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.

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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.

Is Giving Tuesday good for volunteering?

Is Giving Tuesday good for volunteering?

Two years ago the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) imported the American concept of #GivingTuesday to the UK. The concept has got bigger each year but does #GivingTuesday do anything positive for volunteering or is it another example of charities preferring gifts of money to gifts of time?

Next week #GivingTuesday will once more be marked in the UK. Originally conceived in the USA, #GivingTuesday is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving and the popular shopping events, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The idea is simple – #GivingTuesday starts the charitable season, when many people consider some kind of support for good causes1.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) describe #GivingTuesday like this:

Whether you bake good stuff, make good stuff, donate good stuff, tweet good stuff or even say good stuff ‐ whatever you do, we want you to do good stuff for charity this #GivingTuesday. You’ll be joining thousands of people in the UK in committing to doing good stuff all on the same day, including some of the UK’s biggest brands, charities and celebrities.

Volunteering is one way that people can support #GivingTuesday. Others include: donating money, clothes or food; tweeting; and, apparently, simply saying nice things about charities! Yet I believe the emphasis is on people giving money. Why? Consider this statement on the #GivingTuesday UK website:

We [CAF] brought #GivingTuesday to the UK two years ago and last year we raised £6,000 a minute for UK charities and broke the world record for most amount of money donated online in 24 hours!

Despite all the ways to give, the celebration is of donated money.

I don’t find this emphasis surprising. I frequently come across the word ‘giving’ in the non-profit world to only describe people giving money. When I hear of someone making a gift to an organisation it is usually a gift of money. Why? Because in my view many non-profits value donated money far more than donated time.

This isn’t an article railing against what I believe is a misguided, cash obsessed approach to non-profit management. I’ve written about that before – see this blog post from 2012 for an example. No, my purpose for writing this article is to discover what you are doing to make the most of #GivingTuesday when it comes to volunteering? For example:

  • How have you harnessed the potential of the day over the last two years to get more people to give you their time?
  • Did your efforts connect with those of your fundraising department or are you both working in isolation from each other?
  • What lessons have you learned?
  • Was the effort worth it?
  • What plans do you have for this year?
  • How are you planning to measure success?

I’d love to hear from you. I am genuinely interested in learning how people are making the most of #GivingTuesday when it comes to volunteering. I hope it isn’t just a concept that is being used by charities to ask the public to part with more of their cash.


See also Susan J Ellis’ November Hot Topic article, “What Volunteer Recruiters Can Learn from #GivingTuesday”. If #GivingTuesday is a new concept to you, or you never knew it included volunteering, then Susan’s article could help you consider how to get the most from #GivingTuesday in 2017.

  1. Of course the timing doesn’t exactly work for the UK coming, as it does, just a few days after the annual Children In Need fundraising campaign. IS there a risk that we are over-asking the ever generous but increasingly fiscally challenged British public? The topic for another blog post perhaps?

Six ideas from online dating to help with volunteer recruitment

One of the things I’ve noticed in the last few of years is the increasing use of dating as an analogy when people talk about volunteer recruitment and retention. So, when in 2012 I found myself back in the single life once again, I thought that I might have an opportunity to use this change in circumstances to write my own blog on dating and volunteering.

After being with my ex-partner for nearly twenty years, getting back into the dating game was a daunting prospect, not least because one of the common ways to meet new people these days is through online dating sites. Not only did they not exist the last time I was single, the internet didn’t even exist, at least in a form accessible to the general public in the always-connected way it does now. So my take on dating and volunteering is to look at six things I think online dating sites can teach those of us recruiting, engaging and leading volunteers.


Sites get to know people first and then using processes to match up people

When you sign up for dating sites you are prompted to tell them all about yourself. For the bigger sites this includes quite extensive questioning about your interests, tastes, preferences in a partner and so on. For me there are three takeaways for volunteer management arising from this extensive questioning by the site:

  1. Dating sites use a process to help learn about the individual. They then use that knowledge to help match the person to others. Critically, the process supports the person, helping to learn about them and their motivations. Sadly, many people who are volunteering encounter bureaucratic, impersonal processes that seem to ignore the individual, partly because their purpose is to cover the organisations backside if things go wrong. How much more attractive volunteering would be if we focused on getting to know the potential volunteer and their reasons for giving their time more than whether they’ve filled our forms in correctly.
  2. People are not averse to filling in forms because they expect the payoff at the end of it will be worth it. Those who use dating sites have a bigger purpose and if we view the process as an inconvenience then they will put up with it because they hope the results of doing it will be worth the time spent. Is that the experience volunteers have of giving their time to your organisation, or do they just give up when faced with your processes and go off and do something less boring instead?
  3. The whole process can be done easily online. If you can’t finish the form on a dating site in one sitting — and some are rather long — you can save them and come back later. It is a seamless, joined up and easy process. It might almost be said that filling these forms in is a pleasure (see my last point about payoff) — would that this were true for volunteer applications!

