Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

One of the enduring issues in volunteer management (at least in the UK) is the avoidance of volunteers working under a contract of employment. In fear of this, many organisations follow restrictive practices, increased bureaucracy, reduced scope for providing attractive benefits to potential volunteers, and allow wrong-headed thinking on the issue to predominate. In my view, it is time for this to stop.

Someone signing a contract
Someone signing a contract

Most conferences on volunteer management will feature a lawyer or other legal expert speaking on the issue. Whilst there are some good ones out there, most use the platform they are given to scare volunteer managers into submission. Whether ensuring nobody gets any possible benefit from giving time, or pontificating on what volunteers can and can’t do, Volunteer Managers are encouraged to put legal considerations before all else, rather than take a more considered and common sense approach, a situation not helped when boards and senior managers listen more to legal advisers than their own volunteer management experts.

A bit of background

The issue of whether a volunteer has a contract or not gained attention in the 1990s with a small number of high profile cases where volunteers successfully claimed they actually worked under a contract of employment. This entitled them to the same rights as any employee, enabling them to bring discrimination cases against the volunteer involving organisation.

Understanding this context is important because the creation of a contract of employment with volunteers is actually a risk issue. To my knowledge, in those 1990s cases, the volunteers who claimed employment rights were actually discriminated against by the organisations they volunteered for. Having no means of addressing this via their volunteer status, the individuals concerned had to claim under employment law as the legislation doesn’t cover volunteers. Yet if the organisations had treated these volunteers properly in the first place the contractual status of the volunteers would never have been an issue.

It’s all about risk

Rather than fixating on whether there is a possibility our volunteers might be entitled to contractual status as an employee, perhaps we should be focusing first on managing the risk that a volunteer feels so aggrieved with us that they want to claim employee status in the first place? In short, perhaps we need to practice risk management not risk avoidance!

Risk management involves four simple steps:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?

Risk avoidance takes the more nuclear option of not doing something just because a bad thing may happen (by the way, not all risk is bad). It is as naive as it is misguided – risk is an inherent part of life. If we wanted to avoid all risk we’d just shut up shop and stay in bed all day.

Someone lying in bed
Someone lying in bed

How then would risk management look when it comes to the issue of volunteers and employment contracts? Let’s consider those four steps again:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
    Twenty-three million people volunteer every year. There have been perhaps half a dozen cases of volunteers successfully claiming employment rights in the last thirty years. The implication therefore is that the risk is very low. So low it isn’t really worth considering.However, if your organisation; fails to invest properly in volunteer management; allows volunteers to be treated poorly by paid staff and other volunteers (including trustees); doesn’t have sensible policies in place around volunteer engagement; actively discriminates against volunteers etc.; then your risk is higher. But a volunteer still has to feel so aggrieved they want to seek legal recourse rather than just walk away.Either way you look at it the risk is still pretty low. Sadly, few organisations seem to look at this step in the risk management process, jumping first to the next step…
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
    The worst case scenario is that a volunteer takes you to an employment tribunal claiming employment rights, wins, then returns to tribunal with a discrimination case, and wins again. Aside from the resulting fines and sanctions possible under employment law, there is the potential for reputational risk and associated impacts on fundraising, future volunteer recruitment and negative media coverage. This is why many people rightly think the risk is pretty severe.Unfortunately, this is where the risk management process not only starts but also stops for many people. The risk is severe so they do everything they can to avoid it. But that fails to acknowledge the next step…
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
    Considering the statistics alone, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk. Assuming six successful claims for employment rights happened in one year (and 23 million people volunteered that year) the percentage chance of you facing such a successful claim would be 0.00000026%! The only way to reduce that risk further would be to stop volunteer involvement altogether, a drastic solution to a minuscule problem.Instead, let’s focus on the other issues we raised in step one.Your organisation can minimise the risk of a volunteer claiming employment rights by; investing properly in volunteer management, perhaps employing someone who takes a sensible approach to these issues and has experience in the field; not allowing volunteers to be poorly treated, disciplining staff who do, and educating everyone about how to work well with volunteers; establish clear and well thought through policies around volunteer engagement that are regularly reviewed and consistently implemented; never discriminate against a volunteer.

