Building bridges – bringing together volunteer managers and voluntary sector researchers

Ruth Leonard, Chair of AVM, reflects on last week’s Building Bridges event.

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Angela Ellis-Paine (left) and Ruth Leonard (right)

On the last day of volunteers’ week 2018 I co-chaired with Angela Ellis Paine and Chris Wade, a long overdue day bringing together volunteer managers and voluntary sector researchers to better understand each others’ needs. A joint initiative between AVM, VSSM and NNVIA and kindly hosted by NCVO the day was a structured networking event, informed and challenged by recognised experts in either field – but with the understanding that we are all experts and the answer lies within the group.

After getting to know each other on our tables – and coming up with additions to the volunteers’ week playlist we started looking at what the current state of volunteering research was; hearing from 4 voluntary sector researchers: Howard Davies, Justin Davis-Smith, Margaret Harris and John Mohan.

It was clear that there was already a lot known on the who, why, what and where of volunteering – but less research on the ‘how’; including the role that volunteer management plays in the process. One of the areas which Justin identified as being not researched was that of when volunteering was not appropriate; such as the balance between state and the voluntary movement and where volunteering can’t deliver public benefits.

Perfectly exemplifying the spirit of the day Margaret emphasised that there needed to be collaboration and co-production between researchers and practitioners; as she put it researchers should “avoid binary approaches” and that just as volunteering shows that nothing brings people together as much as sharing problems together research needed to be developed through sharing collaboratively in order to work on projects where we can solve problems together. One of my favourite quotes from her is there is “nothing so practical as a good theory”.

After hearing from our speakers we discussed the issues raised as a group and some of our shared responses included that there was good knowledge in existence but a lot of it was out of date, and from other countries, and it was a challenge to know how we could collect information to update it, especially as there was little investment.

There was also interest in the effects of volunteer management – and managers – on the impact of volunteering and discussion on increasing diversity; including the role of current volunteers in welcoming people from different groups. Thinking about the future and how voluntary organisations didn’t seem to making changes at scale to prepare for it; we felt that it would be useful to have research which would help inform that so as a sector we could know how to remodel the ways we operate in order to engage and remain relevant to those who give their time. It was felt that it would be useful to reach out to other researchers looking at areas that weren’t specifically about the voluntary sector and piggyback on some of that.

The next session was to hear from ‘the practitioners’ and understand to what extent volunteer managers and their organisations engaged with volunteering research. We heard from AVM’s very own Rachael Bayley, Chris Reed, Tiger de Souza and Helen Timbrell.

A really useful base to start the conversation was Rachael’s honest discussion about how the busy volunteer manager who is not based in the theoretical background and doesn’t have time to wade through pages of words could be best supported to access the valuable nuggets of information. This resonated across the audience – whilst those who chose to attend this day were obviously interested in engaging and understanding the latest research it wasn’t very easy to access the relevant information to inform practice.

Tiger trailed an exciting piece of research which National Trust is carrying out on looking at the future and how volunteer managers and organisations need to equip themselves to align to themselves to where we shall be. I’m really pleased that Tiger will be one of our key note speakers at the AVM conference on 18th October, where he shall tell us more about the findings but the initial themes which they are uncovering are: citizenship, automation, nurture and grow, connection, marginalised, control and identity.

Helen challenged us all about the arbitrary split of researchers and volunteer managers – as she succinctly pointed out it – ‘we can all be researchers and all be practitioners’ and I think this emphasised one of the key take aways from the day; we need to be working together more and breaking down these divisions between us in order to answer the questions we want answering about volunteering.

Our table conversations then concentrated on how volunteer managers engaged with research and what barriers there might be to doing so. One of the main reasons to engage with research seemed to be to check that volunteering programme works for beneficiaries and service users, though it was also reflected from a couple of tables that there was a sense of research only happening when there was a crisis. Research was also used to influence upwards or when writing strategy. It was felt that it would be easier for volunteer managers to engage with research if it was available in the right, accessible format though there was also a recognition that as practitioners we see what’s well publicised, visible, easy to digest – we won’t necessarily see a journal paper which contradicts those findings. There was a request to broker link between voluntary organisations which had similar research needs.

Throughout the day we collected thoughts on what questions about volunteering did we want answering; these broke down into 6 themes: volunteer management; volunteers; alternative forms of volunteering; government and infrastructure; impact and the future.  We chose groups based on out interest and started to explore some of the specific areas which would be useful in 3 of them

Volunteer Management

  • Is a lack of a defined career pathway for volunteer managers a problem – for individuals, organisations, volunteers’ experience?
  • Where does volunteering best sit within an organisation to be most effective?
  • What does a good structure which enables volunteering to thrive look like?

