The Diversity and Inclusion Groundhog Day…

There has been much talk about diversity and inclusion in the third sector and recently a lot of conferences and workshops and yet it seems we are still way behind the corporate world in both investment and results. A brilliant, honest observation and challenge made by Dr Helen Timbrell at the recent AVM ‘Walk this way: diversity in volunteering’ conference.

The thing that made this conference different was the invite list. AVM and AVECO worked together with their sponsors (Jump, Sport England, National Trust and Cancer Research UK) to invite both CEOs and Heads of Volunteering from charities, to come along together to think and talk about the way forwards. Matt Hyde our CEO at The Scouts and I attended, along with one of our Senior Volunteers Kester Sharpe (Deputy UK Chief Commissioner), knowing that although we were already planning on investing in this area there was still much to discuss and learn… and we certainly weren’t disappointed.

A packed agenda covering recent research, the opportunities and challenges from different organisations perspectives around the importance of leadership and investment meant there really was something of value for all shapes and sizes of charity.

As well as an inspiring start to the day led by Gus O’Donnell who highlighted the importance of the impact of wellbeing in communities as a measure there were many other ‘takeaways’ … A few of mine…

The socio economic bias

This is an area particularly important to us at The Scouts, as we embark on work to extend our reach and attract volunteers and young people from under-represented communities, was the research presented by Will Watt, from Jump Projects. Will gave a passionate and pragmatic summary of their research on in this area ‘A Bit Rich’. This really made the audience consider how volunteering is biased towards higher socio economic groups and the different motivations and barriers for different minority ethnic groups. If we are serious about attracting volunteers from different backgrounds and new communities to those we are currently serving then we need to challenge our own ‘ask’ of our volunteers and how our recruitment and appointment systems operate to be truly attractive and inclusive.

Who asks is important

I have also gone away considering…Who is doing the ‘ask’? Are we investing time and effort in bringing our existing teams along this journey to ensure that those who are our front facing team are advocates for diversity and inclusion….and are we even present in the areas we are hoping to attract volunteers from? Salma Perveen, Youth & Volunteering Development Officer at St John Ambulance, gave a genuine and touching account of her experience of becoming a volunteer ,and she told us that the most important part for her was not being made to feel different but being made to feel a part of the team: ‘volunteering felt like home’. We need to make sure that is the experience for all new volunteers.

Inclusion starts at the top

Finally but probably the most powerful messages for me came from Hilary McGrady, Director General of the National Trust, in her compelling and heartfelt address. Her key message was that you have to start at the top: leadership is key as is investment, believing and being bold. Hilary shared the Trust’s story of the last few years where they have strived to change the perception that their places are only for a certain demographic and are in fact somewhere everybody should feel welcome. Hilary shared the leadership journey that goes with such a bold drive for change including the investment required, the commitment needed from the very top of the organisation and the disruption that is sometimes needed to change mind-sets but the most important part is the belief that Diversity & Inclusion is simply about being an organisation that everyone wants to be a part of and where everyone is welcome to be.

An inspiring day that will hopefully lead to many conversations and a step change in an area that has become somewhat of a ‘Groundhog Day’.

Putting this into action

At The Scouts we are committed to being bold, we plan to invest in more staff resource and external expertise to build on and drive our work further in this area. We will strive to achieve our goals to increase the diversity of our teams, recruit volunteer’s, staff and young people from more diverse backgrounds and remove barriers to participation.
So in short, if we want to stop the ‘D&I Groundhog Day’ it’s up to us to take the lead, use the research to make the case and ask our organisation’s to be bold, invest and start ‘walking the talk on diversity’.


Donna Bennett is Head of Volunteering for The Scouts with responsibility for Volunteer Journey Transformation, Growth and Volunteer Line Manager Support. The Scouts have over 160,000 volunteers that support the delivery of Skills for Life for nearly 500,000 young people, Scouts is in its 13th year of consecutive growth and has 50,000 young people waiting to join. The team Donna leads has 60 development officers in the field opening new Scouting provisions across England to meet demand and support new provision in new communities. Donna is also building a new team to design and deliver the change programme that will transform the volunteer journey to recruit more volunteers from more diverse backgrounds so even more young people can gain skills for life.

Previously Donna was the Director of Youth and Volunteering for St. John Ambulance where she led the transformation of the organisations volunteer recruitment and induction programmes.

