Is the merger the answer to all our volunteer management ills?

Having read Rob Jackson’s analysis of the potential merger between VE and NCVO, I wanted to look a little deeper what it could mean for volunteer management.

Looking back over the last few years we have seen some strides in how VM has developed: the revised NOS for VMs, the development of the apprenticeships, the Volunteer Management funding, the work done by Voluntary Action Warrington, the AVM conferences, the increased number of blogs and channels for debates (ivo being one of them) etc.

BUT volunteer management is still in an extremely fragile state. Only this morning I was talking to a colleague about a network meeting we attended yesterday. Just a few years ago the room would have been packed out with over 20 VMs. Yesterday there was just eight with another about to leave. Whilst the funding cuts are hitting everybody it does feel that volunteer management is being hit more then most, perversely at a time when volunteering is being looked to as one of the solutions.

For me the key issue, the one we have still yet to crack, is what we all know: key decision-makers do no ‘get’ volunteer management. And when I say key decision-makers I mean the chairs, the trustees, and the chief executives. Whilst it might be nice to have government say the right thing, frankly volunteer management is nothing to do with them (and Nick Hurd has said as much). It’s for organisations to respect and support their volunteers by properly investing in their management.

So how can they be influenced?

Firstly, by influencing upwards, by demonstrating how volunteer management is improving the organisation’s work. And VE produced their Influencing Up – A Guide to Gaining Executive Support for Volunteering and Volunteer Management to help with that. But of course, in reality, unless senior management is receptive at the outset then this is incredibly difficult and frustrating.

Secondly, by influencing funders and commissioners to recognise that any grant or contract that involves volunteering must be properly budgeted to include effective volunteer management.

And thirdly, by influencing downwards, by having sector bodies speaking directly to their members, to their chairs, the trustees, and the chief executives, to show that volunteer management should be an integral part of any organisation that involves volunteers.

And this is where the potential merger holds the key. Rob rightly pointed out that volunteer management has been one of the less developed areas of VE’s work. But even it was, in all honesty, they do not have the clout that NCVO has. There is real potential here that the new NCVO can influence funders and commissioners, trustee networks and ACEVO to get them to buy into volunteer management.

But that means the new NCVO themselves need to buy into volunteer management, to put volunteer management at the centre of the debate. Whilst it’s a bit melodramatic to say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if the merger does go through then now is the time to start planning, to start influencing the development of volunteer management within the new organisation. There is a real opportunity here to create that step-change that volunteer management desperately needs.

There are many players out there who have a role to play in this – AVM, NAVSM, the fledgling VM Movement, VA Warrington, to name but a few. But also each of us whose organisations are members of VE and/or NCVO need to play our part as vocal members.

The question is do we have the will to do it?


Post by John Ramsey

Managing the future of volunteering

Nick Hurd speaking at AVM's conference 2012, Sean Cobley (left) AVM Chair

Nick Hurd speaking at AVM’s conference 2012, Sean Cobley (left) AVM Chair

The Association of Volunteer Managers had its inaugural conference today (9th March 2011) focussing on volunteer management and the Big Society. Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society addressed the conference setting how he saw the role of volunteer management in the Big Society. He came armed with as many questions as answers, but the fact that he was there at all was surely testament to the recognition of volunteer management’s value to the Government’s current policy agenda.

A short synopsis of what Hurd shared: Big Society is about cultural change, it’s a long process and it’s going to be difficult.

Interestingly, given the audience of professionals working in volunteering- he chose to underline the notion that Big Society is “more than volunteering”. That this point needs to be made at all, signals an underlying sense of how critical volunteering is to the Big Society. Volunteering may not be the be all and end all of the Big Society, but when all’s said and done it’s the idea of volunteering that people keep coming back to to explain the Big Society to an often confused and baffled public.

Whatever the link between volunteering and the Big Society in the minds of policy makers, Nick Hurd insisted that volunteer management was a crucial part of the equation. He pointed to the funding that the Office of Civil Society (OCS) is going to make available through the European Year of the Volunteer specifically for volunteer management as just one example.

He shared a short anecdote about an encounter he had had with Baroness Julia Neuberger at the time of her work on the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. When he asked her for one thing that’s crucial to the future of volunteering she responded simply: “volunteer managers”. This was a Minister keen to build bridges.

He addressed questions from delegates where Government policy seemed to run counter to this expressed support for volunteering in the Big Society at the Cabinet Office. For example:

  • Budget cuts to the voluntary sector including infrastructure will result in making it harder, not easier for volunteer managers to do their job
  • By making public service reform such a prominent aspect of the Big Society public perception now is that the Government is asking volunteers to step into fill gaps left by the retrenchment of the state. This perception whether or not it is founded in fact is making it harder, not easier, to recruit volunteers
  • Mandatory work activity (JSA reform) runs counter to the ethos of volunteering and the voluntary sector. As a result, work programmes previously run on a voluntary basis with those out of work- would no longer make sense in the voluntary sector if they became mandatory. Again, this policy may lead to less volunteering, not more.

Nick Hurd’s response to the issue of budget cuts seemed to be: we know it’s painful, but it is temporary adjustment. It will be worth it in the long run.

His response to the public service reform was to say that this public perception will change over time – and insisted that Government had a role to play in leading this change in perceptions and culture. In fact, he gave the impression that a large part of the Government’s approach to volunteering was in how it could be a vehicle for changing social attitudes to giving and social action. There are a number of policies designed to change the attitudes from the National Citizen Service that’s aimed at the attitudes of the nation’s 16 year olds, through to the “civic service” initiative which challenges civil servants to rethink their relationship to the communities they work with.

