When the cost of the pandemic is finally calculated, many feel it is inevitable the the years of austerity that were only just coming to an end in the UK will return with even more devastating impact than we experienced over the last decade. Add to that the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit which would add to the economic woes and the future does not look bright (no need for shades!).
Post-pandemic we might well see cuts to public spending, significant challenges generating charitable income, cuts within civil society organisations and, if the past is to be repeated, reductions in funding for and investment in volunteer engagement. In such a climate it becomes more important than ever to focus on the value we get for the money we spend, rather than simply the cost.
Over the years I have sometimes heard individuals and organisations say that they can’t justify a training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost. So, a cheaper option is found with little or no regard for its efficacy. Rarely, it seems, is consideration given to the value different options would return.
A training course may be free or cost less than a more expensive option, but is it a better quality learning experience? Would spending more money enable improved performance, resulting in greater efficiencies, which in turn recoup that extra cost?
An effective volunteer management system might be a more costly option than a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it’s enhanced functionality and remote accessibility could deliver savings and returns in the longer term that continuing to struggle with a spreadsheet will fail to realise.
With many organisations facing a future with less money than before, there is even more of an imperative that resources get spent on things that will return real value.
Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality. I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting. A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value. By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering a much nicer wine.
More than ever we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too. We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost. This isn’t just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment etc.. It’s also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our organisations when the inevitable budget cuts come.
Sadly, it is all too often the case that when the belts get tightened one of the first things to go is the volunteer engagement function. That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs (because volunteers are free, right!) without any appreciation of the value of that function. How do we help our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if they cut the volunteer management function?
In 2009, 2011 and 2013 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment. The studies showed that organisations which cut the funding for their volunteer engagement work performed less well on a number of measures than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.
In the absence of such research in the UK, and with more cuts coming, volunteer managers need to provide even more evidence of their value and articulate this effectively to their organisation’s leadership. Evidence that demonstrates wider value of their role, as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering, especially when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.
My question to you is, are we up for this challenge in this Covid-19 affected world?
If you are interested in reading more about how how strategic volunteer engagement can help an organisation navigate the challenges of a recession then check out this article from USA-based colleague, Tobi Johnson: “How to Survive the 2020 Nonprofit Recession”.
It’s also a shift that could be coming to volunteering. Yes, that’s right, technology replacing volunteers! This is something I touched on last year when I discussed autonomous vehicles and volunteer drivers, but since then other examples have appeared.
It’s also worth reflecting on the UK government’s investment in technology to transform the care system. Reporting on this in 2019, CNBC stated:
“The scheme, backed by funding of £33.9 million across five years, could result in the development of sophisticated “care robots” which would be deployed to assist the elderly. Actions that could potentially be taken by such robots include helping people up after a fall, making sure medication is taken, and delivering meals.” – CNBC, October 2019
In a world more aware than ever of the risks of disease transmission from human contact and where people in care have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not difficult to see volunteers in the care system being replaced by so called ‘care robots’.
If all that seems a little far fetched, just think about the growing use of drones for household deliveries. This could be used right now to replace the work of volunteers who delivered food and medicine to vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown earlier in the year.
“The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April” – Slate.com, April 2020
Given how important and high profile such volunteer roles have been this year, the introduction of current drone technology could be transformative in the development of post-pandemic volunteering.
You may now be thinking something like, “OK, I get it, but our organisations need volunteers, they are fundamental to our work, we can’t just replace them with technology”. I agree, but consider:
Organisations generally don’t exist to give people an opportunity to volunteer. They exist to fulfil a mission. If they can do that in a different and potentially more effective (and cheaper?) way then why not embrace technology?
During lockdown, some organisations that previously proclaimed they couldn’t do their work without volunteers stopped all volunteering. That’s right, volunteers were so integral to the work that they could all stop whilst the organisation kept on going! In that context why wouldn’t a different way of doing things be considered?
Put it all together and I have to ask, if we faced another global pandemic in ten years time, would volunteers be as needed as they were in 2020, or would technology have replaced them? Will it even be ten years and need a global crisis – is technology coming for our volunteers sooner than we think?
