How can you involve volunteers successfully in developing and delivering your strategy?

Volunteering image

The involvement of volunteers can be the difference between success and failure of your mission, but doing this effectively is an area in which some organisations struggle.  Based on experience as an Investing in Volunteers assessor, this post sets out what some of the common problems are, what volunteers bring to delivering the organisation’s objectives, and some suggestions about the practicalities of involving volunteers successfully.

Investing in Volunteers standard

There are various practices in Investing in Volunteers that address involvement of volunteers in strategy, including:

  • 1.1 The organisation has a written policy on volunteer involvement that sets out the organisation’s values for volunteer involvement and highlights the need for procedures for managing volunteers, based on principles of equality and diversity.
  • 1.3 People at all levels of the organisation have been informed of, and can articulate the organisation’s reasons for involving volunteers and the benefits to volunteers.
  • 2.4 The organisation’s annual plan includes objectives for volunteer involvement which are reviewed regularly.
  • 8.4 Volunteers are asked for feedback about their role and their involvement with the organisation.
  • 9.2 Volunteers have an opportunity to make known their views about the organisation’s work, including its policies and procedures, and to participate in decision making.

Common gaps in involvement

These include:

  • Strategies and plans mentioning volunteers but only as an input or resource and not including them in the outcomes / objectives / action planning sections.
  • Not mentioning volunteers at all.
  • Not involving volunteers in the review of services or development of plans.
  • Not being clear with volunteers and staff what volunteers contribute to delivering the strategy.
  • Not providing the systems, structures or resources necessary for volunteers to undertake their roles, including not linking volunteer managers sufficiently into management structures.
  • Not involving volunteers or volunteering measurements in reviewing progress.
  • Not linking volunteer managers into the planning process.

Being clear about what volunteers contribute

When asked what volunteers bring to organisations, as well as the obvious added capacity, common answers are:

  • A range of skills, knowledge and experience to deliver the strategy that the organisation wouldn’t otherwise have, from life and professional perspectives.
  • Connections to the local community, geographically or specific groups of people to broaden an organisation’s reach and help beneficiaries feel the organisation is “for them”.
  • Bringing a wider range of voices into the organisation to provide fresh ideas or challenge to existing practice to help with innovation and developments.
  • Improving outcomes for beneficiaries.  Volunteers have the time to spend with clients to build relationships and to meet emotional needs see How can volunteering improve health outcomes? for more information about some research on this in the health field.
  • They are someone who interacts with clients “without a clipboard” as one service user said to me, who can focus on the client’s needs without a particular agenda.
  • Volunteers help beneficiaries to feel valued and important.  It is meaningful to service users that someone is giving their time freely rather than being paid to be there – to some this is an unknown concept.

How can organisations involve volunteers in strategy?

There are various steps that you can take, many the inverse of the gaps:

  • Involve volunteers in research about your beneficiaries’ needs and evaluation of your services. Volunteers can often be the people in your organisation with most time to speak to your service users and may be told things that staff do not get to hear.  They also provide a wider reach into your local community.  This can be through ensuring you have mechanisms to ask volunteers through to involving volunteers as community researchers with a specific role to find out what people need or think about your services.
  • Set up mechanisms to hear volunteers’ voices  For some this is about involving volunteers in existing staff structures such as team meetings or awaydays, for others it’s about having a volunteer steering or advisory group, or volunteer forum.
  • Enable volunteers to feed into the development of your plan. This may be by involving volunteers in a strategic planning or leadership group through to giving volunteers the opportunity to comment on a draft plan.  Let people know the contribution that volunteers have made to the plan and what has been adopted or rejected in the development of the plan.
  • Ensure that for every strategic objective in your plan you have identified whether and how volunteers contribute towards this. Make it clear in the plan what volunteers’ roles are and be specific about how it will be delivered and what resources are required to support delivery – some of the more detailed information may be in an action plan or service- or team-level plan.
  • Communicate inside and outside your organisation what volunteers bring. This can be through staff meetings, training, individual meetings, articles or case studies on your website, newsletter or intranet, social media, or any other mechanism you use to communicate.
  • Consider how volunteers delivering services relate to the governance of your organisation. You could involve service delivery volunteers as trustees, have a trustee/trustees on the board with specific responsibility for liaising with volunteers, make a volunteer steering group a part of the board structure, or hold shared meetings and activities.
  • Involve volunteers in the regular review of your strategy throughout the planning cycle.
  • Ensure that your volunteers are well managed and get training, support and recognition. Investing in Volunteers can help you to review your volunteering practice and highlight the voice of volunteers to identify what you do well and what you can improve.  You can get a free, no obligation quote.
  • Recognise the crucial role of volunteer managers. They are likely to have a huge amount of expertise in relation to what does and doesn’t work and are vital in working directly with the volunteers to ensure that your strategy is a success.

