Last year a coalition of infrastructure bodies, including AVM, wrote an open letter to senior leaders which we launched at our event on the future of volunteer management during volunteers week. To reflect some of the activity which has happened over the pandemic we have refreshed this letter and are issuing it today as Volunteers Week 2021 comes to an end.
The contribution of people giving their time and sharing their assets within their communities has been a source of positivity and optimism through the pandemic; and we want to ensure that this can be enabled and highlighted as we move forward. Taking the learning from some of the great initiatives – including how to recognise when infrastructure needs to be kept at a minimum – is something which Volunteer Managers are well placed to do, and AVM supports the call to ensure that Leaders of Volunteering have a place at the decision making table within their organisations, to help them become sustainable for the future, through thinking in new ways
Please lets keep this conversation going and use this as an opportunity to genuinely and meaningfully recognise and celebrate what can be achieved through volunteering.
On behalf of AVM, I am saddened to hear of the recent death of the great Susan J. Ellis. The phenomenal support she offered to leaders of volunteering, particularly helping to champion the importance of a properly resourced volunteer management programme led from the top of an organisation, was game changing. Her key success bringing the community together across the world – a powerful way to learn from each other, despite differences in culture and legislation.
I know she acted as a mentor to members of our community, so particular thoughts go out to you, but for everyone who works within the volunteer management field this is a huge loss. It is our role to keep her ambition alive.
AVM Chair Ruth Leonard’s response to NCVO’s ‘Time Well Spent’
There seems to be plenty of research telling us who does what in terms of giving time; but less about the why – and indeed the why not, so NCVO’s latest report ‘Time Well Spent: A National Survey on the Volunteering Experience’ really fills a gap. Beginning to explore the role that volunteer management plays in the overall experience is an exciting start as well!
Empowerment not management
Empowering people to make a difference in their local communities and bring about change using their skills and assets is why I am excited and passionate about volunteer management. Volunteering today is really becoming embedded in thinking about how services are delivered; including within the statutory sector. It is interesting to see within this research some differentiation between which sectors volunteers give their time to – and therefore where we can learn from each other. AVM is an organisation which supports anyone who involves volunteers, from all sectors and disciplines in order to learn, share and connect.
I believe that involving volunteers is so much more than about saving money, and that even if an organisation had all the money necessary to deliver their services they should still want to involve volunteers – because of real benefit they bring. These include:
Engaging with local community: extending an organisation’s reach and relevance
Making a difference to service users: research shows us that people are more likely to believe what they are told by a peer or volunteer than by an employee or professional
Being objective decision makers: which adds credibility to an organisation’s stance.
Specialism and focus
One of the other aspects for me is volunteers’ ability to specialise and focus; but at the same time being able to innovate and experiment. I was interested to see that volunteers themselves don’t necessarily feel that they have the opportunity to be able to do this, with over one in six reporting that they have skills and experience which they’d like to use in volunteering that they’re not currently using.
Whilst this is clearly not a large number it seems statistically worth considering from a volunteer management point of view, so that we can ensure that volunteers are able to give in a meaningful way which also meets their personal needs. People-powered services should be exactly that – powered by people not by systems or processes.
Unpaid work or service – helping people who are ‘less fortunate’
Activism – mutual aid such as self help groups and campaigning
Serious leisure – such as in the arts and culture and sports fields.
I suspect that we are culturally used to viewing people giving their time through the first lens; what we might think of ‘traditional volunteering’, generally limited to predetermined functions and selected for specific tasks; but to do so would mean that we are moving away from people’s motivations and interests and merely valuing the transactional and that which is carried out through an organisation – which I think could be a barrier to those people who come forward because they want to just do something
There is a wide spectrum of reasons for giving time, energy and experience and people do so in many ways – including to a variety of sectors as well as to none. Boundaries are being increasingly blurred between the sectors – state, charities and private – and those who want to do something to make a difference want to do just that; so it is our responsibility to help facilitate that as much as possible.