Back in January (which feels like at least a year ago now!) my Canadian friend and colleague Erin Spink published “Top 20 Ideas in Volunteer Engagement for 2020”. This free eBook featured short essays from a global mix of Volunteer Engagement Professionals (VEPs) and thought-leaders (myself included). Contributors explore trends, the evolution of our practice and the need to reframe our role and I highly recommend reading the eBook, if you haven’t already.
For me, one of the recurring themes is a questioning of the role of VEPs. Specifically, a need to move from the comfort of doing the day-to-day, process driven, ‘cat-herding’ of volunteer management administration, to a more strategic and aspirational leadership role.
Here are two examples from the book to illustrate this:
”For years I’ve been asking volunteer leaders to define what they understand their core role to be – and without doubt, the same set of responses follow; recruitment, selection, screening, training, retention and a few essential management functions. I’ve constantly argued that this both over simplifies and limits the role of volunteer management, and while this viewpoint may have once been an accurate reflection of volunteer leadership, the undertaking of these tasks does nothing more than keep the Volunteer Manager incredibly busy and nowhere near as productive as they might otherwise be…In short, I believe that the ‘core’ role of the volunteer leader has changed forever and it’s time to re-define our core function and understand our roles in a different light!” (Andy Fryar, page 6).
“We all know that volunteer engagement professionals wear many hats, yet that doesn’t mean we alone should be responsible for volunteer engagement. If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” (Beth Steinhorn, page 21)
This shift to a more strategic approach by VEPs is something that’s been talked about for a few years now, so it is encouraging to see that focus being sharpened in Erin’s eBook. It’s a theme that has particular resonance in our Covid-19 affected world, something none of Erin’s contributing authors could have foreseen when they were writing their essays in late 2019.
There will be administrative issues to tackle. Thousands of people who quickly mobilised as volunteers with few bureaucratic obstacles in their path will not thrill to our reams of recruitment and selection paperwork. Online systems and quick, seamless communications tools will be expected where before we may have gotten away with offline systems that were slower and clunkier. We will need to re-frame our risk management systems to accommodate new concerns about the virus, ensuring volunteers are kept safe and able to supply robust contact tracing information where required.
There are, however, more significant changes that will be needed to underpin all this. As the quote from Beth Steinhorn stated earlier said, “the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone”.
The other 75% of Volunteer Managers who were unable, pre-pandemic, to dedicate so much of their time to effective volunteer engagement, will need supporting and resourcing to dedicate put more into their VEP duties. Making this case to organisations as budgets shrink and fundraising effort struggle will be a challenge we need to rise to.
All VEPs will need to give significant attention to supporting colleagues across their organisations to embrace working with volunteers, delegating the nuts-and-bolts workload required to get people recruited and deployed effectively. VEPs will also need to analyse and adapt to the shifting organisational requirements of post-pandemic society, reflecting on how those match or conflict with shifts in how, when and why people may want to volunteer. This strategic juggling act will be a key priority for VEPs if organisations are to truly harness the potential of volunteering.
In recent months I have found myself repeatedly quoting Albert Einstein who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. Just as these words effectively summarised for me the themes of Erin’s eBook before I’d ever heard of Covid-19, so they clarify the even greater challenge now facing volunteer engagement professionals in our brave new world.
I know we are up for that challenge and I look forward to seeing how we will, together, rise to meet and overcome it.
Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term ‘job substitution’ itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that, in reality, is both impractical and unrealistic.
Far better terms to use are job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement may seem subtle but they are important:
Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.
Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles due to funding changes, so deploys volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of it’s clients (remember that in most cases charities exist for the benefit of their clients, not their employee and volunteers).
If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, then concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihood, two serious errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made:
Volunteers are a free or cost saving option
It is easy to recruit people who will take on those paid roles and do it for no pay
“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar.
Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a preferable way to doing things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase, “Volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff”. It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low status activity next to paid work
I’ve worked in organisations where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who they believe is there just because they are paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement or complement or displace or replace paid staff, they brought something that paid staff could not.