In terms of contradictions in Government policy – at one stage Nick Hurd joked, “Welcome to Government”. But he did not accept the point about mandatory work activity and suggested this contradiction was more semantic, than actual, and could be overcome.
In terms of the Government’s role in fostering a vibrant and efficient infrastructure for volunteering in this country, Nick Hurd told delegates “he didn’t need any lectures on the importance of volunteering infrastructure”.

He agreed it was important, but was not clear on how it could be funded in the future. It should involve Central Government to a degree, but also the Big Lottery Fund and local authorities had to play their part.

Interestingly, he also floated the idea that longer term umbrella organisations should receive much more of their funding direct from their members or “customers”. If this could be achieved, then Hurd believed infrastructure bodies would become much more efficient than they are today.

At the moment the complex and fragmented system of funding is too thinly spread to make it effective and that too much of volunteer managers’ time is spent fundraising to make it efficient. This issue of infrastructure was one of the big questions that Nick Hurd came with which was: what kind of infrastructure do we need to be able to improve and shape the quality of volunteering experiences?

Another strand of the Government’s approach included more effectively leveraging the links between local businesses and the communities in which they’re present. He spoke about a new initiative to develop “business connectors” who could help establish fruitful relationships for both the voluntary sector and local businesses. This was separate from, but could run in parallel with, the idea to train community organisers to do the same kind of work forging links across communities.

Hurd made reference to the support the Government has given to Chris White’s Private Member’s Bill that aims to make social impact and value a key requirement in the commissioning process in future. It will be interesting to see whether these kinds of measures will effectively open up the space necessary for volunteering and volunteer management to play a role in service provision that can compete with private sector providers. Some delegates flagged up concerns that services built on volunteer management models would not be able to compete on private sector bids for contracts on price alone.

When challenged Hurd accepted the development of volunteer management required nudging organisations to change their behaviour, and that it could not all be resolved by establishing the right kind of infrastructure. On the issue of professionalization of volunteer management, Hurd somewhat baldly stated that he had no interest in this agenda and this should not be the agenda of any Government. This [professionalization], he said, was a matter for volunteer managers themselves.

There were no huge surprises in Hurd’s words, but it was refreshing to have a discussion that centred on how the Government understands what role volunteer management can play in the Big Society agenda. It formed the basis for what was a really informative and productive discussion on the future of the role of volunteer management. Long may this dialogue and discussion with volunteer managers continue.

Volunteering adding value to services taken away

There’s a mantra from volunteer management’s missing manual that’s often repeated. It goes something like this:

“the role of volunteering in public service delivery is to add value”

It comes with a caveat though: if no public service exists for volunteers to add value to, all bets are off. Up to now, that’s meant that volunteers that identify a social need (that no current public service meets), always have the last resort of mustering all the resources they can get their hands on and providing the service themselves.

New territory

This model of volunteering in public services built around adding value has developed over many years. In particular, the emphasis of adding value to established services seeks to avoid the spectre of volunteering roles substituting paid roles. Now with the Big Society we’re entering new territory. It’s a policy with the express aim of substituting public services that are publicly funded, with citizen-powered services that may be publicly and or privately funded.

As David Cameron restates in his recent defence of the Big Society:

“devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community”

Despite these kinds of references to how volunteering is at the heart of the Big Society project, it’s still not clear what it’s impact on volunteering will be. One defining feature of Big Society policy is how public service reform will impact on how we think about volunteering.

Too often this debate has been framed as two competing assumptions about whether volunteering and voluntary action are:

  • a ‘nice to have’ because they provide additional goods and services of public value; or,
  • a fundamental part of our society because they are the way we can access many public goods and services at all.

These competing visions of volunteering are nothing new, and actually aren’t really in competition at all. Despite how they’re often presented. Now with Big Society reform on the policy agenda it feels like there’s a new impetus to better understanding the tension between how these two visions intersect. Changing how these ways of approaching volunteering come together could mean a radically redefined sense of volunteering, not just in public service delivery, but beyond.

Volunteers complement and supplement

When I saw Janet Fleming citing the ‘adding value’ mantra in her post, “Placing a volunteer in a key role raises many issues” for the Voluntary Sector Network’s blog, it struck me just how this prevailing consensus about volunteering is being challenged by the current Big Society debate.

Fleming illustrated the thrust of her argument about volunteering at a senior level in an organisation by quoting the agreement between Volunteering England and the TUC:

  • The involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service;
  • The added value of volunteers should be highlighted as part of commissioning or grantmaking process but their involvement should not be used to reduce contract costs;

This agreement highlights why the mantra about volunteers adding value has featured so prominently in thinking and practice in the UK over the last decade: job substitution. For many years the emphasis has been on ‘involving volunteers’ in the delivery of public services. For example, in 2003 the National Centre for Volunteering produced a report typical of the time called “Changing the Face of Social Services“ Volunteers adding value in service delivery” (PDF). It provided guidance on good practice for involving volunteers in public services:

First of all, its important to decide if you actually want to involve volunteers. Try talking to peers and colleagues in other social services departments or NHS Trusts to help you make your decision. Youll need to ask:

  • Are there specific projects or departments youd like to involve volunteers in, and are there roles for them to complement your service?
  • How will they add value?
  • How will they help you to deliver your strategic plan and meet your objectives? [p.21]

In 2008, the Commission on the Future of Volunteering essentially reiterated this position, albeit in different tone, when it recommended that:

“…Where employers involve volunteers in their work, which many charities do as a matter of course. There is more scope for developing this in the public sector and, where it is delivering services on behalf of the state, the private sector (for example, care homes and prison services). The critical tests are that volunteers add genuine value and do not substitute for core service provision.” [p.11-12]

However, this position assumes we’re clear about what exactly ‘core service provision’ is. With Big Society and the very deliberate retrenchment of the state the official goal posts have moved. We’re now radically unclear about what current ‘core service provision’ is. In other words, where are the services and what future is there for the services that volunteers can add value to?

