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Forming and sustaining an effective trustee board

All charities are required to have a board of trustees. Even if those members aren’t named specifically as such - instead going by titles such as director, governor, or committee member - anyone with responsibility for the direction and actions of the charity will legally be considered a trustee.

A trustee board is 100% non-executive and ultimately charged with general control, management and administration to make sure the charity is fulfilling what it was set up to do. This contrasts with the common belief that trustees should also be concerned with operations, which instead are more appropriately led by a chief executive and management team. The main duty is therefore to ensure the charity’s assets and profit/surplus are applied in line with its "charitable objects" for the benefit of the public.

Act prudently

A trustee must always act prudently as an individual to make an informed decision. This must follow the charity’s constitution as per its governing document. I often see this being overlooked, but the constitution must always be adhered to and in this case, can have an impact on decisions that can be formally approved each year.

It can also have an effect on how these decisions are made, as well as the respective powers, duties and liabilities of the board itself. Fortunately, if provisions within the governing document are found to be unworkable or impractical, they can be amended.

When looking to establish or add to a trustee board, it is important that expectations around responsibilities are made clear. It is common to hear from trustees who assume their role will simply require attending a few meetings throughout the year.

It is essential all trustees assume a high degree of responsibility, especially now public perception of the role is under greater scrutiny due to high profile cases such as Kids Company which attracted much media attention in 2015.

Designated powers

Trustees are responsible for making decisions that could have an impact on people’s lives, a community or society as a whole. With charities relying on positive public perceptions for fundraising efforts, it is vital trustees take their roles seriously and consider the implications of all their decisions.

Setting out clear expectations from the beginning will certainly help to avoid problems, but there are other ways to avoid potential issues.

Trustees are required to act within their designated powers and charity law while demonstrating they acted properly and reasonably when required. Courts associate the term "reasonable" with how a prudent business person would be expected to act in such a case.

The most common problems we see arise from conflicts of interest. Trustees have a general duty to disclose and properly manage any conflicts without putting themselves in a position where personal interests may influence or affect decision making.

It is good practice at the beginning of a meeting for every trustee to declare any private interest and certainly before any debate of a specific item. Examples of when this might arise include a trustee owning a building firm being considered for construction work, or a trustee being an employee while remuneration is being discussed.

Failure to follow good practice can mean a trustee or the charity is held responsible for financial loss or reputational damage, while decisions could be invalid or have to be reversed. This could result in the charity being at risk of legal action and the trustees becoming personally liable.

Of course, taking the time to consider and select the best possible candidate in the first place can go a long way to ensuring a smooth operation. So what needs to be considered?

A trustee must be at least 16 years old if the charity is a company or charitable incorporated organisation (CIO), otherwise the minimum age is 18 years. Other legal stipulations also need to be considered, for example if someone has been convicted of fraud, having been bankrupt previously or removed from a director or trustee position.

Social passion

Ideally, a trustee should have a genuine social passion for the charity and, preferably, experience in a sector relating to the cause in question. These elements are more likely to indicate a level of commitment and their potential contribution to creating a well rounded board than other markers, such as a senior corporate role or status in the community.

Plus, it is worth considering whether the candidate with an outspoken and forthright character may lead to further debate or obstacles in the future.

A varied skill set is crucial. The trustee board's true decisions are made by committee and you may want people with specific strengths in certain areas, such as accounting, but overall a breadth of experience and knowledge will ensure a rounded perspective. There are no statutory rules, but broadly speaking there is an expectation of an "unconnected and unrelated mix".

For this reason, it is advisable that a board consists of between 3 -12 trustees, unless the governing document specifically states otherwise. Keeping within this range should provide a diverse selection of skills while still being small enough to easily arrange meetings and effectively come to conclusions

So, once the board is established, how can you assess how effectively it is running?

The board, or in some situations the chair of trustees, should always be monitoring or taking responsibility for how the board is running and the effectiveness of trustee contributions. This should include how well the board’s outcomes relate to the governing document through regular meetings and clear communication.