Bringing groups and organisations together in a whole system response will provide a better, more impactful outcome and also tap into the motivations and assets of the wider community in a way which can make change more sustainable.
Enjoyment should not be underrated
And this is important; one of the things we know about people who choose to give their time is that they want to be involved in something where they can have real impact and make a difference; and this report shows that is important for 90% of those who volunteer – although “I enjoy it” comes out top reason with 93%. Volunteering demographics and expectations are changing – with the older volunteers now coming from the Baby Boomer generation more used to being self-directive and in charge then their traditional, dutiful stalwart parents. In fact this report refers to research about over-committed volunteers feeling overburdened and burnt out.
Younger people are being encouraged to play a more active part in society. Both groups are keen to shape their experiences and are adept at building new services which transform lives because they are rooted in how people really think. To quote the report, we need to be providing opportunities that resonate with people’s own lives and motivations and ensure they can shape the way they get involved. This, I believe is central to ensuring people can make the difference they want to – and which can make the difference to the organisation with which they’re involved.
Volunteer management and volunteer satisfaction
I am, unsurprisingly, particularly interested in the thoughts about how volunteer management affected people’s experience in giving time. It is testament to volunteer management in its broadest sense that satisfaction with volunteering is high, with this research showing that 96% of those currently giving time are fairly or very satisfied but I don’t think we can be too self-congratulatory.
We know that heuristics such as confirmation bias can affect how people respond; and the fact that the research shows that those who have spent longer away from volunteering may be less inclined to return to it does possibly demonstrate this, with the more recently involved they have been the more likely they are to be open to encouragement; so I think it is important that we all consider how we – as a movement – stay in touch with people and keep them engaged and potential opportunities engaging.
And even with this high degree of satisfaction the research shows that over a third (35%) of the volunteer respondents think their volunteering could be better organised and around a quarter (24%) that there is too much bureaucracy. This gives leaders of volunteering something to consider – especially as, the research points out, this is something which came up in the ‘Helping Out’ survey 12 years ago. How do we ensure the necessary and relevant structure without impeding the volunteer journey and experience?
Volunteer management: it’s not HR
One way is to be clearer about where volunteer management is different from HR. Particularly as another concern from nearly a fifth (19%) of the respondents is that volunteering is becoming too much like ‘paid work’, volunteer management needs to be less about telling and more enabling and encouraging flexibility.
Volunteer managers – which means everyone who works with volunteers not just those staff members with that term in their job title – need to be developing skills at mobilising social action; and this is something which should be built into the supporting infrastructure. We owe it to our volunteers – giving their time, energy and experience – to make this gift as effective as possible. We need to recognise and enable the deep connection people feel with volunteering and the complexity of its impact on their lives through developing and supporting them – and their managers – by means of community engagement and empowerment.
The real question leaders of volunteers need to ask is whether we have created a space for enabling genuine inclusion and involvement in our programmes. In order to achieve this, new processes should to be embedded in existing systems.
A key element of this infrastructure, I would argue, is having well-trained and well-supported people to provide the day to day volunteer management, whether paid or unpaid. We are all familiar with the well-deserved accolade of volunteers to our organisations – and indeed the sector as a whole. But in order to enable volunteers to offer the greatest value and in order to ensure that there is equity offered to everyone who wants to give time to us, we need to recognise that Volunteer Managers matter as well.
Keeping a balance between an efficient, supportive volunteer programme with a responsive and adaptable relationship carries all the way though a volunteer journey. Volunteers need to be supported once they’re involved, in a way that is meaningful to them and meets their changing needs. Organisations which involve volunteers have to reflect on the importance of putting resources into their volunteering programmes, including equipping those who work with our volunteers.
Leaders of volunteers are part of the solution
We may not be part of the problem but this does not make us actively part of the solution and I believe that our role as volunteer managers is to ensure we are just that, working together with volunteers to meet the needs of the organisation through their own skills.