Ideas to Impact can help you with all aspects of the process of involving volunteers in your strategy: working with volunteers to get their views and ideas about what works, involving volunteers in the planning process, supporting setting up steering groups or volunteer forums, reviewing your existing processes to identify strengths and areas for improvement, writing policies and procedures, facilitating meetings, holding good practice workshops, and coaching and mentoring.  Get in touch for a discussion, contact details and form are at the bottom of each page on the main Ideas to Impact website.

The future of VCS infrastructure

One East Midlands front cover-page-001Regional VCS infrastructure organisation One East Midlands announced last year that it intended to close, following the closure of similar networks in the East, Yorkshire and Humber and the South East.  Ideas to Impact undertook an impact and legacy report for One East Midlands, which demonstrated that many people felt there was still a need for some sort of regional infrastructure, but a lack of resources to pay for it.  This isn’t just the case at a regional level, at a national and local level infrastructure organisations are also closing down.

Our research showed that people would miss One East Midlands, in fact one of our findings was that commissioners and other public sector respondents to our survey were the most likely to say that they would miss it.  There was also a concern that its closure would affect small to medium local VCS organisations more than larger organisations or national charities who have networks into influence through other means.

Hasn’t regional Government gone?

Although regional Government has “gone” – in reality there are still bodies for the VCS to connect with at a level above local authorities – we identified Local Enterprise Partnerships, the DCLG and BiS Midlands Growth Team, East Midlands Funders Forum, Public Health and NHS England, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, regional Cabinet Office presence with responsibility for the VCS, and East Midlands Councils, although many of these don’t follow “East Midlands” boundaries so we concluded that any future support needed to have fuzzy boundaries depending on need.  Our survey found that the top roles people identified for regional infrastructure were to:

  1. Support engagement with regional or sub-regional commissioners and decision makers and other bodies
  2. Build cross sector relationships and partnerships
  3. Coordinate tenders and funding applications for programmes that are above local level, e.g. two or more cities / counties.

Can’t local infrastructure do this?

In some cases, yes, but there was general agreement across all stakeholders that despite various national programmes, including ChangeUp, Capacitybuilders and the Big Lottery’s Transforming Local Infrastructure, that local infrastructure was still patchy both in terms of services provided and the quality.  There was also some distrust about local infrastructure “competing” with frontline providers for funds.  Ironically One East Midlands’ determination to remain a “pure” infrastructure organisation is one of the reasons given for them being so highly trusted, but it has meant finding funding has been more challenging.  There is funding out there for projects, but not for “being there,” which was valued by commissioners and funders in particular because of the relationships, knowledge and trust.  Many people told us that having Rachel Quinn there as Chief Executive was key to the organisation’s success.  However, having to continually chase bits of funding is exhausting, whatever type of organisation you are, particularly if there is no core there to support this work and when the national press then accuses you of spending too much on “administration”.

What are the challenges now for the VCS and its infrastructure?

Some of the issues that came up during our research included:

1. How to engage with devolution – the picture is still unclear but it’s important for the VCS to be involved with discussions, including transformation around health and social care.

2. Consortium development and bidding for larger tenders, e.g. Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation are examples of national Government programmes tendered across different city / county areas – there are consortia in some areas, for example Reaching People in LeicesterShire and Commsortia in Northamptonshire, but there is not coverage across the region – analysing what is likely to be tendered at what value and how the VCS will be able to respond is crucial.  At the same time the emergence of new VCS Consortia could create shifting sand for existing local infrastructure organisations.

3. The need for the VCS to be more coordinated in leading change, delivering services and demonstrating impact in specific areas of work – some of the Big Lottery programmes such as Talent Match or Ageing Better have encouraged the VCS to do this, giving one point of entry that makes it so much easier for the public sector and others to refer into services and understand the pattern of provision and puts the onus on the VCS to demonstrate its collective impact rather than this happening piecemeal.   This might be better done at a local level, but perhaps would be made easier by a mechanism to share ideas and good practice at a higher geographical level.  This is a change for many VCS infrastructure organisations who deliver services based on the demand of individual organisations – there will always be a need for this type of work but it’s not always easy to demonstrate how this meets local priority need or to measure the impact.

What happens next?  Ultimately, One East Midlands was created because the local VCS saw a need and created it.  Something similar may happen again; there a lot of great people around who are strategic and good at networking.  The sector works by identifying a need and developing something to meet it – but these are challenging times that require us all to remember to look outward and not inward to identify how we can support each other.

