Well, we made it through 2020. Is anyone missing last year? No, thought not.
I can’t recall an end of year when so much hope, desire and aspiration was directed to the next twelve months. With attention so future focused some big questions will be asked. What do we want our country to be like now we’re properly outside the EU? As the pandemic (hopefully) subsides, how do we want our society to change? What lessons do we want to learn from the last year? What will our ‘new normal’ look like?
It’s worth reflecting on these words from Seth Godin (published on his blog on 1 September last year):
“We’ve got a deep-seated desire for things to go back to normal, the way we were used to. But this, this moment of ours is now normal. For now. And then, there will be another normal. There is no “the new normal”. Because that’s definitive. There’s simply the normal of now.”
Whilst some of our attention as leaders of volunteer engagement should absolutely be future focused, reflecting on what this time of global upheaval and change will mean for volunteering and our organisations, we also need to pay attention to now. To the opportunities of the present. To how our volunteers feel in the moment. To the challenges of today. To ensuring we have the energy and resolve to face tomorrow.
To focus on the now, I am drawing on the year gone for inspiration as 2021 begins.
I’m still in awe at the outpouring of compassion and care so many people demonstrated in 2020. Everyday people offering help to those affected by the pandemic during the UK’s lockdown. Volunteering (even if it wasn’t always called that) became essential, not a second tier way of doing things by incompetent amateurs out to take people’s jobs (as volunteering is all too often viewed by too many). The first lockdown made us a society and a community once again, not an economy populated by units of ever more production to feed the machine.
I look back in pride at our profession.
At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on.
At the passion and commitment of those Volunteer Managers who spent weeks on furlough, concerned about their volunteers and desperate to support them despite not being allowed to.
At the collaboration that enabled an amazing Volunteers’ Week 2020 to happen in England.
As a new year begins we should remember with pride what we achieved in 2020. If we survived and thrived in spite of everything the last twelve months threw at us then we can face whatever comes our way the year(s) ahead with confidence – today and one day at a time.
Ten years ago I was working as a Director at Volunteering England and one of my responsibilities was to provide the secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Inquiry (VRI). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since this important and groundbreaking piece of work was done and I can’t help but wonder if much has actually changed in ten years?
I suspect not. Otherwise, why would the the UK government have felt it necessary last year to consult on changes to the Equality Act, putting volunteers on an equal footing with employees when it comes to sexual harassment? NCVO provided a briefing on the changes and engaged with the sector before producing their consultation response.
As was clear from the NCVO documents, volunteer rights remains an emotive issue and one that seemingly won’t go away. We may not have the high profile cases we had ten or so years ago, but I’m sure the problems still exist, whether it’s from poor management, serious abuse and harassment, or a whole range of other experiences in between.
Disappointingly the 3R Promise that resulted from the work of the VRI (see details below) seems to have been largely forgotten. The list of signatories is still there on the NCVO website but the momentum has been lost, as has the Call to Action progress group who were tasked with keeping this issue live.
The 3R Promise was an opportunity for Volunteer Involving Organisations to get their houses in order. The Inquiry was clear that in the majority of cases it wasn’t Volunteer Managers who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers. It was other paid staff (often in management and senior leadership positions) and trustees (volunteers themselves!) who were at fault. Poor treatment of volunteers isn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management practice or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers.
I never tire of saying it – effective volunteer engagement is an issue everyone needs to take responsibility for in a Volunteer Involving Organisation, not just the Volunteer Manager.
There were plenty of voices during the VRI process calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That path wasn’t taken. Instead VIOs were given a chance to take responsibility and improve their practice against the principles of the 3R promise:
Given the UK government’s stated approach to the Equality Act as a means of securing protection for volunteers against sexual discrimination, perhaps the 3R Promise, self-policing approach has had it’s day? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? I’m not so sure.
First of all, legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then, do we believe that legislation will stop the poor treatment of volunteers?
Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. With everything the UK government has on right now, would this time be found?
