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Book review: Originals by Adam Grant

I haven’t written a book review for over thirty years, most likely since primary school. So what’s making me write one now? The simple answer is the excellent and valuable content of the fantastic book, “Originals” by Adam Grant.

I’d never heard of Originals until a friend on Facebook recommended it. I don’t know why, but I took a punt and added it to my list of business reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve not come across the book, Originals is described as, “A manifesto for originality and a guide to championing new ideas that challenge the status quo.” As the description on Amazon puts it:

“Adam Grant shows how to improve the world by championing novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battling conformity, and bucking outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Parents will learn how to nurture originality in children, and leaders will discover how to fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.”

The book was a joy to read as Grant not only informed but entertained. What really hit home for me was how strikingly relevant and helpful some of his points were to leaders and managers of volunteers, especially in our essential work of influencing others – volunteers, colleagues, bosses, funders, policy makers etc..

One of Grant’s points from Originals inspired me to write my July 2017 piece for the UK’s Third Sector magazine. Described by infrastructure body NAVCA as the article they never thought I’d write, “Three reasons why involving volunteers might not be a good idea” takes Grant’s concept of selling an idea by emphasising it’s weaknesses and applies it to volunteer leadership management. Take a look and let me know what you think by leaving a comment on the Third sector site.

Some of Grant’s observations help shine a light on contradictions in our field. For example, studies of Volunteer Managers often illustrate that we are happy wth our roles yet frustrated at the (lack of) support we get. Grant notes the work of John Jost, commenting that “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject or change it”. He goes on to explain why, giving a useful thoughts as to why, despite the frustration many Volunteer Managers feel, they may not seek to change the status quo.

Other points from the book could be applied to: volunteer recognition (affirmation of character, p168); volunteer induction (entry interviews rather than exit interviews, p 204); motivating others; challenging groupthink; improving brainstorming & ideas generation; and both understanding and working with or against organisational culture. Helpfully, Grant provides a list of actions individuals and leaders can take to apply the principles to their lives and work.

I’ve always liked reading books outside of the usual volunteer management literature and seeking insights to apply back to our field. Adam Grant’s book Originals has been one of the richest sources of these in a long time and is a text I will keep referring back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Tilting at windmills again

Tilting at windmills again

Since setting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 I have been writing and speaking about the need for senior managers to take volunteering seriously as a strategic priority. Despite six years of effort it seems little has changed.

Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have recently published a new study, “Charities Taking Charge”. They surveyed 300 charity leaders, of whom only 51% thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!). 16% thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).

Furthermore, when asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”. By contrast, 31% chose funding and 23% public profile.

What it is going to take for those at the top of non-profits to pay proper attention to the strategic role of volunteering in delivering organisational missions? When will the focus on money as the only resource at their disposal change, opening minds to the full range and wealth of community resources available to change the world for the better?

Susan Ellis has been tilting at these same windmills since the 1970s. That’s why she wrote From The Top Down in the 1980s and why we adapted the book for the UK in 2015.

I’ve only been at it six years and I am not going to give up.

Now, where’s the nearest brick wall?

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Campaigning is now well underway for the UK General Election on 8 June. NCVO have wasted no time in issuing their election manifesto, “Charities and volunteering make Britain great”, and I want to quickly look at four things I was pleased to see them highlight.

1/ An access to volunteering fund

Back when I worked for Volunteering England (2005-2011) we were funded by the Office of Civil Society to pilot an Access to Volunteering Scheme. This provided funding to help organisations meet the costs of opening up their volunteering opportunities to people with disabilities.

Sadly the change of government in 2010 killed off the short-lived pilot. Calls were made for it’s revival ahead of the 2015 general election but went unheeded. So I’m really please to see NCVO officially calling for Access to Volunteering to return.

“Providing a support fund to address barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities. This could make volunteering accessible to more people, helping with costs such as travel or adaptations to buildings or equipment.”

2/ Strengthening volunteer development and management

NCVO have really been upping their game on volunteering over the past few months, starting with Sir Stuart’s new year letter to the sector. These efforts have built upon the excellent work of the small volunteering team at NCVO over recent years, dedicated individuals who have worked hard to support volunteerism.

I am really pleased to see this work continue in the manifesto with a call to strengthen volunteer management. For too long, volunteer management and it’s role in enabling effective and rewarding volunteering experiences has been low profile in civil society’s calls for support from politicians. Putting it front and centre in the NCVO manifesto is a welcome step towards changing this.

“Strengthening volunteer development and management, to ensure volunteers have the right skills and support to make a bigger difference, and a rewarding experience.”

