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.
Here at AVM we believe that volunteer managers are vital in ensuring any volunteering effort is directed, efficient, effective and recognised, along with the person and people behind that volunteering effort. We believe that, as we often see, organisations don’t always pay attention to the volunteering relationship in the way they should. We’re here to help our members feel a little less lonely and a little more heard.
The title of this blog is quite provocative, depending on whether you read it in a positive or negative voice. I would say if you are reading this, you probably would be on the side of positivity.
During this crisis we’ve seen communities pull together and ‘volunteer’ to help their friends, families and neighbours – this isn’t new, but is always vital to any society.
We have also seen a call for organised and coordinated volunteering – that usually comes from an organisation backing. This has also been closely followed by an outcry of dismay from volunteers who have not been put to use (yet). It’s always hard to get this right from the get go, and it’s even harder to coordinate an approach when the services, infrastructure, organisations and charities you would coordinate with have been decimated, stretched and diversified. I think it is safe to say that it’s even harder to know when the future is unknown and organisations are having to focus on cash flow – they have furloughed as many staff as quickly as possible and for as long as possible, to ensure they can be here on the other side of this crisis. Unsurprisingly this has included volunteer managers. But how do volunteer managers come back from here?
It’s too early to tell if they have succeeded and that will all depend on what we think success should look like and will be very personal to each individual involved.
I have started to hold network calls with members who have been furloughed – we know those on the call are a fraction of who have been furloughed but they do come from the full cross section of sectors involving volunteers. It’s clear they feel in the dark; they understand the why but they are frustrated. They want to know that their organisation’s volunteers are being thought about during any decision making made by their organisation’s leaders (they aren’t confident they will be – but this isn’t new). If volunteers are still delivering activities on behalf of the organisation, they want to know they are getting the same care and attention they know is needed. Will the volunteering offer be the same on return and if so, will it still work? How does the volunteering offer and output continue if our volunteers aren’t willing to come back in the same way? When will volunteer managers be able to explore this and advise? What repairs to the relationship on behalf of their organisation will they need to do? Will they be heard when they make a recommendation? Will they get the support (time and money) they need? Will they be allowed to make their organisation stronger and more resilient in the future? How crucial are their volunteers in what their organisation does?
These are lots of questions, and there are very few answers at this time. Depending on the organisation and their raison d’etre, the VMs line manager and director(s) and the timeframe they are/will be working within will all play a part in what happens next.
This blog may not be the most linear in topic but then none of the conversations I am having at the moment are. We will continue to talk with and listen to our members and find ways to help them get through this unusual time.
Rachel Ball is a Director of AVM, and a volunteer manager. At time of writing, Rachel is on furlough due to impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
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?
AVM Chair Ruth Leonard’s response to NCVO’s ‘Time Well Spent’
There seems to be plenty of research telling us who does what in terms of giving time; but less about the why – and indeed the why not, so NCVO’s latest report ‘Time Well Spent: A National Survey on the Volunteering Experience’ really fills a gap. Beginning to explore the role that volunteer management plays in the overall experience is an exciting start as well!
Empowerment not management
Empowering people to make a difference in their local communities and bring about change using their skills and assets is why I am excited and passionate about volunteer management. Volunteering today is really becoming embedded in thinking about how services are delivered; including within the statutory sector. It is interesting to see within this research some differentiation between which sectors volunteers give their time to – and therefore where we can learn from each other. AVM is an organisation which supports anyone who involves volunteers, from all sectors and disciplines in order to learn, share and connect.
I believe that involving volunteers is so much more than about saving money, and that even if an organisation had all the money necessary to deliver their services they should still want to involve volunteers – because of real benefit they bring. These include:
Engaging with local community: extending an organisation’s reach and relevance
Making a difference to service users: research shows us that people are more likely to believe what they are told by a peer or volunteer than by an employee or professional
Being objective decision makers: which adds credibility to an organisation’s stance.
Specialism and focus
One of the other aspects for me is volunteers’ ability to specialise and focus; but at the same time being able to innovate and experiment. I was interested to see that volunteers themselves don’t necessarily feel that they have the opportunity to be able to do this, with over one in six reporting that they have skills and experience which they’d like to use in volunteering that they’re not currently using.
Whilst this is clearly not a large number it seems statistically worth considering from a volunteer management point of view, so that we can ensure that volunteers are able to give in a meaningful way which also meets their personal needs. People-powered services should be exactly that – powered by people not by systems or processes.
Unpaid work or service – helping people who are ‘less fortunate’
Activism – mutual aid such as self help groups and campaigning
Serious leisure – such as in the arts and culture and sports fields.
I suspect that we are culturally used to viewing people giving their time through the first lens; what we might think of ‘traditional volunteering’, generally limited to predetermined functions and selected for specific tasks; but to do so would mean that we are moving away from people’s motivations and interests and merely valuing the transactional and that which is carried out through an organisation – which I think could be a barrier to those people who come forward because they want to just do something
There is a wide spectrum of reasons for giving time, energy and experience and people do so in many ways – including to a variety of sectors as well as to none. Boundaries are being increasingly blurred between the sectors – state, charities and private – and those who want to do something to make a difference want to do just that; so it is our responsibility to help facilitate that as much as possible.