This includes ensuring that leaders of volunteers feel confident and competent at managing some of the conversations with senior stakeholder around risk and developing the ability to cede some of their authority to enable people with something to offer to be able to do so in a meaningful way. Part of this should be looking at how volunteers can fully be involved and feel that they are able to influence the organisation; something which, this research shows, happens less for those who are managed by a paid coordinator.
Empowering everyone who works with volunteers – people giving their time – to feel confident in their abilities and knowledgeable about how to work with an individual’s and community’s existing assets is essential – and this is why this research is so important For me, volunteer management is the platform that enables people giving their time to be engaged, supported and motivated – and ensuring that volunteer management is recognised as a skill and a valued profession is essential to the continued flourishing of volunteers and indeed volunteering.
AVM welcomes the recent announcement of #bethehelpforce, a partnership between Helpforce and the Daily Mail, encouraging more people to volunteer their time in the NHS in 2019. AVM believes in the power of volunteering to make a difference, not only to patients, but also to volunteers themselves, and every day we hear their incredible stories.
However, AVM is clear that volunteering should not be a replacement for fully funded public services. Staff and volunteers offer different support to the NHS due to a different working relationship. Every day volunteers of all ages and backgrounds make a huge contribution by giving their time, skills and experience to support the NHS. The real value of these volunteers is the extra value they bring on top of the care and support provided by hard working nurses, doctors and other NHS staff. Volunteers have the time to provide companionship to patients that clinical staff do not have.
While AVM welcomes this initiative, we want to stress that volunteering is not free, and that resources need to be in place to support increased volunteering. This includes volunteer managers who can provide the training and support to volunteers, rather than adding these responsibilities to already stretched clinical staff.
Karl Wilding continues our tenth anniversary blog series with thoughts on how Volunteer Management’s journey to date will shape the next ten years.
In the ten years since AVM was established, much has changed in the world around us that has impacted upon volunteering and therefore volunteer management. Some of this surprised us: a financial crisis, a decade of economic stagnation and social tensions, albeit punctuated by the highlight of volunteering during London 2012, and more recently the decision to leave the European Union. Some changes we saw coming: the demographic pressures and changing social attitudes of an ageing, more diverse and more atomised society. What we probably didn’t see was how quickly these changes would come about and the pressure they would place on our communities and the services we use. We probably also didn’t see how the opportunities that digital technology would deliver, or some of the social fractures it would deepen. Building bridges between communities of place and interest is more vital than ever, a tension that saw volunteer management hit (for the first time?) the front pages of our national newspapers recently.
We live in interesting times. It seems to me that these wider social, demographic and economic changes will continue to shape and reshape volunteering over the next decade, though only the most foolhardy venture to make predictions these days. What therefore might AVM members want to mull over as shaping the next 10 years?
For me, the slow burn of demographic change will reshape volunteering and how we think about how we work with those who want to engage in the communities (note the plural) around them. Public services are already being refashioned so as to involve service users more in their delivery. Boundaries between paid and unpaid staff will blur as we try and cope with pressures from a growing, but ageing, population. Note also the less flexible labour markets that many argue will result from the decision to leave the European Union.
Informal volunteering, such as acts of neighbourliness, especially seem important as reducing demand is seen as a way of helping public services better cope. The Royal Voluntary Service’s increased focus on social action might be indicative of the way forward here. Do we need to (re)think volunteer managers as convenors, catalysts, shapers of people who want to get involved in their communities? If so, is it a radical rethink or an evolution of change already afoot? Either way, it will be more important than ever that we build and strengthen the bonds of community. More people helping people.
But it’s about more than just individuals doing good things: bringing people together so that they are more than the sum of their parts, working out how best to involve businesses who feel a responsibility to the community, and working out how to work alongside our public services are all part of the emerging landscape. We’ve learnt over the last decade that volunteers don’t always just appear spontaneously; or even when they do, good organisation and infrastructure enables volunteers to make a bigger impact.
