How a virtual cuppa could expand your network

“Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, people with ideas, and people with opportunities.”

Michele Jennae

AVM members often tell us that networking with other volunteer managers is one of the reasons they join and re-join AVM each year. But we also hear many of you say you find it a challenge to find the time to expand your networks.

AVM has been looking at how we can help members expand their networks and increase connections. This month (January 2020) we are launching Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs), which we hope will help members expand their networks. If successful, we hope to run these again.

What’s a Randomised Coffee Trial?

Developed by Nesta, we first heard about RCTs through NHS Horizons School for Change (read more about them), but they are happening in organisations around the world.

So what are they? They are a simple but powerful way of randomly connecting you with another AVM member to have a conversation. Conversations are a great way to connect and learn from other people. And the great thing about a Randomise Coffee Trial is that you can do these virtually, and the conversation topic isn’t prescribed: you can talk about whatever you want.

“Networking that matters is helping people achieve their goals.”

Seth Godin
How can you get involved?

If you are interested in pairing up for a RCT, you need to be an AVM member (find out more). All you need to do is complete this simple form by 31 January 2020. In early February we will randomly match you with a partner, and introduce you to each other by email. (If you want to meet someone who is near you, please select your location and we will try to make that match.) 

It’s then over to you to arrange a phone call, a Skype/ Zoom call, a face-to-face meeting: whatever works best for you both. There’s no obligation on you beyond the conversation: it can be a one-off conversation, or the start of something more (we hope it will be the latter).

What should you talk about?

These conversations aren’t prescriptive, you can talk about whatever you want. You can them to find out about one another, your respective job roles, what you are working on now, your challenges or successes: whatever you want!

The most important thing is to be curious, and approach these conversations as a chance to learn more. 

Will they happen again?

In March we’ll ask participants for feedback, to find out what benefits people gained from their conversations. If successful, we’ll aim to run them for AVM members again.


Order your cuppa today (members only)

Networking tips for AVM events

Networking… you might love it, you may hate it, or you might fall somewhere in between these two extremes. But however you feel about it, it can be really useful for your professional development. And with conference only a week away, I wanted to share some tips on preparing to make the most of the networking time at conference. I’ve crowd sourced some of these ideas through Twitter, which I highly recommend as a great way to start networking.

Do your research


via GIPHY

Is there someone you’ve wanted to meet for a while? There are a couple of ways you can find out who is going, ahead of conference.

Eventbrite shares first name and organisation of participants, so you can check out in advance if they are going, and look out for them on the day.

If you’re on Twitter and not already following @AVMTweets (why not?) do so. People are already starting to chat about conference. You can always ask who is going to start a conversation. Or maybe someone you chat to regularly on Twitter is going to be there? Every year I get to meet people I’ve met on Twitter at conference.

This year’s hashtag is #AVM2018 so do include this in any tweets about the conference.

Try: Hi, I see that you work at Organisation X. I’ve been interested in – something you’re interested in learning more about. Could you tell me more about that?

Prepare

This year I’ve been working with my mentor on a number of areas of professional and personal development. One of which has been to be more effective at networking, as I am really not very comfortable with small talk.

Part of my mentoring ‘homework’ has included preparing ahead of events like conference, or other AVM events. Things I’ve planned include something I’ve read that’s relevant to the event, or a key project I’m working on, and this has meant I’ve found I’m now less anxious before events.

I’ve also been thinking about questions to ask others at events. Is there something tricky I’m working on at the moment? I can ask someone if they’ve had to do something similar and how they handled it.
I’ve also been working on building my courage to talk to speakers at events, or someone whose work I admire. I still find it rather daunting to talk to the ‘experts’ from the stage, but I’m getting there! I just have to remind myself they’re a person like me.

Try: Hi, I see that you work at Organisation X. I’ve been interested in – something you’re interested in learning more about. Could you tell me more about that?

A simple greeting

Starting a conversation can feel really daunting, particularly if you’re not particularly comfortable with small talk. If you’re not very confident approaching people you’ve not met before, look for someone you know – or at least have met before, even if it was earlier in the event – who is talking to someone you don’t. This can often feel less daunting.

But what if you’ve come on your own and not met anyone yet? Never fear, the weather is bound to be unexpected for the season, someone’s travel to conference was probably eventful, and if all else fails, my old failsafe is “food/ coffee/ biscuits* look good/ bad/ awful*” (*delete as applicable), something I ALWAYS have an informed opinion about (don’t worry, the refreshments have always been great at conference!).