    With the exception of the last point there will be a cost associated with all of these actions. That cost is an investment to manage risk, enabling volunteers to make a transformative difference to your work whilst reducing the potential of the serious liability identified at step two.

  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?
    The formula for working this out is pretty simple: we know the worst case scenario is bad; we also know the likelihood of the risk happening is very low; and we’ve identified sensible and implementable steps to reduce that likelihood further. I’d see the retained risk as low to medium as a result, although you may view it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and your personal and organisational attitude to risk.So we have a low to medium retained risk. With that in mind, how sensible does it seem to avoid involving volunteers in some roles (or altogether)? Or limiting access to things that might help with volunteer recruitment (such as access to training and skills development not directly related to their role) just because there is a vague chance it might cause a problem down the road? Pretty silly really isn’t it?

In summary

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence it’d be this: Instead of focusing first on contracts and what creates them, let’s concentrate on treating volunteers well in the first place. Do that and the contract issues become less of a priority, not something to be ignored but certainly not something to be obsessed about. The result? Our work will be more enjoyable, and we will create a more impactful and fulfilling experience for our volunteers.

Useful resources

For some useful resources on risk management for leaders and managers of volunteers, take a look at a recent issue of Energize Inc’s Book Buzz newsletter.


Please note that I and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd are not legal experts. We are sharing our experience of over twenty-four years in volunteer management and, as usual, challenging accepted wisdom. Please do take legal advice if you are in anyway unsure about the legal position in your organisation.

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More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

On the 12th October I published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after my American friend and colleague the amazing Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Meridian and I got our thinking caps on and devised some further questions that we felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of our joint efforts to try and provide some answers.


HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME, IN MY OFFICE, IN MY TOWN, AND WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

SHOULD WE BE PREPARED FOR MORE OF THIS? IS THIS WHERE CORPORATE VOLUNTEERING IS GOING?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUSINESSES WHO ADMIRE STARBUCKS AND WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, SO THEY WILL ATTEMPT TO MODEL THIS INITIATIVE?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.”

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

”18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

Furthermore:

“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE “SERVICE FELLOWS” DOING? A REGULAR VOLUNTEER’S JOB? A REGULAR EMPLOYEE’S JOB? OR SOMETHING THAT CAN’T REPLACE ANYONE ALREADY THERE?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.”

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take.

DID THEY CONSULT A VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT EXPERT? WHAT ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN PLACE WITH THE POL AFFILIATE NONPROFITS?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

IS THIS ONE OF THOSE LOFTY, NOT THOUGHT OUT EDICTS FROM ABOVE THAT WILL MAKE A VOLUNTEER MANAGER’S LIFE A LIVING HELL BECAUSE NO INPUT WAS ASKED FOR?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.”

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

WILL VOLUNTEERING BE ON-SITE OR IS IT PROJECT BASED OFF-SITE?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD BODIES LIKE POINTS OF LIGHT HAVE IN FUTURE, REPRESENTING NON-PROFITS AND VOLUNTEER MANAGERS?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employer Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

”The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.”

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

IF WE WERE VOLUNTEER MANAGERS ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS, WHAT WOULD WE LIKE TO KNOW?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian

Make volunteer management great

Make volunteer management great

In June this year I was lucky enough to visit Australia to attend their National Volunteering Conference. As anyone who has made the journey ‘down under’ will know, the flight is the epitome of long haul.

Exhausted, having cleared immigration and customs, I relaxed into my taxi – the first comfortable seat I’d sat in for almost 24 hours – but rather than having a snooze I was shocked to see this giant billboard which loomed into view as we left the airport.

Clive Palmer political post - Make Australia Great
Clive Palmer political post – Make Australia Great

The poster – featuring Clive Palmer, leader of the nationalistic United Australia party – also included some wording my jet lag addled brain has since forgotten. Something along the lines of, “Keep Australia for Australians”. It was all clearly positioned so every international visitor to Sydney would see it as they left the airport. Welcome to Australia!