Effective, impactful volunteering needs good infrastructure and networks. As government and business become more interested in social action, the case for investment in volunteer management might become more apparent, based on experience. In turn this will inevitably lead to more thinking about value for money, greater calls for management information, and more data collection. That has to be a good thing, but for some it might be the less attractive side of continued professionalization. If that leads to less of the ‘let’s sprinkle some volunteers on the problem’ type thinking, then a more data-driven approach is OK by me.
The topic of data leads to a discussion of digital (aka #techforgood) and how that might shape the future of volunteering. This is the most difficult to call: AVM’s ten year anniversary coincides with the device that pretty much kicked off the smartphone revolution, the iPhone. Could anyone seriously have predicted the impact that would have on pretty much every aspect of life? Current trends might suggest an ever-more efficient brokering of people who want to get involved with opportunities that fit (based on the data that your phone now collects about you); more emphasis on place and opportunities based on where someone happens to be; and more mopping up of small bits of spare time as the smartphone facilitates activities such as mentoring, remotely. Finally, tech blogs are currently awash with discussions of AI and machine learning. I can’t even begin to understand how these will shape volunteer management – they will – but in terms of volunteering itself, volunteers are already helping machines to learn how to recognise patterns that have a social outcome, such as this project around slavery. A brave new world indeed.
Volunteer management will not stay static in the next decade. Nor should it. I look forward to AVM leading the discussion around what the brave new world of volunteer management could, and might, look like.
Continuing our series of blogs celebrating AVM’s tenth anniversary, Rob Jackson reflects on his memories of the time leading up to the creation of AVM.
Joe Saxton recently shared his thoughts about what the next ten years might hold in store for AVM so I thought it might be nice to travel back in time to the birth of the Association.
AVM had its genesis in regular networking meetings John Ramsey and I used to organise (as volunteers) for volunteer managers. After the demise of the National Volunteer Managers Forum the only networking opportunity that remained was a closed group, which neither John nor I were a part of. We didn’t begrudge the group existing but did think that something should be available to any Volunteer Manager that wanted to take part.
The group met at various locations across London and, on one occasion, close to Old Street roundabout, the group hosted a visit from Australian colleague Andy Fryar. Andy had agreed to come and share his wisdom with us whilst visiting the UK on business. During the resulting discussion Andy challenged us to follow the lead of our Australian colleagues who were busy founding AAMoV, AVM’s cousin ‘down under’.
That meeting and that discussion gave birth to the idea that became AVM. To this day Andy rightly considers himself the midwife that helped deliver AVM.
Not long after that I started a new job at Volunteering England. My employer deemed it a conflict of interest for me to take up my new role and be involved in AVM and so I stepped back, leaving John to carry the baby to term, so to speak.
I take absolutely no credit at all for creating AVM. I was just one voice in a room that helped initiate the idea. John Ramsey deserves all the plaudits for making the idea a reality, along with all those early board members. It is thanks to their hard work, their risk taking (something Volunteer Managers aren’t always naturals at) and their commitment to our field that, ten years later, we have the Association of Volunteer Managers.
AVM isn’t perfect but, do you know what? Neither are volunteers and volunteering. We are much better off now with AVM in existence than we were twenty-three-years-ago when I started in this profession.
AVM is the sum of all of us. It succeeds when we all get involved, when we all commit to our field, when we all take action, when, as the theme for this year’s International Volunteer Manager Day states, we all take steps to ‘Be The Voice’ for volunteer leadership and management.
I can’t leave this article there, though. The last word should go my my friend John Ramsey. John’s death in 2014 left AVM and the profession of Volunteer Management weaker. Thankfully we have some of his wisdom preserved in his writing, so I end on one of my friend’s quotes, something we should all remember every day:
I will never tire of saying this: Volunteer management is about respecting our volunteers sufficiently that we properly invest in them to maximise their engagement and participation, and ensure the very best outcomes for our beneficiaries.