Thirdly, I believe legislation could be counter-productive. Legislative requirements will only make volunteer engagement more bureaucratic and employment-like. This is at odds with a more frictionless approach to volunteering during the pandemic and risks driving people away from volunteering.
Legislation would also increase risks and costs for Volunteer Involving Organisations as they have to comply with any new legal requirements – do we really want to be placing more of a burden on these organisations given the Covid-19 driven challenges the face today?
So, what is the way forward?
There is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body, as is the will for such an approach – self-regulation of fundraising only came about because government threatened statutory regulation if fundraisers didn’t get their house in order.
The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn, except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years. Furthermore, a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit. Finally, in my experience, the Commission’s knowledge of volunteering is pretty woeful.
How about NCVO (and its sister bodies across the UK), the Association of Volunteer Managers, or some other sector infrastructure body? Most sector infrastructure bodies represent organisations not volunteers, which puts them in a potentially difficult position: would they side with individual volunteers against their member organisations, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ their own members for poor practice? And, as noted with the Charity Commission, what about all the Volunteer Involving Organisations who aren’t in the voluntary sector, who polices their practice?
Do we need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry? Updating the report might give it some more contemporary clout but the core of the original Inquiry’s work is probably still valid. The priority must instead be what we do about the issues it raised, not rehashing the same old issues, especially given that the resulting 3R Promise has been largely forgotten.
A few years ago I wrote that what we need is somebody to step up and start a debate about how to proceed. Somebody who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than reply on a legislative sticking plaster imposed on us by others for when things go wrong. I don’t see a body with the will and credibility to provide such leadership today. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope so.
Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with.
What do you think is the way forward? Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who might take the lead on this issue.
This article is a guest contribution from Rhiannon Wheeler, Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne, England. I found Rhiannon’s account of managing volunteers during the global pandemic insightful and inspiring – I hope you do too.
‘We couldn’t do it without you’ is a phrase you hear frequently in the third sector. At St Wilfrid’s Hospice Eastbourne, the past few months have proved more than ever that we really couldn’t have served our patients and community as we have done without our volunteers.
Looking back over the time between March and today, volunteers have played a key role in the COVID-19 response and I feel both proud and grateful to work for an organisation that has included them in our efforts every step of the way, and all for the better.
When the pandemic started
Back in the early days of the pandemic, a planning group was set up at St Wilfrid’s. Led by the Chief Executive and involving the leadership team and hospice managers, the Pandemic Planning Group (PPG) met daily at 9.30am to assess new guidance, review our provision and make fast decisions on next steps. Representatives from each department were involved to ensure clear communication of onward plans and that all risks and resources were considered. My inclusion in the PPG meant that I was able to contribute to decisions made about volunteering and work with key colleagues to action these quickly.
As the pandemic began to take hold, many volunteer roles were stood down as the hospice focussed on its core services. When volunteers over the age of seventy and those whose roles, at least temporarily, ceased to operate were sent home, there was a scene that I am sure feels familiar to many volunteer involving organisations: a mix of upset, some protest, and a degree of relief from those happy to have had the decision made for them.
Where possible, services were adapted so that volunteers could provide support over the telephone or video link. Albeit with depleted numbers, three volunteer roles continued to operate on the Inpatient Unit (IPU) in the hospice building: Hosts, Ward Clerks and Young Clinical Volunteers (YCVs). The question that was revisited in the PPG several times was: should we send these volunteers home?
Why we continued to work with volunteers in the hospice
Along with everybody else in the world, we were learning about a new disease and how it spreads. We were supporting very vulnerable patients, some with a positive COVID diagnosis and working tirelessly to ensure there was adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in place.
On the one hand, there was and remains to be, a potential risk associated with any face-to-face contact with others. Hosts provide meals, refreshments and companionship to patients on the IPU and welcome visitors. YCVs carry out all sorts of clinical support tasks where close contact with patients is part-and-parcel of the role. We knew that despite all our best efforts to protect people, we were exposing volunteers in both roles to risk (and the guidance wasn’t yet clear about whether volunteers in this context were considered key workers).
