A national gathering with an important purpose

A national gathering with an important purpose

In July this year leaders of volunteers from across North America will gather in Minnesota for a significant event.

The National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be the first time in almost a decade that volunteer mobilisation and support will be the total focus of a major conference in the USA. As in the UK, many conferences address general non-profit issues, with volunteering just one of several tracks. At this Summit, leaders of volunteer engagement will be front and centre.

Plenaries and small group discussions will allow participants to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect our profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers we engage.

Over one hundred workshops are on offer throughout the Summit, presented by leaders and practitioners in the field. In addition, it’s the first time in years that many of the thought-leaders, authors, and trainers in our field will all be together in one place. From established personalities like Susan J Ellis, Greg Baldwin, Betty Stallings, Tony Goodrow and Sarah-Jane Rehnborg to newer leaders like Liza Dyer, Jerome Tennille, Betsy McFarland, Elisa Kosarin, Meridian Swift and Tobi Johnson, the Summit is going to be an inspiring and educational event.

I am super excited to be attending the Summit. I’ll be taking part in a pre-event affinity group for writers and bloggers, as well as delivering three of my favourite sessions during the main programme:

  • Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers, Wednesday, July 26: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
  • The Philosophy of Volunteering, Thursday, July 27: 2:15 pm – 3:45 pm
  • Customer Service and Volunteering, Friday, July 28: 8:30 am – 10:00 am

Plans are also afoot for a fringe session over breakfast on the Thursday – watch this space!

As I don’t fly back to the UK until the day after the Summit finishes, I will be joining others who want to stay after the closing session as we continue to meet so that the Summit truly moves our field forward. More details on this after-Summit event will be announced so if your travel schedule permits, please consider joining in.

If you’re going to be at the Summit I’d love to hear from you. Maybe leave a comment below or just come and say ‘hi’ when we are in Minnesota in July.


The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will take place in Minnesota, USA between 26 & 28 July. To register please visit the Summit website.

If you are unable to attend then you can join in via Facebook, Twitter and the official hashtags, #2017nationalsummit, #mappingthefuture, #VolMgmt

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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.

Our time is now – seize the moment

Many volunteer managers I meet are frustrated. They see huge potential in the work of volunteers, potential that is held back because senior managers don’t support volunteering as enthusiastically as they do fundraising. That may be about to change!

Yesterday, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive at NCVO, issued a new year letter to the sector in which he called for fresh thinking about the role volunteering can play as we deal with the challenges British society faces.

I was heartened to read Sir Stuart’s letter as it echoed much of what I passionately believe. For example:

  • Volunteering is not a magic solution to all our ills but it can and does play a key role. This should be maximised rather than dismissed in the sector’s relentless pursuit of money as the only resource worth having.
  • Just because volunteers don’t get paid doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing meaningful, important and significant work. What we pay someone is not a measure of their competence.
  • The debates about job substitution need to move on. Society has and is changing and new ways of thinking and doing are needed.
  • We are underplaying the ways in which volunteering can benefit and enrich the lives of all of us, from innovating new solutions, to improving our nation’s health to creating the kind of society we want to live in.
  • None of this happens without investment in and support for effective leadership and management of volunteers and volunteering.

In all our diversity, Volunteer Managers need to be front and centre in responding to Sir Stuart’s call to be bold for volunteering. We need to make our voices heard and help shape the debate. If we don’t, it will be shaped for us, potentially by those who do not have the knowledge, skills and experience we do. Or worse, this moment will pass and nothing will change.

Everyone of us needs to take action. Here are just things you could do:

  • Share Sir Stuart’s letter widely within your organisation, especially amongst senior managers and your board.
  • Write a comment in response to Sir Stuart’s letter on the NCVO website. Say what you think about his ideas and make the case for Volunteer Managers to be heard and included.
  • Share the article with your volunteers and listen to what they think.
  • Contact your professional association of volunteer managers (e.g. AVM, AVSM, NAVSM, HVG etc.) and encourage them to respond to Sir Stuart’s call to action.
  • Bring up this issue at your local Volunteer Managers networking group. Don’t have one, start one! Share the results of the discussion with the likes of NCVO and your professional association.
  • Read up on the issues Sir Stuart raises so you can play an informed role in any discussions on the role of volunteers in public services and wider society. A list of my previous blog posts on relevant topics can be found at the end of this article.

You could do one, more or another action. But please do something.

We have a wonderful opportunity here to position volunteering as central to the success of our organisations, our sector and our society. Let’s make the most of it!