Selling yourself online

One of the most difficult things about online dating is writing a pithy personal advert. Aside from the fact that we Brits are not the best at speaking about or promoting ourselves, many people really seem to struggle with this task. In fact, cast your eyes over many such personal adverts on dating sites and you’ll notice that many follow the same format, make the same kinds of points and don’t really stand out.

One that caught my eye back in 2012 — out of professional rather than personal interest! — started, as many of these statements do, by saying that the lady concerned had no idea what to write about herself. Her solution? She gave it to a friend to write instead! A brave move but an inspired one.

Sadly, many volunteer recruitment adverts — both online and offline — resort to the the same formula, making them hard to stand out to prospective volunteers. What’s more, they invariably advertise the volunteer opportunity by stating what the organisation seeks to gain from someone volunteering, not what the volunteer might gain. Imagine that on a dating site — how going out with someone would make their life better but no regard given to your experience, feelings or interests. Or going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves. Both those scenarios sound like a shortcut to lifelong solitude.

So, how can we write more engaging and distinctive personal adverts for our organisations and our volunteering opportunities? How can we come across as engaging, interesting and worthy of someone’s precious time? Would you be brave enough to hand this task over to someone else — an existing volunteer perhaps — and see what they write about you?


The power of pictures

When I was single I never responded to an online dating profile that contained no pictures. It’s not that looks were everything to me in a potential date — they’re not — but they are a crucial element of the wider ‘sell’ of someone’s profile. If I couldn’t see the person then all the words in the world won’t make a difference because I felt like I was missing a key element of the wider picture, of who they are.

Pinterest and Instagram show the value in volunteer recruitment of visual storytelling. By uploading images of happy volunteers enjoying their work, organisations are seeing interest from others who ‘want some of what they’re having’.

So when we recruit volunteers, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the imagery we use. Do we show engaging images, images that show that real people volunteer here and have a great time doing so? Or do we rely on lots of text or, heaven forbid, job descriptions to try and hook people in? Even worse, do we use attractive images to hook people in that bear no relation to the reality they actually experience volunteering with us?


Levels of engagement

One thing dating websites understand is that you don’t want to rush into a date with a total stranger without having built some rapport first. Making first contact with someone and instantly asking them out for a meal risks coming across online as desperate or making people run in fear that you may be some complete nutter.

Dating sites get round this by providing different ways to engage with people. You can simply ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ a profile to signify your interest. Or you give a digital ‘wink’, although personally I found this a bit creepy — would you wink at a stranger in a bar as your first contact? Then you can email and/or instant message with someone, developing that rapport to the point that you both might feel comfortable to meet face-to-face for a date.

There’s a definite parallel with volunteer recruitment here. Often our recruitment efforts come across like asking someone to marry us the first time we meet. We ask for a long term intensive commitment from day one. Then we wonder why people run for the hills! Instead, could we provide a scale of engagement, giving people easy, no/low commitment ways to try us out, see if they like us, build rapport and perhaps move to a point in the future where they feel comfortable making a longer term commitment? It may take longer to get people to make the commitment we want, but investing that time early in the relationship with our volunteers will yield dividends later on.


Not knowing where you stand if people don’t reply

One of the most frustrating experiences I had with dating sites was finding someone you really like the look and sound of, plucking up the courage to drop them a line a say hello, and then never hearing back from them. Did they get my message? Did they not like my profile?

The same applies to volunteering. Someone plucks up the courage to get in touch and enquire about volunteering with you. And they hear nothing back. Did you get their email or voicemail? Were they not suitable? Why not? What could they have done that might have caught your attention?

Too many organisations seem to think that it is totally acceptable to respond to people within a few days or weeks — or even never — after their enquiry. Yet we live in an immediate world. People expect a reply, even just a holding reply, within a few hours at most. 28 days delivery might have met consumer expectations twenty years ago but next day delivery is the benchmark now.

How can you ensure you respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers? Can you use email ‘out of office’ messages to provide instant holding replies? Perhaps you could involve volunteers to help you manage the prospective volunteer enquiries?


Advice on how to get the most of the experience

One thing I liked after being on a certain dating site for a couple of weeks was that they sent me an email giving me suggestions for how to get the most from my membership. OK, it was a template, impersonal email but the advice was really good and helped me to find my feet in this new online world I had entered.

Do we, should we, or could we do something similar for volunteers? Do we help people new to our organisations to find their feet, settle in and feel at home? Or do we just drop them in at the deep end, let them get on with it and then get frustrated when they don’t do what we want them to?


So there you have it, my thoughts on what volunteer managers can learn from dating websites. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts, preferably about what leaders of volunteers can learn, how have you dealt with these issues, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’m not single anymore and no, I didn’t find my now wife online.