I accept that these issues of who does what for the mission aren’t easy to discuss and resolve – if they were we would have stopped debating them years ago. Yet engaging intelligently and thoughtfully with these issues is essential as we emerge from the early phases of Covid-19, because the way we always did things before the virus simply won’t cut it anymore.
Not everyone who volunteered for us in the past will do so again.
Paid staff are, sadly, going to be be laid off.
Money may be in short supply as unemployment and financial hardship reduces charitable donations.
Mission driven organisations will have to rethink how they fulfil their goals with a different mix of human talent and skill than they did before.
As Albert Einstein said:
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”.
Are we as leaders of volunteer engagement ready to lead this debate in our organisations? Are we ready to challenge old orthodoxies that may not fit the new world we live in?
I hope so, because our leadership is needed now more than ever.
Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!
Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources
As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?
What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.
1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something
On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.
Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.
”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”
Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed
To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.
Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.
We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!
If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?
Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back
For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.
As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.
We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.
Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.
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.
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.
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.
Coronavirus / Covid-19 is dominating news and societies across the planet right now. It’s a worrying time. There seems to be no end in sight to the doom and gloom being spread faster than the virus itself thanks to social media and twenty-four hour news.
In this article I want to share some resources that may be of interest and help to you in your work leading volunteer engagement in these troubling times. I also want to share some thoughts with you about what all this might mean for volunteering in the coming months and years and, of course, get your thoughts in response.
I’ve seen lots of good stuff being shared online recently. Energize have started pulling this together into one central resource of advice for people leading volunteer engagement. From the public health resources of different countries, to those published by Volunteer Centres, professional associations and peak bodies, to guidance for specific sectors (libraries, animal welfare etc.) this is a great one-stop-shop for volunteerism related information.
Energize are also updating this resource as new material is made available. As they say on their site:
”If you have sample communications, tips, trainings, or other resources you are using, please share them through our Coronavirus Response form. If you have seen resources from others that you find helpful, let us know so we can share those too. We would love any and all suggestions.”
Please share this Energize information widely and submit your own resources so that it can become an ever more valuable resource for our profession.
In England, NCVO are working hard to support their members and the wider sector. The are also engaging with government and others around a co-ordinated volunteer response to the current situation. For more information, check out this blog post from their CEO, Karl Wilding.
With volunteering a devolved responsibility in the UK different information and resources may be available from the national peak bodies: WCVA (Cymru); Volunteer Now (N Ireland); and Volunteer Scotland.
If you are now working from home and it’s something you are not used to, Seth Godin’s company, Akimbo, are providing a virtual co-working space for one month – and it is free! I’ve signed up and created a message board around volunteer engagement so if you join, please connect with me and others there.
Organisations are also facing immediate volunteer challenges too. My local Foodbank is struggling as most of their existing volunteers are 70+ and so now self-isolating. They urgently need ‘younger’ volunteers to help support the vulnerable in our community. I’m sure that’s happening elsewhere too.
What’s going on in your country and community? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media and share volunteer efforts around the virus where you are in the world.
For me, these more informal efforts are what stand out in the volunteer response to Coronavirus / Covid-19. They are a brilliant illustration of the volunteering spirit that is alive and well in society. They are also a reminder that people don’t always need organisations in order to mobilise volunteer effort to address community need. Our smartphones and social media networks enable people to self-organise in a way that bypasses the bureaucracy, risk-aversion and under-resourcing of volunteer engagement in traditional organisations.
There is also a dark side to the use of social media and technology in the current situation. Last weekend I saw people in my local community naming someone who has allegedly contracted Covid-19. No evidence was provided in support of this, just hearsay and rumour. The overall tone was as if the community had discovered a paedophile in its midst and was determined to out them, vigilante style.
I’m sure these people see themselves as doing something good, ‘volunteering’ to keep others safe by identifying people to avoid? Whether the target of their ire felt the same way is doubtful. It’s a reminder that not all volunteering is ‘good’ volunteering and we need to be mindful of the impact of people’s efforts on others.
After the recent suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack here in the UK the mantra was “Be Kind”. For many, that’s being carried through into the challenges we now face. For a worrying number though, those words have been forgotten with panic buying, hoarding and outing of those infected. Let’s try and keep volunteering efforts on the positive side of that divide.