Big Society redefines volunteering

Big Society proponents appear to have another vision for the role of volunteers (otherwise known as citizens contributing to their community). Volunteers’ activity could well play a part in deciding where local communities draw the line between essential and non-essential services. Voluntary action may be both arbiter and agent- helping to decide what services exist and helping to carry them out too.

However, by giving volunteering such a double meaning risks politicising the act of volunteering to help with the delivery of local public services.

  • If I volunteer for a public service that’s no longer considered as ‘core service provision’ and has lost its funding, how will volunteering with the service impact on the professionalisation of that provision?
  • Will engagement of volunteers fill a short term gap in capacity to deliver a service? Or will volunteering with the service undermine the future case for scarce state funds?
  • Will the costs of volunteer management be recognised and met by local authorities contracting out services?

In such a highly charged atmosphere where the issue of what services are part of core provision is debated, the choice to volunteer may well have ramifications beyond the volunteering role itself.

Many proponents of the Big Society seemed remarkably relaxed about this fundamental change in our conception of volunteering in public services and its possible politicisation.

Lord (Nat) Wei, a recently appointed politician, seems more relaxed than most. His comment, “there is a myth that Big Society is all about volunteering” sought to downplay the significance of a key Big Society advisor within government cutting down on his own volunteering. His response to the furore surrounding the announcement about his new working arrangment, was symptomatic of the Big Society argument that we need to loosen certain established ideas about what volunteering is. Yet it’s striking just how little debate there is about what volunteering will be like in the Big Society given how fundamental it is to the policy.

Stakes are big

In Greater London Volunteering’s (GLV) Principles of Volunteering:

“Volunteer roles should enhance the activities of a charity or social enterprise, unless, and particularly in the case of wholly volunteer-led groups, it would otherwise fail to have sufficient staff resources to conduct its activities”.

This idea of volunteers either “adding value” to services or providing them as a last resort (volunteering to provide services that neither the public or private sector provide) needs to be joined up. How they’re joined is crucial because it reflects the delicate balance in the voluntary sector between empowering volunteers and fostering greater professionalisation. Badly managed volunteering can undercut the hard won and often fragile professional development of the voluntary sector’s workforce. The fine details of this issue seem lost on many Big Society proponents whose first reaction is to assume a professional voluntary sector is some kind of tautology brought about by misguided Big Governmentalists.

Public service reform

David Cameron insists that Big Society is not related to the cuts in public services. It may not be connected with the need to reduce the public deficit, but it seems a curious thing to argue that a reduction in funding for public services is not connected to the idea of the retrenchment of the state. The upshot of this retrenchment, cuts or no cuts, means that we’re entering a period where the Government is effectively changing the terms about which public services the citizen should expect the state to underwrite.

Public service reform is to be driven, in part, by voluntary organisations and charities involving volunteers and delivering services. To facilitate this, the Government back in December 2010 removed the Two-Tier Code on public sector service contracts:

“The Coalition Government has committed to opening up government procurement and reducing costs. It has also set itself the aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses.”

SME’s, social enterprises, charities, voluntary groups and staff owned mutual providers are all conceived of as potential providers of public services. With a Big Society Bank to help finance and capitalise new service providers. This bank will be funded by commercial banks on a commerical basis. Cameron has pledged that charities will be able to competitively bid for public service contracts.

Charities will have the opportunity to exchange grant-based income with contract-based income and commercial loans. It’s a process that would seem to encourage charities to view the volunteering they foster as a means to an end (delivery of the contract), rather than an end in itself. The story of the WRVS volunteer-run hospital tea-bar in St Albans Hospital (via Karl Wilding) that’s making way for a private franchise high street coffee shop, seems such a poignant example of this transformation in the way volunteering may well evolve in organisations that adopt more contract-based practices. Experience shows that when we lose sight of volunteering as an end in itself, all too often it becomes undervalued and expendable. Can the idea of volunteering as an end in itself persist against a backdrop of contracts?

Redrawing the line

The offering of service contracts is linked to the policy of ‘payment by results’. Core services funded by right will decline, replaced by services where providers are paid by the results they achieve. This means that there will be increasing uncertainty about the future of different public services. Libraries are a prominent and controversial example of the redrawing of that line.

The government was advised in a KMPG report (PDF) to implement “aggressively, consistently and systematically” a new policy of payment by results. When it comes to redrawing the line on what deserves public financial support, the report’s authors Alan Downey, Paul Kirby and Neil Sherlock, all KMPG partners, cited the example of public libraries:

“Local government should seek to devolve to the most local level possible and to encourage communities to take over services. One example would be libraries. Libraries face funding challenges – in that they are more discretionary than other services…”

The give away is that when the authors talk about “encouraging communities to take over services”, in the next breath they mention “funding challenges”. The retrenchment of the state is quite clearly about reducing the amount of money spent by the state. No bad thing. However, anyone in volunteer management knows it is a mistake to see volunteering as a cheap option. As Jayne Cravens has succinctly argued on her blog – volunteer empowerment can be about many things- but if the overriding driver is “saving money”, then volunteer-powered solutions are not the answer.

New perspectives on an old debate

And so this takes me to a final reflection about how those in volunteer management are often curiously polarised by this debate about added value. Whether volunteering should focus ‘adding value’ to already existing public services or whether volunteering’s real value is providing safety net services in the absence of other public services is a matter a considerable debate.

As the Big Society debate deepens and policy is enacted on the ground, the implications of this policy on volunteering come up against new questions.

  • Are we too locked into this view that volunteering is primarily about adding value when it comes to public service delivery?
  • Are we in danger of advocating volunteering for the sake of volunteering, rather than for the sake of service delivery?
  • To what extent is the Big Society forcing us to rethink the relationship between volunteers, voluntary sector professionals and public sector professionals?

