I’ve been working in volunteer leadership and management for almost 24 years. That’s more than half of my life spent in the service of volunteers and those who organise them. It’s not just a series of jobs but a career, a vocation.
Over the last few months I’ve been working with Adrian Murtagh of Just Smart Thinking, a fellow traveller – himself an experienced volunteering professional of over 20 years, a qualified nurse, counsellor and life coach – exploring how we can work together to develop new opportunities and ideas.
We both love seeing the light bulbs go on as people gain new insights into how to involve volunteers to change the world, one donated minute at a time.
We both love seeing lives changed, the lives of volunteers and those they serve.
Volunteering is good for you
Studies abound on the benefits volunteers get from helping others. Just a quick Google search will reveal that volunteering will help you get a job, fight loneliness, make you live longer, make you happier, improve physical and mental health, stave off depression, fight the effects of dementia, and even give you a better sex life!
Is volunteer management good for you?
What you won’t find are studies about the health and wellbeing benefits people get from managing volunteers. You won’t find studies around the benefits strong self-resilience can bring to you in the management role – improving your quality of life inside and outside of the work environment. Adrian often talks of the powerful me, we and us concept, but what happens when the “me” is not being supported, guided or ignored?
You see, leading and managing volunteers is great. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, we don’t talk about it. We’re often so focused on our volunteers that we don’t take the time to focus on ourselves. You won’t find many (any?) conference workshops dedicated to helping Volunteer Managers look after themselves. Nor will you easily discover hints and tips to resiliently deal with the challenges that arise in the human-focused systems and environments in which we work and live.
All our literature, all our training courses, all our conferences: they all focus on how we can support others. Very few tackle the subject of looking after ourselves.
Looking after number one is a bit selfish though, isn’t it?
Adrian and I don’t believe so. We work in a sector, a profession, that is about altruism, service, putting others first, helping people. All the more reason to make sure we are OK because our work matters. It really matters. If we’re not on our A-game that can have serious consequences for others. If we don’t look after number one, how can we effectively look after everyone else?
Through our wealth of knowledge and years of experience, Adrian and I believe it’s time this changed.
Help us to help you
We are exploring how we can help leaders and manager of volunteers – you! – to look after number one, how to take care of your own wellbeing so you can better support your volunteers.
As an incentive to take part were giving away five copies of my book, co-written with Susan J Ellis, From The Top Down. Simply fill in your name and contact details at the end of the survey (this is optional) and we’ll enter you into the draw (UK respondents only).
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
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.
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.
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.
I started drafting this article shortly after reading the report but have held off publishing it until now to allow myself to calm down and reflect on the contents. You see my initial response was mix of anger, disappointment and frustration. Whilst there is some good in the report, much of it is weak and, frankly, poor. So here, tempered by a few days of reflection and re-writing, are my top nine reasons (in no order of importance) for feeling so disappointed by the report.
1 – No mention of family volunteering
Whilst it speaks about the role of government and education providers in encouraging young people to embrace volunteering, the report barely mentions the importance of families. Family volunteering is recognised as great way to instil values of service and volunteerism in young people, yet it doesn’t even warrant a mention. Yet again, an initiative to explore engaging more young people in volunteering places all responsibility on the state.
2 – The role of National Citizens Service (NCS)
I am concerned that the Holiday report places too much emphasis on NCS as a framework for developing full-time volunteering. I worry about the independence of a report commissioned by government that seeks to strengthen the argument for a government scheme, funded in excess of £1billion, and with big questions still to be answered about its efficacy. Whilst I see the sense in not creating yet another new organisation, questions still remain about the effectiveness and value for money of NCS. For example:
A key NCS volunteering metric is that eight million hours of volunteer time have been given. However, nothing is said about the impact that time had and the difference it made to young people and their communities.
Throughout the report there are calls for further evidence before action is taken. Yet this demand for evidence weakens significantly when it comes to discussion as to whether the quality of a volunteer experience is more important than how many people engage in volunteering, and how such time they give.
“Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity. However, intuitively, the more a young person engages in voluntary activity, the greater the impact will be – although we need more research to substantiate this belief.”
Basic common sense would argue that if the quality of the experience is not good then it doesn’t matter how many people participate, they will not gain from it as much as they would if they had a great experience. Evidence surely isn’t needed to substantiate this?