Governance elements

There are no legal rules about when or how meetings take place but again, there may be elements of governance to adhere to, for example the Charity Commission recommends at least one meeting per year with all trustees in attendance. Otherwise, business can be conducted by telephone, internet or through the circulation of papers.

To get the most from these meetings, it is recommended to create a use of notice and agenda consisting of indicative timings with an agreement "by consent" for routine items. It is also advised that a minimum of one third of the total board members are present.

Ideally, minutes should be drafted by a secretary or someone who is not a trustee, although this is not legally essential. Trustees have the right to question minutes if they feel they are not an accurate record of the previous meeting. If this disagreement continues, the trustee should dissent and note as a postscript before signing. Finally, these draft minutes and actions should be made available to all trustees, stored and retained for as long as the charity exists.

Following these guidelines should make it simple for a charity to monitor whether the board is acting as effectively as possible, or whether members need to be replaced or new appointments made.

If a charity needs further guidance about its trustees, or any other legal matter, specialist law firms are on hand to help. As well as advice on issues such as a conflict of interest, they can support where there are specific transactions and regulatory enquiries.

Regular reviews

Charities must regularly review the board, refresh the mix of skills and experience they already have in place as necessary, or if they are just forming, recruit to create a proper functioning board.

Whatever the situation or requirement, a charity must see changes to trustee boards as a fantastic opportunity to welcome new ideas, reach different people, and potentially discover and attract fresh sources of funding. With a consistent approach and clear structure around responsibilities, this can be a simple and effective process.

Roythornes' Julia Seary - trustees are responsible for making decisions that could have an impact on people's lives, a community or society as a whole.
"The board, or in some situations the chair of trustees, should always be monitoring or taking responsibility for how the board is running and the effectiveness of trustee contributions."
Deloitte advert

Achieving successful chair and CEO relations

There are many factors that contribute to the success of an organisation, but for charities the relationship between the chair and CEO can be one of the most important. This relationship sets the direction and tone for how the organisation is run and can be the difference between success and failure. When it’s working well, it can be a powerful bond where the most sensitive and challenging issues are discussed and strategy developed with confidence. But when it goes wrong it can create divisions, hinder progress and tarnish reputations. It can even make or break careers.

In a survey of charity chairs and CEOs from charities and not-for-profits recently to try and learn more about how sector leaders approach this vital relationship. One leader said: “If you get the relationship right, the opportunities are much higher: you can take more risks and create more ambitions for your service users and beneficiaries."

Human relationship

Despite almost obvious importance, a surprising number of leaders do not go out of their way to cultivate a strong bond. A strong chair and CEO relationship – like any human relationship – requires an element of catering to individual preferences, but it is too important to leave to chance or develop organically. While there are no rules set in stone on how to forge a winning partnership, there are several foundations on which the relationship can be built to help ensure success:

GOOD GOVERNANCE. Governance is much more than an administrative process – it serves as an important safety net for the chair, CEO and organisation. A successful relationship between leaders relies heavily on the presence of governance that clearly defines the respective roles and responsibilities.

Too frequently the problems that arise due to a lack of governance are wrongly attributed to a poor relationship between the chair and the chief executive. If the right governance and strategy is in place, and the charity is stable, then the relationship may work without much effort on either side. Without governance, the quality of the partnership will matter much more. In these cases, it’s down to the two personalities to work out how they will utilise their respective responsibilities to move the charity forward.

TAKING TIME TO ESTABLISH A RELATIONSHIP. The chair and CEO relationship can be very much like a marriage – it requires an investment from both parties to work. Yet it is remarkable how common it is for people invest no time or effort in the relationship when they take up their roles. While they may not want to socialise with each other outside a formal situation, those who do go to the effort and try and understand each other’s perspective are setting themselves up for success.

Ground rules

The best way to lay the foundations for a relationship is to establish some ground rules from the outset. This should cover three key areas:

  • Alignment of values and a shared vision for the direction of the charity.
  • Confirmation of the boundaries for both parties.
  • Preferred modes of operation and commitment to open and free communication.