3/ Make it easier for charities and volunteers to support our public services

Volunteering in public services isn’t new. Neither are the controversial issues raised, such as job substitution, the role of the state and the responsibilities of individual citizens.

With public services changing, not least because of the tremendous affects of austerity, it is right that we have a grown up debate about the role of charities and volunteers in public service delivery.

Kudos then to NCVO for being brave enough to put this in their manifesto, emphasising the positive and constructive role volunteers can play in the NHS, social care, emergency services and other services.

My only note of caution comes with their suggestion that volunteer numbers could be increased in public services. More volunteers aren’t always the answer.

“(NCVO would like to ask) services such as the NHS to set targets for the management and development of volunteering. These would aim to increase volunteer numbers, involve volunteers in a wider range of roles, and improve the experience and impact of volunteers.”

4/ Immigration

Under the heading of “Give everybody a stake in post-Brexit Britain” NCVO rightly highlight the barriers to non-Brits who wish to volunteer whilst in our country.

For those from outside the EU this requires specific permission to volunteer within their visa’s and poorly phrased limitations on those holding student visas. For EU citizens no restrictions exist, but this will surely change after Brexit in March 2019.

NCVO’s call for simple and effective visa requirements, or a visa waiver programme, are to be applauded, as is their request for the next government to quickly resolve the right to stay of EU citizens.

People from the EU have enriched our culture, society and economy. Along with their families, they work and volunteer in our public services, including for charities. We think it right that they should continue to have a stake in the future of country.

So there you have it, my four highlights from NCVO’s 2017 general election manifesto. What do you think? Do you agree with me? Do you think NCVO missed anything? Do you disagree with their manifesto requests? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

The Lords report on charities: what’s good, what’s bad and what’s missing when it comes to volunteering?

Last weekend the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities published their report, “Stronger charities for a stronger society” (NB. link opens a PDF). It’s a long read but thankfully the section focusing on volunteering runs to just a few pages (pp 62-68). NCVO have also helpfully summarised all the Lords’ recommendations in a document available online.

In this article, I want to share my initial thoughts on what the report says about volunteering. I’m not going to focus on the five associated recommendations which I broadly agree with. Rather, I want to highlight some of what I found to be good and bad in the report as well as note a few things that seem to be missing.

The good

Two really positive things struck me in the report.

First, paragraph 300, in which Karl Wilding of NCVO says:

“All the evidence from the volunteer managers we work with tells us that volunteers do not want to replace paid staff in the sense that they do not want to put people out of jobs, but they absolutely recognise that they can contribute something to a service over and above what the paid staff delivering that service do.”

As I have written elsewhere recently, we need to take a more intelligent and measured look at the issues labelled under the broad heading of ‘job substitution’. To have Karl, the volunteering lead at NCVO, take a similar line is very welcome. It shows strong leadership by NCVO on a difficult issue.

Second, I am heartened that the Lords heard evidence suggesting there is a need for a fresh vision and drive behind volunteering (paragraph 303). They quote Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA and chair of the Modern Employment Review set up by the Government:

“How we think about a society where being a volunteer has the same status as being an employee, and it is an important part of how people feel they are fulfilled, develop and grow in their lives, is a big opportunity. We still kind of think that the big thing in your life is your work, and you then might do a bit of volunteering on the side. It may be that in 30 years it is reversed.”

To know that some thoughtful and intelligent input into the future direction of volunteering has been considered is encouraging, even if the resulting recommendations are largely more immediate and practical in nature.

The bad

As I read the report’s volunteering section I began to sigh at the limited view of volunteering expressed by some of the charities who gave evidence to the Select Committee. Take paragraph 298 for example:

”Visionary argued that that an over-reliance on volunteers risked hindering the growth of a charity. Age UK Runnymede and Spelthorne noted that charities using volunteers to deliver services were at risk, as volunteers could not be compelled to work.”

First, why must volunteers limit the growth of a charity? The vast majority of charities are completely reliant on volunteers and continue to exist and grown quite well without paid staff. Many well established and large charities rely on a mainly volunteer workforce (for example, Samaritans and the National Trust), with paid staff in the minority. Almost every charity grew from an entirely volunteer run organisation.

Second, charities do not use volunteers. Volunteers are people. We do not use people. We use things.

Third, why must services be at risk if delivered through volunteers? Samaritans services are delivered through volunteers. Lifeboat crews are volunteers. Magistrates are volunteers. St John Ambulance provides first aid through volunteers. They all seem to manage OK. Why can’t other services?

Until these patronising and limiting views of volunteers are banished, we will forever limit the potential of volunteering to play it’s full role in transforming society for the better.

The missing

Three things struck me as missing from the report.

