphicke spends some time with volunteers in his constituency to further his education about the importance of their work to this country.
“IVS is running the campaign, with a budget of £20,000. The campaign aims to combat the decline in volunteering after figures published last year by the Office for National Statistics that show that volunteering levels have declined by 15 percent over a decade.”
A number of high profile charities are supporting the pledge, including Oxfam, Royal Voluntary Service, PDSA, Leonard Cheshire, Volunteer Scotland and Sense Scotland. Knowing these organisations, I am sure the pledge is well intentioned – they would not support it otherwise. But it isn’t what we need if we want to see a transformation of volunteering in 2018.
Here are just two reasons why.
Pledges do not necessarily result in action. The great British public are ever generous with their time and money, but both of those resources are harder and harder to spare. So, when asked to consider volunteering, many people say yes and then struggle to turn their good intentions into action.In the coming weeks we will no doubt hear how many people have responded to this pledge and, on one level, that will be a good thing. But past experience teaches that the number of those who actually go on and give their time will be far lower.
Which brings me to my second point…
Asking people to give time isn’t the answer. Many already do, we are a generous nation with volunteering written into the fabric of our society, however invisible that may be on a day-to-day basis. What we need is a shift in the attitude and approach of Volunteer Involving Organisations.A shift that doesn’t blame the public for not volunteering, recognising instead that people don’t want to give some of their precious time to do what so many organisations are offering.A shift which recognises the experience people have and what they achieve is more important than how many people volunteer and how many hours are given.
A shift that sees volunteer involving organisations creating new, different roles that meet the availabilities, interests, skills and passions of today’s volunteers.
A shift that sees proper investment in volunteer engagement, not merely platitudes and lip-service from sector leaders, politicians and funders.
In conclusion, I commend IVS and their partners for giving volunteering some attention as 2018 gets underway, but call on everyone in the sector to use this year to recognise that change will not come from campaigns like this.
If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.
If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation change to meet the demands of 21st Century volunteers then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.
In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.
Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.
“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu
Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.
Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.
“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe
They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):
“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe
All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.
All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.
We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.
Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.
It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.
It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. Whether in libraries, policing or other settings, volunteers as incompetent amateurs is a common position of unions and others.
It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff – who are seen as essential – and the volunteers – who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.
We need to stop this thinking. Anytime we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.
Here are three reasons why.
“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.” – GK Chesterton
The first relates to definitions.
Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional, on the other hand, suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.
So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.
It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.
Over the last few years I have asked two questions when I train groups: how many of you have worked with incompetent volunteers?; how many of you have worked with incompetent paid staff? More hands go up in response to the second question. Every time. Everywhere I work in the world.
“When you love something so much that you’d do it without pay, you end up pretty good at it. So good that, at times, you can outclass the professionals.” – Charles Chu
Second, labelling volunteers as well-meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.
Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. Have any of the critics of volunteers in libraries ever considered that there might be very well trained, highly competent professional librarians who want to volunteer to help run these library services? Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practising librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and / or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?
Nope, the assumption is that managers will take anyone they can find and throw them in at the deep end, untrained, to work in a library. If we did that then, of course, professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent leader of volunteers ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.
“While professional has many reasons for doing something (money, prestige, power), an amateur has only one —the “genuine fire and reality” of pure, unbridled passion. You can always trust an amateur.” – Charles Chu
Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No nonprofit organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.
“None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother — and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.” – GK Chesterton
We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well-meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead, we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.
Anything less is at best wasteful – and at worst negligent – behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.
(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on my old blog site back in February 2015. Quotations are from this article by Charles Chu.)
I haven’t written a book review for over thirty years, most likely since primary school. So what’s making me write one now? The simple answer is the excellent and valuable content of the fantastic book, “Originals” by Adam Grant.
I’d never heard of Originals until a friend on Facebook recommended it. I don’t know why, but I took a punt and added it to my list of business reading. I wasn’t disappointed.
If you’ve not come across the book, Originals is described as, “A manifesto for originality and a guide to championing new ideas that challenge the status quo.” As the description on Amazon puts it:
“Adam Grant shows how to improve the world by championing novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battling conformity, and bucking outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Parents will learn how to nurture originality in children, and leaders will discover how to fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.”
The book was a joy to read as Grant not only informed but entertained. What really hit home for me was how strikingly relevant and helpful some of his points were to leaders and managers of volunteers, especially in our essential work of influencing others – volunteers, colleagues, bosses, funders, policy makers etc..
Some of Grant’s observations help shine a light on contradictions in our field. For example, studies of Volunteer Managers often illustrate that we are happy wth our roles yet frustrated at the (lack of) support we get. Grant notes the work of John Jost, commenting that “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject or change it”. He goes on to explain why, giving a useful thoughts as to why, despite the frustration many Volunteer Managers feel, they may not seek to change the status quo.
Other points from the book could be applied to: volunteer recognition (affirmation of character, p168); volunteer induction (entry interviews rather than exit interviews, p 204); motivating others; challenging groupthink; improving brainstorming & ideas generation; and both understanding and working with or against organisational culture. Helpfully, Grant provides a list of actions individuals and leaders can take to apply the principles to their lives and work.
I’ve always liked reading books outside of the usual volunteer management literature and seeking insights to apply back to our field. Adam Grant’s book Originals has been one of the richest sources of these in a long time and is a text I will keep referring back to again and again. Highly recommended.