The chair in particular has to assume several different roles with the chief executive over the course of their duties; for example, at any given moment these could range from being a catalyst for the charity’s new ideas and direction, a performance manager, supporter, devil’s advocate or mentor. Taking the time to establish ground rules will help both to understand the different modes when performing certain roles.

Thus scheduling a drink might indicate the meeting is one of mentoring and informal feedback, while a more formal one to one appointment shows the meeting is for scrutiny or forward planning. Establishing a mode of operation and remaining consistent are a valuable relationship building process.

AVOIDING ASSUMPTIONS FROM THE START. The process of appointing a chair or CEO is comprehensive. Despite jumping through a large number of hoops to land a leadership role, too few people carry out even basic due diligence prior to a new appointment. Both sides can be guilty of this. Chairs sometimes do not want to take part in the selection of their chief executive, and chief executives can be so focused on securing a particular role that they forget to think about the bigger picture and the other personalities involved.

Chemistry check

All too often, everyone assumes they can make the relationship with the chair or chief exec work, that they don’t participate in a chemistry check or introductory meeting with their new colleague. Further, those joining charities from the private sector can assume their new role will have the same governance, processes and levers in the new sector – which is often not the case.

The problem is that the key questions seem so obvious that no one wants to ask them during the process. However, misunderstandings based on unstated expectations or assumptions can quickly escalate. Achieving clarity at the start – and insisting on it – feels like a bold move, but is essential. One survey respondent said: “A lack of time or connection meant one leader never found out how the other saw the world. No one knew that their priorities were so fundamentally misaligned until it really counted. By then it was too late.”

LEAVE EGO AT THE DOOR. There is no clear and accepted rule about who’s in charge between the chair and CEO. What is abundantly clear though, is that a chief executive who fails to manage their board properly will quickly complain about it, and spend most of their time not paying it proper attention. Conversely, a chair who does not engage until board meetings – and then fails to understand the operation – will quickly blame the CEO for not doing a thorough enough job.

Conversation responsibility

As a general rule, the chair should lead the conversation, but it’s the chief executive’s responsibility to make it work. Some chief executives may be more active than others in their stance, but both parties should have equal "power", which should be determined by the ground rules they establish at the start of the relationship.

So here are some practical thoughts for charity chairs:

GET THE GOVERNANCE RIGHT. Ultimately, the chair influences the governance processes of the charity. You should consider different models, even if you think they may be unpopular. This could include a unitary board that combines non-executive and executive, or a senior independent director or vice chair who can support you.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY. Start the conversation about how you are going to work together early. Agree the deal and ground rules, including boundaries and a plan for formal and informal meetings.

UNDERSTAND THE CHARITY'S MISSION. Respect and understand the emotional content of the CHARITY as much as the transactional. Be honest about what you really want to get from the role.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Insist on meeting the chief executive at the earliest opportunity and if you don’t think you can work together, don’t appoint them – or don’t join the board. Explore personal fit and empathy for the charity’s mission, but also alignment with your personal values. Be honest about whether this is someone you can do business with.

Cultural nuances

LISTEN. This is particularly important in the early days when you will need to understand the cultural nuances of the charity, in order to make sound judgments.

MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE. Find ways to indicate to your chief executive when you are about to change mode, so they can prepare and know where they stand.

Now here are some practical thoughts for charity CEOs:

DUE DILIGENCE. If you are applying for a new role, insist on opportunities to carry out your own due diligence before you reach an advanced stage of the recruitment process.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. If you don’t think you can work with the chair then don’t. The relationship will be such a key part of your role that you will need to gain value from it.

A LITTLE RESPECT GOES A LONG WAY. Allow the chair to start the conversation and remember that respect is everything. You will need to work at the relationship once you’re in post. Invest time in building respect and learning how to manage upwards.

GOVERNANCE. Good board hygiene really matters, use it to frame your role and working relationship. Remember that the relationship is like any other: it’s about give and take. Acknowledge differences early.

Basic principles

The conditions for a successful partnership boil down to some extremely basic principles. With clear objectives, ground rules established from the outset and governance, the chair and CEO relationship has the foundations to stand the test of time and set a charity on the path to success. However, in many situations in the charity sector, the governance is just not in place, or if it is, it hasn’t been updated for a long time.