Furthermore, I noticed in the call for evidence responses on page fourteen of the report (“What impact does full time social action / volunteering have on young people and providers in comparison to part time social action / volunteering?”) that the arguments for full-time volunteering over part-time volunteering relate to how well designed volunteer roles are (quality) and not how long people spend doing them (quantity).
4 – A missed opportunity regarding volunteering infrastructure
Page six of the report briefly notes the the inadequacy of infrastructure support to help young people engage in volunteering.
Since 2010 funding for volunteering infrastructure in England has been slashed, resulting in the closure of many local Volunteer Centres and, in many, cases a reduced service from those that remain.
It would have been good for an independent report such as this to acknowledge that the impacts of austerity on volunteering infrastructure have had, and will continue to have, long-term and significant effects on support for young people to engage in part- or full-time volunteering.
5 – Recommendation two – is there an echo in here?
“To ensure that social action is accessible to all, we recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions supports Job Coaches, to proactively inform young people who are Universal Credit claimants of their right to reduce their job-seeking hours up to 50 percent to participate in voluntary activities. We also favour extending this right to all benefit claimants and ask that the crucial role of volunteering is better recognised by this department. The Department for Work and Pensions should explore this and report back on implementation plans within 12 months.”
Different words may have been used on this occasion but that’s the same recommendation countless reports have made to the Department for Work and Pensions and it’s predecessors over the last 20 years. Still nothing has changed.
Reading the DWP ‘ statement in the report – which I can only assume is included to show they are responsive – I am struck by their failure to acknowledge that the rules aren’t the problem, it is how individual advisers interpret them. Doing what we have always done will get what we have always got. New thinking is needed to get DWP to change and I see no evidence of that here.
6 – Recommendation four – I’m sorry, what?!
“…the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should lead an activity with NNVIA, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers and V-Inspired to develop non-mandatory guidelines specific to 16-25 year olds with support and encouragement from government. This could include of ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses, setting realistic targets, good recruitment and safeguarding processes and reiterating that completion of social action programmes does not guarantee employment. Furthermore, they should develop a plan that encourages charities to operate transparently with young people, and encourage charities to provide better information, advice, guidance and support to young people during their social action journey.”
Whatever this ill defined activity is, this kind of work has been ongoing since Millennium Volunteers was conceived in the late 1990s. Exhibit one, the 1996 book pictured below from the National Centre for Volunteering, based on a year-long research project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
I can’t help but think that energy directed towards this recommendation will reinvent wheels. Much better would have been a focus on helping Volunteer Managers to create relevant and engaging full-time volunteering opportunities and support them in challenging the institutional barriers many would face in doing this e.g. paid staff feeling threatened that full-time volunteers will take their jobs.
Recommendation four demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding about volunteering and volunteer management, not surprising given no leaders of volunteers were on the inquiry panel.
7 – Recommendation eight – know your history
I was astounded to read this in recommendation eight of the report:
“…FTSA programmes are still in their infancy in the UK…”
Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters, has been running full-time volunteering programmes since 1962. Something fifty-six years old is hardly in its infancy!
8 – What about the clients?
The report talks extensively about the benefits of full-time volunteering to the volunteers and the organisations that involve them. Not once does it mention any benefit to the clients and beneficiaries of the organisations people volunteer for.
In fact, the only time this ever gets a mention is a point made (I assume by a young person) in the consultation with young people (page 17) which says:
“…full time social action opportunities need to have greater impact, led and developed by the communities they work within.”
Cliched it may be, but volunteers want to make a difference to the lives of others. Missing this element from the discussion of full-time volunteering is a significant omission.
9 – What’s in a word?
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted I have talked throughout this article about volunteering, not social action. That’s because I am a firm believer that we do not need a new word for volunteering. What we need is to reframe volunteering so it is more relevant for people.
Page fifteen of the report states:
“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”
In other words, whilst they may of heard of it half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem?
Furthermore, on the same page, social action is shown as distinct from volunteering by this statement:
“Social action is distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights. It is often personal to each young person, and that is the biggest motivating factor to getting involved.”
Do volunteers have a place monitoring and securing the UK border? That is the question raised by a new idea under consideration by the UK Government – “Border Force Special Volunteers”.
Border force volunteers?
