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Making the most of volunteers – how to get more out than you put in

Resources, everyone seems agreed, will be tight whoever wins the election.  So we need to make the most of all the resources we’ve got.  Volunteers are one such source, so how can we make the most of them?

Volunteering is estimated to provide about £50bn of economic benefit to the economy (about half the cost of the health service).  Volunteers are an important resource for the health service, (less so for local government so maybe there are some opportunities there). It’s estimated that around 3 million people volunteer in the health and social care sector (link to pdf, King’s Fund, Volunteering in Health and Care, 2013, p.5)

To explore this further, based on real experience, two people, Val, a volunteer and Sal, a salaried public service professional, two artificial constructs, recently had a conversation about this in the leafy expanses of my brain.  They draw on the experiences lodged therewithin to inform their views.  Here’s an edited version of what they said.

Sal – So, you’ve been volunteering for a couple of local bodies and that’s brought you into contact with quite a range of others.  How are you finding it?

Val – yeah, it’s interesting.  It’s good to be able to put something back after a career in public services.

Sal – Did they provide training in cliché delivery or did you just pick that up?

Val – I’ll ignore that.  But actually some appropriate training might have been useful.

Sal –  Sorry, shouldn’t be flippant.  And I must say we’ve valued your contribution.

Val – I mean, there are little things, of course, like not getting my expenses for a year, and having to chase a big, national organisation that ought to know better for expenses after each meeting.

Sal – Oh, right, I’ll speak to someone about that.

Val – not that it’s a big issue.  And I don’t claim for the small local journeys.  I’m OK financially.  It wouldn’t be so easy for anyone on benefits though.  But we don’t seem to have any of them so not a problem.

Sal – and you get to do interesting things, learn new skills?

Val – Oh yes, very interesting.  Well, there’s a lot of meetings.  Actually it’s mostly meetings.  And notes of the meetings.  And writing the occasional report.  Dealing with some difficult personnel issues.  Much as I was doing in my old job really.

Sal – not exactly the same though?

Val – no, not exactly.  I’m not getting paid for it now.

Sal – but they are at least making use of you.

Val – Sometimes, like when they need a community sector rep on a committee.  But what’s stupid are the times when they don’t consult you even though you could provide practical help (even if it’s just proof reading a document which ends up with mistakes).  Or even when you offer to draft a policy, that would save them time, but are ignored.

Sal – so they could use you more, but as you say, when you are involved you’re making a contribution, doing something worthwhile.

Val – oh absolutely.  With a lifetime’s experience but with a chance to stand back from the fray and not have to fight any corner in the internecine Wars of Bureaucracy, I can take a strategic view of things and see more clearly what needs to be done rather than what’s expedient for any particular service or organisation.

Sal – and how is that received in the various meetings you were moani- mentioning?

Val – Oh very well.  They smile and nod in appreciation.  They’re obviously taking it all in so that at some point they’ll start doing things differently.

Sal – I think you’re subtly telling me they take no notice.  I can see that might be frustrating.  But if the professionals don’t take notice, maybe it’s because the ideas don’t have all the distinctive benefits you imagine.  After all, the professionals have got access to more information and are dealing with these issues day in, day out.

Val – so, you’re saying ‘they’re the professionals and they know best so don’t worry your pretty little head about it’.

Sal – now Val, don’t get upset.  That’s the thing about you volunteers, you all seem to be so angry.  And I didn’t call you pretty.

Val – OK miss full-of-insight professional, why do you get involved with us volunteers at all then?

Sal – God knows (and he won’t split).  It’s not as though we asked to have a Healthwatch rep on our board.  We’ve been told to make use of volunteers as our budgets are cut to the bone, but to be honest it takes more time than it saves, working out what they can usefully do, training and briefing them, then sitting in endless meetings listening to their moans.  It’s usually quicker to do it yourself.  And they don’t have the skills.  We lose a trained and experienced member of staff and are expected to use volunteers to take their place?  And who do we get anyway?  The usual suspects, who all come with their own agendas, agendas so big it makes the 200 page ones we have for our Board look positively reasonable.  So really, volunteers – who needs them?  I ask you.