Empowerment not management

AVM Chair Ruth Leonard’s response to NCVO’s ‘Time Well Spent’

NCVO’s research report ‘Time Well Spent: A National Survey on the Volunteer Experience’ (source: NCVO)

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

16% say they have skills and experience they’d like to use, but aren’t currently using in their volunteering (source: NCVO)

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.

What exactly is volunteering?

There is a great piece of research which I would encourage anyone interested in this area to read called ‘A rose by any other name …’ Revisiting the question: ‘what exactly is volunteering?’ and in that the authors identify that there are three perspectives on volunteering:

  • 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

Enjoyment ranks highest among a range of benefits that volunteers feel they get out of volunteering (source: NCVO)

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

96% say they are very or fairly satisfied with their volunteering (source: NCVO)

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.

AVM responds to #bethehelpforce

AVM welcomes the recent announcement of #bethehelpforce, a partnership between Helpforce and the Daily Mail, encouraging more people to volunteer their time in the NHS in 2019. AVM believes in the power of volunteering to make a difference, not only to patients, but also to volunteers themselves, and every day we hear their incredible stories.

However, AVM is clear that volunteering should not be a replacement for fully funded public services. Staff and volunteers offer different support to the NHS due to a different working relationship. Every day volunteers of all ages and backgrounds make a huge contribution by giving their time, skills and experience to support the NHS. The real value of these volunteers is the extra value they bring on top of the care and support provided by hard working nurses, doctors and other NHS staff. Volunteers have the time to provide companionship to patients that clinical staff do not have.

While AVM welcomes this initiative, we want to stress that volunteering is not free, and that resources need to be in place to support increased volunteering. This includes volunteer managers who can provide the training and support to volunteers, rather than adding these responsibilities to already stretched clinical staff.

Time for Change: International Volunteer Managers Day 2018

Daniel Ingram, AVM Director, shares his thoughts on what this year’s International Volunteer Managers Day theme means for AVM, and leaders and managers of volunteers.

Pledges shared by delegates at our annual conference in October

Time for change – what does that mean for you? We’re keen to hear about the change you think it is time for, so please take a few minutes to complete our short survey.

This year’s International Volunteer Managers Day call to action has me reflecting on the changes I’ve experienced as a volunteer manager, how AVM is changing, and which changes we need make to develop the profession we love.

AVM’s IVM Day 17 pledge: to be the voice to empower, enable and amplify the voice of all managers of volunteers across the UK

I’ve been involved in volunteer engagement for over 10 years and a member of AVM for five of them. AVM was there when I took my first steps into strategic volunteer management, and it has been there through the ups and downs ever since.

This year change has been challenging. My role was made redundant in February and throughout this period of upheaval AVM members have been the rock I’ve clung on to. Whether that’s sharing their own redundancy story with me, putting me in touch with new opportunities, or just listening. You know who you are, thank you.

AVM pledges to connect leaders of volunteering to make change happen together

This year has also been a time of renewal for AVM. Did you spot our Chair’s blog – ‘Connecting leaders of volunteering to make change happen together’ – about the journey we’ve been on? It’s been an honour to have played a part in developing our new vision and mission with the Board, non-members and members.

They will guide our path, but can we all agree on what comes next? What changes are needed in our great profession?

One thing without doubt is that we can only answer questions like this with true authority by coming together to speak with one very loud persuasive voice!

It’s time for change. Connect with other leaders of volunteers and volunteering and let us know the changes we need to make happen together: complete our short survey now.

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

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

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

Conference tickets are selling out fast!

Have you got your ticket for the volunteer management event of the year? If not, don’t delay as tickets are selling out fast, and some of the seminars are fully booked.

If you’re still wondering if it’s for you, here are a few reasons why we think you should come to conference!

We have three fantastic keynote speakers:

  • Tiger de Souza, Director (Volunteering, Participation & Inclusion), National Trust. Tiger will be gazing into his volunteer management crystal ball to talk about Futurology: The UK trends that may impact Volunteering by 2030
  • Helen Timbrell, People and Organisational Development Consultant. Helen will be discussing how we can get past Groundhog Day, and why our leadership needs to change the conversations we’re having about volunteering.
  • Chris Jones, CEO, England Athletics. Chris will share how England Athletics have put volunteering at their heart.