Previous articles I have written that might help you think through some of the issues Sir Stuart raises

Three things to look for in UK volunteering in 2017

By many people’s standards 2016 wasn’t a great year. You could almost hear the global sigh of relief when it ended. So what might 2017 have in store for us?

Despite the proliferation of articles and blog posts at this time of year claiming to know what lies ahead, nobody really knows what we will be reflecting on in twelve months time. So, rather than joining the crystal ball gazers, I want to highlight three things to keep an eye on in 2017 when it comes to volunteering in the UK.


National Citizens Service gets reviewed

National Citizens Service (NCS) turns seven this year, past the troublesome toddler years and growing fast. That’s the plan at least.

Spending on NCS has increased from £62 million in 2012-13, to £84.3 million a year later, to £130.4 million in 2014-15. In this parliament alone (2015-2020) the government is spending over £1 billion on NCS. Just let that figure sink in for a moment. More than £1 billion!

Yet, as Third Sector magazine reported in November 2015:

“NCS has consistently failed to hit its participation targets since it was launched in 2010. Almost 58,000 of the 80,000 places offered in 2014/2015 were filled. In 2013/14, fewer than 40,000 young people took part, against a target of 50,000.”

Whilst NCS is about much more than volunteering, giving time is a key element of the programme. All we know from the evaluations of NCS is that the contribution those volunteers make amounts to eight million hours of donated time. In other words, a measure of input, not impact.

With all this in mind it will be interesting to see what the National Audit Office (NAO) makes of NCS when it conducts a review into the scheme early this year. With budgets most volunteering initiatives could only dream of and targets consistently missed, the NAO’s report is bound to make for interesting reading.


Online volunteering booms

In a recent article for Nesta, Vicki Sellick predicts 2017 will be a big year for online volunteering. As Vicki, the Director of Nesta’s innovation lab, puts it:

”My prediction is that 2017 might just be the year of micro-volunteering and data donation, with cheap technologies allowing everyone to volunteer from home for short and sweet periods of time, no matter how much time they have to give.”

I’m interested to see if Vicki is correct for a few reasons:

  1. How will this be measured given national research on volunteering makes no attempt to separate out and report about online volunteers?
  2. Predictions around the growth of microvolunteering have been made before and so far there is no clear evidence that these have provided true (see point 1).
  3. Online volunteering has been around for at least twenty years already as this New York times article from May 1996 shows. Why then is 2017 going to be the boom year when we see sudden growth?
  4. Where will the opportunities come from if organisations don’t invest in creating the kinds of opportunities that these online volunteers might find interesting?
  5. Finally, as Jayne Cravens makes clear in her excellent article about the myths of online volunteering, it is wrong to say that virtual volunteering is great for people who otherwise don’t have time to volunteer. Look at the contract between what Vicki and Jayne say in these quotes:

”A busy life, working two jobs, unsociable working hours and living in a remote location can all make it difficult for people to give time or money to good causes in their community. But technology now makes it possible to give your time and energy from the comfort of your own sofa.” – Vicki Sellick

”Volunteering online requires real time, not virtual time. If you don’t have time to volunteer offline, you probably also do not have time to volunteer online. Online volunteering should never be promoted as an alternative approach for people who don’t have time to volunteer face-to-face.” – Jayne Cravens


Review into the status of full-time volunteers

Just before Christmas the government announced that it had commissioned an independent review into full-time youth volunteering. The review, which is due to publish it’s recommendations in the autumn, will look at how to increase participation in full-time volunteering by examining the opportunities and barriers faced by organisations supporting young people.

Intriguingly, the i newspaper reported that the review will look into how government might support young people “to undertake a “year of service” before entering employment or going on to university.”

When the review was announced Dame Julia Cleverdon, co-founder of the #iwill campaign, intriguingly mentioned that the review would include the legal status of full-time volunteers.

”This review could be a watershed moment. The #iwill campaign wholeheartedly supports the creation of a legal status for full-time volunteers.”

This has been a murky issue since the National Minimum Wage Act when the concept of a Voluntary Worker was introduced to protect full-time and often residential volunteering, such as the opportunities that were offered by CSV (now Volunteering Matters). These muddy legislative waters have created further confusion as the debate about unpaid internships has developed in recent years.

Whatever the agenda, the results of the review will be interesting to read.


As ever I’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree with what I have said? Do you disagree? Are there other things we should be keeping an eye on? And, if you are not from the UK, what are the volunteering issues to watch in your country.

Over to you.