Impact

  • Value of gift of time because of not being paid
  • Value of closeness to community – does localism have an impact
  • Focus on experience of beneficiaries – including does their perception of volunteering have an effect

Alternative forms of volunteering

  • Micro volunteering – what’s the evidence around this
  • How do we connect formal and informal volunteering
  • Family friendly volunteering and childcare

Karl Wilding summarised the day by emphasising that dialogue was good and encouraging us to think about what the tools might be in enabling this. He emphasised that we know an awful lot, but the way we’re sharing just isn’t working and that this day was a start to fixing what wasn’t working in the feedback loop between researchers and volunteer managers.  He was clear that this was on both sides, and that volunteer managers needed to be more vocal collectively about what was needed and stop re-inventing the wheel. He encouraged us to think about where research would help us in understanding change and give us insight into how to make decisions; such as transitioning from a civic core model to one of social action.

We all jointly needed to get better at communicating just what this stuff was about to ordinary people – what is the language which people use to describe what they are doing?

Our closing conversation focussed on next steps –  what did the room want to do to follow on from this day?

  • More opportunities to come together in different ways – there has been a lack of interaction between voluntary organisations and academia coming together and AVM, VSSN and NNVIA were thanked at creating this opportunity
  • Repository for people to contact regarding research/commissioning – it was recognised that this could already exist but if so there needed to be improved communication about it
  • NCVO offered to bring together a consortium to hold a Seminar of diversity of volunteering; which would include exploring where current volunteers themselves may be creating an unwelcoming environment
  • In NCVO’s centenary year they could create a regular digest of Government interventions – Voluntary Action Notes
  • AVM to convene a way to consider research priorities for volunteer managers which could be shared to academics via VSSN

It was agreed that Angela, Chris and I would meet to discuss the next steps but it was clear there was an overwhelming desire to continue to build the bridge and AVM, VSSN and NNVIA were committed to ensuring that happened.

Reading list

Rachael Bayley, AVM Board member, shared the following reading list at the event.

The New Alchemy

UK research and a major report on volunteering published in 2015. This report tracks the changes of many things in the world of volunteering, charities and the wider economic, social and political climate and compares from 2005 to 2015.  The report is based on surveying over 500 volunteer managers and carrying out more than 20 in-depth interviews. Written by: NFP Synergy

http://nfpsynergy.net/free-report/new-alchemy

21st Century Volunteer

UK research about volunteer management and volunteering, published in 2005.  This report shows how the current volunteering environment is changing. In particular, it disseminates the ways in which volunteer management will need to develop in order to accommodate the changing external environment. The original report is great and makes valuable points.  It was written in 2005 and the authors in 2015 released a new edition (above).  It draws challenging and though provoking links between the fundraising and the volunteering function in an organisation.  Written by: NFP Synergy and commissioned by the Scout Association

http://nfpsynergy.net/21st-century-volunteer

Bridging The Gap report and subsequent papers

How can we bridge the gap between what Canadians are looking for in volunteering today and how organizations are engaging volunteers? A pan-Canadian research study. The 2010 research gathered practical information for use by volunteer organizations to attract and retain skilled, dedicated volunteers among four specific demographic groups: youth, families, boomers and employer-supported volunteers.  The report was updated with Bridging the Gap II in 2013.  There are also fact sheets, presentations and different version of the report available.

Written by: Volunteer Canada, in partnership with Manulife Financial, Carleton University Centre for Voluntary Sector Research & Development and Harris/Decima

http://volunteer.ca/content/bridging-gap

http://volunteer.ca/content/bridging-gap-summary-report

Pathways through Participation – What creates and sustains active citizens?

Pathways through Participation is a research project that aimed to improve our understanding of how and why people participate, how their involvement changes over time, and what pathways, exist between different activities. The project ran from 2009 to 2011 in the UK.

Written by: National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in partnership with the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) and Involve

http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk

http://www.pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2011/09/Pathways-Through-Participation-final-report_Final_20110913.pdf

Future Focus – What will our volunteers be like in five years time?

Published in 2009 this examines how volunteers are changing – who they are, what they do and what they expect – and suggests ways to use this information to retain, recruit and manage volunteers successfully.  Published as part of the Future Focus series, a segment of the stats are England only and some are UK wide.

Written by: The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in partnership with the Charities Evaluation Services (CES).

https://www.ncvo.org.uk/

http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/uploadedFiles/NCVO/Publications/Publications_Catalogue/Quality/FF2.pdf

The New Breed – Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century volunteer

Not a report but a great book, available on Amazon.  The authors are father and son and based in the USA. They also have a website with more volunteering information.  A really good text book on volunteer management best practice.  Written by Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee.

http://www.volunteerpower.com

London Volunteer Health Check: all fit for 2012?

The study was commissioned with the aim to provide evidence on the nature of volunteering in London, the provision of support for volunteers and the capacity of the local volunteering infrastructure, ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. The report, published in 2009, also includes a view on the state of volunteer management in London.