Look forward to discussing these issues in the days, weeks and months ahead 🙂


Interesting link to report commissioned by the Community Development Foundation about volunteering in public roles (mapping civic activists to use their terminology) – it complemented the ongoing national evaluation of the Take Part pathfinder prog.

17 Minutes of fame the Quality v Quantity debate



Ok, so in the popular parlance, lets do the “Math” here (I know, it grates with me also!)

Non-the-less, in the ongoing Quality v Quantity debate, lets look at the figures mentioned in the “Balancing the See-Saw” piece.

So we have a figure of 700 volunteers

Now, let us assume that each volunteer has “supervision” every six weeks

Let us also assume that the volunteer co-ordinator is full time 37.5 hours per week

(Giving maximum opportunity)

That’s 6 weeks x 37.5hrs

This makes a total of 225 available hours in a six week period, or 12,000 minutes

Now let’s divide those volunteer co-ordinator minutes by the number of volunteers 12,000 ÷ 700

This means that if all volunteers are treated equally, then each of the 700 volunteers has one-one interaction (supervision) with their volunteer co-ordinator, for a total of 17mins 14 seconds within a six week period.

That’s 17mins 14 seconds in six weeks, or to put it another way:

2 mins 8 seconds a week, or

25.6 seconds per volunteer day (based on 1 volunteer day in a 5 day week)

Or a grand total of  2 hours 25 minutes per volunteer per year

Yes that’s right folks 2 hours 25 mins per year

But it doesn’t end there

Because this also means that within that recurring six week period/cycle and in all the other chronological measures; a volunteer co-ordinator with 700 volunteers to manage, literally has no time to do anything else in relation to their role and its remit, i.e.

No time for Administration

No time for Recruitment and selection

No time for Training volunteers

No time for Networking

No time to be involved in wider aspects of volunteering

No time for their own personal and professional development (i.e. training, supervision)

No time to spend informal time with volunteers

No time for organising and running volunteer reward recognition events

No time for formal intervention with volunteers between supervisions

No time to answer emails, letters, telephones

No time for the many imponderables that often arise in dealing/answering the aforementioned.

Etc, etc, etc

In short, there just arent enough hours in the day, even to facilitate minimal supervision.

NB. This is of course without the volunteer co-ordinator ever being ill and off work.

It could be argued by a person “managing” such numbers, that others take on some of the responsibility of the volunteer co-ordinator through deligation.

I don’t have an issue with deligation per’sa, however the old maxim may well apply, in that delegation is in reality economy of effort, although i feel in this instance this would be more an indicator that the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer ratio just dosent work.

However, just as salient, is that many of us are trying to ensure greater professional recognition of our role, so in such “delegation” and in seemingly handing our role over to any Tom, Dick or Harriet who puts their hand up, or happens to be in the “right” place, at the right time; then what does this say about us, our awareness of self, and our abilities in respect of managing appropriate numbers of people?

With the obvious exceptions where large numbers of volunteers are appropriate i.e. the Olympic games. We MUST STOP seeing large numbers volunteers as being a good thing, it isn’t, nor is it impressive.(especially where other people removed from volunteering and volunteer managment have, often without appropriate consultation determined them, i.e. politicians for political aims and ideology)

The reality is that a trained chimp can get volunteers to volunteer in many of the popular fields. So it’s not big or clever to do so. The real skill is to recruit appropriatley with vision, and an appreciation of your own personal limits, and in the many imponderables and challenges that face us all.

Chasing numbers just does not add up (excuse the pun), a simple piece of Mathematics demonstrates that in chasing numbers quality, and importantly the quality of the volunteer co-ordinator/volunteer interpersonal/intrapersonal relationship must by definition suffer, and does suffer. However, much we may try to convince and delude ourselves otherwise. 

Current climate

We are entering a critical phase where it is apparent that much like the tale of the Emperors new clothes; reality is distorted, “facts” figures and “best practice” are now being born out of submissive servitude, and/or through fear of job loss, redundancy, and/or ignorance, lack of self awareness, or in being seen as out of step with the “Big Society” (whatever that is!).

This means that less and less people are prepared to speak out and say NO, or take a step back and look at what is being demanded of us as individuals and the voluntary sector as a whole.

Importantly also, is why as volunteer co-ordinaotrs, we are still so damn light weight, fluffy, and polite. Often simpering our way through challenges like Golem from Lord of the Rings; and in the process surrendering our traditional volunteering values by instalments.

Its a tough world out there and we need to be tough in promoting quality environments for volunteers

For if we don’t learn to say no; then like high volume mass produced fast food, volunteers will more and more be seen as being convenient, cheap, and of little substance and value, only to be discarded half eaten when reality bites.

Personally, I have no desire to measure, or be measured by how many “burgers” (Volunteers) I can flip in any given year, and in meeting crude meaningless targets created by the many faceless bureaucrats, without any heart or passion for volunteers/volunteering, and which targets and measures are so often despised in other fields and disciplines, and as a result, police can’t police, and nurses can’t nurse, do we wish to collude where by through quantative evaluation, volunteer co-ordinators become ever more distant form the volunteers themselves?

So no I wont “flip burgers”, (Volunteers) but rather, I would wish to be and hopefully am; a volunteer co-ordinator that aims to provide a fine dinning quality volunteer experience, rahter than a greasy burger van.

And Finally

We are living and working in difficult times, the “Big Society” has attracted little new money, (let us not forget that the volunteer managers capacity builders program aka Strand “C” was reduced by many millions of £’s before it even got of the ground.

So do you really trust these people?

Many projects are concerned about their futures, and as a result many are foolishly chasing the numbers, and in my opinion selling their volunteering souls, in the hope that larger numbers will attract further funding; but as with everything at the moment there are no guarantees.

So I ask you all, my peers, my friends and my colleagues; as the people charged with ensuring volunteers are valued, represented, fully supported and appreciated.