First, I saw no meaningful consideration of the potential of older people as volunteers. The report, like so much of volunteering, focuses on young people. This youth obsession risks blinding us to the opportunities and challenges of engaging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as volunteers.

Second, I can find no mention of the importance of local volunteering infrastructure. As I have outlined in another article, local Volunteer Centres are essential for supporting and nurturing effective volunteer involvement. I don’t expect the Lords to lobby for a return to the days when Volunteer Centres were better funded than now, but it would have been good to see their role and importance acknowledged.

Third, there seems to be no acknowledgement of volunteering as a strategic priority for the sector. Writing for Third Sector, the chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Pitkeathly said of the challenges charities face:

“Grant programmes are being reduced or eliminated, and contracts are increasingly prescriptive and short-term, stifling charities’ ability to innovate, cover costs and plan for the future.”

Whilst access to funding is rightly identified as part of the problem, where is the mention of volunteering in this strategic context? One of the unique aspects of charities is their ability to innovate, to experiment and to find new solutions through engaging volunteers. This ability to draw in talent and extend the limited budget in creative ways is a key distinctive between the voluntary sector and the public and private sector. It is how almost all charities started – volunteer effort, trying something new and finding creative solutions. To not acknowledge or encourage this aspect of volunteering is a significant weakness in any work that claims to understand and support the sector.

A final thought

I said earlier that I wasn’t going to look at the report’s recommendations. Sorry, I lied. I want to single out just one, recommendation 28 at paragraph 311:

”Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base. We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”

Whilst on one level is totally agree with this I do have a worry. It’s the same worry I get whenever I see anything that places an emphasis on external funding for volunteer engagement – why do so many organisations seek external funding for volunteer involvement rather than pay for it themselves? I know resources are tight but organisations could choose to prioritise funding for volunteer involvement rather than leave this to the vagaries of external funders. Failing to do so indicates just how little importance those organisation place on their volunteers.

Over to you

Those are my thoughts on the good, the bad and the missing from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, at least as it relates to volunteering. Now it’s over to you. What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Back in 2010 the UK’s general election resulted in a coalition government that brought in widespread funding cuts. Volunteering infrastructure was amongst the early victims as financial belts tightened.

Despite forming in 2004, Volunteering England (VE) ceased to be in 2013, merging into NCVO. Volunteer Centres closed as local government funding dried up. Some merged into other bodies like Councils for Voluntary Service, others just disappeared altogether. And the closures continue to this day as the cuts continue and deepen.

It’s still too early to tell what the long-term consequences of these changes will be for volunteerism in England. We’ve already lost a huge amount of knowledge about what was done before the age of austerity began. The Commission on the Future of Volunteering, the outputs from the ChangeUp National volunteering Hub and subsequent Modernising Volunteering National Support Service – all are consigned to the memories of those who were there. Any online presence can be hard to find, if it even exists anymore.

We’ve also lost the means to deliver any new ‘national’ volunteering initiative, a point conceded by a Cabinet Office official last year when he remarked that if the (now forgotten?) ‘three-day volunteering pledge’ was to happen we’d need a local volunteering infrastructure to deliver it.

So I am both saddened and angry to see a similar situation unfolding in Australia.

Earlier this year the Australian federal Government’s Department of Social Services announced changes to the funding pot for Volunteer Resource Centres (VRCs) that could have a devastating effect. You can read all about the situation in this excellent article from Pro Bono Australia.

Efforts are underway to work with the Australian Government to review their decision and take a different approach. Volunteering Australia, state and territory peak bodies and local VRCs are mobilising to protect the future of volunteering support services. My sincere hope is that they succeed and do not see a repeat of what has happened here in England over the last few years.

I’ll leave the last word to Alison Lai, the CEO of Volunteering Tasmania. Read her excellent article about the likely impact of the cuts in Australia here.

The NHS is in crisis. How might volunteering help?

The NHS has had a rough winter. Years of austerity, an ageing population, declining adult social care services and rising demand have placed the UK’s national treasure under stress like never before. For the last few months the headlines have come almost daily: accident and emergency waiting time targets missed; queues of ambulances outside hospitals; extreme bed blocking; and patients waiting hours on trolleys in corridors before they get treatment.

The headline that struck me the most was the warning from the British Red Cross that the NHS faces a ‘humanitarian crisis’. On the 6th January 2017, The Guardian newspaper quoted Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, as saying:

“We are responding to the humanitarian crisis in our hospital and ambulance services across the country. We have been called in to support the NHS and help get people home from hospital and free up much needed beds. This means deploying our team of emergency volunteers and even calling on our partner Land Rover to lend vehicles to transport patients and get the system moving.”