What might the current situation mean for volunteering longer-term?
When this is all over, where might we stand with volunteering? Here are some thoughts?
Sadly there may be fewer older volunteers around – people who until now have been regular, committed individuals upon whom some organisations have been heavily reliant, for example in charity retail. That’s going to have implications for getting back to business-as-usual in future.
More positively, there may be a much greater awareness of the power of volunteering in our society thanks to the efforts of people across the globe to help and support those struggling with the virus. This may mean more people want to volunteer to help their communities in future, supporting others as Coronavirus / Covid-19 fades from the news headlines.
Will organisations capitalise on this interest and invest in finding ways to engage this potential influx people? Or will volunteering drop off the strategic priority list again, especially as fundraising efforts ramp up to fill budgetary shortfalls?
If organisations respond positively, will they adapt their volunteering offers to suit these new volunteers? I can see these ‘virus volunteers’ coming to an established organisation and facing a barrage of bureaucracy. If they’ve had a great, paperwork lite (or free) experience volunteering during the pandemic, then in future they may well just walk away when faced with the usual administrative trappings of volunteer management. Perhaps they will give up on volunteering, or perhaps they will start new organisations to address social needs in the way they want, just like they are doing right now!?
So perhaps we will see a swing away from formal volunteering as people realise how much difference they can make if they do things themselves without needing an organisation to facilitate that?
Or might we see a swing towards formal volunteering if people get frustrated that more informal efforts don’t make much of an impact?
Will we all be more willing to embrace virtual volunteering and remote working by volunteers given how we’re all going to be forced to do more at a distance over the coming weeks and months?
Will the involvement of volunteers in public services become more socially acceptable if volunteer efforts play a big part in holding the health and social care sector together in the next few months?
All of these are questions for tomorrow given many are so busy with today. But we must make time to think about these issues and prepare for when Coronavirus / Covid-19 is a thing of the past so that we are ready to lead volunteer engagement into the future. What is a challenge now will present opportunities in the future and we must be ready to seize them.
What do you think the volunteering legacy of Coronavirus / Covid-19 might be? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media.
This will all go away at some point and I hope we will come out of the current situation a more caring, considerate and thoughtful society and planet. In the meantime, we can all do our best to model such behaviours in the way we respond to the tough times and the work we do with our amazing volunteers. And in every situation, however bad, we can – we must! – find a reason to smile. Last weekend, as the new was gloomier by the minute, this picture I saw on Facebook made me chuckle, I hope it does the same for you…
”The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organisations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organisations. We also wanted to get a sense of what organisations were thinking about volunteer management software.”
As our work confirmed, the answer to the question ‘What is the best volunteer management software?’ isn’t an easy one.
”If we were building something from scratch, how would it look and feel? What would it accomplish for us? How would it make our lives easier, not more challenging? How could it help us save time?”
The list of requirements that VolunteerPro crowdsourced from their members illustrates a problem. There is no magical software unicorn that can do everything that the globally diverse community of volunteer engagement professionals wants.
As Jayne and I said in 2012:
“…how organisations involve volunteers, what information they need about those volunteers, and what kinds of activities those volunteers do varies hugely among organisations. Also, different people like different features; a software loved by one organisation may be loathed by another.”
And as Tobi says in her article:
”…no software platform, whatever its purpose, is perfect”
Tobi’s article did, however, prompt three thoughts about the subject of volunteer management software that I think are important to consider.
First, leaders of volunteer engagement are frustrated at data entry. I get this. Nobody likes to have to sit there and plug data into any system. But even if we could have all the fancy software features people want to see, the value of those features would only be as good as the data inputted. So, rather than being a frustration to avoid, perhaps data entry should be seen as a top priority?
So, as VolunteerPro say, we should look at automation of data entry – I love the suggested idea that when a volunteer arrives on-site, their phone reminds them to start and stop logging their hours – or even does it for them! But let’s also remember that, as volunteer engagement professionals, we should be able to find support for data entry from volunteers rather than have to do it all ourselves. Odd as it may seem, there are people out there that love data entry, so let’s go find them and get them to volunteer.
