What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“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. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

The 2018 Volunteer Management Progress Report (VMPR) is full of insights about volunteer leadership and management.

Now in its third year, the VMPR is the only tool that explores global trends and issues that leaders and managers of volunteers face.

Key findings

The four most striking findings from the 2018 report are:

  1. The satisfaction of Volunteer Managers and their intent to stay in the profession directly relates to how engaged their co-workers are in supporting volunteer engagement.
  2. Those who lead and manage volunteers are spending less time doing so, often because they have other responsibilities beyond their volunteer management duties.
  3. Almost 10% of respondents have no budget for volunteer management and 21% don’t know if they have such a budget!
  4. Diversity is an issue, both amongst those who lead and manage volunteers and amongst volunteers.

”Volunteer Retention is a Challenge on the Rise – Anecdotally, leaders of volunteers increasingly note the challenge of maintaining volunteer involvement over longer periods of time and point out that volunteers increasingly appear to prefer short-term, episodic assignments.”

Challenges

According to the report, the top five challenges leaders of volunteers face are:

  1. Recruitment: Finding enough volunteers & the right volunteers for specific roles
  2. Respect and “Buy-In”: Lack of executive support /understanding & co-worker resistance to volunteer involvement
  3. Retention: Fulfilling commitments to service & volunteers “aging out”
  4. Roles & Matching: Designing impactful roles & meeting volunteer interests
  5. Time: Splitting time between competing priorities & not enough paid staff

If the findings and challenges from VMPR 2018 ring true for you then we can help.

How we can help you

Since 2011, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd have been engaging and inspiring people to bring about change, delivering expert support that is passionate about the potential of people. Our consultancy and training services are aimed at helping you give people a great volunteer experience, make the most of the valuable time they give you and, above all, achieve your goals.

We have training courses and workshops directly related to the top challenges from VMPR 2018. Here are just five examples:

  1. ‘Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers’ will help you recruit and retain volunteers in our ever-changing world
  2. ‘From The Top Down for Volunteer Managers’ will help you influence peers and senior managers to lobby effectively for volunteer engagement
  3. ’Developing Meaningful Roles For Volunteers’ will help you create great volunteer roles that will attract and keep volunteers
  4. ‘Time and Productivity Management for Volunteer Managers’ will help you manage yourself and your work for maximum impact
  5. ‘Measuring Volunteering’ will help you build a case for more support as well as provide more meaningful recognition to your volunteers

Learn more and get in touch

For more details download a copy of our training information, testimonials and rates or get in touch to discuss your needs and how we can help through our consulting services. We’d love to hear from you and help you reach even greater success in delivering roles that make a difference for your volunteers, your organisation and it’s clients.

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.