But once you’ve got past that first chat about food, and suddenly realise you’ve not actually introduced yourself, you can learn a simple networking greeting by remembering Inigo Montoya. Inigo’s most famous greeting can be broken down into four simple steps:

  1. Polite greeting: “Hello.”
  2. Name: “My name is Inigo Montoya.”
  3. Relevant personal link: “You killed my father.”
  4. Manage expectations: “Prepare to die.”

And there you have it, a simple networking greeting: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

And don’t worry: nobody at conference is expecting an elevator pitch from you. Where you’re from and what your role is is a great relevant personal link.

Try: Hi, I’m Jo and I’m a Volunteer Manager at Organisation X. Is this your first time at an AVM conference?

Thanks to Annabel Smith for sourcing the image.

A comfortable exit

via GIPHY

When we’re at events we often want to meet more people, but sometimes our nerves can mean we find it hard to exit a conversation, either resulting in feeling we’ve overstayed our welcome, or rude when we leave. Don’t worry: most people won’t think you’re rude if you leave the conversation. And you don’t need to use comfort break as an uncomfortable exit excuse. A polite thank you and goodbye will be sufficient.

Try: Steve, it was really a pleasure speaking with you. I’m going to take a look at some of the other exhibits here, but if I don’t run into you later, I hope to see you at another event soon.

Following up with contacts

Strengthening your networks is a great advantage of AVM events. If you think that you’d find it useful to follow up with someone, ask for their business card, or let them know you’ll plan to connect with them on LinkedIn.

Try: I had a great time talking with you about X and I’d love to follow up with you later? Do you have a business card, or can I connect with you on LinkedIn, as it would be great to keep in touch?

Facilitating your networking

We know striking up a conversation with someone you’ve not met before doesn’t come easy to everyone, including volunteer managers. So this year we’ve again planned ways to help facilitate your networking experience. We’ll have discussion prompts on the walls, networking tables over lunch to discuss a variety of topics, and plenty of breaks for a cuppa and a chat.

We’ve also booked a space after conference so that those who are able to stay on can have a drink, and carry on some of the great discussions that were started during the day.

Hope to see you at conference!

Find out more

Jo Gibney is an AVM Board member, and Strategic Volunteering Manager at Anthony Nolan.

Why the need for a “volunteering framework”?

After attending AVM’s Networking Event: Embedding a Volunteer Culture within an Organisation Sabine Pitcher reflects on her own personal experience of doing just that at City Lit. Where a volunteer framework will support the strategic direction of the college by directly linking in with some of its key objectives, including bringing people together, enriching lives, and increasing community impact.

A volunteer culture and a volunteer framework go hand in hand.
A volunteer framework puts in writing the mutual commitment, so volunteers know what is expected of them and how they will find the appropriate support, ensuring that the volunteering experience adds value both to the volunteers and the organisation.
I have been working at City Lit since 2008, where nearly 30,000 adults study with us each year, most on very short courses. We offer more than 5,000 courses in total and pride ourselves on being able to cater for a whole range of sometimes quite complex access needs. Formerly Head of Student Services, I have been looking into how we can set up a volunteering framework across the college.
We have a long tradition of involving volunteers in a handful of small areas – e.g. giving ESOL students extra support with their reading or helping out at community events. Across the college, these initiatives are often not well-known and there is little imagination for what else volunteers could be involved with. I’ve always thought that’s a shame – and a missed opportunity.
City Lit is so varied and diverse that there is a lot we can offer potential volunteers. And they could help us broaden the scope of services and initiatives we provide to our students. So I have started to talk to colleagues across the organisation about their ideas and needs, and what we would need to have in place in terms of a support structure.
It turned out to be a bit of an uphill struggle.
While the initial conversations were positive – it helped that I knew colleagues from my previous role – as usual, the devil proved to be in the detail. In an organisation like ours volunteering isn’t top of anybody’s agenda and just getting everybody I’d spoken to individually to a joint meeting was a hurdle. With no immediate need, the success of the project will depend on persistence and perseverance and finding ways to illustrate to colleagues that, yes, initially they will have to put in a bit of work, but they will get something in return. This approach works if this “something” is important enough to them and isn’t overtaken by other priorities or changes.
On the plus side, I have now done nearly all the leg work. I have done my research and spoken to people in other organisations about their volunteering experiences and structures. I have drafted a framework, discussed it with colleagues, produced templates for role descriptions and done all the other “back-office” preparation. Some colleagues might have experienced this as an impingement on the way they have handled volunteering in the past – they feel that it takes their autonomy away and doesn’t do justice to their volunteers. Others, however, saw the benefits in integrating and sharing experience and expertise. In an ideal world, they would all have been involved in all the different stages, but time is usually precious. Getting them all into a room just once was a major achievement.
A framework will eventually add transparency and also ensures that knowledge and information is shared and not held by just one person with whom it could get lost. A framework doesn’t have to be a “one size fits all” – it can still allow for flexibility. This is something which we’ve explicitly agreed, for example with regards to the extent of detail in role descriptions.
My advice? Persist and persevere…
What is a volunteering framework?
It takes time to develop a framework and gain consent from all the various stakeholders in your organisation. But once it is in place, it will make your life a lot easier, and will provide a point of reference for your volunteers as well as for everybody in your organisation. Such a framework will clarify roles and responsibilities and set expectations by addressing the following elements:

  • Rationale – what does the organisation gain? What is the value volunteers contribute?
  • Benefits of volunteering – what experience will volunteers gain? How does it benefit their development?
  • Relationships – how do volunteering roles sit within or alongside paid roles? Is there transparency and appreciation?
  • Volunteering roles – what is expected of them? What is the scope of their contribution? And how are they being recruited?
  • Training and support – who provides the induction? Who can volunteers turn to if there are any problems? What training do they have access to?
  • Reward structure – how are you celebrating volunteers? Are you taking them out / can they benefit from free courses / are their achievements being made public internally?
  • Expenses – can you ensure that reasonable expenses are being paid in a timely manner? And what would those be in your specific context?
  • Management and coordination – who is in charge of the volunteering schemes? Who coordinates the volunteers and who makes decisions?
  • Communication – volunteers might not be “active” all the time; how are they being kept informed? Are they included in staff communication?
  • Volunteer involvement – do volunteers have an opportunity to contribute to the further development of the volunteering scheme?
  • Conflicts –is there a process to deal with conflict, e.g. volunteers not adhering to boundaries, or complaining about not having been accepted for a particular role? What is the protocol for volunteers to report about bullying or mistreatment (by colleagues or by your clients)?
  • Reporting – there should be a way to regularly update others in your organisation on the work of volunteers and gather feedback. (Don’t wait until you’re asked for this information.)

I would also strongly recommend that you include your unions in the debate – they can support the integration of volunteers into your staff team, and they will appreciate reassurance that no paid work is being replaced. They can also help to ensure that you have appropriately identified the benefits to the volunteers.
Don’t feel afraid to seek legal advice if ever you are in any doubt – your organisation will have a contact.
Last but not least… your volunteering framework needs a budget.
How to you get all that established?
This assumes that either you don’t yet have a volunteering scheme or there’s a need to make changes.
In many instances, the contributions volunteers make are vital for the organisation to deliver its services. There is no benefit in downplaying the gain to the organisation. On the contrary, you need to be able to prove what this gain is – your senior team might appreciate if you can express this in monetary terms. This can include funding you wouldn’t otherwise be able to attract; elements of your service for which there is no other funding available; service users you would potentially lose as a consequence; outcomes for your service users that would either improve through volunteers or deteriorate without them. And don’t forget to highlight how the work of your volunteers sits within your organisation’s strategy and goals. (If it doesn’t, this might be a debate worth initiating.)
In order to ensure that processes and procedures are adhered to, my recommendation will be to involve HR – e.g. in the initial stages of recruitment and delivering a central induction. As an organisation, we would want all our volunteers to be ambassadors of City Lit and to understand our culture and values. A dedicated volunteer manager would then work across the different departments. Depending on the scope, there might be several (part-time) volunteer managers, and different approaches might be pursued for different areas of volunteer engagement. However, I will suggest a central point of contact who stays in touch with volunteering organisations (networking is vital), disseminates information, updates documents, ensures that volunteers feel engaged etc. There’s only one thing worse than having no framework/documentation – and that’s to have outdated ones.
We are in the lucky situation to have a student counselling service. The lead counsellor will provide an additional point of call for volunteers, in addition to colleagues and managers in the various departments. This could take the form of moderated peer-support or individual mentoring where this is suitable and appropriate.
Our strategy and processes are still only in draft form, but feedback from colleagues has, so far, been positive. The challenge is to get colleagues to commit to the next steps. These include drafting role descriptions, agreeing on responsibilities and suggesting recruitment periods and are all things that can’t be decided centrally. Once the framework is completed, I foresee a section on our website “Volunteering at City Lit”. (At present, there are three separate sections and they aren’t easy to find.)
I would like to thank the AVM and the wider network for their support and inspiration. I will take my personal experience into my new job and will certainly continue to promote their work
Sabine will now be leaving City Lit and will hand over her responsibilities to the student experience team. Sabine can also be found on LinkedIn.