Then as their co-ordinators, and managers.

I ask you, is it right, ethical and proper to chase the numbers/targets, only to run the risk in being told that the 100’s of volunteers you have taken on your books are no longer able to be supported (i.e. in respect of out of pocket expenses) and as such, some if not all will have to be told they will have to volunteer and be out of pocket also or will no longer be required/afforded, and in “affect/effect” make them redundant!

But at least in the short term at least, you will have met crude measurse and “targets” in respect of a volunteers subjective experience

And at least the volunteers will have had their 17mins of fame



Quality versus quantity – balancing the see-saw

I used to be the Volunteer Co-ordinator for a charity that had over 700 volunteers. It wasn’t a big charity according to other statistics (number of staff – 2 ½, regions covered – 1, number of service users – less than 200).

Nonetheless, whenever I met other volunteer co-ordinators or managers in passing and told them how many volunteers I supervised, their typical reaction would be to look at me with mild envy, before querying how I could cope with that number.

You can perhaps imagine their reaction when I told them that actually, we needed even more volunteers to guarantee our services! The reaction of our funders, who shall remain nameless, was somewhat different. As far as they were concerned, bums on seats in terms of volunteers was unequivocally a good thing.

Surely it automatically meant that more people would build their skills volunteering, while more service users would benefit from those volunteers’ efforts?

My feelings on the situation were somewhat different again. What I fretted about was the quality of volunteering experience I could offer to our existing and future volunteers.

Trying to balance the see-saw between the number of volunteers I was under pressure to recruit and manage, and the support that they could receive in terms of induction, training, supervision, recognition and reward, was something that literally gave me sleepless nights.

Did I get the balance right? Well, I was meeting the quantitative targets agreed with our funder, and we certainly had a large number of volunteers who were very motivated, enthused and empassioned by the cause.

Several of our trustees would ‘muck in’ on a regular basis too – not out of necessity, but because they enjoyed their volunteering experience.
Nonetheless, the continual need to recruit more volunteers every month indicated (and a database trawl confirmed) that other volunteers were quietly disengaging from us.

Matching what seemed right in theory with the practice of my role – that was the nub of the challenge. With that many volunteers to co-ordinate, could I measure the quality of their experiences in such a meaningful way that would prove to a funder that more resources were needed?

This experience, from a job that I left over five years ago, became fresh in my mind again when I joined AVM’s Board of Directors. AVM is an organisation that stands up for volunteer managers above any other, partly because we recognise that doing so has a positive domino effect for volunteers and volunteering in general.

So, can the need for more volunteers be a natural bedfellow alongside the need to provide those volunteers with high quality opportunities? I’m in the ‘yes’ camp, so long as the need for more volunteers is primarily driven by what your charity’s service users need, as opposed to what your funder would like.
As far as high quality opportunities go, striving to reach good practice is perhaps a natural stepping stone to the achievement of best practice in volunteer management.

Sure, life’s not that simple, because here you come across another see-saw – the need to balance funding criteria against the needs of your organisation.
When resources are low, it’s perhaps natural to favour the former over the latter. But let me leave you with a few qualitative thoughts on this subject. A perception exists in some quarters I think, that demonstrating quality volunteer management is harder than demonstrating quantity of volunteers, and that the extra effort required makes it unworthwhile. Au contraire!

Measuring volunteers as hard statistics can only be fun to a certain kind of person, but measuring quality and its ‘softer’ outcomes can be more fun, and worthwhile, than you may think.

For one thing, it’s not all about chasing up case studies, however empowering and evocative they may be. What about getting someone to mystery shop your volunteer experience? What works for Sainsbury’s won’t necessarily work for the Sally Army, (if I may be so colloquial), but it’s an innovative way of showing your funder that once you get volunteers; you keep them, for which a cost-effective case can be made.

YouthNet last year mystery shopped a sample of volunteering opportunities on Do-it. Informal discussion groups could be another way forward – they generate spontaneous feedback, enabling everyone to contribute in a time limited period.
Not always best to call them focus groups though, unless your volunteers are market researchers. You and your peers will be able to think of other ways to capture quality I’m sure.

Don’t forget the wealth of resources available to you – such as the AVM website, the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Volunteer Management, and so on and so forth.

So, returning to my see-saw analogy, you can achieve a balance between the need to demonstrate quality and quantity in volunteer management. It doesn’t have to be one versus the other, and even if you’re the only person with any responsibility for volunteers in your organisation, you don’t have to sit on the see-saw alone.

Westminster Briefing: Volunteering and the Big Society

This post is the text of a presentation I did, on behalf of AVM, at a recent Westminster Briefing on “Volunteering and the Big Society”. Please add any comments, as we really would like to hear your views on this issue.

“Professor Mathew Hilton and his team at the University of Birmingham have been looking at the Big Society debate and they conclude that “as big government has got bigger, so has big society – they’re not alternatives”. I think they may have a point. Withdrawing national or local government support for communities will not, of itself. create the environment for a bigger and more cohesive society to develop. I hope to show that, in the world of civic engagement at least, the support, knowledge and guidance of suitable people “managing”, for want of a better word, that engagement – is an incredibly powerful enabler in the growth of community and voluntary action.

Government have been spending money on promoting volunteering for many years now but we see little effect in terms of the numbers of people volunteering. Various expensive schemes have come and gone, apparently meeting their targets and then quietly fading away. The problem is that heads are the easiest things to count – and so that is what we do. So we count a person who would have volunteered anyway, or who already does, or who will only do the few hours that the scheme requires – no more than a taster session really. After all the effort and expense – we see the latest Citizenship Survey figures falling to 24%, down 5% on last year, for people engaged in formal volunteering.

