We know from our member’s feedback that volunteer managers often feel like they are the only one who gets what they are going through, and that coming together with other volunteer managers is always an opportunity to share ideas, concerns and mutual support.
A request for peer support is often one of the first things we hear when volunteer managers are asked what they want to get from membership of groups like AVM, the Voluntary Voice platform, and talking to members at the AVM Conference.
To set the ball rolling we shall launch our first peer support session on will be on Zoom Monday 12th of July at 4.30pm. This session will be hosted by AVM Director Neil Monk.
This meeting is open to all AVM members. Future events will be planned by location (to hopefully enable future meet-ups in person), and also by sector (so watch this space).
“Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, people with ideas, and people with opportunities.”
AVM members often tell us that networking with other volunteer managers is one of the reasons they join and re-join AVM each year. But we also hear many of you say you find it a challenge to find the time to expand your networks.
AVM has been looking at how we can help members expand their networks and increase connections. This month (January 2020) we are launching Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs), which we hope will help members expand their networks. If successful, we hope to run these again.
What’s a Randomised Coffee Trial?
Developed by Nesta, we first heard about RCTs through NHS Horizons School for Change (read more about them), but they are happening in organisations around the world.
So what are they? They are a simple but powerful way of randomly connecting you with another AVM member to have a conversation. Conversations are a great way to connect and learn from other people. And the great thing about a Randomise Coffee Trial is that you can do these virtually, and the conversation topic isn’t prescribed: you can talk about whatever you want.
“Networking that matters is helping people achieve their goals.”
How can you get involved?
If you are interested in pairing up for a RCT, you need to be an AVM member (find out more). All you need to do is complete this simple form by 31 January 2020. In early February we will randomly match you with a partner, and introduce you to each other by email. (If you want to meet someone who is near you, please select your location and we will try to make that match.)
It’s then over to you to arrange a phone call, a Skype/ Zoom call, a face-to-face meeting: whatever works best for you both. There’s no obligation on you beyond the conversation: it can be a one-off conversation, or the start of something more (we hope it will be the latter).
What should you talk about?
These conversations aren’t prescriptive, you can talk about whatever you want. You can them to find out about one another, your respective job roles, what you are working on now, your challenges or successes: whatever you want!
The most important thing is to be curious, and approach these conversations as a chance to learn more.
Will they happen again?
In March we’ll ask participants for feedback, to find out what benefits people gained from their conversations. If successful, we’ll aim to run them for AVM members again.
I have now finished my second month as an Alumni Volunteer Manager at UCL (University College London). However, I have been working with volunteers for the best part of 4 years in different shapes and forms. Most of my experience has been stewarding groups of volunteers, and in the last year it has taken a more strategic turn. The most exciting thing about starting at UCL is joining their campaign ‘It’s All Academic’, and being able to contribute to achieving 250,000 alumni volunteer hours. No small feat; so when I was asked if I would like to go to the AVM conference I jumped at the opportunity! The morning of the conference was a busy one. Having not attended an AVM conference I wasn’t sure what to expect, despite knowing a few friendly faces from the volunteering world. While stuck in tube delays Twitter soon diminished any doubts I had, I saw lots of tweets from other volunteer managers who were sharing gifs about their journeys and needing coffee. On arrival I enjoyed maybe a few too many pastries, and had a look around the various stalls. One of my first observations was just how many people from different organisations who were all here for volunteers! All the main stage presentations and panel talks where excellent; however my particular favourite was ‘Be More Pirate’. Alex Barker told us about the golden age of pirates, which was absolutely fascinating, and not just because I am a history nerd! Alex discussed how volunteers can play a pivotal role in challenging and reshaping systems. She drew comparisons between people who are considered do-it-yourselfers, side hustlers, and the Golden Age Pirates. As a new starter in a brand new role this was certainly food for thought! I also thoroughly enjoyed Amira Tharani’s impact and evaluation workshop. Amira’s workshop gave me great insight on where to start when evaluating a project area or programme in such an interactive way. I came out of the workshop armed with new ideas and resources to make those ideas a reality. Going forward, I am excited to get further involved in AVM and learn everything I can from the fantastic network!
Hannah Kinghorn is Alumni Volunteer Manager at UCL (University College London)
Having worked with volunteers for the past four years, I was long overdue attending an AVM event! Although I have been to various other volunteer manager meetings, I was very excited to attend the AVM Back to School event in September.
