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.