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We need to change people’s perceptions of volunteering

One of the age-old debates in the volunteering movement, often raised when organisations struggle to recruit volunteers, is whether we need a new word for volunteering (for example, v’s seemingly aborted campaign that we talk about favours instead) or whether we need to change the association people have with the v word.

I’m firmly in the supporters club for the latter option. I think we’ve wasted so much time and energy over the years debating what else we might call volunteering. Energy that could have been directed into delivering a great volunteering experience for people instead.

So how might we change people’s perceptions of volunteering?

To start with, we have to understand what their perceptions are.

My firm belief – borne out of years of experience – is that the image of the old person (frequently a woman) who gives significant amounts of time with an almost super-human dedication to the organisation is what most people think of when they think of volunteers.

This is often perpetuated by the volunteer involving organisations who frequently recognise the contributions of such volunteers by publicising their achievements in the media. Consider these examples from the USA of the publicity for Jack Lindsley and Ann Hoppe.

Reading these articles I have no doubt that Jack and Ann deserve all the plaudits they get. But think about what messages about volunteering other people reading these articles might get: you have to commit for the long haul; you have to give thousands of hours of your time; you’ll still be doing it when you are 100; you’ll be asked to take on more and more responsibility etc.

My Australian colleague Martin J Cowling observes that, in his experience, about 85 per cent of media coverage of volunteers reinforces these kinds of messages about volunteering.

We need to change the narrative. We need to start putting up examples of people just like you and me. People who lead busy lives, with multiple demands on their time, yet manage to fit volunteering into their existence. People who aren’t celebrities or, even worse, politicians. Dare I say it, ordinary people doing often extraordinary things as volunteers.

We need to show people that they too can volunteer, they can accommodate giving some of their precious time to others without it demanding years of their lives.

So, here’s the challenge for 2012.

If you don’t have examples of such people who you can hold up as examples of volunteering then ask yourself if your volunteer programme is really oriented to the needs of people in the 21st century and commit to learning how to adapt your offer so you’re relevant in this modern age.

If you do have examples of real people – ordinary people – who might help to change the public perception of volunteers, then please commit to sharing those examples with others rather than perpetuating the image of the older superhero.

Here’s to a year in which we start to change people’s views of volunteering.

That was the year that was

I am writing this blog in the closing conference of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 in Warsaw, Poland.  The conference focuses on how the achievements of the year can be built on for the future to ensure a lasting legacy as well as integrating it within the next two EU years, which focus on active ageing and intergenerational solidarity next year and active citizenship in 2013.

Sadly the UK is conspicuously under-represented at the conference. I think this reflects the relatively low profile of European Year of Volunteering 2011 in the UK. There has been some good work done – look no further than the excellent work of Volunteer Centre Warrington in supporting volunteer management for example – but the year has sadly been largely invisible in the UK.

I have been lucky enough to be actively involved in the year on behalf of Volunteering England as a co-chair of one of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 Alliance working groups, exploring the issue of quality volunteering. The outputs of this work, along with those of the other five alliance working groups (legal, employer supported volunteering, recognition, value of volunteering and infrastructure) will soon be published by the alliance in the Policy Agenda for Volunteering in Europe.

Pave, the first such document of its kind, is a product of collaboration by more than 100 working group members drawn from 26 countries across Europe. It sets a roadmap for how the EU, member states, social partners (unions, media and business) and civil society itself can further develop and strengthen volunteering on the back of the achievements of 2011.

Pave was also made possible through the collaboration of almost 40 members of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 Alliance. Such collaboration between civil society organisations from across the EU has been innovative and heralded by the European Commission as a core component of the success of the Year.

So what can we learn from the European Year of Volunteering 2011 in the UK?

First, as sector organisations here in the UK potentially view each other more suspiciously and competitively as funds get increasingly scarce and leaders more territorial, the model of collaboration demonstrated by the alliance has much to teach us about how to get things done in challenging times. It is encouraging to see some infrastructure bodies working closer together but more can always be done and we must ensure this remains focused on the needs of society and the sector and not simply on organisational survival.

Second, we can commit our organisations to implementing the recommendations of Pave, both in doing the work needed to improve our own engagement of volunteers and by lobbying others to effect the change needed for volunteering to flourish. Some actions are simple, some more challenging, but all are crucial if we are to effectively engage the full potential of volunteer support for organisations rather than simply blindly pursuing increasingly scare financial resources.