I had been in my new role at NCT for just three weeks, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn, feel inspired, and come away with plenty of new ideas. It was also quite an intimidating prospect; but my fears were quickly assuaged by the group of friendly people that I met on arriving at the London School of Economics meeting space.
One of the main reasons I love working with volunteers is personal relationships. This is something emphasised by Mariana Rocha and David Coles (Volunteering & Civic Engagement Manager at the University of West London and Volunteer Centre Manager at LSE respectively). They spoke about how the key to volunteer motivation and retention is spending time on the ground with volunteers, recognition of their achievement, and personalising communication – talking to volunteers about themselves and their interests, not just their volunteering! As someone who loves a natter over a cup of tea and biscuits, general chit-chat is something I often try to incorporate into my communications with volunteers.
Our next speaker, Lauren Hogan, Volunteering Projects Officer at Turn2us, gave me lots of food for thought about using the wealth of ‘lived experience’ that our volunteers at NCT have. Celebrating lived experience and knowledge means you are able to offer consumers a more authentic and relatable service, which is invaluable!
Next up was Sarah Latto, Volunteer Development Manager at Shelter Scotland. I found her talk absolutely inspiring. The way Shelter involves volunteers in their decision making is such an incredible demonstration of inclusivity and valuing volunteer input. A really interesting idea that I took away for the day was removing as many barriers as possible to volunteering with your organisation. Are reference checks essential? Do volunteers have to complete an application form, or could a phone call do the job? Making small changes could open up your volunteering opportunities to a whole new community that you weren’t previously able to reach.
At NCT, we meet a similar challenge to many other organisations, which is building up these personal relationships when you’re working with a team of thousands of volunteers! Melanie Merrill, Volunteering Programme Manager for Quality at Macmillan Cancer Support, stressed the importance of creating a high quality volunteering experience, which comes from having meaningful interaction and support from the organisation. I felt inspired to continue making sure that every interaction I have with a volunteer has a personal touch, and doesn’t feel like a corporate or formal interaction. Knowing that you’ve helped a volunteer to feel supported or to carry out their role more confidently makes it all worthwhile!
One final thing I took away that I’d like to share is this quote – “feeling connected lies at the core of the volunteer journey”, ‘Time Well Spent’, NCVO, 2019
Emily Poulter is Volunteer Support Officer at National Childbirth Trust, working in Bristol to support the large team of volunteers at NCT, who support parents across the UK. Previous to her role with NCT, Emily supervised the Visitor Experience Volunteers at the SS Great Britain, as well as helping to oversee the volunteering programme. Like many volunteer managers, Emily stumbled upon a job which involved working with volunteers, whilst searching for jobs within the heritage sector following her History degree. She soon realised that volunteer management was where she wanted to be.
When I first saw the email advertising the ‘Risk Factor’ event, the subject line, ‘⚠ Can you manage risk and flexible volunteering at the same time? ⚠’, asked a question that I had been grappling with for months. I didn’t hesitate in booking, despite the minor consideration of an 800 mile round trip!
We’re not alone in this balancing act
Like many organisations, we are investigating how best to respond to volunteers’ increasing demand for more flexible or episodic volunteering. I suspect Shelter Scotland are not alone in finding it difficult to balance our formalised risk and safeguarding procedures with more informal volunteering. We’re reviewing our flexible role to make it more inclusive and volunteer led, but it’s proving difficult to ensure that such a flexible commitment is sustainable when we need to invest so much time in recruitment and training. It’s a bit of a catch 22!
As such, I was really looking forward to the event on the 21st May. I didn’t flinch when my alarm went off at 5.45am for my 7.30 train from Edinburgh to London, and even the 1.5 hour delay to my train didn’t dampen my spirits!
A sustainable flow of volunteers
I rushed in the door with two minutes to spare, having gulped down a bag of roasted peanuts and an apple for my lunch, and immediately got into the networking with other lovely volunteer managers. The event started soon afterwards, and we were introduced to Helen Johnston from the Thames Discovery Programme. Her presentation was really interesting, and definitely gave me lots of food for thought. She has about 750 volunteers who support archaeological exploration on the banks of the Thames in a really flexible model for participation.
