Keeping volunteers engaged

jacob-przeklasaPart of NCVO’s International Volunteer Managers Day 2015 series.

Jacob Przeklasa is volunteer projects manager at Crisis. He is responsible for recruiting, training and supporting volunteers for Crisis at Christmas, one of the UK’s largest volunteer-led events.

Jacob previously worked at Volunteer Centre Southwark coordinating volunteer involvement and supporting good practice of volunteer management. He is also a keen volunteer, supporting projects around youth development, mental health and community engagement.

Christmas is coming! For many that can mean the winding down of work activities, with thoughts drifting off towards the holidays. But take it from me that is not the case here at Crisis, the charity for single homeless people. We are getting right into the preparations for Crisis at Christmas, which is recognised as arguably the largest annual volunteer-led event in the UK.

The current version of Crisis at Christmas does not resemble its humble beginnings. Since 1972 we have moved away from running our Christmas centres from rundown warehouses and providing our guests with little more than food and a roof over their heads. Nowadays, we operate from state-of-the-art schools and colleges, full of amazing facilities which make our guests feel special throughout the Christmas period.

On top of food and shelter from the cold, we provide over 20 other services including healthcare, podiatry, dentistry, advice and a range of activities and entertainment. Our aim is to give our guests an inspirational experience and a route towards our year-round services, delivered either by Crisis or our partners from the sector we collaborate with. Ultimately, we want to help people on the way out of homelessness.

Volunteer leadership

Crisis at Christmas is widely recognised as something unprecedented for homeless people, but it is also unique from the volunteer management perspective. The number of volunteers involved in the project is almost unmatched by other volunteering programmes, with over 13,000 volunteers recruited and trained to support Crisis at Christmas in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Coventry.

The most extraordinary thing however, is that the actual delivery of the project is predominantly volunteer-led, with a minimal number of paid staff involved in the running of operations from 22 to 30 December. From the person who drives vans with food deliveries to our centres, to doctors, dentists, hairdressers, entertainers and even the senior volunteers running our London centres; they are all volunteers passionate about supporting the charity and our fight to end homelessness.

Being a volunteer manager for a project of that magnitude is as challenging as it is rewarding. Dealing with volunteers with such a diverse experience of the project – from first-time volunteers to those with over 20 year of involvement behind them – can sometimes feel like a daunting task.

With so many passionate feelings and even anger about homelessness, our volunteers are a group with incredibly strong opinions. But we all share the same goal, and the ethos of the project is that no strategic changes to the running of operations is made without thorough consultation with the group of our senior volunteers, who stay engaged all year round to develop the project both for guests and volunteers.

Volunteer ownership

Managing that process is as challenging as it is rewarding, and I am proud to cultivate that model of engagement. Ensuring agreement about the route the project should take with buy-in from volunteers as well as the staff members, is what makes Crisis at Christmas so distinctive.

The volunteer ownership of the project is like nothing I have ever witnessed in the world of volunteering and I believe that involving volunteers in this level of decision making on an equal basis is the best way to keep the motivation going strong. It has worked well for us for nearly 50 years so although it may not be the most straightforward way, we are happy to keep up with it.

The theme for this year’s International Volunteer Managers Day is ‘superheroes’. So, saying all that, would I consider myself a volunteering superhero?  I would leave it for you to determine who between the volunteer manager and the committed Crisis at Christmas volunteers is more deserving of that honour.

If you would like to gain some more perspective on the subject, I see no better way to do so than experiencing the project yourself. Have a look at the video from last year’s event, listen to a volunteer story and sign up to join.


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