Compounding that, culture change can be slow, infrastructure light, and issues with the board can stray into executive territory. In these stages, a little effort to establish the basics and following the various foundations for a good relationship, explained earlier in this article, can go a long way.

Gatenby Sanderson's Juliet Taylor - the chair and CEO relationship can be very much like a marriage, requiring an investment from both parties to work.
"Too frequently the problems that arise due to a lack of governance are wrongly attributed to a poor relationship between the chair and the chief executive."
"There is no clear and accepted rule about who's in charge between the chair and CEO."
Samten Advert

Effective senior recruitment by charities

Everybody knows that the charity sector is under intense pressure at the moment. There is a huge spotlight on charities and how they are managed, led and governed. As a result, leadership in the sector has never been more important. The real challenge, however, is finding the best people for senior executive jobs, who will help charities diversify, drive innovation and ultimately ensure they thrive. This piece seeks to provide some key advice to charities when handling senior executive appointments in the charity sector.

You get what you pay for

The skills required for top jobs in the charity sector are not always readily available within the sector itself. Currently leaders, with business acumen and commercial skills are in high demand. As such, many charities will look to the private sector for candidates to fill the gaps, but in doing so need to be prepared to pay salaries that are competitive with what candidates can expect to earn in the private sector. While the right motivation is crucial – and money isn’t everything – too often charities tend make too many assumptions about the altruistic motives of prospective candidates.

Respecting the way candidates judge their own capability through their reward potential is important. While charities are looking for someone who is empathetic to the cause, the reality is that financial considerations are often a significant and relevant aspect of a candidate’s decision to take on a certain role. As such, if you find a candidate who is ideally suited to the job, make sure that the financial package you provide them is fair and respectful. Be clear on any scope to increase salary, and be consistent.

An open mind yields positive results

It’s common for trustee boards to hire in their own image, and to gravitate towards the low risk option. Boards can self-perpetuate their own culture through the candidates they hire. They tend to want potential employees to be in their own mould and look for people who work like them, think like them and will act like them when put in similar situations.

But complementary skills are key. Charities need to recruit leaders who can adapt to the changing world they operate in and doing that may take a completely different skillset, outlook and approach. Following the high profile collapse of Kids Company, there can be a reluctance to take risks for fear of failure and the inevitable adverse publicity that follow. Yet it is hard to create much needed change through a recruitment process that is devoid of risk and eliminates necessary diversity.

Many charities simply don’t recognise the potential of the candidate in front of them, because they can’t relate to the skills and experience they bring. Assessment and selection processes that look beyond experience and start unearthing key attributes and behaviours will greatly increase the success rate of leadership appointments.

Here, cultural fit is as essential as honesty about where your organisation is on the change curve. Hire someone too similar to what has been before and risk standing still; hire someone too far forward in their thinking and they may not take their people with them. Getting the right balance is key.

Culture shift happens incrementally

While many charities fail to keep an open mind on appointments, the converse can be equally true. Selecting candidates whose attitude and outlook presents too much of a cultural shift may quickly be rejected by the prevailing culture and not bring with it the personal credibility and leverage needed to drive change.

Some candidates may offer high energy levels, creativity and a different perspective. These are great attributes, but can represent a culture shock. In these cases, a charity may want to appoint someone who can challenge the status quo, but ultimately the candidate becomes frustrated as their vision quickly outruns those of their direct reports and they encounter road blocks that prevent them from making the changes they want.

Many charities, however, overestimate their culture, and their ability to tolerate the change they want to see. In many cases, the old cliché “evolution not revolution” applies. Most cultural change happens over time following an initial change to structures and business models, but it’s easy to think that a culture is more dynamic, adaptable or open to change than it really is. Some charities simply aren’t open to change at all.

In these instances, one person is expected to implement all this change, when the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do so. Charities need to establish clear guidelines in terms of the pace of change and think hard about culture, desired attributes and personality fit. Judging the journey you are on as an organisation is central to assessing leadership style and fit.