Written by: Institute for Volunteering Research with Greater London Volunteering and commissioned by the London Development Agency.

http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/london-volunteer-health-check-all-fit-for-2012

http://www.ivr.org.uk/images/stories/Institute-of-Volunteering-Research/Migrated-Resources/Documents/L/LDA_FINAL_report_08_12_08.pdf

Research Centres

Institute for Volunteering Research

The Institute for Volunteering Research is an initiative of Volunteering England (recently merged with NCVO) in research partnership with Birkbeck, University of London

http://www.ivr.org.uk/

Third Sector Research Centre

TSRC works to enhance our knowledge of the sector through independent and critical research. We aim to better understand the value of the sector and how this can be maximised.  Hosted at Birmingham University.

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/index.aspx

Cabinet Office

The Community Life Survey has been commissioned by the Cabinet Office to track the latest trends and developments across areas that are key to encouraging social action and empowering communities.

http://communitylife.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/index.html

Further reading

Brodie, Cowling & Nissen, (2009). Understanding participation: A literature review. http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/understanding-participation-a-literature-reviewSummarising previous research done across all forms of volunteering to understand:  historical context; motivations; barriers; benefits and activities.

Brodie, E., Hughes, T., Jochum, V., Miller, S., Ockenden, N., & Warburton, D. (2011). Pathways through participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship? Retrieved from http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/Pathways_through_ParticipationTwo year qual study exploring why people get involved and stay involved with volunteering, from the individuals perspective rather than an organisational perspective like previous research.

Crosby, M. & Elliot, M. Volunteer Journey Process stream. Volunteer Management Framework, Version 1.0.

Gaskin, K. (1999), Valuing volunteers in Europe: A comparative study of the volunteer Investment and Value Audit. http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/valuing-volunteers-in-europe Measures the monetary value of volunteers in eight large voluntary organisations in Netherlands, Denmark and England.

Gaskin, K. (2008) The economics of hospice volunteering, http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/the-economics-of-hospice-volunteering -Measures the monetary value of volunteers across three different hospice organisations.

Low, N., Butt, S., Ellis Paine, A. and Davis Smith, J. (2007) Helping Out: A national study of volunteering and charitable giving, http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/helping-out-a-national-survey-of-volunteering-and-charitable-giving -Understanding the motivations behind why people formally volunteer, why they stop volunteering and the relationship between giving time and money.

Nazroo, J., & Matthews, K. (2011). The impact of volunteering on wellbeing in later life. http://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/Uploads/Documents/Reports%20and%20Reviews/the_impact_of_volunteering_on_wellbeing_in_later_life.pdf Compares the wellbeing of older volunteers and older non-volunteers over a two year period.

NCVO (2011). Participation: Trends, facts and figures http://www.ncvo.org.uk/images/documents/policy_and_research/participation/participation_trends_facts_figures.pdfSummarises the trends and demographics of all types of volunteering behaviour.

Paine, A., & Donahue, K. (2008). London volunteering health check: All fit for 2012?

http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/london-volunteer-health-check-all-fit-for-2012 Understand who volunteers in London, what are their motivations and what support they are given, including the infrastructure available.  Multi-method: Secondary analysis of previous research, qual interviews with volunteers and quant analysis of structures currently in place.

Staetsky, L. & Mohan, J. (2011). Individual voluntary participation in the United Kingdom. http://www.bhamlive3.bham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/documents/tsrc/working-papers/working-paper-6.pdf Compares the methological differences in the level of volunteering in the UK reported in a number of studies.

Teasdale, S. (2008) In Good Health, Assessing the impact of volunteering in the NHS, http://www.ivr.org.uk/component/ivr/in-good-health-assessing-the-impact-of-volunteering-in-the-nhs Understanding who volunteers for the NHS, their motivations and the benefits to the organisation and the patients.

TNS BMRB (2013), Giving Time and Money. http://communitylife.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/assets/topic-reports/2012-2013-giving-time-and-money-report.pdf Tracks developments in demographics of formal, informal and social action volunteers, interviewing over 6,000 adults across the UK.

Volunteer Canada, (2012). Bridging the Gap. http://volunteer.ca/content/bridging-gap Understanding Canadian volunteering motivations, needs and benefits by four groups:  youth, family, baby boomers and workplace volunteers.

Volunteer Now (2013). As good as they give: Providing volunteers with the management they deserve.  http://www.volunteernow.co.uk/fs/doc/publications/workbook3-managing-and-motivating-volunteers-2013.pdf

Zurich (2013). http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news/1208600

One thought on “Building bridges – bringing together volunteer managers and voluntary sector researchers

  1. Sounds like a productive meeting. Great!

    Shortly after I read this article I also read this piece on unlearning – https://sivers.org/unlearning. In essence, it says that what we know already may not be what we need to know now, or in the future. I thought about this in the context of the points made above that we know a lot about volunteering already. Does what we know still hold true today? Is it what we need to know?

    I don’t have the answers but it made me pause to reflect so thought I would share it with you all.

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