I was interested to hear how they are able to keep the model sustainable given that it is such a skilled role with no minimum commitment required. This is likely, in part, because they charge for training, but also because they have a very pragmatic approach to risk. Indeed, she told the story of her volunteers who successfully dealt with finding an unexploded World War II bomb, without the need for her involvement.
As well as providing in depth training, they have developed a culture of safety by holding briefings at the start of each session and placing a lot of trust in their volunteers to make sensible judgements about risks they encounter. I think this emphasis on trust in volunteers is perhaps something that all of us large national organisations could learn from.
Risk versus objective reward
Secondly, Daniel Ingram from AVM led a discussion about risk appetite. My key takeaway point from this was that risk should not be assessed in isolation, but rather in line with the impact they would make in helping us achieve our objectives. If the activity is likely to be of significant benefit, perhaps it is worth the risk?
Next up, Catherine Bartlett from NCT told us about a volunteer led project with significant risks but also significant positive impact. Yet again, we were hearing about the balance between potential risk and actual benefits. Catherine, as a former barrister, highlighted the need to really take time to evaluate and understand your risks. Building detailed evidence to support your assessments will help to instil trust with colleagues and reassure the most risk averse!
Because you’re worth it
My trip to London for the AVM Risk Factor event was definitely worth the risk! It gave me lots of food for thought regarding our approach to risk in Shelter Scotland, and highlighted to me the value of two quite different approaches. I also had a far less eventful journey home too – Netflix, Pinot Grigio, chocolate raisins and six pages of notes to ponder!
Sarah Latto is the Volunteer Development Manager for Shelter Scotland and Co-Chair of the Scottish Volunteering Forum
It’s really important to me that the value of volunteers is recognised across The Brain Tumour Charity, and that both volunteers and the staff who support them have a great experience.
Within my relatively short time in post, I’ve learnt that positive change often requires support for volunteer engagement across teams and at all levels. So when I spotted an email about an upcoming AVM event focusing on ‘successfully influencing change’, it got my attention.
At the event we heard from Charlotte Witteridge, Head of Volunteering at The Myton Hospices and Clare Burgess, CEO of Surrey Coalition of Disabled People. Both shared the way they had wielded influence in order to embed volunteering more deeply in the culture of their organisations.
For them, building a case for support and thinking strategically about the changes that were needed was really important. But even more crucial was their ability to bring people along on that journey. Below I’ve parceled their advice on doing just that into three top tips:
Be reliable and interested
Focus on the things you can change
Know your allies
1. Be reliable and interested
1Doing what you say you’ll do (which includes saying no), and making a point to learn something new outside of your work remit each day, will engender trust among key stakeholders. By building your personal brand, people are more likely to believe in your ideas and in your ability to make those ideas a success.
2. Focus on the things you can change
Don’t spend time focusing on your ‘circle of concern’ – the things which challenge you but you can’t do anything about. Instead, think proactively about your ‘circle of influence’. If you do this you’ll become more effective at making change and increase what you’re able to influence.
3. Know your allies
Work out who it is you need to influence, and how you can get on their radar. This isn’t always about targeting those who hold important job titles. By building strong connections across and outside of your organisation you may identify people who can break down a barrier for you.
To get decision-makers on side, think about how each person needs information delivered to them. Some people are most interested in facts, some finances and some in stories.
I came away from the event with lots to think about, some action points and overall feeling more confident about influencing within my organisation. But having had a bit of time to reflect, my main learning from the day was perhaps a more surprising one.
I didn’t expect to learn this
I know that I’m not alone in finding conferences and events like these a daunting prospect. Part of the reason, I think, is that many of us feel that we have little of value to share. Day-to-day, we’re not doing anything radical or out of the ordinary.
We (volunteer managers) are quick to be self-critical and to focus on the areas that aren’t going right, but I learnt something valuable from everyone I spoke to at the event. During group discussions, people shared lessons learnt through experience – lessons that will undoubtedly save others time and heartache in the future.
My key takeaway
By sharing what your organisation is doing well at events like these, it encourages others to take small steps to improve their practice, which will in turn improve the experience for volunteers in their organisation. And our willingness to speak about these positive things, with colleagues, with other volunteer managers, or with potential volunteers, will make us better influencers too.