Volunteering is a valuable way to learn, and to demonstrate genuine work skills, but it does not exist for that purpose, nor should it. If funding is aimed at placing people in volunteering as a route back to work, third sector organisations may well provide it, but unless the work is real and meaningful, contributing to the work of charities and other NFPs it has no more value than digging a hole and filling it in again. The reason that volunteering is satisfying, valuable, and affirming – is that the contribution of my time, your time, volunteers’ time – achieves something, makes a difference to other people, benefits the environment or campaigns for justice and humanity in some way.

Volunteers are amazing. There is almost nothing that volunteers cannot do, but, with a few exceptions, volunteers are enabled to achieve more, deliver more and contribute more – through the support, guidance and expertise of volunteer managers. Volunteer managers, and, just to clarify, when I use this term I just mean people who manage volunteers, are the enablers that open up possibilities and use their knowledge and experience to guide volunteers. It has been clearly shown that volunteers are both more satisfied and more productive if they have the support of a volunteer manager. We are often flexible, multi-talented people, able to work strategically one minute and then to deal with a difficult personal situation the next. You might think that is boastful, but the reality is that no one else is going to say that for us. The way that volunteer managers, almost always, pass on all the credit for success, to the volunteers concerned, has contributed to our generally low profile.

Despite this, and the fact that we are employed in very small numbers, relative to the organisations we serve, we are often vulnerable in hard economic times, as boards of directors or trustees may not understand the impact that we make. I think we need to make a compelling case for volunteer managers to be recognised and valued appropriately. No organisation would disband its HR or Finance functions when funding is reduced and yet we have seen volunteer managers made redundant and Volunteering Departments drastically cut in recent times even though the charities concerned may be increasingly dependent on the contribution of their volunteers.

Volunteer Centres provide a support service to local volunteer managers and community organisations as well as being amongst the main sources of volunteering brokerage but their funding is piecemeal and still has no national backing despite all the money that has been spent on trying to increase the number of people involved in volunteering. Many Volunteer Centre staff will tell you that it is not volunteers that are in short supply; it is good quality volunteering opportunities that they need. And, in general, good volunteer managers are the source of the best role profiles and the highest quality volunteering experiences, wherever they are advertised. So I suggest that this is one place that support and funding could be used appropriately. Volunteer managers are well used to making money go a long way, so, by funding more volunteer managers, and investing in their development, a lasting and cost effective impression could be made on civil society in the UK. I suggest that both the government, and volunteer involving organisations, of all sectors, try properly resourced volunteer management, as a route to increased volunteer numbers, higher levels of satisfaction and more confident, “paid work ready” people.

Volunteer managers are a collaborative and sharing bunch of people. We set up our own association (AVM) and we help each other via our website and peer to peer, to achieve and deliver more for the volunteers and organisations we serve. We have been active in influencing government, volunteering infrastructure organisations and charities, so that the benefits of the effective management and support of volunteers become more widely known. We have also been willing to contribute to consultations and inquiries, so that the interests of volunteers and volunteer involving organisations are made known. AVM has achieved a lot in our first 3 1/2 years, but we can and must do more. We recognise that, if there is to be a strong and credible volunteer management profession, meeting the needs of civil society, then it is volunteer managers that need to take a lead on developing our own profession. However, we are not the sole owners or guardians of volunteer management and volunteering and to ensure that the volunteer management profession, to use that hackneyed phrase, is ‘fit for purpose’ we also need the wider communities involved in volunteering to support our development.

A major element of the Big Society program is the recruitment and training of 5,000 “Community Organisers” and I suggest that they will need to have volunteer management skills, knowledge and experience in abundance, in order to be effective. They will need to be able to mobilise and motivate, enthuse and guide people in a complex environment. It seems remarkable that these people will not be paid, but expected to finance themselves, as they carry out this important function. Why is it that government think that people involved with the support and enabling of voluntary and community action will be happy to work for nothing? Were this a public service in another field, the idea of them being self supporting, would not even have been considered.

Big Society principles rightly acknowledge that grass roots action is the result of people reacting to need. This is an aspect of localism and self determination: the spirit that takes action rather than moaning that “someone should do something”. Volunteer managers admire and respect this too, but our “added value” is in our experience and our knowledge. We can help volunteers to channel their energy into positive action, rather than dissipating their effort by discovering, from bitter experience, all the hard ways, illegal ways, slow ways and inefficient ways to do things. Coordination, organisation, assessing and managing risk, planning and financing are not always skills that are readily available in any group of people united by the desire to get something done. Volunteer managers fill in the gaps, often by bringing in the right skills or knowing where information and help can be found.

We cannot expect that everything will fall into place if we remove or reduce control and regulation on one hand and resources and support on the other. That would be asking Big Society to grow in a vacuum. I am suggesting that a child as promising, but delicate and underdeveloped, as this, will need encouragement and nurturing in order to thrive and grow. I believe that effective and adequately resourced volunteer management should be a vital component in the Big Society’s development and success.”

Big volunteers, and even bigger volunteer managers

Just to put a few minds at rest following the ‘open to various interpretations’ article heading, what follows is not a perspective on levels of obesity in the voluntary sector! According to The Big Society Network, The Big Society is one in which ‘individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood’.

So, where does this leave volunteers, and volunteer managers? On The definition sounds good from a volunteers’ point of view, as The Big Society is described as though it will help them achieve some of the things a volunteer manager would help them to do. For sure, not all volunteers are motivated by the prospect of gaining influence, nor are all engaged in neighbourhood level roles. Nonetheless the definition will sound harmless enough to many, perhaps justifiably so.

From a volunteer managers’ perspective? The Big Society may instinctively sound supportive, although its tangibility may become clearer over time. After all, how many volunteer managers with a commitment to good, never mind best, practice, wouldn’t want their volunteers to feel supported and enabled, or be capable of creating change?