On the other hand, volunteers were telling us very clearly that they wanted to be there. They were aware of the risks and well informed about what had been put in place to protect and support people. Any volunteer that chose to step back from their role was supported to do so.
Standing down all volunteers would have had a knock-on effect on the IPU. The Nurses and Healthcare Assistants, already stretched, would have had to pick up the additional tasks that the volunteers usually do, and this would have impacted on the support provided to patients.
Ultimately, it felt right for us to continue to involve volunteers in the front-line pandemic response effort.
What we did
Careful language: It was important that we were inviting volunteers to make a decision that was right for them and not because they felt guilty or that they should be volunteering. All communication reiterated this.
Clear communication: The Chief Executive (CEO) sent weekly email and video updates to all volunteers throughout the pandemic period. One email very gently explained that if volunteers who had previously stepped back due to age or other factors wished to return, we would be willing to open a conversation with them about this. Voluntary Services hosted a virtual forum over Zoom so that volunteers could ask any questions they had about life at the hospice and what to expect.
Provide volunteers with all the facts: A thorough risk assessment for the hospice building was emailed to all employees and volunteers along with a Volunteering During Covid-19 information pack with FAQs.
Welcoming back the over 70s: We knew that many volunteers aged over seventy were itching to return once this was possible. We understood the additional risk factors but it felt overly paternalistic to have a blanket ban. Towards the end of May 2020 we began to discuss whether and how we could invite them to return and after a joint decision at the PPG, we quickly put a process in place to make this possible.
Create space for an open conversation about how people feel about volunteering: Acknowledging that each person’s risk factors are unique, an individual risk assessment checklist was devised. All new or returning volunteers are now required to complete an individual risk assessment over the phone with someone from Voluntary Services or their manager. Broad and honest conversations uncover how people feel about volunteering during this time based on their own context and balanced against current facts. The conversation also offers volunteers the opportunity to ask questions or share any concerns or anxieties they may have before reaching a decision about whether and how they will volunteer.
Continue to check in and support decisions to step back: All new or returning volunteers are met by their manager on their first shift and provided with an induction including training on PPE and infection control. Volunteers are always offered the chance to opt in or out of tasks and understand that they can step away at any point.
Working with COVID- 19 positive patients: Initially, only employed team members worked in the isolated rooms. However, the Hosts soon noticed that the Nurses and Healthcare Assistants were exhausted and wanted to help. Some suggested that they could support patients in isolated rooms and following conversations with the clinical director and at the PPG, this was agreed.
Host volunteer Gill was asked if it worries her working with patients in isolation:
“Not at all, it feels completely safe. Doing what we do is nothing like being a Nurse. As Hosts we work together in pairs, which helps as we are able to look after one another as well. There’s no time pressure; we have plenty of time to put PPE on and take it off without rushing and also have time with the patients when needed.”
Why it worked
Well established roles pre-pandemic: we have had volunteers operating on the IPU for many years now and embedded routines that were easy to adapt. The Hosts and YCVs were confident in their roles and well supported and valued by the clinical teams. It wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been working well already.
One team, one uniform: At the start of the pandemic, all employees and volunteers who entered the building were provided with scrubs and appropriate PPE. Volunteers and employees adapted to this together and feedback has been positive about the sense of comradery that this brought about.
–Continuous review: Risk assessments and processes were continuously reviewed against the latest Government guidance and any changes communicated. We routinely questioned whether to introduce blanket polices about who can volunteer and how, but each time have returned to taking a flexible and personalised approach to this. Volunteering at its core, is about people choosing to contribute after all.
Strong leadership and communication: The PPG ensured that decisions were made as a team and different views about risk, process and policy were explored and discussed. From the top down, everybody was included in decisions and nothing was hidden from anyone.