An external perspective is valuable

The old adage that sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees can certainly apply to senior appointments. It’s easy to get so caught up in the small details or internal issues that you forget the bigger picture. Charities should seek objective, external input when possible during recruitment – this can be done at long and shortlist stage and then on the final appointment panel. Peer networks are valuable in testing one’s thinking, and challenging assumptions. Using this method is also a great way of sharing perspectives and insights, and learning from other organisations.

Building a long list is important

Charities tend to rule out candidates on the basis of early assumptions. But assumptions are there to be tested. Panels may think a candidate will be too costly or simply won’t be from the right sector. A broad search at the outset provides a longer and more diverse list which gives you a broader cross-section of individuals who you can assess against the priorities for the role. Choice is key. Explore all your options and ensure you have the evidence you need to select out rather than select in.

While charities need to be prudent in how they spend valuable resource, a little extra investment in a rigorous leadership recruitment process can be worthwhile to ensure the right person for the job is found first time. Charities need to be open to involving recruiters early, to test the market and see what skills and capabilities they can have in a specific area for the available salary.

By getting these candidates to apply, and revisiting priorities for the role at the longlisting stage, you can then assess candidates with the evidence in front of you. You can choose which candidate profile you prefer, based on what is on the market. Take control by staying open minded on the options.  

Unlocking a charity's potential

Social, economic and political change is making charities seriously rethink how they operate and engage with stakeholders and the public. Strong and resilient leadership in charities has never been more important, and the thinking has to start now to make sure the right people are in place. Getting the best results for your charity means working hard to find people who will embrace disruption and unlock an organisation’s potential to succeed.

Gatenby Sanderson's Juliet Taylor - charities need to recruit leaders who can adapt to the changing world they operate in and doing that may take a completely different skillset, outlook and approach.
"Many charities... overestimate their culture, and their ability to tolerate the change they want to see."
SCM advert

Using email marketing to drive charity support

There are 2.5m people living with cancer in the UK today, and as more people live longer with their cancer due to advancements in treatment and early identification, this number is set to grow beyond 4m by 2030. At Macmillan Cancer Support, we work to reach and improve the lives of those impacted by cancer and to inspire millions of others to do the same. We want to make sure we can provide support to everyone who needs it, to help people affected feel more in control of their lives.

Our marketing campaigns therefore need to be powerful, impactful and wide reaching. We’re getting increasingly strategic about how we use email as a key channel within the wider marketing suite of tools and platforms to achieve this.

When used well, email marketing can allow charities like ours to reach a wider audience, raising awareness and ultimately driving the donations we depend on. However, for these emails to be effective, they need to be nuanced correctly in order to reach the right people at the right time, with the right message. Charitable outreach is a finely balanced act of our communications strategy and everything needs to be engaging, intuitive, and contextually situated.

We work with dotmailer, the email marketing automation platform, to help us face this challenge, and were delighted when our work on our “October Online Shop Campaign 2015” was recently shortlisted for the “Best e-commerce Campaign of the Year” award in its first ever Dotties awards ceremony. Here are some of the key learnings and insights from the roll-out of this campaign.

Getting the timing right

As mentioned above, reaching people at the right time with email marketing is crucial. It’s important to plan ahead, assessing peak fundraising times, to ensure your messages land ahead of these.

Our online shop, selling our branded merchandise and charity products, is a fundamental part of our fundraising effort. As with many charities, our shop has a critical trading period in the run up to Christmas (we sell various festive gifts, as well as wrapping paper and Christmas cards) which we push in October, in preparation for this peak selling time just as consumers are starting to begin (or finish, depending on how organised they are!) their Christmas shopping.

Optimising messaging

The next step is ensuring you send the right messages in order to grab your audience’s attention.

The challenge we face with marketing our online shop to our supporters is that we are in the great position of having a large engaged database, but also face competition around the organisation with many teams keen to talk to our audiences.

Taking control of the frequency of communication with supporters is important. We want to ensure they hear from us with relevant information, but we definitely don’t want to overload them with marketing emails. We follow a process of prioritisation to avoid duplication between campaigns across different areas of the charity, and it’s important that we’re selective.