Ten years ago today, a group of volunteer managers launched a body that aimed to champion the role of the volunteer manager in building a thriving volunteer involving organisation. Inspired by the desire to bring people together to network and share best practice, as well as demonstrate the impact of volunteer management, AVM was born.
I was one of those people.
My personal starting point in this journey was being at a meeting of the National Volunteer Managers Forum and thinking ‘what’s so special about managing volunteers – they’re just people?’
I’ve now come full circle and have realised how complex managing volunteers is. I’ve realised that people bring themselves to volunteering in a way that’s very different from their job. When ‘just doing a job’ a person will offer one side of themselves, but when volunteering they bring their full self.
What this means is that people managing volunteers need to learn how to read people and go through that process. When bringing their full selves to the party, people will bring an emotional history which makes a real difference in the way they can behave. Volunteer managers can sometimes find that a challenge. We need to be able to demonstrate respect for a volunteer’s experience, whilst also ensuring volunteers recognise the boundaries in their role – it’s a real juggling act.
For organisations providing services it may be difficult to remember that colleagues and volunteers may also be – or have been – service users. In fact this is very likely for volunteers.
Volunteers can help bridge the gap between service users and the wider organisation, helping overcome the feeling of ‘us and them’. Volunteers bring in the experience and emotional history, which may be too painful for staff to deal with.
Having been there at the beginning, I wanted to bring these perspectives and learnings to a wider audience, to find peers to share them with and talk about them.
I am proud that we have developed and grown this voice, and this space to share it, and have a mature, dedicated organisation a decade later.
These ten years have represented a great deal of effort, but I hope you’ll agree that, today, AVM provides the information, support and sharing that ensures volunteer managers can effectively enable volunteers to share their skills in a way that gives the most impact.
To all of you that have come with us on this journey, for however long, thank you for bringing out the magic of volunteering.
Debbie Usiskin is Chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers .
AVM has welcomed the key recommendation around supporting volunteer management in ‘Stronger charities for a stronger society’, the new report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities.
The report contains the recommendation:
We propose that funders should provide more resources for volunteer managers so that charities can make the best possible use of the generous contribution of their volunteers and support their efforts.
The recommendation is based on a submission from the Association of Volunteer Managers responding to the Select Committee’s call for evidence last year. This was bolstered by the committee’s own evidence gathering when they visited local charities who talked about their needs when involving volunteers in their work.
Debbie Usiskin, Chair of AVM, said: “We are over the moon at this news. Communicating the value and need for volunteer management as a recognised discipline is at the core of what AVM was set up to achieve. Having such high-profile confirmation of this is very welcome.”
AVM member Sheila Norris echoed these words: “Working in a local volunteer centre, I see first hand the impact that investing in volunteer management can have. I’m pleased that this new report recognises the resources needed to make volunteering happen.”
The committee’s own comments on the recommendation were: “Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base. We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”
Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO of NCVO, has started the year by publishing an open letter highlighting the part that volunteers can play in building a shared society. More importantly, he makes it clear that we need well supported volunteer managers to help make this happen.
I urge you to read Sir Stuart’s letter and share it within your organisation. He makes the valuable point, very well, that for volunteering to be successful it needs to be adequately resourced; it could spark off a discussion within your organisation about expectations and impacts.
We are attending the NCVO Members’ Assembly in February where we will be contributing to the development of their public policy work. We want to hear from members and make sure that we represent you so let us know what you think following Sir Stuart’s letter.
Of course, we agree with Sir Stuart that this means greater investment in the support that volunteering needs, acknowledging that managing volunteers is harder than managing staff. We look forward to continuing to work closely with NCVO to ensure that volunteering is managed well, and that those who do it are valued.