Might as well end the article here then by saying that the Big Society is a good thing. Only thing is, there’s still an element of doubt for some… surely such support is better provided by a physical person whose role it is to support you, rather than a centralised initiative whose reach will more often than not be virtual rather than physical?

Volunteers achieve great things for every cause out there, but their achievements are that much greater when a volunteer manager is there to support them. We as volunteer managers are seldom slow to express how great our volunteers are to the powers that be… have we weakened our profession in the process? After all, we’re all human beings – none of us wave magic wands enabling us to respond to every problem with a solution, whilst self-sustaining ourselves in all the ways we need.

In order to ensure that people have a positive experience of volunteering, including via Big Society programmes, greater investment in volunteer management would help. Let’s not forget the current economic climate is one that invites an increasing dependence on volunteers for some. Greater investment means the core funding of volunteer programmes, the recruitment of knowledgeable, passionate people who can drive volunteering within their organisations, and to fund training and support around volunteer management.
Achieve all of that, and we takes steps down the road to a society where more volunteers and their organisations and clients gain positive experiences, and there’s a more widely held understanding, acceptance of and involvement in what volunteering actually is. Or, to put it another way, a Big Society by our own definition?


Mike Gale
AVM Director and
Senior Officer, Inspiration and Legacy from the 2012 Games, Volunteering England

Funding Guidance for Volunteer Management

We (Age UK and the Age Concern Federation Volunteering Partnership) have produced guidance on how to obtain funding for volunteer management (PDF). It’s primarily aimed at Age Concerns however I hope it’s useful more generically across the volunteering sector.

I don’t pretend it’s the magic answer but more a starting point. Over time I’d like to improve it so if you have any suggestions or case studies please do let me know and I’ll produce a revised edition later in the year.


Volunteering: Means to an end, or end in itself?

I’ve noticed that when we seek to understand the benefits of volunteering, we often do so in two ways: either positioning volunteering as a means to an end, or as an end in itself.

I want to just look at these two approaches and try to understand how these approaches contrast and sometimes contradict each other. But also look at how these two approaches complement each other, so that we can make the strongest possible case for volunteering whoever we’re talking to: policy makers, funders, senior managers in our organisations, or even potential volunteers.

It was a post by DJ Cronin on that got me thinking on this. His post gives a bit of context, i.e. raising awareness about the personal and social benefits of volunteering and the specific responsibility of those in volunteering development and management to get out of their “cocoon and educate”.

Volunteering as a means to an end

“Volunteer is a pay rate, not a job title” – @ChanceUK

John Ramsey’s recent post on the Association of Volunteer Managers website “The conflict between want and need” made the case that it makes more sense to view volunteering as a means to an end. He uses the specific example of managing volunteers for an organisation like Age Concern:

“Volunteering is part of our ethos. However, we are not ‘about’ volunteering, we are ‘about’ the health and well-being of older people. Volunteering does of course play a crucial role in the health and well-being of older volunteers but we do not exist to provide volunteering opportunities per se.”

So, from the standpoint of an organisation, charity or movement, volunteering’s value is in how involving volunteers enables it to meet its mission.

If you think about it, this is an incredibly rational way of coming at volunteering. Volunteers are essentially a kind of mechanism performing a particular function. As a result, it follows that volunteers should have a specific role (in the same way, an organisation employs paid staff to carry out a role that helps it deliver on its mission, not because it wants to particularly offer employment).

If this is how we explain the role of volunteers, the purpose of volunteering programmes is locked on achieving clear social impacts, the more measurable and demonstrable the better. Volunteering programmes are like carefully designed instruments, enabling the organisation or group to meet their aims and objectives.

This approach offers answers to those who question the value of volunteering, by looking at the overall effectiveness of organisations involving volunteers in meeting their global aims and objectives. For instance, it’s not about numbers of volunteers or even the personal benefits to the volunteers themselves, it’s more likely about numbers (such as key performance indicators in the jargon) like the service users who’ve been served and how successfully, etc.

This approach reminds us about the costs of effectively involving volunteers, and demands that the benefits to service users outweigh the costs to the organisation of involving volunteers. For many volunteers, the social impact of their volunteering is the key driver, beyond any benefits to them personally.

I think it’s helpful to compare this rational view of volunteering, with the conventional way of understanding fundraising. A charity raises funds to help it meet its mission, not because there is some kind of intrinsic value to fundraising above and beyond the money it raises.

The problem with this approach is that when volunteers are viewed as a means to an end, their special value is often underestimated. Volunteers true value to an organisation extends well beyond the services they help deliver. It can also place pressure to value those volunteers that deliver greater amounts, much before volunteers who may deliver much smaller amounts.

A second order problem is that very often funders are not satisfied with outcomes for volunteers in and of their volunteering, they are more interested in how volunteers will meet the needs of the service users and ultimate aims of the funding application.

Volunteering as an end in itself

Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless. – Sherry Anderson

In another sense, volunteering comes with some intrinsic benefits and value ‘right out of the box’- just as the above quote alludes to. Volunteering is in many ways an end in itself.

Volunteering inspires something more akin to a belief system in those who practise it. They believe in volunteering’s value a priori, not a posteriori. They don’t need to know the actual benefits and worth of volunteering before they do it. They don’t need all the social impact spelt out or measurable. Sure, social impact may be the intention, but it doesn’t need to be proven before a volunteer will get involved (here I’m really speaking as a volunteer myself).

Although having evidence of impact never hurts, not having it doesn’t necessarily deter volunteers from developing that kind of volunteering programme. The impact is believed, rather than known.

Viewing volunteering as an end in itself is certainly not tantamount to saying that the social impact of volunteering is irrelevant or inconsequential. It’s saying the reverse, it’s saying that a volunteering activity’s value is not dependent on its outcome.