2012 looks like a more challenging year for UK civil society than the one drawing to a close. Therefore, let’s not ignore or forget the learning of the European Year of Volunteering just past and instead commit to how we can ensure its legacy for the benefits of our organisations, for the sector and for wider society.

Some research on volunteering may do more harm than good

There is a wonderful scene in an episode of Yes Prime Minister called The Ministerial Broadcast, where Sir Humphrey and Bernard Wooley are discussing Jim Hacker’s proposal for the reintroduction of National Service. Sir Humphrey demonstrates to Bernard how, by asking two different series of questions, he can get his junior colleague to both agree to and oppose national service.

I was reminded of this recently in a session on influencing, run for members of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 working group, which I co-chair. A clip of this scene from Yes Prime Minister was used to illustrate the importance of changing the underlying narrative to a topic in order that people may be more favourably disposed to it.

That got me thinking about two recent reports on volunteering that have provoked some debate in the sector.

The first was the results of the latest (and last) citizenship survey on levels of volunteering which showed a slight decrease in formal volunteering and a slight increase in informal volunteering, both at levels (1 per cent) that I suspect are well within the statistical margin for error.

The second was the warm welcome given to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) Manual On The Measurement of Volunteer Work, produced in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Civil Society Studies.  In short, this document sets out a standard method for use globally to count volunteers and assign a notional wage value to their work (i.e. what volunteer effort would cost if we had to pay people to do it).

I question whether either of these pieces of costly research will make any positive difference to the underlying narrative in society about volunteering. Will they help challenge the stereotypes the public have about volunteers and volunteering? Will they make any contribution to helping organisations engage new generations of volunteers? Will they help awaken sector leaders to the potential of volunteer effort as opposed to their endless pursuit of ever more money?

Sadly, the answer is no. In fact the ILO work may even be counterproductive, as Jayne Cravens recently observed in her excellent blog.

What we need is more work like the recent Pathways Through Participation report that gives us real insight into why people engage, why they stop engaging and what we can do about it. Or more
initiatives like Orange RockCorps which is making volunteering ‘cool’. Or work like the recent report From Fundraising To Resource Raising which challenges the belief that only cash gets things done.

Only then, when a future PM asks if anything has really changed in volunteering, will their Sir Humphrey be able to confidently reply, “Yes Prime Minister”.

David Blunkett’s National Volunteer Programme leaves me cold

On 31st August, David Blunkett MP launched a reportcalling for
the creation of a new National Volunteer Programme
(NVP) as a
response to the recent urban riots in the UK. You can access his
proposalshere.

Such a programme of nationalcommunityservice for young people isn’t
new. Mr Blunkett has made such suggestions in the past. Yet this particular proposal leaves me
rather cold. Here’s three reasons why:

Lack of evidence
Rather than giving any evidence of why he feels his proposed approach would
solve the complex problems at the root of the recent unrest, Mr Blunkett justifies
his projected costs for the programme by arguing that they are drop in the
ocean compared to the cost to the nation of youth crime and re-offending. Yet Mr Blunkett fails to draw any link
between the proposed National Volunteer Programme and evidence that it would
reduce such costs to society. If
any voluntary and community sector organisation submitted such a proposal to a
funder on so dodgy an evidence base it would be immediately rejected.

More money for young people’s volunteering
The last government spent millions onv. This government is spending asmall fortune on National Citizen’s Service.
Now we are being encouraged to spend £950million on Mr Blunkett’s
NVP with no evidence that it will
solve the problems that led to the riots.

Don’t get me wrong – young people’s volunteering is an important issue. vhas done some great work as did Millennium Volunteers
before it. And, with a fraction of the budget, Orange RockCorps do similarly
great work engaging young people in volunteering. Yet young people are a
shrinking proportion of this country’s ageing population and a group that the
UK will rely upon to pay the taxes needed to meet the pension deficit, the
health and social care deficit, the national debt repayments etc. When
exactly will they have time to volunteer?

Perhaps, as was suggested by Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Prince’s
Trust, the money might be better
spent engaging the over 25’s – who volunteer much less – to engage in their
communities and provide more services for the young people many are so quick to
demonise.

Involvement of peopleknowledgeableabout volunteering
As with many such proposals, warm words are used aboutworkingwith
existing “major volunteer organisations” to make Mr Blunkett’s ideas
a reality. Yet his proposed
operational board seems to exclude agencies with expertise in volunteering in
favour of health, crime prevention etc.

