Risk – learn to love it

Risk – learn to love it

Risk is everywhere. From dawn to dusk we live with risk all around us. Consider – 450 people in the USA die from falling out of their beds each year and more than 1,000 people die every year in the UK after falling down stairs?

How do you respond to that information? Will you now avoid going to bed or using stairs? I doubt it. Instead, armed with that knowledge, you’ll adapt to the risks you face and respond accordingly.

“The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen” – The Oxford English Dictionary definition of risk

Likewise, if you know electricity and water don’t mix then you don’t sit in the bath with an electric fire on the edge of the tub. If you know what a car does when it hits a human body, then you’re likely to wait for the crossing to be clear rather than just wandering into traffic. This is risk management.

Risk avoidance, not management

Yet that isn’t how risk plays out when it comes volunteering. All too often I see organisations practice risk avoidance, not risk management. To continue our examples, they avoid bed, avoid stairs, avoid baths (no wonder these organisations stink!) and avoiding crossing roads, never seeing the possibilities on the other side of the street.

A story from New Zealand

I saw a wonderful – but maddening – illustration of this in New Zealand last year.

A lady I met volunteers with two environmental organisations, located on opposite sides of a road. One organisation is community run, the other is a local government run. In the community organisation, volunteers use all the machinery and equipment (there are no paid staff), but only once they have been properly recruited and trained. In the local government project volunteers are not allowed to use the machines and equipment because it is deemed too risky – only the paid staff can use it. It doesn’t matter if they are trained and qualified to use the kit from the organisation across the road (and many people volunteer for both groups), because they are unpaid their use of the machinery is too much of a risk.

Three lessons this story teaches us

  1. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because they are volunteers. If someone does not get paid it does not mean they are less competent. Pay, and how much someone is paid, is not a determinant of competence.
  2. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because of ignorance about good volunteer management practice. Competent Volunteer Managers recruit the right people for the role, equip them with the training, skills and tools to do the job properly and safely, and regularly check in to make sure everything was going OK. They manage risk.
  3. Organisations miss out on a huge pool of talent, ideas and resources to fulfil their missions if they practice risk avoidance. Not allowing volunteers to do something because there might be a risk is not the same as being cautious and taking steps to minimise that risk.

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

Of course, not every organisation thinks this way, but many do. I passionately believe that if we lead and manage volunteers then need to advocate more forcefully to overcome such ignorance and prejudice towards volunteers.

An example from Australia

Last year I had a workshop participant explain that her organisation wouldn’t let volunteers do a certain role because they can’t get insurance for it. I urged her to go back to the organisation and explain that insurance is not risk management. Insurance provides a pay out if risk management fails.

I urged them to go back and lobby for some proper risk management to take place, asking questions like:

  • How big a risk would it be for a volunteer to do that role?
  • What might happen if things go wrong?
  • How likely is that?
  • What could they do to reduce the likelihood?
  • Are they comfortable with the retained, net risk?

The point being that the organisation could probably secure insurance cover if it could demonstrate good risk management. Not doing so actually revealed a resistance to engaging volunteers – insurance was just the excuse.

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

Looking back history we can see the huge societal changes that have come about because volunteers took a risk. For example, one hundred years ago women in the UK gained the right to vote because many people took huge risks volunteering to fight for that right. Today, volunteers serve in risky situations and save lives doing so – look at lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and volunteer firefighters across the globe, to name just three examples.

We need to learn to love risk, to embrace it as a marker of the potential for the world to be changed.

We need to help our organisation rediscover their pioneering, life changing, world shaking possibilities.

The potential of those who give time to transform the world is too great for us to stay silent.

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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.