Volunteer led organisations

In the final part of our “Embedding a Volunteer Culture” blog series, Lynn Blackadder explores what it means for an organisation to be ‘volunteer led’. 

Is being ‘volunteer led’ essential to a pro volunteering culture? What do we mean by ‘volunteer led’?
Most charities are quite literally volunteer led, since responsibility lies with the Board of Trustees, which is usually unpaid.
But does it mean something more, such as being wholly volunteer run, or acknowledging the low staff/high volunteer ratio, or volunteers being involved in setting vision, strategy, policy and how volunteers are engaged – perhaps as representatives of the charity’s beneficiary group or customer base?
Given the importance of a ‘one team’ approach to a pro volunteering culture, how do staff feel about being part of an organisation that is ‘volunteer’ led? Moreover, how do volunteers feel about that? In the same way that it might not be useful to talk about volunteer ‘programmes’, it marks out volunteers as being different/separate. Lots of grass root community activity is volunteer led and can be a good thing, but in an organisation that employs both paid and unpaid staff, should we be talking about it being volunteer led?
Several volunteers I have worked with have expressed anxiety at the prominence of volunteers in their organisations, concerned that staff will feel disempowered. This is sometimes married with feelings that volunteers shouldn’t have a say about strategic issues – that being outside of their proper domain and, very often, their interest. And staff can feel left out when there is a focus on volunteering development – ‘what about us?’.
I’ve worked in organisations where induction, reward and recognition is better for volunteers than it is for staff. Volunteers can also be treated differently to staff, manifested in double standards – inappropriate volunteer behaviour is not dealt with for fear of upsetting a much needed team – risking the credibility of staff. We do need to make volunteers feel valued – Volunteers’ Week is a great initiative as is giving thanks/feedback regularly – but if volunteers genuinely get value from their involvement and are thanked for that, is there also a need to mark them out as particularly special (more special than staff) because they give their time for free?
Still, given that most charities have more unpaid than paid staff, it of course makes sense that volunteers have a strong voice, or at least the opportunity should be there for those who want it. Having Trustees who understand and champion volunteering is also vital – don’t assume that Trustees, as volunteers themselves, will understand volunteering. In terms of voice, there is often a gap between that senior body of volunteers and those in other roles – very often few opportunities to drive/contribute strategically, or playing key roles.
Senior managers and other staff often pay lip service to volunteering, not understanding it and its power. This ignorance can lead to suspicion of volunteer motivations (often related to job security), and misconceptions around a lack of professionalism and reliability can lead to a lack of trust and reluctance to relinquish control.
Volunteering has never had such a high profile, but some organisations still state that volunteers can’t do the same jobs as paid workers, though in practise this is rarely the case. It is difficult to see how  gardeners, researchers and retail volunteers aren’t doing the same job as their paid counterparts.
Perhaps it’s something to do with paid staff taking overall responsibility for the organisation and quality of the work, but this attitude, coupled with a lack of understanding of why people volunteer, also leads to missed opportunities to ask volunteers to do things that some consider inappropriate in other ways. As Canal & River Trust colleagues will testify, whilst engineers and surveyors are keen to share their skills and time, some of us actually do just want to pick up litter or scrub graffiti off bridges.
People will still volunteer, even if the volunteering culture isn’t great, because they are passionate and committed. But in these changing times of increased competition for people’s free time that probably won’t last for long.
This guest blog is by Lynn Blackadder, a coach and consultant with 22 years’ experience of helping organisations involve volunteers. Lynn blogs in a personal capacity.
You can find Lynn on Twitter: @lynnblackadder 

Investing in volunteering

In contrast to Lynn Blackadder’s last post in our “Embedding a Volunteer Culture” blog series, today she discusses how to best involve and create a framework for volunteers when an organisation (and its culture) is already up and running. 

