Opportunity knocks

No don’t worry, your volunteering blogger hasn’t gone all talent show crazy. In fact my views on talent shows are well summed up by a comment heard recently when actress Cate Blanchett asked if we had an equivalent to the crime show Australia’s Most Wanted.  The reply came, “Yes, it’s called Britain’s Got Talent”.

What I want to talk about this month is volunteering opportunities. 

Putting time and effort into creating interesting and meaningful roles is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of effective volunteer engagement. Without the compensation of pay in return for time given, it is essential to create roles for volunteers that not only do the things our organisations want doing but also give the volunteers what they want – their “motivational pay cheque”, if you will.

It isn’t easy, especially as volunteers all have different interests and reasons for wanting to give their time. On top of that volunteers usually tell you what they think you want to hear when you ask them: “why do you want to volunteer?”.  That’s why so many people talk about giving to their community but rarely say what they want from the volunteering experience, even though it is much more socially acceptable for volunteering to have a bit of give and take these days.

Putting time and effort into developing great volunteering opportunities helps immeasurably with volunteer recruitment. If you have a clear idea of what you want doing then you’re likely to have a clear idea of the attributes needed to perform that task and achieve the desired result. This makes it possible to target your recruitment, looking for the right kinds of people in the right kinds of places rather than sending out broadcast messages of ‘we need volunteers’ to anyone that will listen. Smart recruiters know that a bigger problem than not having enough volunteers is not having enough of the ‘right’ volunteers.

And of course if you’ve really thought through what you want volunteers to do then you won’t commit one of the cardinal sins of volunteer management – recruiting people and them having them sit around waiting for work to do.

Sadly, this appears to be exactly the basic mistake LOCOG have made in their Games Maker volunteer programme for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.

So great volunteers opportunities are important, yet there seems to be a misunderstanding among many about what aspects of volunteerism need resourcing if we are going to get more people giving time.

Do we really need yet more initiatives like Jubilee Hour, creating yet another route into volunteering? Why is it assumed that more and more of these kinds of sites and initiatives is what’s needed to get people giving time? Don’t we risk confusing the public by providing overwhelming choice, making it more difficult to volunteer, not easier? And what happens when people try and give an hour only to find out that many organisations need volunteers who can give a greater commitment than that?

That’s why I think Nesta and the Cabinet Office have got it wrong with the projects recently awarded money by the Innovation In Giving Fund. They appear to be supporting yet more brokerage sites but largely fail to fund projects that will help organisations create meaningful and interesting opportunities that are attractive to 21st century volunteers.

What we really need is more investment of time and money in developing great volunteer opportunities, the kinds of things today’s volunteers actually want to do. We need volunteer-involving organisations not to make their volunteer management budget one of the first casualties of the cuts and we need other funders to properly understand the issues before they fork out on initiatives that may actually make things worse.

5 Responses to “Opportunity knocks”

  1. Tessa Willow

    This is a timely blog, Rob, given the recent statement from Volunteering England about cuts to funding for Volunteer Centres and the loss of their expertise in working with groups and organisations to develop and create volunteering opportunities.

  2. Chris Hornet

    What we hear, again and again, is people complaining that they want to give their time but either can’t find a suitable opportunity or are put off by the incompetence of the organisation they’ve applied to. It surely makes sense to concentrate on enabling those people to volunteer before trying to create a whole new market of potential volunteers? Unfortunately, the mistake every government has made is thinking that increased numbers of volunteers is, in itself, a good thing without thinking through what the impact of that volunteering is and how it needs to be supported to be effective and sustainable.

  3. Adrian Barrott

    Thanks for this blog Rob, and for Tessa and Chris’ comment – which I fully endorse (particularly the need to support Volunteer Centres). I’m sure that these messages will come through very clearly at DSC Volunteer Fair event in London at the end of this month (supported by VE) – plenty of really relevant topics, and I’d suggest a ‘must’ for anyone involved in volunteer management. And, hopefully, proof of the need to preserve volunteer management budgets, not cut them. The return on investment, if approached in the ways which Rob articulates so well, is well worth worth it.

  4. Anne Layzell

    I’m in London, but had a desperate email from someone outside London, semi-rural, who wanted to volunteer and had tried just about everywhere within public transport reach without luck. In London at least we have opportunities, even if matching is a challenge; more work needed on suitability of opportunities.
    Maybe the frustrated LOCOG volunteers might like to pass their time volunteering for the Olympic litter picking and graffiti removal that I saw advertised the other day… yes, I am being flippant.

  5. Vic Borrill

    I think that speculating what the Big Lottery might do next is an occupational hazard but Richard’s piece got me thinking.

    The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership has for the last four years been the lead partner on a Local Food Funded project Harvest Brighton & Hove.

    For us delivering work funded by a programme approach (where a single body holds responsibility for distribution of funding and administration of the programme) has offered some clear benefits.

    Local Food is managed by the RSWT and having grant officers who are specialists on the themed programme means they have been able to do so much more than administer the money, monitor the outputs and measure the outcomes.

    We have been able to easily find out when other places are doing similar work, have access to community food resources (saving masses of time by not reinventing the tractor wheel) and have a forum (foodecommunity) to share what we have learnt.

    We have also had a grant manager who understands what the whole Local Food programme was setting out to achieve as well as having time to dedicate to our individual project. This has helped to guide some of our decisions. And although not yet published the evaluation that Local Food are doing on the way the programme has been delivered and what it has achieved overall shows their commitment to reflecting and learning themselves.

    Not wanting to make these claims without checking with others I asked the opinions of some colleagues from other Local Food funded Beacon projects (who I know well enough to ask because I’ve met them at local food events).

    Commonwork in Kent agreed that the opportunities for face-to-face sharing and learning enabled by Local Food/RSWT has been valuable both for the immediate work and the sustainability of the work going ahead.

    Incredible Edible Todmorden added that it was also the Beacon approach that has been of great benefit . “The active involvement and detailed knowledge of the other projects shown by RSWT/Local Food has been of huge value to us and their proactive promotion of networking between us all has provided great learning opportunities”

    I would agree with Learning through Landscapes that crucial to the success of a programme approach is the selection process for Award partners (i.e. RSWT, Mind, Groundwork) which needs to ensure the programme is managed by competent leaders in the sector. This shouldn’t be seen as the Big handing over the reigns to ‘prime contractors’. In the case of Local Food and RSWT for example, it certainly appears from a grant recipient’s point of view that the programme is collaborative.

    So while I don’t know about the fulfilling lives a better start programme and locally competing to be a lead partner sounds far from ideal there is much to be gained from a programme approach along the line of Local Food.

    Finally a thought on overheads. ‘Efficiency’ should not be at the expense of ensuring that those making the grant decisions have the skills, knowledge and time to make informed decisions. Otherwise we risk that organisations who are small, new, don’t have fundraising teams or grant application experience losing out – not because their work wasn’t suitable for lottery funding but because they didn’t get the right support at application stage.

    Good luck indeed to whoever is in charge at the Lottery next and if he or she want to find out more about the comprehensive work of the Local Food Programme I suggest a visit to one of the 500 projects funded by local food – I’m sure they will get the tea and cake out.



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