What do these volunteers do? A helpful summary is available in an article from BBC News on the 7th January 2017:

The Red Cross offers a ‘support at home’ service to hospitals that need to improve the flow of people in and out of hospital.

Volunteers visit trusts to see what social care needs patients have when they are discharged. They then visit them at home and help them with tasks including collecting prescriptions, doing shopping or simply offering company.

It says the number of patients its volunteers see has gone up by 10% year-on-year and the range of tasks is increasing, such as making sure people eat, helping them to get dressed or assisting them in going to the toilet.

At one trust, the organisation has been working alongside hospital matrons to arrange transport for people to take them home. It uses its fleet of Land Rovers and also provides back-up for the ambulance service.

The situation was mentioned in Sir Stuart Etherington’s 2017 new year letter to the voluntary and community sector. He said:

“Social care in particular is consuming an ever greater proportion of local government spending. The trajectory appears unsustainable. Other services important to people and communities are sacrificed to make way for the essentials. And in just the last week, charities have rightly been at the forefront of drawing attention to the problems facing the NHS. No one would claim that volunteering alone can bridge the rapidly increasing gaps between demand and supply here. But volunteering, both formal and informal, has to be part of the solution.”

Almost all of the responses to Sir Stuart’s letter that I have seen have focused on the role of volunteers in delivering services within the NHS and adult social care. But the solutions could be more nuanced and sophisticated than that.

For example, discussion of the role of volunteering in reducing demand on struggling public services has been almost non-existent. Concepts like social prescribing do not require more volunteers to be thrown at the NHS but enable primary care professionals to refer people to volunteering schemes to relieve the pressure before it gets to be a problem.

Social prescribing recognises that people’s health is determined primarily by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. Consider that research commissioned by the RSPB underlines the strong links between good physical health, good mental health and the natural environment, whilst other research quoted by the RSPB shows that physical inactivity has serious effects on human health, which cost the UK economy more than £8 billion a year. So, a doctor practicing social prescribing might refer some patients to an organisation like the RSPB to volunteer in the natural environment. These patients then improve their physical and mental health through volunteering and consequently reduce future demands they might place on the NHS.

This isn’t wishy washy idealism. People and organisations are using social prescribing and other models to make a real difference in society. For example, Altogether Betterare having success with approaches that increase the efficiency of health services, improve the health of individuals and strengthen local communities.

Sir Stuart Etherington called for 2017 to be a year in which we have a bold conversations about the role of volunteers in our society. If we are to respond then must do so with our eyes open to all the possibilities and potential, not just the risks and limitations. That includes not just how volunteering can help in times of crisis, but the role of volunteers in lessening the causes of crisis in the first place.

Is it time to include young people in national research on volunteering?

When we only collect national data on volunteering by adults we fail to capture so much rich information on the wonderful efforts of young people.

Volunteer Scotland have recently published data which shows a significant increase in volunteering by young people. They have discovered that fifty-two per cent of Scots aged 11-18 years old volunteer, nearly double the adult figure of 27%.

The Scottish data is in line with findings from NCVO in 2016. Based on the Westminster government’s Community Life Survey, they found that:

“In 2010/11, 23% of 16-24 year olds said they volunteered formally (ie through a group or organisation of some kind) at least once a month. By 2014/15 that figure was 35%. That’s a 52% increase, and in real terms it would mean around one million more young volunteers.”

The situation is pretty clear. Young people are getting stuck into volunteering (often referred to with the sexier sounding term, ‘social action’) in a big way.

Which leads me to a question.

Why do most countries that collect data on volunteering rates only count adults?

So many studies only look at people aged eighteen or over, sixteen at a push. There are a few notable exceptions I am aware of. New Zealand counts volunteering by people aged ten or above and German colleague Ina Wittmeier recently told me that:

“The German volunteer survey is also asking people from 14 years up.

It states that the youth has different motives and different ways into volunteering.”

Isn’t there a real danger that we are not only massively under-counting the number of volunteers by only capturing data on adults?

Also, by ignoring those aged under 16 or 18 years, we are failing to understand their motivations properly. This will make us less likely to adapt our volunteer opportunities to engage young people effectively.

So, here are some questions for you:

  • Does your country count volunteering by people under the age of 18?
  • If it does, what is the lowest age counted?
  • If it doesn’t, why not? Is there a good reason?
  • Do you agree that we should be collecting data on volunteering by those under 16 / 18 years of age when our countries conduct national research into volunteering?
  • What lessons do you think we could be missing out on by not properly understanding young peoples’ desire to give time?

Over to you. Tell us what you think.