We have wide choice of workshops and seminars from sector experts, to suit a wide variety of interests:

  • Mindfulness and Resilience
  • Organisational Values and Volunteering
  • Research partnerships- volunteering and academia working together
  • Rethinking the Data We Collect
  • Leadership Competencies
  • How to have difficult conversations
  • So you think you want a volunteer management system?
  • Building confidence for volunteers with support needs

Your peers recommend conference as a great way to learn, develop and build your networks.

Delegates who attended last year’s conference said:

  • “Really great keynote speakers, individually and good variety across them. Great to have peers in the sector sharing learning in workshops. Always good to hear what others are up to and have a chance to discuss challenges candidly and support each other”
  • “Workshop sessions where we could share ideas and experiences. Friendliness of organisers. Interesting final keynote speaker”
  • “Networking was great, standard of speakers was high, I felt stretched by the discussions”
  • “Networking, exchanging ideas, free range to think outside the box – not always possible in a work context!”

AVM’s annual conference is the industry leading event, bringing together Heads of Volunteering, Directors of Volunteering and Volunteer Managers from the broadest spectrum of volunteer organisations.

View the full conference details and book your tickets.

The end of the committee? Volunteering structures in a changing world

Sarah Merrington is Senior Development Manager for CIPD (the professional body for HR), recruiting HR professionals as volunteers to support job seekers and those who want to develop in their careers, and an AVM Volunteer.

conference table and chairs with three large question marks on the table

Even though I have worked in volunteer management for some time, and for several organisations, there is always one thing that has both challenged and impressed me. Local groups of volunteers running community activities for local people. It warms my heart and fills me with hope, to see people giving back to others by running activities that their friends, family, colleagues and community can get involved in.

As someone who has always sung in local choirs or played sport I have definitely benefitted from these great local ‘group’ volunteers – the ones who love the activity or the cause so much they organise things so others can feel the same.

I’ve been there, as a treasurer and an events lead for local groups near me. But now as a volunteering professional it is certainly an area which I struggle to get my head round.

Community volunteers in leadership roles for their local group are a key area of volunteering for many charities and organisations. But how people want to volunteer is changing. Modern-day lifestyles can be challenging for people to find time to get more involved. People tend to move in and out of volunteering rather than wanting to volunteer consistently for an extended period.

So it is increasingly difficult to recruit into traditional committee-based volunteering roles, which can be perceived as too time-consuming, dry or old fashioned. It seems as though many people want to be out there “doing the doing” rather than planning the organisation and undertaking governance to make the “doing” possible. 

In my experience, the main difficulties appear to be finding people to make the commitment, finding younger people and attracting diverse volunteers who better represent the community. In particular, by being unable to recruit younger members, committees remain heavily reliant on an ageing army of volunteers, hugely committed but with little opportunity for fresh ideas or succession planning.

Of course, I am generalising and there also many young, diverse and committed volunteers out there running activities for their community. But they are not attracted to the roles or organisations that I have been working for. And we need to change ourselves and our structures to encourage them to do so.

I have also found that there are issues relating to group structures where volunteers have been engaged for a long time and doing things in a certain way for often many years. There are challenges with encouraging innovation and change and driving different ways of working such as implementing new processes and systems.

How we do keep them engaged, keep them on message and remain compliant with up to date processes and procedures? How do we do this whilst also ensuring their organisational roles are interesting, simple, rewarding and empowering?

Having battled with this for a while and consistently meeting volunteering colleagues in other organisations who feel the same, it was time to do something about it. 

On 2 October, AVM supported by Sport England, will be running a workshop for anyone battling with this topic or with practical ideas and ways of solving some of these issues. This is a new networking session, but it won’t provide you with all the answers. It aims to bring us all together to share ideas, solutions and work out how, as volunteering professionals, we can move forward this common, rewarding but challenging topic.

The end of the committee? Volunteering structures in a changing world‘ is an intentionally worded title. Not because we definitely think it is the end, but because we want to prompt a debate and find people who do things differently who we can learn from.

I am excited about the speakers who bring with them a wealth of knowledge in volunteer governance, new ideas on ways local groups can run themselves and good practice in consulting, managing and communicating with local group volunteers.

But primarily it is a chance to network and share experiences with others in similar positions and help move forward conversation in this area together, rather than tackling it individually.

Please join us to engage in this debate, wearing your optimistic, solution-focused shoes!