If you can’t start from scratch and build volunteering in with the bricks, you need to invest time and money to affect culture change.
An organisation that has been thinking differently about volunteering for some time is the National Trust – an organisation set up by volunteers, governed by an elected, unpaid Council and Board of Trustees.
The Trust has a clear volunteering vision that aims to involve volunteers from all walks of life in all roles and at every level – shaping the Trust’s work, not just delivering it. Trust staff and volunteers are working hard to encourage their places to take a ‘one team’ approach, avoiding a culture of ‘us and them’. Two properties I have worked with – Polesden Lacey and Nymans – have achieved this by:

  • Recruiting volunteers to supervisory/coordination roles
  • Staff and volunteers designing and delivering together core induction and other training sessions. New staff and volunteers are inducted together, setting expectations and embodying the culture from the outset
  • Creating a forum or sounding board – representatives from all teams working together to take stock, give feedback and influence what happens
  • Celebrating success and rewarding achievement together
  • Creating policies that apply to all – everyone signs up to the Trust’s values and behaviours and are treated equally.

The Trust invests heavily in volunteering development to ensure that people running its places feel confident and capable of providing an excellent experience. Fully embedding a devolved volunteer management structure has been key to that. With such high numbers of volunteers at many Trust places, responsibility for the volunteering experience has become part of many roles as opposed to one.
This is essential to sustaining a pro-volunteering culture, as is raising awareness through induction and training of why people volunteer and how to get the best out of working relationships – whether or not people are directly supervising volunteers.
In any organisation I might run, I would never put someone in charge of people – paid or unpaid – without people management experience. Yet so many organisations do, and this is often a major factor affecting the volunteer experience and culture. Inexperienced people managers are expected to get results from a very diverse range of people, some of whom have, quite rightly, very high expectations of management – generally, but often based on substantial previous professional experience.
Creating one set of communications for all is also key: newsletters, daily briefings and consultations that everyone receives regardless of role. And people feel valued when we demonstrate that we listen to them: a strong team will accept (indeed seek out) open and honest conversation and feedback. Explanations as to why ideas and suggestions are/are not taken up is also vital.
This guest blog is by Lynn Blackadder, a coach and consultant with 22 years’ experience of helping organisations involve volunteers.
You can find Lynn on Twitter: @lynnblackadder 

Maintaining a volunteering vision

In the second instalment of our “Embedding a Volunteer Culture” blog series, Lynn shares the benefits of ensuring volunteer involvement from the outset as well as maintaining a clear vision of their place within an organisation.

The volunteer program springs from the Museum’s strong belief in the importance of social inclusion. Museums in the twenty first century need to actively involve people from every level of their community …. Imperial War Museum North is wholly committed to lifelong learning … the program is a vital element of our accessible learning strategy that appeals to local – as well as national – audiences and encourages community involvement.
Jim Forrester, Director, IWM North

When IWM North opened its doors to the public in 2002 they were welcomed by a team of people, a great number of whom lived locally in the then regeneration area of Trafford. Many of those were volunteers who were, as I said at the time, ‘in with the bricks’: we recruited and started to involve around 250 volunteers whilst the museum was being built, and as the above quote shows, volunteering was at the heart of the museum’s strategy.
As a multi-site charity already engaging volunteers, with a volunteer board and strong volunteer belief and leadership at Executive level, the new museum was well placed to take volunteering to new heights – both in terms of reaching non-traditional volunteers and embedding volunteering in the new organisation.
With all of these ducks in a row, the cultural expectations of staff and volunteers – existing and those being recruited – were set well in advance, and this pro-volunteering culture permeated every aspect of the museum’s operations.
Of course, people move on, and sometimes new colleagues are less aware of volunteering’s role and power. They won’t necessarily relate to or understand the culture. This is why it’s crucial that everyone coming into an organisation is made aware of that culture from the first exposure: through job adverts, taster sessions, interviews, induction and training – right through to exit interviews.
Staff and volunteers should always be inducted and trained together whenever possible. Mess facilities should be shared, and reward and recognition should apply to everyone.
This guest blog is by Lynn Blackadder, a coach and consultant with 22 years’ experience of helping organisations involve volunteers.
You can find Lynn on Twitter: @lynnblackadder