Of course, such nationalism is growing around the world and it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the Australian poster came from.

Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election - Make America Great Again
Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election – Make America Great Again

The problem with both these slogans is that they imply Australia and America aren’t great and need to be made so. I’ve been to both countries on many occasions and, in my view, both are already great. I’ve always been impressed, amazed and inspired by the people I’ve met, the landscapes I’ve seen, and the cultures created by bring diverse people together as both countries have.

What has all this got to do with volunteer engagement leadership?

Well, as I reflected on the Make Australia Great billboard over the following days I started thinking about our quest for volunteer management to be a profession. It’s a topic that comes up at conferences, trainings and events around the world – when will volunteer management truly become a profession? When will Volunteer Managers be professionals just like our fundraising, Human Resources, Programme Management and other non-profit colleagues.?

Back in 2014 I wrote an article called, “Is our destination clear?” which suggested that we may not be entirely sure about what we mean when we talk about volunteer management being a profession. I stand by the points I made in that article (please do give it a read) but the Australian poster got me wondering if our mindset doesn’t play a big role in the professional standing of our field.

Australia doesn’t need to be made great, it already is.

America doesn’t need to be made great again, it already is.

Volunteer management doesn’t need to be made into a profession, it already is. Why? Because volunteer managers are professionals.

If we go around indicating we aren’t a profession then by extension aren’t we also going around implying we aren’t professionals? If that’s the case then no wonder our job equity with other non-profit professions suffers.

How can we take a more confident attitude towards our status as a profession? How we can advocate for the professional status of our field and for us individually?

Well International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) is a little over a week away (5th November) and provides a perfect opportunity. This year’s theme is Time For Change. Perhaps one the big changes we can all make is to stop being so nice. I don’t mean we all become mean, rude and grumpy, but that we should use IVMDay to take a stand for our work as volunteer engagement professionals. We should commit to asserting our professional status every day, rather than unintentionally undermining it by asking when we will be seen as a profession. That way we will become the change we want to see.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week. These so called ‘service fellows’ will put in twenty hours at their Starbucks store and then another twenty hours at a local Points of Light affiliate. This non-profit will be doing work that aligns with Starbucks’ social impact priorities. According to The Guardian, the stated goal of the pilot is to accumulate a total of 17,000 hours work before the end of February 2019.

Having pondered this scheme for a few weeks, here are five questions I have about it.

Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices
Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices

1 – Is this really volunteering?

There are some people who do not consider any time given by any employee during the normal working day to be volunteering. The argument is that they are being paid by their employer and, as financial benefit is excluded from the definition of volunteering, such activity can’t be volunteering.

It’s not a viewpoint I agree with. If you are an employee, then your employer pays you for the time you take as holiday (it is sometimes explicitly called paid leave) but you wouldn’t consider yourself to be at work on the beach with a drink in your hand. Why should volunteering been seen differently?

But I digress slight. Getting back to the Starbucks pilot, it is interesting to note that the money being used to pay for the time spent working at non-profits will come from the Starbucks Foundation rather than direct from the company. Does this make a difference?

Similarly, when it comes to defining what they do as volunteering, if the millennial Starbucks employees participate of their own free will (and perhaps even choose the non-profit they will work with), does this exercise of free will help classify what they do as volunteering?

Will participating non-profits make a meaningful distinction between this scheme and, for example, a business releasing employees for a couple of hours a week to perhaps help kids who are struggling to read? Or will they just gratefully grab 20 hours a week of someone’s time that they don’t have to pay a salary for?

Definitions of volunteering are notoriously unhelpful and vague. So is this volunteering or not, and does it matter?

2 – Who is creating and funding the 20 hour a week roles for these millennial Starbucks staff?

My second question is for those Points of Light affiliated non-profits who take part in this scheme. You are getting 20 hours a week of time from a (hopefully) enthusiastic young person. You’re not having to pay for that time. But how are you funding the creation of the roles these people will do?

Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?

Where is that time and money coming from?

What mission-focused work might not get done because your colleagues are focused instead on giving Starbucks some good PR?

3 – What are the implications for volunteer management in the host organisations?

As I just mentioned, the Starbucks ‘service fellows’ are going to need management support. I can’t see many HR departments falling over themselves to step up to that job. Nor can I imagine most current managers are going to thrill to the idea of having another person to line-manage, especially a millennial part-timer. Inevitably, whether we think this scheme is volunteering or not, it’s the Volunteer Managers who are going to be asked to step in.

If Volunteer Managers get involved in this work, do they have the time and resources to take on this extra responsibility? Remember, most people who lead volunteering are not employed full-time in that role. Most are lucky if they get a few hours a week to focus on volunteering because their main job responsibilities come first. What will not get done if they now manage Starbucks ‘service fellows’? Will support for other volunteers suffer?

Finally, whether it is the Volunteer Manager or someone else who ends up managing the ‘service fellows’, will Points of Light be vetting the participating affiliates to make sure they have good volunteer management practices, especially for engaging millennials? After all, we don’t want to put people off volunteering by giving them a bad experience!

Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it
Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it

4 – What are the implications for volunteering and paid jobs in non-profits if initiatives like this supply volunteers who work 20 hours a week?

Let’s say this scheme is a success. Starbucks are happy, their employees are happy and the non-profits they work with are happy. The scheme is extended. Great! But would it be?

I can see many non-profits stampeding to avail themselves of 20 hours a week of ‘free labour’. They would prefer these ‘service fellows’ to those annoying regular volunteers who: sometimes don’t turn up; gripe if their expenses don’t get paid; moan when nobody thanks them for coming; and are a huge risk because they don’t get paid and so can’t be trusted or relied upon.

Would non-profits start to think differently about their paid workforce too? After all, if they can have people work there for twenty hours a week for six months (or maybe more in future) and someone else pays their salary, doesn’t that mean more money for the mission rather than those blasted admin costs and overheads that the media and public always complain about?

Whether employee or volunteer, if I was at the participating non-profits I’d be worried.

5 – It’s all about Starbucks, isn’t it?

Isn’t the emphasis and implied benefit here all about Starbucks and their ability to attract and retain millennials? As my other questions suggest, the impact on non-profits might actually be harmful – job losses, increased costs, volunteer turnover etc..

Remember, the goal by which the pilot’s success will be measured is whether seventeen thousand hours of time is spent by ‘service fellows’ in partner non-profits. Nothing is said about the impact those millennials will have on the missions of those organisations. Sigh.

So, what do you think?

Have you got an opinion on any of these questions?

Have you got additional questions you’d like to ask?

Engage in the debate by leaving a comment on this article or the your social media network you found this story on, using the hashtag #questionsforstarbucks

Celebrating volunteering in the NHS

Happy birthday to the NHS!

Yesterday, the UK’s National Health Service marked it’s 70th birthday. Seventy years of providing free healthcare to the British public. The NHS is a national treasure and it was wonderful to see this milestone birthday celebrated.

One of the fun facts I learnt in the run up to the 70th birthday celebrations is that the NHS employs more than 1.5 million people. Only four other institutions employ more – McDonald’s, Walmart, the U.S. Defence Department and the People’s Liberation Army of China.

Of course, paid staff are just part of the story. Almost 80,000 people volunteer in hospitals, a number that some are keen to double by 2021. It has, therefore, been wonderful to see recognition and celebration of the role of volunteering in the NHS as part of the birthday celebrations.

Recognition like that given by the chief executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust who, in an article in March 2018, encouraged other NHS leaders to unlock the potential of volunteers.

“Well-managed and properly trained volunteers can help improve patient experiences and support staff, as well as contribute to a more connected community. The potential to maximise volunteering in the NHS is huge. It’s up to all of us to make this happen.”

