A couple of years ago, an elderly volunteer (let’s call her Mary) left CHAS, after twenty years of involvement with the charity. Mary’s health had declined and in spite of support being put in place to enable her to volunteer for as long as possible, she felt that it was the right time for her to retire. And rightly so. We thanked her and as a team, we celebrated all the amazing work she had done for the charity.
Mary had no family and CHAS was her social life, providing her with friends, structure, routine and a sense of purpose. She was part of our team, our cause. I felt saddened about the prospect of this connection being lost when Mary retired from her role. Recent research has evidenced the strong correlation between volunteering and improved health and wellbeing. Volunteering is proven to reduce social isolation and loneliness, and to improve both physical and mental health – something I’ve witnessed time and time again at CHAS.
I’d often wondered what had become of volunteers, like Mary, whose time had come to step down after many years of involvement with a charity. I was uncomfortable with the prospect of communication being cut and a volunteer feeling distanced from the charity that they devoted part of their life to. When you volunteer, you invest yourself in a cause. That emotional investment doesn’t disappear overnight.
We were also facing the same challenges with our younger volunteers. Many leave CHAS to relocate for university and a large number of them go on to study nursing and medicine. We know that in Scotland, we are facing a shortage of paediatric palliative care professionals. These former CHAS volunteers will go on to staff our hospitals, GP surgeries and perhaps even join the medical and nursing teams at CHAS in years to come. If we could stay connected with these people in some way, we could keep them informed about CHAS, throughout their time at university and beyond. Early volunteering experiences are powerful and stay with people for life. These volunteers may end up not just as future staff but could be future legators, donors, corporate partners and in time, volunteers again. But more than that, they will talk about CHAS – they will know who we are and be up to date with how the charity is evolving.
I was thoughtful of what we could do at CHAS to keep the lines of communication open and nurture those deep connections with volunteers past and present. This is where the idea for CHAS Connect was born. By joining CHAS Connect, our new network/alumni for leavers, employees and volunteers have the chance to remain part of the CHAS Community once they have left the organisation. This allows us to stay connected with the committed, talented people who have shaped CHAS over the years – a no brainer as we strive to grow awareness of our cause in Scotland.
CHAS’s partnership with The Lens (a charity that supports organisations in Scotland to develop intrapreneurial thinking) provided the perfect platform for me to develop this thinking. After the initial inception, I worked alongside Catherine, a CHAS volunteer, to further progress the idea. The CHAS Lens Final took place in December 2018 and Catherine and I were lucky enough to be able to pitch our idea, Dragon’s Den style, to an audience and panel of judges. Nerve-wracking? Absolutely! It was all worth it though and we were successful in securing £2,500 to realise our ambition.
We hit the ground running! We quickly realised we required communications and marketing support so we recruited two volunteers, Mairi and Kirsty, who had the experience to bring our ideas to life. We worked together to establish the network, create a joining process, design a membership pack and craft the first newsletter. All volunteers and employees who leave CHAS are invited to join the network, become part of the alumni essentially. New members receive a welcome pack with a letter from the CEO and Chair of the Board, consent form (we are storing members’ details on our database), freepost envelope, pen, pin badge and copy of the latest newsletter. Once they are members they receive a bi-annual newsletter with updates about the charity. Many of our former volunteers and employees are financial supporters of CHAS so we worked collaboratively to ensure that the newsletter complements supporter mail, both in content and timing.
In August 2019 we launched CHAS Connect. We contacted leavers from the last year to see if any of them would like to join and 50% of them were keen so we sent them membership packs. Three weeks after we launched we had our first 20 members. Our research showed us that for the community to be a success, it needs to grow organically and be driven by members so we’re not being too prescriptive about how it will develop at this stage. It’s a bit of a learning process. We’re hopeful that a couple of social/networking events will be hosted next year and in order to keep membership high, we will promote the network to current employees and volunteers so that they are aware of the network and feel inclined to sign up when they leave the charity.
As leaders of volunteers, we focus much of our time on recruitment, support, retention and engagement but very rarely do we invest time in the exit stage of the volunteer experience. We might look at why people are leaving and gather feedback from exit interviews in order to inform retention strategies. However, do we have a role to play in supporting people to stay connected with our organisations after they have left? We nurture relationships with donors of money throughout their lives. Should we not do the same for donors of time, especially when they are stepping back from volunteering for reasons beyond their control? If you ask us, absolutely!
Volunteers outnumber staff in CHAS three to one. Two thirds of the charity’s volunteers have made financial gifts to CHAS. Last year our volunteers were so motivated that they donated over 60,000 hours of their precious time to our charity. As these volunteers move on to other things, it’s critical that we grow and nurture the deep emotional connection that these passionate ambassadors have for CHAS. These are the people that will ultimately help us achieve our ambition of reaching each and every child and family in Scotland that needs our help.