Becky Nixon, Director of Ideas to Impact, has worked for 20 years in national infrastructure (National Homeless Alliance, now Homeless Link, and Advice Services Alliance), regional infrastructure (Engage East Midlands now One East Midlands) and most recently as Deputy Chief Executive at Voluntary Action LeicesterShire.  Andy Robinson of Langton Brook Consultants also brought his extensive senior level public sector experience to the project.  See about us for more information.

Ideas to Impact carries out a range of consultancy to support the VCS and public sector through change, including consultations, research and evaluation, impact measurement, change management, organisational development and facilitation.  These are detailed on our services and support packages pages.



Organisational healthchecks – what’s your focus?


Business Concept Hand Check The Checklist

The Big Lottery Fund has just released its VCSE Strength Checker that enables organisations to measure themselves and receive a report against five categories: sustainability, marketing and opportunities, strategy and planning, track record and capability and quality and impact.  This will be really useful for VCSE organisations and it is good to have a national benchmark.

Healthchecks can measure different things.  This post outlines my research on organisational effectiveness and the healthcheck that I developed as a result that draws on evidence from leadership and management studies, human resources research, systems theory, complexity theory, psychology and neuroscience that focuses more on how you work with your best resource – your people – to achieve your goals.

What is an effective organisation?

All organisations want to be effective, but what does that mean and how can you achieve it? There is little evidence to demonstrate any agreement about what organisational effectiveness looks like; it depends on the perspective of the person who’s judging and the perspective they are taking. For example, commissioners might consider an organisation to be effective because it’s delivering its goals but they might not be aware that it’s not able to lever in future funding, or has staff who are on the verge of burnout. An organisation might be liked by local decision makers and funded well because it is local, but in fact doesn’t deliver the outcomes for its beneficiaries. Other organisations might be good at delivering its goals, but those goals aren’t really the right ones wanted by customers or the local community (they might need help with a Theory of Change!)

Evidence from a year of desk and field research that I carried out indicated that in order to have the best chance of being effective and perceived to be so by different stakeholders, evidence suggests that the following areas are important:

  • Knowledge about user needs
  • Meeting stakeholders expectations
  • A clear plan for where you are going
  • Progress towards achieving your goals
  • Skills and knowledge of trustees, staff and volunteers
  • Good networks and connections and knowledge about where to get support
  • Sustainable income
  • Making good use of resources

Having traditional organisational policies and procedures in place can help with being better organised and coordinated, but there is a lack of evidence that they actually relate to organisational effectiveness; what is more important is dialogue, relationships, communication, knowledge, skills, a direction of travel based on understanding needs, and the organisational culture that enables people to do what is needed for service users and to spot opportunities to develop and improve.

Would you like to think about a better way of doing things?

Here is Edward Bear-page-001

Ideas to Impact has an organisational effectiveness assessment that allows you to self-assess, to identify the areas that you would like to prioritise to work on, and to get some ideas and support to implement them drawing from leadership and management and human resources research.  It focuses on how you can structure your organisation to get the best from people for example to ensure that people can use their strengths and enable them to innovate and spot opportunities for development.  It is particularly useful for organisations that think that maybe there might be a better way of doing things but would like some support to think this through.

We can use the assessment to undertake an organisational effectiveness review with you for example through an online survey, workshops or individual interviews, to identify where you are and provide advice and an action plan to help you to develop.  We can customise our approach to meet your needs, including support with implementing results from the VCSE Strength Checker or other healthcheck; for more information please contact us through the details at the bottom of our home page.


How can being on the edge of chaos help you to get your change process right?

Chaos versus Order messages

Most of us in the public and voluntary and community sectors have been going through a period of change for some time – perhaps it seems continually. But how is change best thought of and implemented? This post discusses some of the underlying issues in any change process. Japanese language distinguishes between two types of change, horshin is sudden transformational change, which may be driven by internal or external events, and kaizen is smaller incremental change that happens more gradually. You will probably experience both in your organisation at different times.

Organisations are unpredictable

Complexity theory holds that organisations are dynamic and the outcomes of activities are unpredictable: small actions can produce large changes, different outcomes can occur from similar initiatives, the world and our organisations are rich and varied and cannot be explained through straightforward linear models, and we have influence but not control over people’s behaviour. Leaders cannot force change but can support organisations towards a state that has been described as “the edge of chaos” in order to create new possibilities and to enable change to happen organically. This may seem unsettling, but the theory holds that it is on the edge of chaos that real and meaningful change can happen. It is important to stay in this space long enough for new ideas to emerge rather than to rush for a solution that may not be the right one. It is the leader’s role to communicate a vision for change, gain the confidence of the workforce and other stakeholders, and “hold the space,” whilst giving people opportunities to participate in shaping the future.