Then there is volunteering that can help the NHS in ways outside of traditional ‘volunteers in hospitals’ roles and approaches. For example, last year I highlighted the importance of social prescribing and the contribution it can make to reducing demands placed on NHS services. This remains an under-valued approach that could significantly ease pressure on health services across the country.

Then there are organisations like Altogether Better who have spent a decade using volunteering to explore approaches that increase the efficiency of health services, improve the health of individuals and strengthen local communities.

And my personal favourite is the story of Scott Bateman MBE, a former RAF and now commercial pilot, whose father’s death inspired the creation of the UK’s original First Responder service. Scott’s story highlights the innovations that can come from the different perspectives volunteers can offer. Innovations that sometimes face resistance from those already working in a system, such the union representative in 1997 who Scott quotes in his story:

“What does a Pilot know about Ambulance Services, the plan is a nonsense”

So much nonsense that today first responders are a well established and essential part of NHS emergency care provision throughout the country. An innovation born of, and delivered through, volunteers.

So happy birthday NHS. And thank you to the thousands of people who volunteer in, with and through the health service. The care, support and creativity you provide is an essential part of keeping our national healthy and saving lives every day.

Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future

Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future

This is the second article of a two-part series about technology and volunteer management. If you missed part one then please take a few minutes to read it before you continue with this article.

As we saw last time, technology has changed the way we work in volunteer management. We are so familiar are with the technology that is now a part of our lives that it’s easy to forget the extent of the change that taken place in the last few years. Yet, despite all that change, we have adapted, both personally and professionally.

But what about the changes that are coming? Changes that could be even more momentous. I want to look at just two examples and how they may affect volunteerism – Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.

Artificial Intelligence

HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Once the preserve of Science Fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the sinister HAL, AI is becoming increasingly common in our modern world.

“AI is anything a computer can’t do yet.” – Seth Godin

Seth’s point is that as soon as what was once branded as AI becomes commonplace, we no longer think of it as AI. Consider Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa for a moment. Show them to your 2005 self and you’d be amazed, but in 2018 they are simply an accepted part of our lives.

The same will be true of AI in our work in 2028. What seems outlandish now will be the norm.

Today, AI systems are helping people do mundane tasks like schedule meetings. Just think, no more email tennis to plan in all those meetings with volunteers. What a time saver!

A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor
A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor

AI is also helping with recruitment for paid jobs. An AI whittles the applications to a long-list of candidates before an AI powered chat bot conducts an initial interview, asking pre-agreed questions. In theory this approach is fairer than an human interviewing as the AI interprets responses without the unconscious biases all humans posses.

This approach to recruitment is intriguing and it’s application to volunteer recruitment is clear – volunteer managers could save considerable amounts of time deploying AI in this way, allowing them to focus their efforts on those people most likely to be suitable volunteers.

Think this is pure fantasy? Well, AI is already being used by some volunteer involving organisations. Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) use a chat bot to answer frequently asked questions from volunteers on CHAS’s Workplace by Facebook platform, releasing staff time to focus on other tasks.

Logo for Children's Hospices Across Scotland
Logo for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland

Autonomous vehicle

Despite some bad press recently, driverless cars are here to stay, not least because many people see them as a way to vastly reduce the horrifying number of people killed or injured on the roads every year.

Back in 2015 Jay Samit, writing in TechCrunch, predicted that a human driving a car will be illegal by 2030. We can debate if that time frame is correct, but it’s safe to say that within the next twenty-five years taxi drivers, bus drivers, lorry drivers and other driving related jobs will be obsolete, replaced by AI drivers.

Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.
Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.

What will this mean for thousands of volunteer drivers giving their time right now? Will they be out of a ‘job’ too, forced to sit on the sidelines as technology does their work for them?

I suppose that depends on whether the core of their role is the driving or, in the case of those who drive other people, the personal connection they have with their passengers? For example: a volunteer who’d drives to empty charity collection boxes may well no longer be needed – especially as collection boxes are likely to go cashless; whereas a patient transport volunteer may instead be able to focus all their attention on their passengers whilst the vehicle does the work of driving them both to a hospital appointment.

