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Responding meaningfully to the commitment of volunteers

Most charities rely upon a corps of volunteers to help their causes. Please don’t take their goodwill for granted.

The very nature of charity, and the finances of charities themselves, means that most rely upon volunteers to raise funds, promote their cause or “man” their operations. Yet how seriously do many charities take the task of really managing relations with their volunteer force and showing them they are valued and their views respected?

At the heart of managing relations with volunteers is understanding what motivates them. Since there is no financial incentive (and often quite the reverse) to volunteering, you need to understand why they want to help you.

It sounds obvious, but people will only volunteer if they are getting something back from it. That’s not selfish, merely fact. So why do they volunteer at all? Obviously the reasons will vary according to whether your charity is cause-related, amenity or community-based. But the main reasons for volunteering are:

  • It’s a cause they believe strongly about.
  • They want alternative pastimes outside of work, or post working age.
  • It’s part of a corporate or planned support for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
  • It’s something where they can apply their professional skills, pro bono, or seek professional development.
  • Family ties, allegiances and experiences bind them/draw them in.
  • They just want to meet people.

So the principal motivation is not just to “give something back”, but to seek an emotional return on the time and effort invested, whether in a job well done, a feeling of making a difference, or deriving a personal connection with the cause: it could even be part of someone’s professional development.

Who volunteers?

The Office for National Statistics and the Community Life Survey data shows that in the 15 years between 2000-2015 the proportion of people in the population volunteering at least once a year has remained close to 40% of those surveyed. While this percentage appears positive, volunteering once a year can hardly be said to constitute a solid volunteering commitment.

More tellingly, the average amount of time each volunteer commits has dropped over that same period, down by 8% for men (to c.68 hours a year), and by 4% for women (to c.95 hours per year). Granted, we have had a significantly depressed economy since 2008, but it’s hard to deduce how this has affected participation rates.

Perhaps confounding the perceptions of the older generations, volunteer participation rates in the 16-24 year old age groups are higher than for other generations – and climbing – while participation rates aged 55 and over are decreasing. Positively, participation for those aged 35-54 seems to be on the up.

There are massive differences in participation rates between age groups, genders and income levels. Men are less likely to volunteer than women – and to devote less time than women; and lower income women are the more likely to volunteer. But there remain many challenges to acquiring and retaining volunteers’ attention in a crowded charity marketplace. So much for the Big Society (remember that?)

Engaging with your volunteers

Thanking volunteers is a welcome acknowledgement of the role they play, but is probably not enough for the majority. Most now want their views listened to and acknowledged. But, as you can tell from the analysis above, the age, gender and socio-economic profile of your volunteers may mean that you’ll need to think carefully about how you communicate with existing and prospective volunteers.

People now expect to be engaged, whether via social activities or social media, or whether it’s seeking people’s thoughts and ideas before setting a clear path, and clearly communicating it (preferably in person). To do otherwise is to run the risk that:

  • The volunteers will inadvertently misdirect efforts or interpret things their own way.
  • They act as unwitting detractors for your cause.
  • They’ll end up as a public kicking post for a less visible executive.
  • They’ll leave.

The arrival of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in late May 2018 also means that many charities will need to think more carefully about their mass mailing activities to supporters and volunteers – in favour of activity which generates real engagement.

Perhaps at this point I should “declare my hand”. I have been a volunteer in four charities over the years (sometimes concurrently), employed by another for five years, and the director of yet another for seven years. So this is a personal and professional perspective from both sides of the fence.

An example

As an example, the UK charity Two Wheels for Life (formerly Riders for Health UK) has operated for 30 years through open engagement with its supporters and volunteers. Its cause is based around providing motorcycle transport and training for rural health workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Co-founders Barry and Andrea Coleman invite supporters to annual planning days, and to hear how the charity is expanding operations across sub-Saharan Africa.

This core support and engagement from its supporters has paid dividends through tough times – including support to overcome an attempted takeover. But throughout, the charity has been able to rely upon a core of active volunteers and supporters to carry it on.

In the words of Andrea Coleman: “I co-founded Riders for Health 25 years ago. All the dedicated individuals worked hard but it soon became clear that volunteering was so much more than a commitment of time. Enduring friendships have been built and even new families created. We now have volunteers whom I have seen grow from babies!

