An Open Letter to Senior Managers and Boards from leaders of volunteering

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Recent events have shown what we in the charity and not-for-profit sector know to be true – that volunteering and community engagement is and remains a universally strong spirit. People, without being asked to step in, are coming forward to give their time and share their skills, to provide practical assistance, comfort and support; ultimately creating a sense of resilience and strength.  

But in order to support these initiatives and enable people to contribute effectively it is vital to think about how to develop and provide the relevant set up. Evidence on collective efficacy has shown that without the appropriate infrastructure and support to co-ordinate efforts and offers of help, community action can dissipate rather than proliferate. 

A key element of this infrastructure I would argue is having well trained and well supported people to provide the volunteer management. 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 we need to recognise that Volunteer Managers matter as well.  

Keeping a balance between efficient, supportive volunteer opportunities with a responsive and adaptable relationship, carries right 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. At this time, this has extended into supporting volunteers who have been asked to temporarily stop their role and thinking about how we can re-engage them. Organisations which involve volunteers need to reflect on the importance of putting resources into their volunteering interventions, including equipping those who work with our volunteers. 

At a time when all organisations including charities are facing threat to their income, the value and impact which volunteers bring, extending the reach and resources and developing services and interventions which resonate within the community, really matters. As Joe Saxton from nfpSynergy said in a recent blog, “volunteers…could be at the heart of the shift” of making sure things get done.

If we are going to effectively build on the interest in volunteering which has come through this pandemic, and not lose the positives of the agile and flexible way that people have been able to get involved, organisations need to think widely and creatively about how they engage those who want to give their time – and in order to do this strategically they will need to keep the investment in volunteer management.

This is why a group made up of AVM, the Association of Voluntary Service Managers (AVSM), Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG), the Scottish Volunteering Forum and Volunteer Now have come together, convened by Rob Jackson and building on a similar alliance in the States, involving Betsy McFarland from Adisa, to write an open letter to leaders of organisations which involve volunteers  – to let them know the importance of having those who understand and lead on volunteer management at the table when discussing the future.

This is the first time we’ve worked together in this way as an alliance and I’m so proud that AVM has been part of that and hope we can bring our networks together in the future, so thanks for Rob for making that happen.

I’d like to thank Rob and Betsy who joined us at the launch of the letter and shared their thoughts and experience.

I’m proud that AVM has taken part in this important piece of work and to have been able to work across our organisations, and please do get in touch to feedback and let us know how you’d like us to promote this and support you to get the message out.

Download the letter

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Ruth Leonard is Chair of AVM, and Head of Volunteering Development at Macmillan Cancer Support.

I didn’t expect to learn this about influencing change

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:

  1. Be reliable and interested
  2. Focus on the things you can change
  3. 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.

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