Bringing groups and organisations together in a whole system response will provide a better, more impactful outcome and also tap into the motivations and assets of the wider community in a way which can make change more sustainable.
Enjoyment should not be underrated
And this is important; one of the things we know about people who choose to give their time is that they want to be involved in something where they can have real impact and make a difference; and this report shows that is important for 90% of those who volunteer – although “I enjoy it” comes out top reason with 93%. Volunteering demographics and expectations are changing – with the older volunteers now coming from the Baby Boomer generation more used to being self-directive and in charge then their traditional, dutiful stalwart parents. In fact this report refers to research about over-committed volunteers feeling overburdened and burnt out.
Younger people are being encouraged to play a more active part in society. Both groups are keen to shape their experiences and are adept at building new services which transform lives because they are rooted in how people really think. To quote the report, we need to be providing opportunities that resonate with people’s own lives and motivations and ensure they can shape the way they get involved. This, I believe is central to ensuring people can make the difference they want to – and which can make the difference to the organisation with which they’re involved.
Volunteer management and volunteer satisfaction
I am, unsurprisingly, particularly interested in the thoughts about how volunteer management affected people’s experience in giving time. It is testament to volunteer management in its broadest sense that satisfaction with volunteering is high, with this research showing that 96% of those currently giving time are fairly or very satisfied but I don’t think we can be too self-congratulatory.
We know that heuristics such as confirmation bias can affect how people respond; and the fact that the research shows that those who have spent longer away from volunteering may be less inclined to return to it does possibly demonstrate this, with the more recently involved they have been the more likely they are to be open to encouragement; so I think it is important that we all consider how we – as a movement – stay in touch with people and keep them engaged and potential opportunities engaging.
And even with this high degree of satisfaction the research shows that over a third (35%) of the volunteer respondents think their volunteering could be better organised and around a quarter (24%) that there is too much bureaucracy. This gives leaders of volunteering something to consider – especially as, the research points out, this is something which came up in the ‘Helping Out’ survey 12 years ago. How do we ensure the necessary and relevant structure without impeding the volunteer journey and experience?
Volunteer management: it’s not HR
One way is to be clearer about where volunteer management is different from HR. Particularly as another concern from nearly a fifth (19%) of the respondents is that volunteering is becoming too much like ‘paid work’, volunteer management needs to be less about telling and more enabling and encouraging flexibility.
Volunteer managers – which means everyone who works with volunteers not just those staff members with that term in their job title – need to be developing skills at mobilising social action; and this is something which should be built into the supporting infrastructure. We owe it to our volunteers – giving their time, energy and experience – to make this gift as effective as possible. We need to recognise and enable the deep connection people feel with volunteering and the complexity of its impact on their lives through developing and supporting them – and their managers – by means of community engagement and empowerment.
The real question leaders of volunteers need to ask is whether we have created a space for enabling genuine inclusion and involvement in our programmes. In order to achieve this, new processes should to be embedded in existing systems.
A key element of this infrastructure, I would argue, is having well-trained and well-supported people to provide the day to day volunteer management, whether paid or unpaid. We are all familiar with the well-deserved accolade of volunteers to our organisations – and indeed the sector as a whole. But in order to enable volunteers to offer the greatest value and in order to ensure that there is equity offered to everyone who wants to give time to us, we need to recognise that Volunteer Managers matter as well.
Keeping a balance between an efficient, supportive volunteer programme with a responsive and adaptable relationship carries all the way though a volunteer journey. Volunteers need to be supported once they’re involved, in a way that is meaningful to them and meets their changing needs. Organisations which involve volunteers have to reflect on the importance of putting resources into their volunteering programmes, including equipping those who work with our volunteers.
Leaders of volunteers are part of the solution
We may not be part of the problem but this does not make us actively part of the solution and I believe that our role as volunteer managers is to ensure we are just that, working together with volunteers to meet the needs of the organisation through their own skills.
This includes ensuring that leaders of volunteers feel confident and competent at managing some of the conversations with senior stakeholder around risk and developing the ability to cede some of their authority to enable people with something to offer to be able to do so in a meaningful way. Part of this should be looking at how volunteers can fully be involved and feel that they are able to influence the organisation; something which, this research shows, happens less for those who are managed by a paid coordinator.
Empowering everyone who works with volunteers – people giving their time – to feel confident in their abilities and knowledgeable about how to work with an individual’s and community’s existing assets is essential – and this is why this research is so important For me, volunteer management is the platform that enables people giving their time to be engaged, supported and motivated – and ensuring that volunteer management is recognised as a skill and a valued profession is essential to the continued flourishing of volunteers and indeed volunteering.