“During the recent, very painful, attempted takeover of Riders for Health UK, the volunteers stood firmly with us. That loyalty carried me, personally, through some emotional times. More importantly, they worked to get the organisation, in the shape of Two Wheels for Life, back on its feet. We carry on supporting the neglected work of managing vehicles in very harsh conditions and so healthcare can reach even the most remote communities in Africa. We have done something amazing together.”

As a strong supporter of Two Wheels for Life, I have been lucky enough to meet first hand the people the charity’s work serves, the African health workers who benefit, and the leaders of its several African operations. For me, that’s cemented the voluntary commitment of many of the charity’s supporters. They’re impassioned and they’re involved - not merely informed.

In some charities in which I have been involved, the core team’s commitment to the charity has struggled to communicate its passion beyond that core – with the risk that the rump of work and reliance rests upon a few. The danger is that this “core” becomes too overburdened, or detached – which becomes self perpetuating.

Some ideas….

The arrival of GDPR may force many charities to put aside “round robin” mailings in favour of other supporter engagement activities. That may be no bad thing. Here are some other ideas to conjure with:

Glean volunteers’ feedback. Often the volunteers, like the checkout worker in your local supermarket, may have a truer view of the charity’s workings “on the ground” than either management or trustees. Volunteers’ feedback on users’ or customers’ reactions may be invaluable in shaping your operations or propositions.

Working or coffee sessions with the volunteers in small groups can be a direct and personable way to get feedback – or moderate the inevitable zealot! You could even work alongside volunteers for a couple of days each year, to assess the mood on the ground.

Seek volunteers’ views on the way forward. People are more likely to engage with activities or initiatives which they feel they’ve had a hand in shaping.

Consider the age profile of your volunteers. Social media like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram can provide a visual and thus emotional engagement, especially when done consistently.

Get volunteers directly involved. Like the Riders for Health trips to visit its operations in Africa, the opportunity to experience the cause at first-hand, rather than just raise funds at a distance, can elevate the support base for your charity. Make it real.

Kreston Reeves’ Andrew Pincott – people are more likely to engage with activities or initiatives which they feel they’ve had a hand in shaping.
"There are massive differences in participation rates between age groups, genders and income levels."
"You could even work alongside volunteers for a couple of days each year, to assess the mood on the ground."
Autton Winson Advert

Care at the end of a keyboard

Today, one in four smartphone owners in the UK don't even make one voice call a week. And for Gen Z – or the iGen as they’re often dubbed – communication is more likely to take place inside instant messaging apps than over a call. These young people have grown up with digital connectivity. Studies show that 96% of 16-24 year olds use a text based application to communicate every day, and 79% of Generation Z consumers display symptoms of emotional distress when kept away from their personal electronic devices.

For organisations working with young people, this presents a challenge. Universities can offer places over Snapchat, and brands can target social media influencers to support their campaigns. But what about organisations focused on supporting – not swaying – Gen Z?

For support teams concentrating on the more sensitive aspects of care, how can you connect in a way that bridges the popular and the protected; the informal and the informative? In Southampton, the charity I work for, called No Limits, is paving the way.

Helping young people

No Limits supports young people under 26 who live in the Southampton and Hampshire region. Through a mix of advice, counselling, support and advocacy, we offer a supportive environment where young people can explore the issues which are affecting their lives — all for free, and all confidentially.

We help thousands of young people a year by being a safe place to turn to for advice and information. From homelessness, to bullying, to sexual and mental health problems, we’re there to help with whatever is worrying young people in a judgment-free environment.

Gen Z communication gap

For all the connectivity surrounding them, today’s young people often feel isolated. A World Health Organisation survey carried out in 42 countries found that young men and women in the UK are among the least satisfied with their lives.

People under 26 face a plethora of problems. To help with these problems, our support at No Limits has to be perceived as being accessible and is also something with which they are comfortable. We already offered help over the phone, through email and through our dedicated advice centre, but were striving to be even more approachable.

For example, we know that young people experiencing anxiety don’t always want to leave the comfort of their home to visit us. Similarly, young people who feel nervous or embarrassed by their issues might not want to pick up the phone and dial in to discuss them.

Our challenge was to help this vulnerable audience as effectively as possible. We make it our job to help young people, so we needed to be where they are. Increasingly, that place is online, and within instant messaging tools.

Live chat software

They may be heavy smartphone users, but young people have a dislike for talking over the phone. Only 38% of Generation Z prefer to talk to customer service reps over the phone, compared to a (still low) 49% of millennials.