Crucially, where is the emphasis on helping and supporting organisations to
provide nine-month, full time volunteering placements for young people? Is that what organisations want and need in terms of volunteer engagement? A recent article suggests it doesn’t seem to be the case for the British Red Cross.

We have to change the way we think about, engage and report on volunteers

There has been coverage in Third Sector recently of the
Third Sector Research Centre’s findings about a civic core of volunteers. If you haven’t read it, here are some of the key points:

– 31%
of the population provide 87% of the volunteer hours

– Just
under 8% of the population provide almost 50% of the volunteer hours

– 63%
of the population provide just 13% of the volunteer hours

TSRC acknowledges that how we define a topic determines the
response received. This is what
accounts for substantially different headline levels of volunteering between
different surveys. It also
suggests that true levels of volunteering may be higher than these headline
figures we so often see debated in the sector media because “voluntary action
is something we dip in and out of depending on personal circumstances”.

So what does this mean for us in terms of volunteer
engagement?

Some may take a positive view, like one of the comments to
the Third Sector online article mentioned earlier, which suggested that the
figures were very reassuring, with 19m people volunteering.

To me TSRC’s findings give some causes for concern:

– We
are reliant on worryingly few people for the significant contribution
volunteers make to our society

– Those
people are ‘traditional’ volunteers, people we have relied upon to shore up
voluntary effort because they have the time and inclination to make long term,
intensive commitments of the kind many organisations desire

– The
way we capture data about volunteering is ignoring the shifts to more flexible
volunteering, given by people in shorter bursts in order to fit with their
increasingly complex and time pressured lives

Put simply, if we are to grow a new civic core for the
future we have to change the way we think about, engage and report on
volunteers.

Instead of the dominant model sought by organisations being
one of long-term (often time intensive) volunteering, we need to think about how
we can fit what we need doing with people’s desire for more flexible, short-term opportunities to give time.

Having seen outpourings of spontaneous volunteering in the
wake of last month’s riots we should be asking how we can generate more of that
kind of voluntary effort and incorporate it into the work of our organisations,
rather than how can we convert such people to longer-term commitments.

For further reading on these issues and ideas on how
volunteering engagement might change I’d recommend a read of nfpSynergy’s 2005
report The 21st Century Volunteer and Volunteer Canada‘s 2011 report Bridging the Gap.

Is microvolunteering a digital knight on a white charger?

Microvolunteering. It is the latest next big thing in
volunteering. By giving just a few
minutes of your time to complete an action, normally via mobile technology, you
can change the world. Many
advocates see microvolunteering as the digital knight on a white charger come
to save the damsel in distress that is ‘traditional’ volunteering.

I am on record as being
sceptical about microvolunteering. Don’t get me wrong, I love new technology. I’m not an early adopter. I’d perhaps class myself as a slightly delayed adopter. I think there is potential in
microvolunteering. But I think the
current, almost zealously positive narrative fails to acknowledge some
important considerations that need addressing if microvolunteering is going to
truly be a valuable addition to a volunteer manager’s toolbox.

Here are just two: impact
and opportunities.

Impact

Is the activity someone does
waiting for a train just making them feel good about themselves or is it
actually making a difference? I’ve
raised this objection before. In
response the excellent Help From Home website published data on
microvolunteering. But in my view
that data is about outputs (what’s been done) not impact (what difference has
been made).

At a time when charities are
being told we need to demonstrate our impact more than ever, should we really
be investing time and money in new initiatives like microvolunteering without
good evidence of impact?

As Paula J Beugen, said
recently, “Erosion of the field [of volunteerism] may not be seen in the number
of volunteers, but rather in depth and continuity of service – what volunteers
are accomplishing overall for the long-term, including getting beyond
alleviating the symptoms of community problems to address the root causes of
those symptoms.”

Opportunities

Meaningful and motivating
volunteer opportunities are the key to great volunteering experiences and, as a
result, more volunteering. If
people enjoy giving time and feel they’ve made a difference they’ll come back
again and tell others about it. Organisations often struggle to create such opportunities that people
can do in a few hours. Asking them
to do this for roles that are completed in a few minutes is perhaps verging on
the unrealistic.

