How Volunteer Centres can help to build enterprising communities

Kate Lee
Kate Lee is the Operations and Volunteering Manager of Blackburn with Darwen CVS. She has been involved in volunteering development for over 15 years, including more than eight years as a Volunteer Centre manager. She is currently responsible for general CVS operations, the Volunteer Centre, and its targeted volunteering projects.

In Blackburn with Darwen the economy is struggling.  Our Community Hive reverses the traditional notion of CSR by getting people to give time to provide practical help to help young enterprises grow and prosper and in doing so, encourage enterprises to provide support to communities further down the line once established.

During the pilot phase of the project, we learned that volunteers want to give time to help the local economy and support enterprises that contribute to the community and the environment as part of their enterprise. So, in this round we have been working with social enterprises or socially orientated businesses.

We’re finding that this approach can:

  • support the economy to grow
  • create opportunities for people to grow
  • tackle social issues that key intermediaries are targeting
  • contribute to sustainability of Volunteer Centres.

We’re gaining a greater understanding about how a Volunteer Centre can help to build enterprising communities, and finding new ways of generating income to help sustain the Volunteer Centre.

What’s working in Blackburn with Darwen

1. Creating volunteer banks

Get to know your volunteers – find out about the skills they can offer and you can start using an assets based approach. We’ve created a ‘volunteer bank’ for enterprises and community groups needing volunteers for one off short term tasks.  We were able to:

  • share our volunteers’ skills widely
  • give our volunteers more opportunities to use their skills in different environments.

We’re starting to support and manage volunteers directly through the Volunteer Centre. Fledgling enterprises that don’t have the knowledge, time or capacity to create formal volunteer programmes can now engage volunteers.

Our volunteer bank helped us to develop an unexpected income stream and strengthen our links with local business. Because of our track record and our bank of ‘placement ready’ volunteers, we were contracted by The Blackburn Business Improvement District (BID) team to manage volunteers for the Blackburn Festival.

This week I was at a meeting with the Lancashire Constabulary – they think that tapping into our volunteer bank could be a more effective way of reaching communities- another important potential partnership for the future.

2. Getting out into neighbourhoods

Nurture connections between people and enterprise by working more from within your neighbourhoods.

We’ve been trying to engage at neighbourhood level to spread the word and make connections. We’ve done this by:

  • introducing key intermediaries (councillors, community officers, neighbourhood police, children’s centres, social housing providers) to how the Volunteer Centre can support communities and respond to community needs
  • having a more visible presence, for example attending community fairs
  • running volunteer centre events at community venues rather than from a central base every time.

Mill Hill Community Centre CIC asked us to help them source volunteers because their attrition rate was really high. We suggested that we could help them organise a Family Fun Day to raise the profile of the Community Centre in the area. We connected them with Mums The Word CIC, another enterprise we’ve supported. They helped with running activities on the day, using volunteers we had placed with them. The Fun Day was seen as a resounding success. The profile of the Community Centre as well as the Volunteer Centre was raised, they have volunteers who can help with the running of the centre and they are seen again as a hub of the community.

3. Providing wrap-around support

We want to move beyond brokering skilled volunteers to enterprises. We’re trying to provide wrap-around support to enterprises to help them become successful by providing action learning, good practice development and sourcing funding and start up advice through our CVS.

We run learning exchanges – quarterly events where people and enterprises that are starting to involve volunteers, join a group of fellow volunteer organisers to explore the challenges they face and to generate ideas and solutions. From these events, they often take away new thinking, ideas on things to try, new relationships with other enterprises, and most importantly, a network of fellow Volunteer Organisers to call on when they have issues.

We’ve been doing more work with enterprises to help them recognise where and how volunteer skills can be best utilised and how best to identify skills gaps. This has evolved into another source of income as we’ve recently been contracted by Red Rose Recovery. It’s an organisation that supports people recovering from substance misuse to set up their own enterprises. We’re currently helping them develop a robust volunteer programme through training and coaching that will give the enterprises they support a much stronger foundation for the future.

The bigger picture and the long term

We feel that the Community Hive project has sown the seeds and created the environment for our Volunteer Centre as a whole to adapt and change, building on the strong foundation of Volunteer Centre strengths: a hub of community intelligence and local knowledge, that partners trust, and the local experts on volunteering.

The project has not been about the vast mobilisation of new volunteers. Rather, the Community Hive has:

  • created the space for volunteer skills to be better utilised, increasing  the impact achieved through volunteer effort
  • improved retention of volunteers.

generated recognition of the important role the Volunteer Centre can play in creating the connections that are key to the building of enterprising communities.

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