Most of the positive, proactive changes that you’ll make during your time as a volunteer manager will not be brand new concepts, but that doesn’t make them uninteresting, or less valid. What you see as your bread and butter, the areas where your organisation is succeeding, are probably the very same areas that others are struggling to crack.
We should shout about these positive things more. I know I certainly will.
Amie is the Volunteer Development Manager for The Brain Tumour Charity.
Learn more. Our upcoming events can help your professional development and boost your volunteer management career 📈
At AVM’s Risk factor event Helen Johnston shared how she established a flexible volunteering model while successfully managing the risks that archaeological fieldwork can dig up.
It’s Crimbo Limbo, the gap between Christmas and New Year, I’m on the sofa under a blanket, contemplating another rummage through the Quality Street tin to see if there’s any of the good ones left, idly scrolling through Facebook. And then, there it is, one of my worst-case scenarios: a photo of one of our volunteers flanked by two police officers (all smiling thankfully!), and the next one, a close-up of what looks like a rusty bit of scaffolding pole. I know immediately what it is and why the police are involved; it’s unexploded ordnance, left over from one of the World War bombing campaigns. Chocolate forgotten, I shake off my sofa-haze to find out what’s happened and make sure everyone’s safe.
At Thames Discovery Programme, we run a flexible volunteering programme to monitor and record vulnerable archaeology on the Thames’ foreshore, the area which is revealed at low tide. As well as running fieldwork coordinated centrally, we have groups of volunteers who organise themselves to regularly monitor particular sites on the river. But the foreshore is not a safe environment, and there are many risks that need to be considered when working there.
On that lazy Saturday afternoon, a couple of our volunteers decides to make a last-minute visit to Fulham, the site of an ancient river crossing, to check on the interesting prehistoric archaeology there which is under threat from erosion. It’s matchday, and fans are streaming through the nearby park for a Fulham Palace home game. As the tide begins to come in, the volunteers are making their way back to the steps when they notice something that, thanks to their training, they immediately recognise as potentially an unexploded bomb.
Unexploded ordnance is not an uncommon find on the Thames; London was heavily bombed in World War 1 and World War 2, and the river wall was deliberately targeted to try to flood the city. At Thames Discovery Programme we come across possible ordnance every year or two, and so our volunteer training includes what to do if you find a bomb.
In this case our volunteers do all the right things, they leave it where they found it, call the Police and move away from the area. When the Police arrive, there’s a bit of discussion about whether it’s a rusty aerosol can before they make the decision to call in the bomb squad. The river is cordoned off, the last of the football fans are kept out of the area, and the device, which is identified as a WW1 incendiary bomb, is safely removed to be disposed of somewhere a long way away. By the time I find out about the incident on Facebook that evening, it’s all over, and everyone involved is back home. I check in with the volunteers over email to make sure they’re all ok, finding things like this can be unnerving. They were fine and they’d already sent us a full account of what happened, including pictures!
Helen Johnston has over 15 years experience of creating and delivering volunteering programmes. Her current portfolio of work includes leading an archaeological volunteering project and supporting small charities.
Carol Carbine, Trainer / Facilitator / Consultant at Carol Carbine Consulting , shared a range of resources at AVM’s Ways to wellbeing and productivity for volunteer managers in 2019, to help you better look after yourself so you can better look after others.
I was recently discussing with a friend the complex demands we volunteering professionals find ourselves under, I am sure you will be familiar with some or all of these.
Juggling the various aspects of our day to day roles whilst trying to keep abreast of changing trends
Attempting to meet the many and diverse needs of the volunteers that we support
Finding new, creative and collaborative ways to engage people in our mission
Trying to secure support and/or funding for our work
Like many people outside the profession she was surprised by these insights and genuinely interested to know how I managed to make time for myself, my family, and look after my own wellbeing in the midst of all of this. I confessed that the latter had somewhat lapsed towards the end of last year and that I was aiming to get back on track. I also admitted it is an ongoing challenge for me and many people I know in our area of work.
She smiled knowingly and said what you need to remember is ‘Love thy neighbour’.
No, not the rather cringe worthy 70s sitcom but the second commandment* ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. I was rather puzzled as to the relevance of her comment so I asked her to explain how this would help. She said very simply, if I am supposed to love my neighbour the same way I love myself, then I need to do a good job of loving me. I need to take good care of myself – eat well, sleep well, exercise, and rest and recharge my batteries when needed. For me, whether you’re religious or not this makes a whole lot of sense.