Second, the list people came up with for VolunteerPro is very ‘now’ oriented: email and text (SMS) communications; integration with existing donor software etc.; live chat support; an online volunteer community forum etc.. I understand why that is – we are busy with the now, delivering for our volunteers so they can deliver for our clients. But the world is changing around us and what we need now isn’t necessarily what we will need in five, ten or twenty years time.
Where is the forward thinking about what volunteer management software might need to do for us? For example:
Being able to observe the data on where volunteers are as they work out in the community (handy for health and safety / lone working monitoring etc.)
Integrating AI / machine learning into recruitment and screening of potential volunteers
Application of bots in managing ongoing communications with volunteers, especially around frequently asked questions
Automated expense submission, process logging and electronic payment
Delivery and monitoring of induction training via video
Good software providers will be doing this future-focused thinking already. If we want their products to help our profession, then leaders of volunteer engagement need to be a part of those conversations now.
Third, and finally, I was surprised to see so many suggestions for volunteers to be given more control over their data. For example, updating profiles, logging hours, submitting impact reporting data, managing shift allocations. All of these are great ideas and some volunteer engagement software has these functions already. But I always hear Volunteer Managers saying that their volunteers won’t use it because it’s too much hassle or the volunteers are too old or too young or…insert alternative excuse here!
Maybe things are changing. Maybe the growing demands of volunteers to be in control of their volunteering are finally getting through. Maybe our tendency to project our own IT anxieties onto our volunteers is finally reducing. Whatever the reason, it’s an encouraging sign that more leaders of volunteer engagement are awakening to the potential of giving volunteers control.
What do you think? Have you got thoughts and ideas about the future of volunteer management software? Leave a comment below or on social media where you’ve seen this article posted.
In 2007 I was involved in the publication of a free eBook, ‘Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet’ (NB. link opens a PDF file), a grassroots guide to getting and keeping volunteers. What makes it different from most books on volunteer engagement is that it’s not written by consultants or known experts (although some are in there) but by leaders of volunteer engagement across the globe who share their practical experiences and tips for success. The eBook inspired a training workshop I run and this article, in which I want to share with you my top ten tips for being attractive to volunteers.
1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering
People volunteer in their discretionary leisure time. With the unrelenting pressures people feel in modern life, they want to spend their precious spare time enjoying themselves.
Making volunteering enjoyable is critical if you want to attract and keep volunteers. You see you’re not competing with other volunteer involving organisations when recruiting volunteers. You’re competing with all the leisure activities that people could spend their spare time doing – going to the cinema, having a meal with friends, watching a sports event etc..
So, make your volunteering rewarding and enjoyable. Really understand what drives your volunteers, their passions and interests. Or, in the words of a famous kids TV show from my childhood, they’ll go and do something less boring instead.
2 – Give great customer service
Do you remember the days where if you bought something mail order you usually had to wait 28 days for delivery? In today’s internet enabled age we now expect next day delivery at a minimum. Expectations have changed.
Yet I still hear volunteers frustrated that they don’t get responses quickly (or at all!) from organisations they are trying to volunteer with. What makes it worse is that sometimes these organisations have said they urgently or desperately need volunteers!
To make our organisations attractive we have to acknowledge that people’s customer service expectations are high and have to meet them – being a charity or voluntary group is no excuse. As one of the authors in the Magnet eBook pointed out, magnets can repulse as well as attract.
One suggestion is to have a team of volunteers whose role is to help respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers, even if it is just to give them a clear idea of how long a proper response will take. Another idea is to simply put an out-of-office message on your volunteer recruitment email account so that anyone enquiring gets told how long to expect to wait for a response, perhaps with links to videos they can watch or material they can read about your organisation whilst they await a response.
3 – Say thank you
Certificates, parties, awards, Volunteers’ Week events – they are all well and good, but nothing beats regularly and sincerely thanking people for their time and the contribution they make to your cause.
A word of warning: if volunteers tell you they don’t want to be thanked, try not doing it and see how attractive that makes you! What they are perhaps implying is that they want to be thanked personally, not in the generic way many organisations approach volunteer recognition.