Val – I know you need to remain professional, but really I don’t think you should be so buttoned up.  Why not tell me what you really think?

Sal – ha ha.

Val – Well I better be going.  I’m going on holiday on Thursday for six weeks.  After that I’ll decide if I want to persevere with this volunteering cra- lark, but to be honest, I think I’ll probably give it up.

Sal – six weeks holiday – ‘s’alright for some.  Anyway, I’m going to speak to my boss too, see if we can’t drop the requirement to use volunteers.  She’s always saying we should be more streamlined.

Val – well I’m glad to see we’ve reached a mutually beneficial, win-win conclusion.  I think it’s a pain: time consuming, not pleasant and not worthwhile.  And you think … it’s a pain: time consuming, not pleasant and not worthwhile.

Sal – exactly, so let’s give it all up and forget the whole thing.

Val – You do know it’s nothing personal though.  Fancy a last drink before you go home, to celebrate the good times we’ve had and the freedom from it all to come?

Sal – home?  I’ve got a report to write on ‘IT Interoperability to Promote Partnership Working between Health and Local Government’ and I know sod all about IT or the health service.

Val – we’ve got this chap just started with us who is some kind of expert on ‘interoperability’ (whatever that is) – says he ‘wrote the manual’ on it.  And our Chair used to be a PCT Chief Exec in another area.

Sal – what, Frances?  I didn’t know that.

Val – they’ve both said they want to get more involved and do something more useful; do you want me to give them a ring?

Sal – you see, that’s the thing, I’ve always said there was gold in volunteers, it’s just finding the nuggets in the mountains of scrap.

Val – hard isn’t it.  I have read about some specialist, advanced techniques you can use though.  Like talking to people and listening to what they say.

Sal – Oh but had I the depths of your sarcastic wit.

Val – Actually almost all the volunteers I’ve worked with have had interesting and useful experience, whether in front line, mid-level and senior jobs in private industry, the voluntary and public sectors (such as a nurse, a health visitor, several managers, a head teacher and former heads of PCTs), or they’re experts by virtue of their practical experience of a range of health conditions either as clients, patients or carers.  They have a perspective that can be different and in some respects superior to that of the professionals (whether it’s knowing what it’s like to contact the out of hours mental health crisis team or seeing how different services do, or don’t work well together).

OK some volunteers are left floundering without support but others find their furrow and plough it for all they’re worth and to great effect, whether it’s pushing the ‘hello my name is’ campaign in a hospital or providing weekly supervision for employees of a small charity.

Sal – OK, maybe we were getting too negative. And I do appreciate the help on the report, but it is a one-off – you couldn’t get people to help like this all the time.  Why would they fight through the crap we have to face every day, for nothing?

Val – Hmm, let me think.  Let me plunder the unskilled, agenda-filled reaches of my volunteer mind.  Well, they’ve got much the same motivations as the ‘greatest asset’ you’re always talking about, your employees.  You’re not paying the volunteers but at least do what you ought to do for your employees – provide meaningful, worthwhile tasks that use their skills and stretch them, (but not too far).  Don’t expect them to be a replacement for professional staff but recognise the many valuable things they do have to offer.  Provide practical and emotional support.  Give them useful feedback and help them learn and develop.  And give genuine thanks for their contribution.

Sal – so that’s it, is it, simple as that?

Val – pretty much.  It’s what I covered in my MBA.  Wasn’t it something they taught in yours?  Or do you just not like a volunteer telling you how to do your job?

Sal – So, moving on, thanks for engaging in that joined-up, blue sky thinking.  I think we’ve identified mutual synergies and we have generated the potential for delivering outcomes for all stakeholders that we can now take to the next level moving forward.

Val – spoken like a true professional!


Interesting blog on the economic value of volunteering (referred to above):

Speech referred to in the blog, by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England

Another interesting blog on how to value volunteering:

One thought on “Making the most of volunteers – how to get more out than you put in”

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