Volunteering: from the cradle to the grave

Last month saw the publication of the final report of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing. The report is presented in an engaging way and runs to a mere thirteen pages – so there’s no excuse not to read it. In fact, it is essential reading for anyone who works in the voluntary sector or works with volunteers.

The commission’s report offers some striking challenges, calling on old operating models to be discarded if the voluntary and community sector wants to thrive in the future. One of the biggest challenges is whether many organisations in the voluntary sector will finally see the need to break down the traditional silos between fundraising, volunteering, membership and so on, so that properly integrated supporter journeys become the norm and not the exception.

To quote the Commission’s report: “Charities need to prepare for this new world, moving on from ‘you give, we do’ to build lifelong, mutually beneficial relationships with their supporters.

“Voluntary organisations should develop new models that draw people into lifelong supporter relationships in which people can give and receive support at different stages of life.”

Having worked in both volunteering and fundraising contexts, I can speak with personal experience about how, all too often, fundraising colleagues look down on volunteering. Community (volunteer) fundraising is the bedrock of the income generation programmes at many organisations, yet it rarely gets any attention compared with the big guns of direct mail, online, telephone, face-to-face, door-to-door and major donor. Consider the common sector use of the word “giving” – it almost always is used to refer to the giving of money, not time, indicating the low status and importance too many staff in the sector give to volunteering.

Last month I wrote about our definitions of volunteering and how we should consider rethinking these from the volunteer’s perspective, not that of the organisation. The challenge from the commission is that we start focusing all our supporter operations – membership, fundraising, volunteering – around the individual supporter and not the organisational silos we put them in.

The supporter of today, whether young, middle-aged or older, wants a range of ways to support a cause that fit in with their lives and their interests. They wants to move between campaigning, giving money, giving time and, as the commission sets out in its report, using that organisation’s services too.

For those working in volunteering, this means engaging with colleagues across the organisation,  exploring how volunteers can also give money and being less precious about “our volunteers”.

For everyone else, this means taking volunteering seriously, seeing it as a strategically important part of an organisation’s supporter base and giving the person or people who lead and manage this resource a seat at the decision-making table.

I’ll leave the final word to the commission’s report: “We have sought to identify the actions that are now needed, to make clear the challenging questions we must ask ourselves and to point out the areas where we need to be bold enough to experiment with new ways of doing things.

“It is now for the sector to respond. There is immediate work to be done in shifting our thinking about ageing and getting prepared for the changes to come.”