The evolution of the Volunteer Centre

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Charles Darwin

There’s a sense that Volunteer Centres are being told they must change or become extinct!

The world, some say, has moved on; the future is in digital technology, more accessible and therefore more democratic. Social action can be inspired and achieved through inventive self-organising campaigns, mass-mobilising people to clean up the neighbourhood, for instance, and thereby build better communities.

All this is true – but it is not the only truth.

Let’s deal with these assumptions about the pressure to change. Volunteer Centres do change, have changed, are changing; they are responding to ever-changing environments, and always with a focus on the communities they serve.

Take the Nesta Innovation in Giving Fund: eight Volunteer Centres within the Volunteer Centre Programme are developing innovative approaches to engage more of their communities in volunteering and contribute to the Volunteer Centres’ sustainability. Eight bespoke projects which reflect changes in technology, new ideas in volunteering, and the best of partnership working with criminal justice, local government, health and business. All of which were conceived through local knowledge, expertise and connections. One of the independent Innovation Coaches from the Young Foundation appointed by Nesta, as part of the programme, wrote of the Volunteer Centres she was working with:

“I’m delighted to share that there is nothing mediocre about the vision, leadership and ambitions of the two teams delivering their Innovation in Giving projects.”

Within the Nesta Volunteer Centre Programme, Volunteer Centres have shown ‘Innovations always build on other innovations’. As part of the process they were required to demonstrate that they were aware of what had gone before and how their innovation builds on it.

Look at the national network: Volunteer Centres are part of a network that learns from one another. A recent request on the Volunteer Centres Managers Google Group for suggestions for innovative approaches to outreach (engaging more of the community in volunteering) produced an avalanche of advice and experiences from the actual to the virtual. It showed an impressive creativity and willingness to adapt, adopt, and then share. It also highlighted again the value and advantage of local knowledge, expertise and connections.

Then the crisis in funding service delivery in health and social care, a growing problem: Clinical Commissioning Groups have barely set up shop, and Volunteer Centres are introducing themselves, offering new solutions, particularly around volunteer-led preventative care, winning contracts and building relationships. This was evidenced by the quality of the recent applications we saw to the NCVO Department of Health Volunteering in the Care Homes project.

Change is not new to the national network of Volunteer Centres; it is a way of life. But adapting to change is not their only strength.

Any Volunteer Centre manager will tell you, you won’t increase community action by just signing up lots more volunteers. It’s the volunteer opportunities that count! Without well managed, interesting volunteering opportunities you will not retain your volunteers; dull or exploitative, poorly resourced or chaotic volunteer opportunities will never be filled for long. We can see from our current research that be your volunteer opportunity formal, informal, social action or micro it will always need to be thought through in its creation, knowledge in its marketing and recruiting, and support in its development.

Another Innovation Coach within the Nesta Volunteer Centres programme wrote:

“Volunteering and communities are central to current thinking in both central and local government. Research continues to show that people do still want local support to help them into volunteering. And indeed, many Volunteer Centres are the vibrant and highly effective community hubs that people say they want.”

Demand for volunteering and the services of Volunteer Centres have never been higher. NCVO accredits and brands Volunteer Centres who evidence the skills and knowledge to deliver this necessary local support (VCQA – Volunteer Centre Quality Accreditation).

Volunteer Centres support local organisations to plan, recruit and develop their volunteer programmes to achieve their aims and objectives. This is the foundation for sustainable social action. This is how we provide the structures and know-how which enable local voluntary action to build stronger communities.

Volunteer Centres are changing; they are evolving; they carry within them the DNA that will sustain volunteering initiatives to meet the challenges of the changing economic and social environment. So, let’s be realistic not only about the need to change but the capacity to change and the capacity to stay true to present strengths.

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John Carlin John is NCVO’s volunteer centre support manager. He is responsible for NCVO’s strategy for maximising the impact and sustainability of Volunteer Centres and other local organisations in England.

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