As Oxfam said in response to
the Giving Green Paper earlier this year “…there is a danger that
seeking technological solutions [to increasing volunteering] may lead to a
focus on mechanisms rather than the quality of the volunteering
opportunity. The first priority
should be to ensure that meaningful opportunities are a priority.”

What do you think? Are you a
microvolunteer? How have you made
a difference?

Are you a volunteer
manager? What do you think of
microvolunteering?

Have your say below.

Rob Jackson is director of
Rob Jackson Consulting

Is now the right time to address volunteer rights issues?

As some readers will know, I used to work for Volunteering
England
where, among other things, I led the secretariat for the Volunteer
Rights Inquiry
.

The inquiry’s call
to action was published in March this year and so far more than 70
organisations have signed up to the 3R promise.

The call to action progress group tasked with taking forward
the work of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry met for the first time on 17th June,
but I wonder if now is the right time to take forward the issues raised in
their call to action?

The essence of the inquiry’s work was
that it shouldn’t be so easy for volunteers to be dismissed, that they perhaps
needed better protection and that they certainly need better treatment by
volunteer involving organisations.

Then in May this year, The Independent ran an article
reporting on proposals by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to reduce the rights
of employees in the workplace. The
article reports that Osborne plans to “tear up sections of employment law so
businesses can dispose of their staff more easily”.

Just a quick glance at the comments people have left in
response to the article demonstrates the strength of feeling many people have
in response to the story.

It is this juxtaposition of government policy and Volunteer
Rights Inquiry recommendations that gives rise to my anxieties about whether it
is the right time to go forward with the call to action.

If the inquiry’s ideas are pursued now and the issues of
fair treatment of volunteers gains a much higher profile (however deserved that
is) then there is a danger that they could get associated with this politically
sensitive debate about employment rights in a society where jobs are being lost
daily. This could be very damaging
to volunteering, especially at a time of heightened anxiety about job
displacement issues.

In such a context, despite the importance of the issues the
Volunteer Rights Inquiry highlighted, I do wonder if pursuing some of them –
like a complaints commissioner for volunteering or even legislation to protect
volunteer rights – might do more harm thand good to the image of volunteering in the current
climate.

What do you think? Should we be holding off pursuing the important issue raised
by the Volunteer Rights Inquiry because of wider debates and concerns about
employment rights and job displacement?

Or is now precisely the time to address volunteer rights issues?

Rob Jackson is director of
Rob Jackson Consulting

People-raising is needed as well as fundraising

A recent article on Thirdsector.co.uk included the preliminary
findings of the NCVO’s Leadership 20:20 Commission. The key finding highlighted was that the biggest challenge
the voluntary and community sector will face in 2020 will be funding.

Perhaps you’re not surprised
by that, especially given the state of sector funding at the moment. The Voluntary Sector Cuts website alone
details 483 cuts reported so far, worth £75,541,527. The road to recovery will be a long one and come 2020 there
will still be many funding challenges for the sector to face.

However, I do worry at the
short-sightedness of the finding. To focus on the financial challenges above all else is to suggest a
mindset in the leaders of the future that isn’t that much different from the
one dominating the current sector leadership.

I would argue that a key
challenge facing the leaders in the voluntary and community sector is to move
beyond a slavish focus on money as the only substantial resource at their
disposal.

When you stop to think about
it, no organisation is going to have all the money it needs to do all the
things it wants to do, particularly in the kind of economic climate that is
going to dominate in the coming years. So, we are faced with two choices: cut back our aspirations to meet our
financial means; or find creative ways to make what money we have go further.

The Commission’s findings
suggest the former choice might be dominating people’s thinking. To me that’s not leadership
but a lack of vision leading to curtailed ambition. Instead we should be
exploring creative solutions.

I think one of the biggest
areas of potential is in volunteering.

Voluntary sector leaders
should be developing their skills in volunteerism and actively supporting and
developing people-raising as well as fund-raising.

They should be looking to
find ways to maximise the potential contribution of an increasing number of
people who have considerable professional skills that they want to use for
social good.

They should be embracing new
ways of working that incorporate the use of the most precious resource many
people have to give to charities, their time.

To do this, to move beyond a
myopic focus on funding and embrace volunteering, we need leaders who are
skilled in leading and engaging volunteers, who can add the significant value
of donated time to organisations, making those precious pennies go even
further.

Rob Jackson is director of
Rob Jackson Consulting