Choosing the right technology

The good news is there are numerous creative and automation tools out there to help with this process. In the lead up to our October shop email campaign, we took advantage of dotmailer’s personalisation, A/B testing and mobile optimisation tools.

This personalisation tool allows marketers to avoid the “one size fits all” approach, ensuring you can include personalised information for each customer or prospect being targeted. We used device personalisation tools to hide extraneous content on mobile, giving supporters a cleaner experience.

A/B testing enabled us to assess the effectiveness of different subject lines and creative content of the emails, and constantly refine and improve the function, picking off the highest performing tactics and messaging and binning those which were less effective.

Implementing an evidence based approach

As we have to be particularly selective with email marketing, we have been implementing a more evidence based approach over the past year.

The shop strategy now includes a standardised reporting format, a pre-agreed schedule of A/B testing, and comprehensive mid-year and end-year reviews of activity and learnings. dotmailer’s campaign comparison and reporting tools make pulling and comparing results quick and easy, while linking up with our Google Analytics account means we can report on which campaign variations deliver the best sale conversions.

In addition to this, in preparation for our October emails, we carried out a comprehensive review of individual past email performance and based the creative on what we learnt.

For example, we tested a large 600 pixels by 600 pixels square hero panel against our usual landscape version and found our click-to-open rate (engagement) increased by 28%.

As each month’s online shop email focuses only on one narrow product range, we introduced a navigation bar to the top of the creative to mirror the store sections from the web and found this also helped increase click-throughs, generating 58 unique clicks in the first test.

The results were good

The October 2015 shop emails performed hugely above the yearly average, particularly on the click-to-open-rate (CTOR) metric. For this campaign, previous purchasers of our online shop had a CTOR of 28% and non-purchasers, 25%. This represents a three-fold increase of an annual average of just over 9%.

Click-through rates were 9% and 7% respectively, against an annual average of 1.7%. Both the new photographic treatment and the navigation bar drove significant numbers of click-throughs. More than 40% of the total clicks from both previous purchasers and non-purchasers came from the large square image and the navigation.

In terms of sale results the October campaign that implemented these learnings achieved a 6% conversion rate.

Changing perceptions internally

Since joining Macmillan Cancer Support just over a year ago, and in particular in the lead up to the October Shop Campaign, changing perceptions internally has been important.

Previously, emails have been viewed as an add-on to other marketing activity. I have worked closely with colleagues across the charity to advocate the use of email and best practice in reaching key audiences and driving donations. I have encouraged colleagues to invest time in testing and analysing email activity to maximise the effect of future campaigns.

Increasingly, email is now seen as a fundamental part of our communications activity rather than just an extra. The systematic approach to testing, reviewing and learning we have developed working with our shop colleagues has helped us move in the direction of greater quality control, and stronger, more efficient and effective email marketing strategies when engaging with supporters.

Moving forward with testing

We are continually trying to provide our readers with a more tailored, personalised and relevant shop newsletters to help increase engagement and sales.

Since October we’ve tested send days and times to see when recipients are most engaged and have time to shop with us. We’ve implemented some learnings from late 2015 such as using a larger call to action button in our main hero image, which we’ve found helps drive click-throughs as more people are now opening our emails on mobile devices. We’re systematically testing subject lines to drive open rates, and early results show our supporters enjoy a good laugh with our humorous wording.

We’re also hoping to test tailoring content to our readers, so women see female versions of our clothing range and men the male equivalent, as well as introducing completely different content for new subscribers compared to our loyal customer base.

This Christmas we’re particularly excited to try out testing animated hero panels that will cycle through a range of our Christmas offerings. Animating our hero panel makes use of "prime email real estate" and allows recipients to spot something they might otherwise miss if we only had a still panel.

Macmillan Cancer Support's Fearn Sandison - following a process of prioritisation to avoid duplication between campaigns across different areas of the charity.
"It's important to plan ahead, assessing peak fundraising times, to ensure your messages land ahead of these."
"We're systematically testing subject lines to drive open rates, and early results show our supporters enjoy a good laugh with our humorous wording."
SCM advert

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."
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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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