For many young people, instant messaging is the go-to communication option of choice. The call is no longer a first port of call, and services like iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger and Kik are a more typical means of contacting friends and family. This kind of digital chat feels familiar and relaxed, and we wanted to embrace its popularity in our own comms.

So, to encourage more young people to get in touch with the charity, we decided to add a live chat option to our website. Our goal, ultimately, was to expand our existing support with a channel that was ideally placed for young people: informal, user-friendly and appealing.

A safeguarding challenge

Instant messaging may be an appealing channel, but it can pose a safeguarding issue for organisations offering support to young people. Naturally, anyone divulging their private personal problems in a confidential conversation doesn’t want those issues to then be stored in a public cloud, or openly accessible to multiple teams.

We knew we wanted live chat, but it had to be a channel that could tick all our safeguarding boxes. The privacy of the young people we help is of paramount importance, and we stand by a promise of complete confidentiality.

For us, that meant that we needed a chat channel offering watertight security, that could be installed onto our own on-premises servers. Our web team was tasked with finding a live chat solution that met all our strict safeguarding requirements, and researched multiple providers. It was WhosOn by Parker Software that ultimately fitted the bill.

Testing the waters

Adding a new communication channel to the mix is not a step that should be undertaken lightly. Before branching out into unexplored territory, it’s important to research chat usage both internally and internally to find out where and how the channel should be used.

We started off with a free 30-day trial to test the waters. In these initial stages, our team leaders used the software to see whether it was a good organisational fit. We also tasked a focus group of Youth Ambassadors – young people who we work with at No Limits – with using the chat and giving us their thoughts.

It’s imperative to us that we’re offering relevance and value to young people, so the feedback from the focus group was a pivotal factor in moving forwards. When employees and end users alike were positive about the live chat channel, we knew we were making the right decision to expand our comms.

Getting it right

Charities like us must operate in a business-like manner to support the huge numbers of people they serve effectively. That includes all the strategy and preparation you’d expect in any organisation, and I would like to say that No Limits is no exception.

To ensure the chat deployment worked as smoothly as possible, we worked with Parker Software to get training on WhosOn and its features. This helped us to get accustomed to the chat before we launched it as a communication channel, as well as ramping up excitement for launch.

We wanted the channel to slide into our organisation seamlessly. As part of that, the supplier provided us with a custom chat window that matched the look and feel of our site. For the chat to be a success, it had to be an option that young people could trust. A branded chat window helps add a level of authenticity, so that users know they’re chatting in a safe place.

From a more operational perspective, we wanted the software to be as useful to our employees as possible. So, we also worked with the software company to get custom reporting on our chat sessions — allowing us to tag and categorise conversations based on the user’s query.

We now have a secure, installable live chat solution that fits our needs perfectly. And, more importantly, it also fits the needs of the young people we’re committed to helping.

A stepping stone

For No Limits, the addition of live chat software has created a casual entry point between young people and advisers. The incognito, online nature of chat creates an inviting stepping stone between that initial contact and more in-depth support.

So far, we’ve taken web chats for a broad range of issues, including housing, emotional support, school difficulties and bullying. comments Jess. It can be scary to ask for help no matter what age you are, and live chat helps reduce the pressure of reaching out. Young people can feel safe behind their screens while starting the journey to support.

As an example, one chat user contacted us to enquire about counselling. We talked the young person through the process, and gave them advice inside the chat session. That relaxed route saw the young person coming in to our advice centre for one-to-one help – with web chat having opened the door.”

A view to the future

Despite being in its early stages, live chat software has made a positive business impact on No Limits – an impact that is anticipated to grow over time as we increase the time allocated to the live chat channel each week.

We’ve found that live chat fits into our operations smoothly, and allows the team to catch up with admin while running chat in the background. Since we’re often away from the desk having face to face sessions with young people, this online option allows us to maintain contact while getting important computer based jobs done.

We hope to increase our usage of live chat software moving forwards. It’s comfortable, it’s current, and importantly – it places care at the end of a keyboard.

No Limits’ Jess Sulzmann – a branded chat window helps add a level of authenticity, so that users know they’re chatting in a safe place.
"…we needed a chat channel offering watertight security, that could be installed onto our own on-premises servers."
"The incognito, online nature of chat creates an inviting stepping stone between that initial contact and more in-depth support."
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