Encouraging challenge

It is important to get internal culture right. It can be easy to see people who resist change or challenge systems as being “difficult”. For people particularly in the voluntary and community and public sectors who hold strong values and beliefs it can be particularly important to be able to express their views. Too strong a culture in an organisation can lead to “groupthink” and complacency, so differing views should be sought and discussed in an open way. There are various mechanisms that can be used to ensure that everyone is able to participate in conversations, and that all possibilities are fully explored before reaching a decision.

Empowering people to take advantage of opportunities that arise

Planning is important, and engaging people from across an organisation is vital, but often things don’t go to plan, so organisations and individuals need to be agile enough to take advantage of opportunities that arise for example by accident, coincidence or luck. How empowered are your workforce to spot and act on these occurrences? Many important changes happen at the “micro-level,” which are outside the direct control of managers.

Collaborating across your organisation

Undertaking collaborative inquiry across your organisation can surface interesting ideas either around a particular theme or asking general questions about improvement. For example this could be done through “quality circles” where a group from different parts of the organisation come together to discuss an issue; through online or actual “solution boxes”; through snowball interviewing, where people in the organisation interview each other and report back; or through larger scale events involving Open Space or World Café interventions (see my facilitation page for more details). Questions can be general or specific, “How could we improve our clients’ journeys?” “How can we better organise drop in sessions?” “What might funders say about our organisation?” “What gets in the way of you doing your work?”

How can we help?

Ideas to Impact can help you to think through how you want to approach different types of change in your organisation, provide suggestions and ideas and help you to develop and implement a plan. We can also help you to run or to set up workshops and collaborative inquiries within your organisation across a range of issues.

Contact Becky through the details or form at the bottom of the homepage for more information.

Investing in Volunteers – is it masses of work?

IiV logo

I was asked this question recently as an Investing in Volunteers assessor, along with other questions around costs, benefits and price.  Investing in Volunteers (IiV) is the UK quality standard for good practice in volunteer management.  It can be gained by any organisation that involves volunteers regardless of size or sector.  This was my response; please get in touch if you want to know more.

What are the benefits?

An impact report on the standard identified that achieving IiV:

  • Raised the profile of volunteering in the organisation
  • Cemented the place of the volunteering programme in meeting the organisation’s outcomes
  • Increased pride in volunteering
  • Developed a more consistent approach to volunteers
  • Gave a sense of achievement to volunteer managers

Other benefits could include:

  • It publicly demonstrates commitment to volunteering
  • Increasing volunteers’ motivation and enhancing their experience
  • Encouraging more people to volunteer
  • Enhancing your reputation in the local community and with funders
  • Minimising potential risks arising from the involvement of volunteers.

Do funders recognise it?

Like other quality standards it can give reassurance to commissioners and funders that you have robust practices in place to manage volunteers.  I have seen one procurement exercise that specified that organisations must have Investing in Volunteers, I would be interested to know whether there are others.

How long does it last for?

Three years.

Is it masses of work?

If you’ve already got basic procedures in place as many organisations have, for example around recruitment, training, induction and support of volunteers, it’s not necessarily going to be a huge amount of work, it depends how much organisations want to put into it. Unlike other quality standards, we don’t rely heavily on policies and procedures but focus more on you demonstrating how you meet the requirement in various ways – speaking to volunteers is a key part of the assessment, so for example if you don’t think you need to have a written support or supervision policy you don’t need to have one, as long as you can tell us what you do, volunteers confirm this, and if you say that there is paperwork to support this then you do produce it (e.g. supervision notes).

We ask you to do a self assessment against the practices in each indicator, which then identifies what steps you need to take to meet the standard.  Your assessor or adviser will talk you through this to help you to decide what you should and shouldn’t do.  Areas that organisations often need to do more work around are:

  • Demonstrating how volunteering delivers their strategic plan
  • Monitoring and analysing actions to take to increase equality and diversity
  • Risk assessments and ensuring that volunteers know about risks and how to avoid them
  • Ensuring that there is a mechanism for volunteers to feed in their views / participate in decision making

How much does it cost?

The question that everyone wants to know of course, and the answer is … it depends.  The cost is worked out based on the number of your volunteers overall, number of roles and location of volunteers.  You can fill in this form for a no obligation quote.

You may be able to find funding to cover the costs, for example Lloyds TSB have identified that IiV is eligible for their Enable grant for IiV if you meet their guidelines.

Finally, if you do decide to apply for Investing in Volunteers as a result of this, please mention me in the “other” box!

Becky Nixon, Investing in Volunteers Assessor