Look Back to Look Ahead

FeaturedLook Back to Look Ahead

A few words of introduction

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.

Government

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.

Volunteer Managers

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.

That would be unforgivable.

Three things I said to look for in 2017 and what happened

Three things I said to look for in 2017 and what happened

In January last year I wrote a blog post sharing my thoughts on three things to look for in UK volunteering in 2017. They were:

  1. The review of the flagship National Citizens Service (NCS) scheme
  2. A predicted boom in online volunteering
  3. The Westminster government review into full-time social action (aka volunteering)

So, what happened?


NCS review

The review, conducted by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), reported in March 2017 and did not make comfortable reading. As Civil Society reported:

“An influential committee of MPs has published a highly critical report into the National Citizen Service, and its chair has called on government to carry out a fundamental review before spending any money on the programme.”

The full PAC report can be accessed here. Whilst they acknowledge progress since NCS started in 2011, the committee found that:

  • Work is required if National Citizen Service is to become a sustainable investment in young people.
  • The programme “may no longer be justifiable” if it is unable to meet its targets for increasing the number of participants, or achieve its long-term societal aims – both at a cheaper cost per head – noting that the NCS Trust and DCMS cannot justify the “seemingly high” cost per participant.
  • The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), which has overall responsibility for NCS, lacks the data to measure long-term outcomes of the programme or understand what works.
  • The NCS Trust paid providers some £10 million in 2016 for places that were not filled and expresses disappointment at the Trust’s “relaxed attitude about the non-recovery of these funds”.
  • There were concerns about the transparency and governance of the Trust, and finds it is “unclear” whether the Trust has the skills and experience necessary to oversee growth of the NCS programme.

Michael Lynas, Chief Executive of the NCS Trust was reported in Civil Society as saying:

“We are considering all the recommendations in this report carefully and will work closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and our other partners to deliver them and make NCS a normal part of growing up for young people in our country.”

Despite all this NCS continues apace and received Royal Charter status during the year. I wonder if any other body receiving over £1billion of public money would get away as lightly as NCS seems to have done last year?

(NB – in the interests of fairness it should be noted that coverage of a recent report into the value for money of NCS has suggested the scheme is moving in a positive direction).

https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/ncs-evaluation-shows-value-for-money-greater-than-cost.html?utm_source=Civil+Society+News+List&utm_campaign=fa2a2453eb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_26f393b813-fa2a2453eb-86512773


A boom in online volunteering?

Towards the end for 2016, Vicki Sellick, Director of Nesta’s innovation lab, wrote:

”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.”

Well, I have seen no evidence that online and microvolunteering has boomed this year. Personally, I’ve come across just as many volunteer managers in 2017 who face significant challenges in developing their volunteering offers to fit microvolunteering models or embrace online technologies.

As long as organisations continue to underinvest in volunteer engagement this will continue. Leaders of volunteers are largely enthusiastic about utilising technology to innovate and develop the work of volunteers. The problem is they consistently come up against boards and senior managers who don’t understand the modern realities of volunteering and fail to resource this essential work adequately. That, coupled with many organisations practising risk avoidance as they live in fear of technologies they don’t understand, is causing much frustration amongst leaders of volunteers.

All that said, I’d be happy to stand corrected if independent data can be produced to show that online volunteering has boomed in 2017. I think I’ll be waiting for a while though as our most reliable volunteer data, The Community Life Survey, changed methodology recently and so is no longer trackable with data produced since 2001. That and it never asked specifically about online volunteering anyway!


Review into full-time social action

This review, much touted at the start of 2017, finally got underway in September after delays resulting from the Prime Minister calling June’s snap general election.

The call for evidence closed on 13 October and the review panel are analysing the feedback they received. I would anticipate a final report sometime in early 2018.

Until then, I commend to you NCVO’s thoughtful responseto the review’s call for evidence. This sums up many of my own thoughts about the review and I wait with interest to see what recommendations will result from the panels work.


So, there you have it. Three interesting issues during 2017 and what actually happened (or didn’t). What were your volunteering highlights of 2017 and what are you looking forward to in 2018? Share your thoughts below.

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.