What business can learn from the voluntary sector

We hear a lot about how the voluntary sector should become more business-like, with a sharper focus on efficiency, customer service and outcomes. And by and large we are grateful for this advice, recognising that we owe it to our beneficiaries and donors to make the biggest impact we can on our (increasingly) limited resources. However, two things repeatedly strike me about this debate. First, I would challenge almost any business to demonstrate the same level of return on investment that the overwhelming majority of voluntary groups manage on a day-to-day basis; our ability to deliver time and time again on a shoestring would be looked on favourably by many a corporate, large and small. And second, we hear very little about reciprocal learning – what we in the sector can teach business. And teach them I believe we can, particularly about how to harness the enthusiasm and commitment of our workforces.

Herding cats

Someone once described managing volunteers as like ‘trying to herd cats’, and you kind of get what they meant. It got me thinking about just what a skill it is to manage, motivate and lead groups of volunteers, who by definition are as varied as our population itself, and who, in contrast, to paid staff are free to walk away at any time they choose. Retaining the commitment, loyalty and enthusiasm of volunteers, in the absence of the wage tie which binds paid staff to an organisation, demands a fantastic array of skills. It calls for the development of a psychological contract in place of the ‘cash nexus’ and the capacity to manage diversity and nurture a level of engagement which would be the envy of any HR manager. And yet we pay far too little attention to the role of volunteer management within our organisations and invest far too little in the development, support and recognition of our volunteer managers. In these times of austerity for the sector, when the need to generate new sources of income is a must, how about large corporates commissioning the sector to teach them how to maximise this psychological contract, drawing on our experience of managing volunteers, to help them build new and more collaborative relations with their staff?

Two-way exchange

One of the giants of post-war management theory, Peter Druker, wrote a brilliant article a few years back in the Harvard Business Review, in which he argued the case for a greater transfer of learning from non-profits to the private sector. He argued that in the key areas of strategy and board effectiveness non-profits were ‘practicing what most businesses can only preach’, while in the ‘most crucial area of the motivation and productivity of knowledge workers’ he hailed them as ‘truly pioneers’, working out ‘the policies and practices that business will have to learn tomorrow’.  But there is not enough of this reciprocal learning going on. And not only is it is a huge waste of expertise and knowledge, it contributes unhelpfully to a world view which asserts that somehow the voluntary sector needs to get all its learning from business.

Learning for tomorrow

But perhaps times are changing. Hail the 2014 ‘50 New Radicals’ chosen by The Observer in collaboration with Nesta, which are trumpeted as having the capacity to make a real difference in our communities. Projects such as the Casserole Club, which helps people share extra portions of food with elderly neighbours, or Cocktails in Care Homes, which lays on drinks parties for residents within residential care settings, or Digital Mums, which provides online social media training to mothers and helps them find apprenticeships in local firms. All rely on volunteers; all are either voluntary groups or social enterprises, or most commonly a mixture of the two. And perhaps it is this blending of organisational forms which gives a clue to the future and raises the hope that the transfer of learning between business and the voluntary sector will become a more two-way exchange.

As the traditional dividing lines between organisations become blurred so increasingly the institution of the future will take on the best of behaviours and practices from all sectors – commercial, public and voluntary. Another Nesta funded project, being run in collaboration with NCVO and Blackburn with Darwen Volunteer Centre, also demonstrates this more fluid approach to the transfer of learning across the sectors. A ‘Community Hive’ has been set up which reverses the traditional notion of corporate social responsibility. Rather than the business supporting the community, the project works by recruiting volunteers to help fledgling businesses get off the ground, with the expectation that the business will commit to supporting the community once it finds its feet.

NCVO leading the way

What we need is a better flow of information between the sectors and a greater willingness from all sides to take the best from each other and apply it to their own setting. NCVO is about to launch a new service ‘Step on Board’ aimed at finding opportunities for staff to serve on the boards of voluntary groups, with a view to contributing their professional skills to the good of the community, but also to learning what voluntary groups do well and differently – in governance, in strategy and in people management – and to take back fresh ideas to their employers. And if you want to join in this conversation it is not too late to book on the NCVO/BW Trustee Conference on 10 November where over 500 trustees will meet to discuss the big governance issues of the day. We are also working with the various umbrella bodies which represent volunteer managers to see what more can be done to champion and develop this essential resource.

Druker’s celebration of the management skills which lie at the heart of voluntary organisations, and his call for a greater exchange of learning between the sectors, was first made 25 years ago. The time has surely come to speed up progress towards this goal.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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