A second word of warning: don’t do it so the organisation can tick the recognition box for another year – make sure the thank you is genuine.
4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful
Imagine for a moment that you’re heading off this evening for a meal out. You get to the restaurant and order, anticipating the satisfaction of good food. Then it arrives and, well let’s just say you are underwhelmed. You leave the restaurant poorer than when you went in, probably still hungry and very likely vowing never to go back.
Opportunities are to volunteering as food is to eating out. When people volunteer they want to do something that enables them to have the satisfaction of making a difference whilst not having their time wasted. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that offers them that satisfaction and sense of fulfilment.
So ask yourself, do the opportunities you have on offer make the most of people’s time (however much they have to give) and enable them to make (and see that they’ve made) a difference to your cause? Being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions is critical to being attractive to volunteers.
5 – Be flexible
According to both the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation and the Third Sector Research Centre, 31% of the UK’s adult population provide almost 90% of the volunteer hours given, with 8% providing over half the volunteer hours. In other words we are reliant on a small (and diminishing!) pool of volunteers who commit large amounts of time – the living embodiment of ‘ask a busy person’.
Yet, as anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers recently will tell you, few people thrill to this kind of commitment anymore – the old fashioned notion of long term, open ended volunteer commitments on which so many organisations still rely. If you can’t fit that kind of commitment into your life why should anyone else?
The key is flexibility, having a range of opportunities with varying commitments on offer. For example, can you provide taster sessions, allowing potential volunteers to ‘try before they buy’?
Remember too that people’s interests, motivations and availability will change over time and adapt accordingly.
I believe that attractive organisations will successfully keep volunteers if they’re prepared to let them go. If volunteers see our willingness to accommodate their changing priorities and take a break from volunteering, they will be more likely to come back to us in future when their circumstances change and they have time to give once more.
6 – Let’s talk about expenses
Providing out-of-pocket expenses to volunteers isn’t just an admin issue, it’s a key part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Without expense provision, only those who can afford to be out of pocket will volunteer.
As economic hardship in society continues to grow and deepen, more and more people need their expenses covered if they are to volunteer. We need to budget for volunteer expenses every year and explain to decision makes why these funds are important. If you don’t get the budget, ask for it again next year. Keep asking until you get it.
It’s also important to guard against a culture of volunteers not claiming expenses. Where that happens, those who need to claim are often frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome. Instead, make everyone claim. Then, if some really don’t want the money, ask them to donate it back to the organisation (ideally with gift aid added). That way everyone claims expenses, aiding DEI, and those who don’t want the funds get the warm glow of becoming a financial donor as well as a volunteer.
7 – Word and world of mouth
Surveys of volunteering consistently tell us that word of mouth is the most common form of volunteer recruitment. This shouldn’t surprise us, personal recommendation is marketing nirvana. Most businesses would love it if their customers would go and tell everyone how much they love the company’s products.
Yet we often shy away from word of mouth recruitment, almost as if we’re embarrassed about it. This is a mistake. It’s time to re-embrace word of mouth, especially given the potential of social media to develop new and exciting ways to reach our friends. As Erik Qualman once said, social media enables word of mouth to become world of mouth!
Look to maximise the potential of the power of personal recommendation to make your organisation more attractive. Do your volunteers know that you want them to help recruit others? Do you give them resources to do this such leaflets, flyers etc.? Simple things that can make a world of difference.
8 – Embrace groups
We live in a world where it’s easy for people to feel socially isolated. Loneliness is a growing problem.
Volunteering provides a way for people to connect with others – to volunteer with friends and family, to meet new people, or even make new business contacts.
According to the 2019 Time Well Spent report, 68% of all volunteers agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated. This was especially true for those aged 18-34.
Look at your organisation and opportunities. What could you do to provide a group or family with a chance to volunteer together? Give it a go and see who else you can attract.
9- Lead, don’t manage
Management guru Peter Drucker once said:
“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.
Sadly that is sometimes true of volunteer management, especially as things have become more formalised, risk averse and process driven.