I had a place at the table: All decisions had to be agreed and actioned quickly. As the Voluntary Services Development Manager, I was able to bring my knowledge and perspective to the discussion and I knew what was needed to progress plans.
Everybody had their eyes open: Our processes have been guided by the information available and what individual volunteers feel comfortable with for themselves and their situation. Clear, open and honest communication from the outset has helped to establish trust in the decisions made.
Making ourselves available: Volunteer managers and the Voluntary Services team are in regular contact with volunteers and invite open conversations at any point.
New models that can be replicated for different roles: Since introducing these processes for IPU volunteers, we have adapted the same process for inducting volunteers back into other roles and activities. Retail volunteers returned the same day shops in the UK were allowed to open and we have begun to re-initiate some volunteer community befriending visits as well as some other volunteer involving support functions.
On the 18th June I received the phone call I had been dreading. Three volunteers who had been active in the hospice had tested positive for COVID-19; two hosts and one YCV.
Despite wearing appropriate PPE and following correct protocol, all three had spent some time with a patient who had a false-negative test result. A few days later, another volunteer who had been working in isolation rooms with patients who had a positive COVID diagnosis received a positive test result.
We couldn’t know for sure whether the volunteers caught the virus from the hospice or from elsewhere (two of them had returned to work around the same time) but of course we reported the incidents through the appropriate channels and reviewed our processes accordingly.
We knew that our processes were strong and for the three months up to this point we had managed to contain the spread. Until this point, no patient, volunteer or employee had caught the virus from the COVID-positive patients we had cared for.
This all happened in a very small window of time and coincided with the time that lockdown began easing and people started to go back to normal life. It led to a tightening up of visiting restrictions and some further work to cement a culture of strong adherence to physical distancing and infection control.
Regular contact was kept with the volunteers while they were recovering and all four wanted to return to their roles once they were well enough and had finished their period of self isolation.
On their return, there was a knock to confidence for these volunteers and some anxiety that they had done something wrong. Extra support and ongoing reassurance, regular breaks and shorter shifts soon got them back into the swing of things.
Dancing with doctors
Despite some ups and downs (I believe it’s called a corona-coaster!) and a mountain of work to keep things going, the whole experience of how we engaged with volunteers has been worthwhile and their contribution has been invaluable.
Feedback from the volunteers has been overwhelmingly positive. Managers helped to create a calm and supportive atmosphere and the small things made a big difference. The radio was always on and there was lots of singing and some occasional dancing with passing doctors. A previous feeling of ‘them and us’ has been replaced with a mutual respect for each other’s roles in one big team.
While acknowledging the insurmountable awfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have told us they look back on the past few months as a really positive time and feel that they were part of a unique and meaningful experience. The challenge now is to make sure we keep it going as we progress through this ‘new normal’.
Rhiannon Wheeler works as the Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne. Previously working in education and youth work, Rhiannon has been involved in volunteering for over 20 years, either as a volunteer herself or in roles where she has supported others into volunteering or social action. You can contact Rhiannon via email.
St Wilfrid’s Hospice serves a population of 235,000 people covering an area of around 300 square miles. Expert teams help people to live well until the end of their lives and provide support to their family and friends. Care is provided both in the hospice and increasingly in people’s own homes.
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?
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.
In this special bonus post, we welcome our Canadian colleague Jessica Pang-Parks who shares her insights into volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The whole world is on the same COVID-19 car ride right now, wondering, “are we there yet?” and waiting for restrictions to lift.
In Canada, as in most of the Western world, COVID-19 has impacted volunteerism and volunteer engagement. On May 1, 2020, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada took a poll (during a Zoom call) of fifty leaders of volunteers from across the country. No surprise, none of us said that our volunteer programs were running “business as usual”. Forty-six percent of us said that volunteering at our organizations was “shut down until further notice”.
Indeed, many of us have had hours reduced, been furloughed, or been laid off completely. Many of those who remain employed full-time at their organizations have had to take on new responsibilities, sometimes even stepping in to be on the front lines.