According to the BBC, who reported this story on 31 December 2017, there are concerns about the UK Border Force’s capacity to cover smaller ports and entry places into the country. An assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, published in July 2017, looked at 62 normally unmanned ports on the east coast and found that Border Force officers had not visited 27 of the sites between April 2015 to June 2016.The report also revealed the number of clandestine migrants detected at the ports had almost doubled in 12 months.
One option under consideration to plug this gap is a scheme similar to the Special Constables, often volunteers who work for Police Forces throughout the UK. The Home Office has said that if it was to introduce volunteers, they would be used to “bolster” Border Force staffing levels and would not be used by Immigration Enforcement.
“Urge great caution before seeking to adopt a model like that used by the police, with special constables. Border security is a skilled job, which takes many years of training.”
There are two things that concern me about this idea which, to stress again, is currently under consideration and not due for immediate implementation.
My first concern
First, I find Mr Elphicke’s remarks astoundingly insulting to volunteers. As a politician, volunteers are essential to Mr Elphicke’s work. They are the ones who knock on doors and beat the streets campaigning for him at election time. He represents a constituency where there is a strong culture of volunteering, where people give of their time to help others and strengthen the community.
Yet Mr Elphicke chooses to caricature volunteers as bumbling, incompetents like those in Dad’s Army. He further suggests that border security is a skilled role and so incompatible with the model used in the Special Constabulary.
I assume the police would disagree with Mr Elphicke’s inference that being a Special Constable is an unskilled role. A quick look at the Kent Police website (Mr Eplhicke’s constituency is in Kent) makes it clear that Specials in the county have to undergo training lasting six to eight months, including 12 days on operational attachments and eight training modules, four of which are two-day weekend sessions. This hardly implies an unskilled role.
My second concern
My second concern is the thinking that developed this idea in the first place. This idea smacks of a ‘volunteers are free / cheap’ mindset.
I’m all for volunteers being involved in significant roles in society. The extent of volunteer involvement in public services in the UK is always vastly underestimated and without volunteer effort many aspects of daily life in the country – such as education, health and social care, coastguard and criminal justice – simply wouldn’t operate in the same way.
Volunteers don’t always complement and supplement paid staff, they can do things paid staff cannot. But I see no evidence of this in the Home Office’s thinking, at least as far as the story about the UK Border Force has been reported. I see no evidence of anyone exploring why volunteers would be the best way to meet the need identified in the July assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Here are just two questions I’d like an answer to:
What is it that volunteers would bring to these roles that paid staff can’t?
If the money was there, would paid staff be hired rather than volunteers?
What this story illustrates is a likely lack of intelligent thought behind why volunteers should be involved in roles such as the proposed Border Force teams. Perhaps the Home Office should engage some expert support on volunteering to help them think this through? I wonder who might be able to help 😉
The story also highlights the ignorance of an elected official who most likely spouts platitudes about volunteering in his constituency and his parliamentary work but reveals his apparent ignorance in his remarks on this matter. I suggest Mr Elphicke spends some time with volunteers in his constituency to further his education about the importance of their work to this country.
“IVS is running the campaign, with a budget of £20,000. The campaign aims to combat the decline in volunteering after figures published last year by the Office for National Statistics that show that volunteering levels have declined by 15 percent over a decade.”
A number of high profile charities are supporting the pledge, including Oxfam, Royal Voluntary Service, PDSA, Leonard Cheshire, Volunteer Scotland and Sense Scotland. Knowing these organisations, I am sure the pledge is well intentioned – they would not support it otherwise. But it isn’t what we need if we want to see a transformation of volunteering in 2018.
Here are just two reasons why.
Pledges do not necessarily result in action. The great British public are ever generous with their time and money, but both of those resources are harder and harder to spare. So, when asked to consider volunteering, many people say yes and then struggle to turn their good intentions into action.In the coming weeks we will no doubt hear how many people have responded to this pledge and, on one level, that will be a good thing. But past experience teaches that the number of those who actually go on and give their time will be far lower.
Which brings me to my second point…
Asking people to give time isn’t the answer. Many already do, we are a generous nation with volunteering written into the fabric of our society, however invisible that may be on a day-to-day basis. What we need is a shift in the attitude and approach of Volunteer Involving Organisations.A shift that doesn’t blame the public for not volunteering, recognising instead that people don’t want to give some of their precious time to do what so many organisations are offering.A shift which recognises the experience people have and what they achieve is more important than how many people volunteer and how many hours are given.