If you are managing a volunteer driver scheme right now, what are you doing to prepare for this change? What threats and opportunities does it present?

Closing thoughts

I want to close with the Bill Gates quote I opened the first article in this series with:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.

The changes I have hinted at above might seem outlandish and far-fetched to some of you, but they are coming. They are the tip of the iceberg in how technology will change the shape our lives and societies in future. Volunteering will not be immune to those changes and we have to think now about what it means for our work as leaders and managers of volunteers. Embracing these changes will not be easy and we may feel ill-equipped to adapt. But adapt we must. Change we must. For, as retired US Army General Gen. Eric Shinseki said:

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Further reading

For those interested in doing a little more reading about AI I highly recommend three articles that indicate some of the ways in which AI could be harmful, especially as it may not be as unbiased and neutral as some people argue:

Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date

Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date

Bill Gates once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”. In this new two-part blog series I want to briefly explore how technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years and how it might shape our work in future.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

An age of wonder

As someone who grew up in the technologically simple days of the 1970s and 1980s, I am often amazed by the modern technological world. The jump has been immense, from the computer games loaded from tape I played as a child to the immersive, Virtual Reality Ultra HD gaming consoles available today. Throughout my life the stuff of science fiction truly has become daily reality.

A young man wearing a VR headset
A young man wearing a VR headset

People are fearful

Yet as technology has become a more integral part of our lives, so people have become more fearful that it will have a negative impact, from the Terminator like annihilation of the human race to machines taking our jobs. Such fears are perhaps inevitable but they certainly aren’t new. Since the industrial revolution people have feared the loss of their livelihoods as machines, computers and technology have become more commonplace.

Letters spelling out the word fear
Letters spelling out the word fear

Some jobs no longer exist

From my own childhood, I can distinctly remember visiting my dad at work in the Bolton branch of Barclays Bank. One of the offices was full of women sitting in rows typing correspondence to customers. No more. Today, that work is done by computers. Those jobs are gone.

A typing pool in the 1970s
A typing pool in the 1970s

Some new jobs have been created

We often forget, however, that as these ‘old’ jobs disappear, new ones are created. For example, fifteen years ago there was no such thing as social media and so no job called Social Media Marketing Manager. Now there are thousands of these jobs around the globe focused on promoting brands, products and services via social media.

A woman working at a laptop
A woman working at a laptop

How volunteer management has changed

Volunteer management hasn’t been immune to these changes. Some of the volunteer roles we once relied upon have become extinct, whilst technology has also helped us do our jobs better. Here are two examples:

  1. Envelope stuffing. This was a crucial role in many Volunteer Involving Organisations when I started work in 1994. Few organisations had access to email, so teams of volunteers would come together to put newsletters and mass mailings into envelopes. It was a great way to get people to try out volunteering in an easily accessible role that allowed for lots of social interaction with other volunteers. Today, thanks to email and software like MailChimp, envelope stuffing has gone the way of the dodo.

    Envelopes
    Envelopes
  2. Volunteer management software. If we occasionally mourn for the loss of roles like envelope stuffing, we rarely mourn the loss of some of the more tedious aspects of volunteer management. Today there are a plethora of software products to help us in our work. These tech tools allow volunteers to keep their details up-to-date, manage their own schedules, engage in basic induction and training activities, and much more. Volunteer Managers are freed from a range of administrative tasks that sucked our time and took us away from the human aspects of our role – engaging with volunteers, paid colleagues and the public. Thanks to technology we can now spend more time on the people parts of our roles and allocate more time to do the strategic thinking and planning so necessary for success.

    Two people talking
    Two people talking

Final thoughts

When Bill Gates spoke of underestimating the change to come in the next ten years, he didn’t mention how easily we forget the changes of the past. We live so much in the moment, and with an eye to what is to come, that we rarely look back. I hope the two examples I have shared I have made the case that technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years because, as we will examine next time, there is plenty more change in store for us in the future.

Over to you

In what ways have you noticed technology changing volunteer management in the last 10-20 years? Have those changes been good or bad in your view? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.