In his interview with the CBC, Imagine Canada’s CEO Bruce MacDonald said that charities in Canada are being “profoundly affected by drops in revenue, by a need to change and adapt their services, by not having access to volunteers – many of whom delivered those services.” As a volunteer engagement professional, I’m glad to see that the main advocacy body for non-profits in Canada recognizes the importance and power of volunteers.
While we grapple with these questions as Canadian volunteer engagement professionals, like in other countries, some jurisdictions are reopening faster than others. And now that you have some context, let’s look at four uniquely Canadian things that affect volunteerism and volunteer engagement during COVID-19.
Canadian charities have moved much of their programming online. While some see this as a temporary measure, others see value in making online programming permanent and plan to continue to expand online offerings. When universal high-speed internet comes to Canada, our sector should be ready to respond and leverage the resources. Volunteer engagement professionals will need to continue to innovate and keep our tech skills sharp. We are in a unique position to combine technical skills with soft skills to help our organizations move their missions forward. Keep learning, and as you learn, think about how to engage volunteers with new technology solutions that emerge.
As these organizations professionalize, they will require volunteer engagement support. This is a great opportunity for leaders of volunteers to step up and support the grassroots. We want these organizations to make volunteer engagement a strategic priority in their infancies, so a culture of volunteer engagement is inherent to their operations. Full disclosure: I live in Willowdale and have provided the We Love Willowdale leaders volunteer engagement consulting on a voluntary basis.
Moving forward, what can professionalized Canadian non-profits learn from the grassroots organizations formed rapidly from tragedy? Perhaps less paperwork and bureaucracy? Perhaps more urgency and emotion? My personal hope is that the learning goes both ways: that “professionalized” leaders of volunteers listen to ideas from leaders of volunteers who were, until a day ago, accountants or farm hands, and that the grassroots leaders of volunteers seek our advice, experiences, and learn from our mistakes.
#3: America – It’s Right There
The United States is our neighbour. Approximately two-thirds of Canadians live within 100km of the US border, which also happens to be the world’s “longest undefended border”.
So, if there is a second, or third, or fourth spike in the Canadian curve because Americans start travelling to Canada, we may be in lockdown for longer than we thought we’d be. Volunteers who were hoping to return to giving their time in-person may need to wait longer. There may be an even greater demand for volunteer engagement professionals to step into front-line healthcare duties. Whatever happens, we can’t ignore the US, because it is right there.
#4: Are you Bilingual?
As non-profit programming moves online, organizations will struggle with being truly bilingual. Canada has two official languages: English and French. National organizations, as well as organizations serving the National Capital Region or other jurisdictions where both official languages are frequently used (e.g. New Brunswick, Saint Boniface in Manitoba) will require even more volunteers and employees with bilingualism than usual.
For predominantly Anglophone organizations, excluding Francophones from programming means losing out on approximately 22% of the Canadian population. Organizations with bilingual resources were either already prepared to engage in either or both official languages, or, can easily pivot to do so.
Volunteers who are bilingual will be in even higher demand, and bilingual volunteer engagement professionals will be much more employable. This means that Canadian leaders of volunteers should brush up on their French, collect better data on language preferences and capabilities, and be mindful of the benefits and limitations of translation technology.
Franco-Canadiens are proud (so proud that there is still a strong separatist movement). We Anglophones may feel it is cute when benevoles mis-conjugate a verb. But to some Franco-Canadiens, mispronunciation can feel like a personal insult. As leaders of volunteers, we are in the business of stewarding relationships, and if we can’t literally speak the same language as volunteers and other supporters, then we can’t do our work effectively.
Are you a Canadian leader of volunteers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted us uniquely. Are you a leader of volunteers from outside Canada who has noticed similar trends? What actions are you, your colleagues, and your government taking to support volunteerisim and volunteer engagement under these circumstances?
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.
”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.
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.