People who volunteer want to make a difference and don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to use their skills and expertise to help you but they don’t want to be mired in processes and paperwork. As John Seeley Brown wisely commented:
“Processes don’t work, people do”.
To be attractive we need more leaders of volunteer engagement not more volunteer managers. Leaders simplify, they empower, they inspire and they keep us focused on where we want to go. In short, leaders attract and we need more of them in volunteering.
10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers
One contributor to the Magnet eBook asked, “are you excited about the opportunities you are offering to volunteers and the difference they will make?” What a great question! If you’re not excited about what you want people to do for you, chances are they aren’t going to be that excited either.
Be passionate about the work of volunteers in your organisation and that enthusiasm will attract people to you.
What would your top tips be?
Would you add anything to my top ten?
Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.
If you’d like help making applying these ten top tips to your organisation then please get in touch. I’d love to help you engage and inspire more people to bring about change.
You can find out more about the breadth and depth of volunteer management practice in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me, this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.
Late last year I wrote my final article for Third Sector magazine online. I think the issues I talked about are so important for leaders of volunteer engagement that I want to give the article a wider audience here on my blog.
For those that don’t know, Third Sector is one of the main nonprofit magazines in the UK. I have written for them every month since 2011 – until December 2019.
Sadly, following their recent review and restructure of the publication, regular opinion pieces are being scaled back, including mine. I may still do occasional pieces for them, but the regular opportunity I had to speak to the wider sector about volunteering issues – what was once dubbed (not by me!) ‘the voice of volunteering’ – is no more.
Whilst I always shared my Third Sector articles via my website and social media channels, in recent years the online magazine moved behind a paywall so not everyone could access the content. This was a problem when I had something to say that I think people – especially those outside the volunteer management community – really needed to hear. My last article in December 2019 was one of those, so here it is in full (slightly edited to make it better!) and freely available to all who care to read it.
The 2019 word of the year was “climate strike”. I know, it’s two words! Don’t blame me, blame Collins Dictionary. If they wanted one word though, perhaps it should have been “volunteer”.
And the great thing is that Greta and the XR activists are all volunteers.
Of course, that’s not how the media have reported it. It’s not the language the government have used. It’s not how society sees them. XR volunteer activists are disrupting, creating change, challenging the status quo. To most people, that’s not what volunteers do. Volunteers make tea. Volunteers staff charity shops. Volunteers don’t rock the boat. Volunteers don’t cause trouble. Volunteers don’t march down streets waving placards.
And we are perhaps no better. Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations, safe in our nice cosy sector bubble, are largely ignoring this explosion of volunteer effort and impact. We don’t talk about XR as volunteers. We don’t reach out to learn from them. We don’t celebrate their volunteering and it’s impact. We’re too busy worrying about: recruitment and retention rates; how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteers roles; planning next year’s Volunteers’ Week events; and whether anyone will come to the volunteer Christmas party.
The world is changing around us – and fast. In the modern world people don’t need our organisations and precious sector institutions if they want to tackle the issues they are passionate about. Social media, the internet and mobile technology are enabling people to self-organise and have a real impact on the things that matter to them. They don’t need long winded application forms, two references, health and safety training, risk assessments and regular supervision meetings. They don’t need paid staff to manage them or strategy away days to direct them. They just get on with making change happen, seeking to address the root causes of society’s problems rather than tinkering with the symptoms.
These individuals and their new movements are moving faster than the traditional voluntary and community sector is. They are catching the public’s attention better than we are. And volunteers are at the core of that.
Are volunteers truly at the core of your organisation? In many cases, if we’re honest, the answer to that question is no. They may be more numerous than paid staff but they aren’t at the heart of fulfilling your mission. They do nice but non-essential things, leaving the real work to paid staff.
As 2019 draws to a close we in our sector bubble are perhaps falling further behind. The way we think about, talk about and organise volunteering risks becoming more and more irrelevant to people.
Will 2020 be another year we become even more out of touch and irrelevant? I hope not, but much needs to change if we are to find ourselves in a better place in a year’s time.
It’s time for action.
If you would like help thinking through the implications of this article for your volunteer engagement practice then please get in touch. Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is all about engaging and inspiring people to bring about change – we’d love to help.