Indeed, often the social impact of volunteering is impossible to understand out of the context of the relationships between those involved. In otherwise, often the single most important social impact a volunteer has are the supportive relationships they build with those they volunteer with (staff, service users and other volunteers). In this sense, volunteering can be an end in itself.

It’s worth considering the approach of Community Service Volunteers here:

Volunteering with CSV is a two way street. We aim to make sure our volunteers get as much out of the experience as the people and communities they help.

Arguably, CSV’s policy of rejecting no-one who applies to volunteer, stems from this belief in the intrinsic value of volunteering.

It’s ironic that while this approach of believing in the intrinsic value of volunteering may appear less rational, it’s in fact much more pragmatic. It also seems to be a more convincing explanation of what motivates volunteers, than simply because volunteer think of themselves as a means to end for the organisation.

Although we have ways of explaining how volunteering affects change, the indisputable proof can be illusive. Impact may take many years to manifest itself or transpire in all kinds of ways that are not immediately obvious, definitive or tangible. Volunteers are often far more motivated by a belief in the people they engage with, the merit of the particular cause or even a belief that the volunteering itself offers the volunteer themselves valuable experience.

As a result, the motivations for volunteering often hinge on a belief in the value of the volunteering itself. In many cases, in the absence of any clear evidence one way or the other, it comes down to the belief of the volunteer in the volunteering they’re taking part in.

The problem with this approach is that it becomes a more subjective experience which is then harder to communicate to a mass audience and general public. How do you educate people in the power of volunteering, if the best way to really understand it is to do it for yourself?

Often the strongest volunteering experiences, are highly personal. This approach also can also create challenges though in balancing the needs of volunteers with the needs of service users. It can, in a sense, create services where both service users and service providers (the volunteers) are beneficiaries. For example, this can sometimes make it harder for organisations to mobilize around their aims, whilst bringing their volunteers with them.

Joining the debate

It’s common in arguing publicly for the value of volunteering for us to present volunteering as both a means to end, as well as an end in itself. Justin Davis Smith argues this dual role in the recently published manifesto of Volunteering England. Volunteering is a means to offering services, but it’s also an end in itself offering benefits to the volunteers themselves:

Volunteering helps deliver essential public services, build social capital and develop trust between individuals and communities. It encourages integration and drives community cohesion. It’s informal and formal, cooperative and co-productive. It’s good for the individual too, improving health and well-being and providing opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge that can enhance career development or employment prospects.

I raise this debate because I think it heavily influences the way we explain volunteering to a broader public. It’s affects the way we seek to persuade the volunteering doubters and skeptics. For example, if we see volunteering as a means to an end – we tend to seek to persuade through evidence of impact. If we believe in volunteering as an end in itself, we focus on the intrinsic value of volunteering and how it fits in the concept of civil society.

Of course, in reality we take arguments from both sides when seeking to explain the value of volunteering. But I think it is interesting to consider these two approaches and routes to valuing volunteering.

Actually, it’s the fact that volunteering is as much an end in itself as it is a means to an end that makes it, and giving activities like it, special.

Originally posted on my blog here.

The elephant in the room

I happen to think that Volunteer Management is a profession. A profession in its infancy perhaps but a profession none the less. But then I would say that because I’m biased! But actually, am I right? Is there a big elephant in the room that we just don’t want to see?

Is volunteer management a profession? Something that you need a certain set of skills that takes years of experience to perfect, that only a certain type of person could do? Or is it something that actually, anyone with a basic understanding of people skills (or even actually none!) can do?

Surely if we were a profession AVM, or something like it, would have been set up a long time ago and be akin to the CIPD or Institute of Fundraising by now?

Wouldn’t a lot more CEOs have a volunteer management background as opposed to a fundraising or campaigning background? Wouldn’t volunteers mainly be managed by people who know how to manage and support volunteers rather than junior members of organisations with little or no management experience? Surely organisations would ensure that volunteer management is properly resourced?

I started a new job towards the end of last year. In my new role, I’ve had the privilege to meet a number of organisations who involve volunteers in their projects. Without these volunteers they wouldn’t be in existence. Google Haringey Shed, Cathja, Kensington & Chelsea Mental Health Carers and you can see the amazing work these organisations do.

These people transform lives. They are the embodiment of the spirit of volunteering. I bang on that the reason why we involve volunteers is to help our organisations do more. (I think my board are sick of hearing me say that!).

However, the other day someone (a volunteer) summed it up so much better. We support the individual. For me those words have so much power. We support the individual. That’s why our organisations exist and that’s why we involve volunteers. Sometimes (most of the time?) in the politics of our world, in the dog eat dog world of fund chasing, I think we lose sight of that.

Without volunteers we would either have eye wateringly high taxes or we’d have a broken society. But we have dissatisfied volunteers (see Volunteer Rights Inquiry etc), under resourced and under supported volunteer managers, projects that are living hand to mouth existences because they’ve only got three years or less funding. And yet it works! We don’t have a broken society and we don’t have high taxes.

So how much better could it be if volunteer management was a properly structured and supported profession like HR for example? How much better would it be if volunteers were properly supported and looked after? How much better would it be if projects were five or ten years funded?

Perhaps I’m reaching for a Nirvana. Perhaps my dreams are unattainable. But I happen to think and believe that our world would be so much better with a properly structured and supported volunteer management profession. That’s something that AVM wants to see, but we can’t do it on our own. To bring about a new paradigm we need to work together. We need to change the culture of our world.

I remember a song from when I was a small boy. It’s called The Elephant Song. It has a small verse that goes:

‘Listen, please listen’, said the Elephant. ‘If we want the world we know to stay alive then man and beast, we must work together, and together we will survive’.

To me it resonates so much with where we are right now with volunteer management. Let’s work together and build this profession of ours. Let this be our elephant in the room.

Originally posted in Volunteering England’s Volunteering Magazine.