If I do a rubbish job of loving myself how I can possibly do a good job of loving and looking after others?
We hear a lot in the media about volunteering being a positive force for mental health and wellbeing but less about the challenges for people supporting and leading volunteers in an increasingly complex environment.
There are some enlightened companies that are now enabling their employees to stay healthy and supporting them to move through challenges when they occur. New initiatives include mental health first aiders, adjustments for women experiencing the menopause and more equitable sharing of parental duties, to name but a few.
So whilst we know that volunteer management has an additional layer of emotional complexity, thanks to the University of Leicester researchers and the National Trust, it still feels like the voluntary sector is lagging behind. We may have great awareness and good intentions but it’s the small simple actions on the ground, which can make a huge difference that seem to be missing.
Are we genuinely encouraging a culture where we talk about not just the practical but the emotional demands of the work we do?
Do we talk with colleagues about good self care, maintaining our resilience and making time for this to happen?
Is it ok to admit you are feeling a bit overwhelmed and ask for support, and if you do what response will you get?
Good self-care starts with the individual but if we are consistently working in an environment where eating on the move, skipping breaks, staying late and where going above and beyond is the norm then the underlying message is that self-care isn’t a priority no matter what the policy statement says.
I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do want to open up the conversation……
What are you doing this year to take care of yourself? – (I‘m learning to Zentangle)
How are you and your team looking out for each other?
What one small thing could your organisation do to support and empower you to love yourself just a little bit more?
I write this during #iWillWeek. A week which celebrates young people and the impact they have on the communities and causes they care about. But do all young people have the same opportunities to volunteer? To make a difference to things that matter to them?
Young volunteering approaches
We know that there is a relationship between social class and volunteering. What we don’t know is at what age and why the engagement gap emerges. We need to.
Government policies and the activities of volunteer managers on the ground often seek to encourage young people to volunteer. Policy is focused on widening participation to include under-represented groups. In recent years, National Citizen Service, which includes a ‘social action project’, has come to dominate central government’s youth work spending.
Getting policy and practice right is important. Investing resources effectively in encouraging young people to volunteer is likely to have an impact long beyond youth and young adulthood. If we want people from all backgrounds – not just more advantaged groups – to be able to access the benefits of volunteering, we need to understand how best to do this. For volunteer managers, knowing where best to focus their efforts to harness both short- and long-term volunteering commitment is invaluable.
Our research findings
Research by me and Rob de Vries finds a clear relationship between socio-economic advantage and volunteering by young people, but one that is far from straightforward. During Key Stage 3, when the role of school as a route into volunteering is strong for all socio-economic groups, we find little difference in engagement between young people from different backgrounds.
The role that schools play in encouraging children to volunteer gets smaller in Key Stages 4 and 5, as exam and other pressures loom larger. At this stage community groups and organisations become more significant as a pathway to engagement and socio-economic differences reappear. This matters. The patterns established at this time persist throughout adulthood.
The role of schools
This makes the role of schools – and the organisations who work with schools – vital. They are the most egalitarian way for volunteer managers and volunteer involving organisations to access a range of young people and encourage them to take part in volunteering opportunities. When this is left to community groups and organisations, we see clear class differences in who engages. This is regardless of the best intentions of volunteer managers.
We therefore argue those who seek to get more young people volunteering should focus their energies on working with schools to access and attract young people. The encouragement and support which eliminates significant socio-economic differences in Key Stage 3 should continue throughout young people’s school careers through to age 18.
Schools, and the volunteer managers and voluntary organisations who work with them, should also think about how they can encourage and support young people to continue volunteering post-18. This may mean community groups and organisations working in partnership with schools and each other to ensure that young people from all backgrounds – not just the most advantaged socio-economic groups – are aware of and feel comfortable in the kinds of organisations that can support a longer-term commitment to volunteering.
I’m delighted to be sharing my expertise at AVM’s November event, where I’ll be discussing how these recommendations can be put into practice. I hope to see you there, Tweet to @beardyeddy.
Eddy Hogg is Lecturer at the University of Kent’s Centre for Philanthropy, and shared his thoughts on how organisations can best attract young volunteers from a wide range of social backgrounds at an AVM event in 2018.