A shift that sees volunteer involving organisations creating new, different roles that meet the availabilities, interests, skills and passions of today’s volunteers.
A shift that sees proper investment in volunteer engagement, not merely platitudes and lip-service from sector leaders, politicians and funders.
In conclusion, I commend IVS and their partners for giving volunteering some attention as 2018 gets underway, but call on everyone in the sector to use this year to recognise that change will not come from campaigns like this.
If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.
If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation change to meet the demands of 21st Century volunteers then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.
Since setting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 I have been writing and speaking about the need for senior managers to take volunteering seriously as a strategic priority. Despite six years of effort it seems little has changed.
Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have recently published a new study, “Charities Taking Charge”. They surveyed 300 charity leaders, of whom only 51% thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!). 16% thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
Furthermore, when asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”. By contrast, 31% chose funding and 23% public profile.
What it is going to take for those at the top of non-profits to pay proper attention to the strategic role of volunteering in delivering organisational missions? When will the focus on money as the only resource at their disposal change, opening minds to the full range and wealth of community resources available to change the world for the better?
Campaigning is now well underway for the UK General Election on 8 June. NCVO have wasted no time in issuing their election manifesto, “Charities and volunteering make Britain great”, and I want to quickly look at four things I was pleased to see them highlight.
1/ An access to volunteering fund
Back when I worked for Volunteering England (2005-2011) we were funded by the Office of Civil Society to pilot an Access to Volunteering Scheme. This provided funding to help organisations meet the costs of opening up their volunteering opportunities to people with disabilities.
Sadly the change of government in 2010 killed off the short-lived pilot. Calls were made for it’s revival ahead of the 2015 general election but went unheeded. So I’m really please to see NCVO officially calling for Access to Volunteering to return.
“Providing a support fund to address barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities. This could make volunteering accessible to more people, helping with costs such as travel or adaptations to buildings or equipment.”
2/ Strengthening volunteer development and management
NCVO have really been upping their game on volunteering over the past few months, starting with Sir Stuart’s new year letter to the sector. These efforts have built upon the excellent work of the small volunteering team at NCVO over recent years, dedicated individuals who have worked hard to support volunteerism.
I am really pleased to see this work continue in the manifesto with a call to strengthen volunteer management. For too long, volunteer management and it’s role in enabling effective and rewarding volunteering experiences has been low profile in civil society’s calls for support from politicians. Putting it front and centre in the NCVO manifesto is a welcome step towards changing this.
“Strengthening volunteer development and management, to ensure volunteers have the right skills and support to make a bigger difference, and a rewarding experience.”
3/ Make it easier for charities and volunteers to support our public services
Volunteering in public services isn’t new. Neither are the controversial issues raised, such as job substitution, the role of the state and the responsibilities of individual citizens.
With public services changing, not least because of the tremendous affects of austerity, it is right that we have a grown up debate about the role of charities and volunteers in public service delivery.
Kudos then to NCVO for being brave enough to put this in their manifesto, emphasising the positive and constructive role volunteers can play in the NHS, social care, emergency services and other services.
My only note of caution comes with their suggestion that volunteer numbers could be increased in public services. More volunteers aren’t always the answer.
“(NCVO would like to ask) services such as the NHS to set targets for the management and development of volunteering. These would aim to increase volunteer numbers, involve volunteers in a wider range of roles, and improve the experience and impact of volunteers.”
Under the heading of “Give everybody a stake in post-Brexit Britain” NCVO rightly highlight the barriers to non-Brits who wish to volunteer whilst in our country.
For those from outside the EU this requires specific permission to volunteer within their visa’s and poorly phrased limitations on those holding student visas. For EU citizens no restrictions exist, but this will surely change after Brexit in March 2019.
NCVO’s call for simple and effective visa requirements, or a visa waiver programme, are to be applauded, as is their request for the next government to quickly resolve the right to stay of EU citizens.
People from the EU have enriched our culture, society and economy. Along with their families, they work and volunteer in our public services, including for charities. We think it right that they should continue to have a stake in the future of country.
So there you have it, my four highlights from NCVO’s 2017 general election manifesto. What do you think? Do you agree with me? Do you think NCVO missed anything? Do you disagree with their manifesto requests? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.