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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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How being more volunteer-savvy can help charities’ long-term goals

This opinion piece is almost 2 years old

Caroline McKenna on making the most of volunteering

At a time when organisations and the people working in them are saying they want to connect to their communities more, how can charity leaders expand how they source volunteers from businesses as skilled avenues of resource and support?

And having agreed that more volunteers would be useful in the face of ever-decreasing grant funding and annual budgets, how can leaders make the most of all types of volunteer, whether skilled, unskilled, physical, virtual, micro or one-off placements?

I’d say it starts with rethinking what volunteering means and appreciating that it’s modernising. We know that the traditional community volunteering (wall-painting, gardening, food deliveries) will always be needed, but how can else can we enjoy the enthusiasm of employee volunteers?

How too can we ask the right questions?  Ideally, you’d be securing your volunteers from purpose-led businesses with similar values to that of your charity. But the demands of everyday firefighting and operational survival can stop leaders from stepping back and considering what kind of support is needed for the long-term, let alone how to go about finding it.

In this period of ‘the great resignation’, organisations are facing extreme skill shortage and recruitment difficulties, so I think it’s worth asking:

  • Have I recently revisited our long-term vision, and prioritised it over everyday operations so that I can identify long-term skills gaps, not just funding gaps?

  • Have I asked anyone, including business groups like the IoD or the local Chamber of Commerce, for specialist help in the areas where the board lacks the expertise?

  • Have I thought about the role volunteering could play in creating long-term, sustainable partnerships with local or same-values businesses?

  • What would a less transactional partnership with a supportive business look like and which person/role in that business should I focus my efforts on building a relationship with?

  • On an operational note, have we put ourselves in the shoes of the CSR/HR managers in our target businesses? Have we as a team thought about how we fit in to their ESG goals and can we articulate how working with us might help them achieve those goals?

One of these emails could mark the beginning of a significant relationship and open doors to potential new recruits to your cause. No matter how busy we are, we could all be better at asking for help and not just relying on our own ability to get things done. 

But we can’t do that until we’ve taken time to reflect on precisely what type of support will help to deliver the vision. It’s back to Michael Gerber’s E-myth principle of leaders needing to think like entrepreneurs and needing to work on the organisation (and its vision) and not in it. Charity leaders can’t afford not to create space and time in the diary for this level of strategic thinking. If it doesn’t get done, you’re probably going to get what you’ve always got, and given the current climate, there’s a serious risk of not having a charity at all a year from now.

This challenge is as critical as day-to-day operational work. Rather than limiting yourself to “what work has to be done right now?” and “we can’t find time and money to train anyone new, so let’s just do it ourselves”, I’d say revisit the vision, then return to the present and identify who best can help you get there. For many charities, that expertise doesn’t sit on the executive board and may never do.

Businesses containing lawyers, accountants, marketers, HR specialists, data and tech experts and social media gurus have those skills in abundance. And I know first-hand how many hundreds of them have employees who want to contribute more to their communities by volunteering those skills. The need for a wider sense of purpose has never been so strong. It’s also an ideal time to tap into the rise of ‘pandemic-turned-ongoing’ regular volunteer support – the once-furloughed volunteers who never stopped giving.

Recent research we carried out with 45 leaders of medium and small-sized charities on board with Social Good Connect confirmed the biggest (beyond funding) challenges as:

  • sourcing volunteers - not just finding specialists and landing the right skills mix, but volunteers who meet the demographic needs of the beneficiaries. Finding volunteers willing to fundraise is another key challenge.
  • raising awareness for their cause – this has been hampered by the pandemic and the limitations of being online only, and there’s a ‘crowded market’ issue.
  • recruiting trustees - specifically getting the right, often specialist skills and the right mix of skills. Ensuring diversity of gender, age, ethnicity is also important, as is engaging trustees in fundraising, and keeping trustees committed and active.

Since founding our employee volunteering platform in 2020, I’m regularly witness to how skilled volunteers are using their time and expertise to solve these unique operational needs and challenges. Invaluable skilled professionals have been happily volunteering their expertise, both on a project basis and long term. Others became trustees and help charity boards build invaluable business connections.

These include DC Thomson and 20/20 Business Insight - respectively providing ongoing social media help and a new trustee for SmartSTEMs, the education charity (main image). Morton Fraser lawyers have helped youth sports charity Edinburgh BATs navigate the complexities of applying for official charity status, Direct ID used data skills to help young data students get employment-ready through DataKirk and Thorntons lawyers help a cancer support charity provide vital long-term befriending support. In less skills-focused community group volunteering projects, wealth management SME Wells Gibson committed a team of volunteers to a street clean-up for the Dundee Heritage Trust (pictured below) and veterinary imaging specialists IMV committed a team to tackle the clearing of a donations space at Glasgow’s Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice. The list goes on, and that list began because the leaders of those charities asked searching questions about what they really needed, and they asked for help.  It’s always worth it!

Caroline McKenna is CEO and founder of Social Good Connect and accelerated the launch of this Dundee-based social enterprise in response to the pandemic. The digital search and match platform connects charitable organisations to skilled volunteers from private sector businesses. Since an early launch during the first lockdown, 300 charities have joined the movement and are receiving volunteer help from employees in over 50 businesses in all types of sector.  In Summer, Caroline will launch The Charity Lounge at Social Good Connect for leaders of non-profit organisations to enjoy peer advisory group discussions around decision-making, facing challenges and exploring opportunities.

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