Find out more or book your place for our event ‘The end of the committee? Volunteering structures in a changing world‘, 2 October 2018, 11:00 am – 4:00 pm, at Sport England office, London.

Sarah has over 18 years experience in project, event and volunteer management with her main area of expertise is in managing and delivering projects that promote and engage people in positive health and environmental behaviours. The majority of these have been established to increase communities’ physical activity levels and to improve nutritional habits. She has developed programmes across a range of different settings and population groups within local communities, schools and youth groups, workplaces, general practice and higher education. Volunteers have always been at the heart of her programmes, whether student representatives running sports clubs in universities, community volunteers and activists driving forward local change or members of an organisation looking to give back to their sector. Over the last year she supported Cycling UK to write their new 5-year volunteering strategy and ensure that volunteers were central to their organisation. She is now Senior Development Manager leading on mentoring for CIPD (the professional body for HR), recruiting HR professionals as volunteers to support job seekers and those who want to develop in their careers.

We need to talk – handling emotions and challenging situations with volunteers

Laura Elson is a freelance consultant and a self-confessed volunteering geek. Currently consulting with England Netball and First Tech Challenge UK, Laura has been working in the volunteering sector for 15 years, and is a member of AVM.

I met a brilliant colleague of mine for coffee last week and straight away I could tell something was on her mind. It turned out she was preparing for an incredibly difficult conversation with a volunteer. She’d already taken three or four days to prep, sought advice and still was absolutely dreading it. After 15 years working with volunteers and volunteer managers it’s absolutely still the bit of my job I find the hardest. Lucky for me I’d just been to an AVM event and had some fantastic new tips to share with her!

Volunteers are passionate people determined to make an impact on causes they love. And as volunteer managers we are passionate about volunteers, doing everything we can to support them to feel they are making a difference. As that vital link between organisations and volunteers it often falls to us to have those difficult conversations. And for a group of self-confessed people pleasers it’s really, really tough.

So, it’s no wonder that this event on a hot Tuesday in London was packed with over 50 people looking to learn more. AVM has grown massively since I first joined about ten years ago and it was great to meet and learn from amazing people with one thing in common – we all dread those difficult chats.

Kicking off the day Mandy Rutter gave a fascinating talk and workshop. As a psychologist and consultant specialising in the neuroscience of emotion and conflict Mandy talked us through the science of emotions. When we feel stressed our natural fight or flight response can drag us back into the primitive parts of our brains. She suggests breathing deeply, asking questions, using positive psychology and managing your stress well to boost resilience and stay in the logical parts of our brains.

Next was the ever brilliant Kathryn Palmer-Skillings, London Volunteer Services Manager at Macmillan who shared their approach to volunteer programme design and supporting volunteer managers through challenging situations. Firm boundaries, short volunteer placement periods with a fixed end date, peer support, training and 24 counselling access are built into the project design. This ensures volunteers are supported emotionally from the offset, rather than waiting for a difficult day. Kathryn reminded us being honest and human about what you’re feeling with those around you is powerful and necessary.

Adam Williams from St John Ambulance talked us through their fantastic, bespoke training on handling difficult messages for volunteer managers. The St John approach was simple, well researched and effective. His advice is to prepare, choose the right setting and keep your message ABC (accurate, brief and clear).

Debbie Usiskin and Gilly Fisher from North London Hospice closed the day with a wonderful session and workshop exploring emotional resilience. Increasingly research is exploring the idea that volunteering is a form of emotional labour. One of the most useful takeaways from this session was a kind of self-care bingo asking how frequently we had gone for a walk, taken time for ourselves or made sure we ate regular healthy meals. A quick glance around the room showed that we’re not very good at this. Would these conversations be any easier if we were taking good care of ourselves as well as our volunteers?

Over the years if there’s one thing I’ve picked up it’s s that the best way to handle tricky conversations is to listen to your volunteers when designing projects at the start. At Parkinson’s UK we ensured that all our roles were clear, provided a comprehensive online induction and a brilliant problem-solving policy. At England Netball, we’re about to launch an innovative new strategy that will build a movement to empower women, based on our volunteers’ motivations, preferences and need to achieve not what we need to deploy them to deliver.

Volunteering is emotional and so we can never avoid these conversations altogether but after attending this brilliant #AVMLearn event I feel a lot more confident to manage those tricky conversations with compassion and logic.

