|Charity Leaders’ Exchange|
Volunteering involving organisations are sitting on a gold mine of ideas, information, innovation and creativity, yet it seems to me that more could be done to capitalise on this untapped reserve. We are quick to invest in ways to increase income generation, but do we invest in getting the most from our volunteer resources? We are great as a sector in attracting new recruits to volunteer, this is great, but once we have spent the money recruiting and training, do we follow through to garner the best return on this investment?
I do not mean to delve into how we induct, support, and deploy volunteers, I have to leave a little for future blogs after all. What I refer to is the often untapped reserve of knowledge, ideas, creative ability that volunteers bring. Sure, we can all apply a volunteer’s skill to a particular role, and in that way volunteers make a huge contribution. But by focussing so heavily on the good practice of volunteer role description, sometimes we see volunteers according to these carefully defined roles, rather than as wonderful multifaceted individuals. Organisation statisticians may say that x number of volunteers helped x number of clients to complete x number of activities. This may be deemed a wonderful success, I am not one to argue. But I simply ask, what else could we have done if we were able to tap into the non-task related abilities of those volunteers? If we have a volunteer mentor, who happens to be a talented photographer, do we identify and make use of these hidden talents for our promotional work?
Volunteering is a competitive market place. Volunteers will move from role to role, good cause to good cause. There are many reasons for this transience. But amongst the reasons I hear are ‘I want a new challenge’, ‘I want to try something new’, ‘I want to use other skills’ or worst ‘I feel I am not being used to my full potential’, or ‘I do not feel trusted’. So as successful volunteering organisations we need to be smart about how we offer scope for volunteers to move beyond their core roles, offer a volunteering career path where volunteers can grow within our organisations, and offer channels whereby they can feel listened to and where their creative ideas can be captured and harnessed.
This brings me back to the gold panning. Volunteering organisations have to find ever more productive ways to pan for this volunteering goldmine in the new era. In fact, who would use a pan these days when there are wonderfully effective metal detectors? The most enlightened volunteering teams are now investing (and it need not be expensive) in technology to help them get the very best from their volunteers. I am not suggesting we stop using face-to-face dialogue and support to develop volunteers, this is essential, but we should also be making effective use of chat rooms, discussion forums and blogs to engage volunteers. Now we cannot involve everyone in developing a policy or a procedure, but rather than issuing procedures on a static website, why not post it on an e-form where volunteers can not only access it easily, but can also comment on how practical it is on the front line? Yes, these need a little moderating, and you will need resources to make the change. But think how richer your work will be if you engaged 100% of your people power rather than just a few central managers in developing your organisation.
Often local volunteers have innovative solutions to common problems. But organisations have few means for sharing this new wisdom; so countless volunteers and staff spend valuable time inefficiently trying to solve the same problem independently of each other. Is it not a great use of organisational resource to facilitate the sharing of such ideas rather than re-inventing the wheel, or worst still, inventing the wheel in a board room in your HQ? E-forums offer an amazing opportunity to share ideas horizontally across the organisation, thus saving thousands of hours for the cost of a little central moderation.
As I speak to colleagues across the sector, I am often bewildered that so few can tell me how many volunteers they have, what skills they have, or have no way to report on the most basic workload statistics. Many are unable even to contact all their volunteers direct through a central database. Yet, if you ask organisations about HR statistics they often have a much better understanding. This to me suggests an industry-wide lack of imagination about the value of proper volunteer information management. In these fast moving times we need to be able to contact volunteers at a mouse click to involve them in campaigns, or send vital information to them without bogging down managers in pointless couriering of messages. We need intranets whereby volunteers know where to find information rather than systems where information is cascaded up and down the organisation clumsily by word of mouth or paper.
So, I guess this is a call to arms to my colleagues in the volunteer sector who have not yet embraced the value of a small investment in volunteer management and communication tools: ignore these opportunities and you will miss out on a host of riches that volunteers bring to the organisation. Ditch that pan, and join the technical revolution and we’re all be richer for it!