What are your top priorities in volunteering?

I’ve always disliked the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s so reductionist and completely underestimates the capacity of humans to learn and develop. Wasn’t Mary Wesley in her seventies when her first novel was published?

However we all on occasions take comfort in the familiar and refuse to try something different for fear of failure. So when I was invited recently to run a workshop on volunteering at the Voluntary Sector North West conference I readily accepted safe in the knowledge that I could happily fulfil the brief of speaking for 30 minutes and answering a few questions at the end. I’ve done it hundreds of times before so no pressure there.

But for some reason I thought I would try something different. Not world shatteringly different you’ll understand, like acting it out in dance or mime, or standing on my head while juggling copies of NCVOs new strategy, but sufficiently different to cause a few butterflies in the stomach on the 10.20 from Euston.

Rather than a mini lecture, I decided to go with an open space format where participants come up with the topics for discussion. My thinking was that I was on late in the day and that delegates would have had their fill of being spoken at. And, hey, I decided surely it was time for this old dog to learn a new trick or two.

The agenda

The group set the agenda and my role was to keep time and keep the discussion moving. I asked the group to identify the three main issues facing volunteering at the moment. They came up with:

  • welfare reforms
  • how to attract sufficient resources to ensure a quality volunteering programme
  • dealing with the thorny issue of appropriate boundaries between paid work and volunteering.

I asked the group to identify three potential solutions for each topic. We only got through the first two as my time management skills deserted me. But there was a rich discussion on these and some great ideas put forward.

Welfare reforms

There was a call for greater clarity of language between ‘volunteer’, ‘placement’ and ‘work experience’, and a reassertion of the essential voluntary nature of volunteering. Local connections between Volunteer Centres and Job Centres were seen as crucial to ensure benefit staff were on top of the guidance and were giving positive messages on the contribution volunteering could play in enhancing employability. Story-telling was seen as important; capturing the examples on the ground of where volunteering is working (and not working) and feeding these through to organisations like NCVO to inform policy work and campaigning.


Attracting more resource

Discussion ranged from closer links with business, to more sophisticated analysis of the value of volunteering. There was a call to go beyond the obvious and to look at the savings volunteering brings to the public purse – in health, education, criminal justice and employment. There was also demand for continuing to explode the myth that volunteering is free,  being careful not to peddle a view that volunteers can simply replace paid staff. I drew attention to a powerful recent speech on the social value of volunteering by the chief economist of the Bank of England Andy Haldane, and an excellent report, Hidden Diamonds, on the value of volunteering in sport from Join In.

Lots to say

My anxiety had been that no one would have anything to say, and that people would come expecting me to tell them the latest NCVO thinking on volunteering and would leave feeling short changed. I shouldn’t have worried. The consensus was that the less structured format had worked well and allowed for a richer discussion. One participant summed it up perfectly. ‘We’ve probably reached the same place’, she said. ‘But rather than us sitting here thinking how great you were, we have left feeling how brilliant we are’.

What do you think?

What are your top priorities in volunteering? Please leave a comment below.

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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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