I saw my colleague again this week and she was much happier – the learning from the day had been really useful. So the next time you have to have one of those chats do apply some of these ideas and although I’m not promising it won’t still be tough, it might not be as quite as tough as you think.

AVM members can view videos from previous events  once logged into their AVM account. Watch event videos.

Laura Elson is a freelance consultant and a self-confessed volunteering geek. Currently consulting with England Netball and First Tech Challenge UK, Laura has been working in the volunteering sector for 15 years. She designed and scaled up prison based volunteer centres with NCVO, Nesta and Volunteer Centre Leeds, and has led on volunteering at Parkinson’s UK, England Netball and a wide range of charities. She gained qualifications in governance, voluntary sector management and an MSc in Non Profit Marketing from the Centre for Charity Effectiveness where her final project focused on revolutionizing volunteer recruitment techniques. Laura is a member of the Association of Volunteer Managers and the Institute of Fundraising and supports organisations with volunteering strategy and infrastructure, good governance and writing successful funding bids. When she’s not working or volunteering you can find her on a netball court.

Reflections on the CIPD London Branch event: HR and Volunteer Management

CIPD Central London Branch joined up with the Association for Volunteer Managers on 20th June 2018, for a panel discussion to address the thorny issues and burning questions around the relationship between HR and volunteer management.

AVM Director Karen Ramnauth shares her reflections on the event

The event started with a casual vote of those present, which mantra did we subscribe to? Is HR and volunteer management a marriage of convenience, or a match made in heaven? By the end of the evening I don’t think anyone had changed the mind-set they had arrived with, but I found the intervening dialogue thought provoking.

My journey home on a hot tube train gave me time to reflect on my own journey into the field of volunteer management. So many of us have freely admitted that we fell in to the profession, by happy accident, or changed roles from HR management, or even training. For me, I’d just accepted that this was my job and never really considered my circumstances before.

Two observations from the panellists struck me in particular:

Firstly, the acknowledgement that HR professionals operated with pride in a quasi-legal environment.

Secondly, the very open ended question, as to whether volunteer management was attracting the right quality of individual.

"As volunteer managers, it is our decisions today which will define precedent, and best practice tomorrow in this burgeoning profession."

When I changed my career direction I had a choice to make. I could have continued on to a Masters in Human Resources Management and joined the ranks of HR professionals, or I could and did go on to become a Volunteer Manager. In all honesty, having already practised as an Attorney-at-Law, the prospect of working in a quasi-legal environment held rather less appeal than it might have in different circumstances. I also knew that volunteer management as a profession was on the cusp of a great spurt in growth and popularity. I found myself seduced by what I still believe to be the greater challenge – managing people and change in a less regulated environment. There is also greater freedom to be found in defining the rules before choosing to follow them. In my role the boundaries are less defined by legislation; rather by the balance between risk management and good quality engagement.  As volunteer managers, it is our decisions today which will define precedent, and best practice tomorrow in this burgeoning profession.  That’s a powerful responsibility to hold!   

I’ve always valued the importance of human connections, and I wanted to work with people with a genuine passion for their role, to understand their motivation, provide the right support to make their volunteering experience worthwhile and see them relish their successes. My team is comprised of professionals from several disciplines. Despite the unique skill mix, we all have an equal seat at the volunteer management table, and we thrive. To be a good volunteer manager you need to be a strategist (to manoeuvre through your organisation’s internal politics), an engager and an enforcer. And an idealist too – when you think you’re ready to give up, instead you just keep going!

I owe a great deal of thanks to the organisers of the event. Through attending, I’ve realised that I didn’t fall into this profession; subconsciously I chose it. That realisation has made all of my discretionary labour worthwhile, strengthened my passion for volunteer management, and renewed my commitment to the aims and objectives of AVM. Cheers CIPD!

Karen Ramnauth is by day Voluntary Services Manager at South East Coast Ambulance Service. She is also a  Director at Association of Volunteer Managers.

The panel was chaired by CIPD and AVM member Elizabeth Wigelsworth, Branch Development and Volunteer Manager of CIPD.

The panel included: 

  • AVM’s Chair Ruth Leonard (also Head of Volunteering Development, Macmillan Cancer Support; 
  • David Webber, Head of People and Organisation Development at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust; 
  • Magda van Leeuwen, Member Engagement Specialist at the Royal Society of Chemistry; and 
  • Mike Feszczak, Business Engagement Manager at Volunteering SA&NT in Australia.