Voluntary sector and volunteering, Covid 19 and beyond.

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Some thoughts on our survey, the work we do with groups, and the future.

There has been an explosion of volunteers and community spirit across Cambridgeshire as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Across the county people are coming together to help others in their community by collecting prescriptions, by doing shopping and by donating to foodbanks. From nowhere new groups have set, old groups have found new activities to engage with charities and community groups have adapted and changed. So, what does this mean for the future of organisations and volunteering?

We have surveyed over 100 local charities to ask them how the pandemic is affecting them and have worked with many more to help them adapt and survive. This has raised a number of questions that I think will be important going forward as we entre a recovery phase, and find out what the new normal is.

We found thousands of staff, volunteers and trustees raising to the challenge to find new ways to support people in these difficult times.

“We have moved all of our services to remote delivery and are offering 1-1 support to LGBTQ+ young people by phone/text/email/video call, and weekly online groups by video call. We have also been distributing relevant books and DVDs to young people by post. We have been investigating how we can move our training delivery online.”

Yet, at the same time some charities are no longer able to deliver services safely and have had to close

“Our small staff group of six are furloughed. The site is closed to co-workers, volunteers, staff and customers.”

Many charities are losing money as they are unable to carry out their usual fundraising, or they are losing income they earn from entrance fees, charity shops or for selling services. We estimate that across Cambridgeshire registered charities will lose over £34.5 million due to the crisis. The total will be even higher if community groups and unregistered charities are included.

Whilst the government has promised charities extra funding this will not plug the gap which NCVO estimate to be £4Billion in England and Wales[1]. Charities that have furloughed workers but are still incurring other costs are not eligible for much of the government support, and we know of groups that will be closing their doors, possibly permanently, when their reserves run out in the next few months.

We know that many charities have benefited from local fundraising, and that many funders including are continuing to support charities. This will not be enough, and most charities do not seem to be eligible for the grants that are being offered to small businesses.

Yet there is still a high level of optimism amongst charities about their future, with 42% being totally confident they will be operating in six months. (These figures should be viewed with a little caution as many of those charities struggling would have furloughed workers, and as such may not have been able to respond.

We also saw that 59% of charities were still using volunteers to deliver services, but only 16% were looking for volunteers. We have heard that many of the local support groups currently have more volunteers than they have roles, and that some are struggling to keep them engaged. What this shows is that volunteers continue to be key to charities delivering services, and that there is an appetite for people to volunteer if they can see a way that they can help.

Moving forward

As we move towards recovery, and as lockdown changes, charities will become even more essential. They will need to be there to support people who have money worries, who have lost relatives, who have mental health problems. They will need to help rebuild communities, and find new ways to bring people together.

“We are very aware that we will experience a significant surge in demand for our services once lock down restrictions have been eased. Many survivors of sexual violence and abuse are unable to reach out to us at the present time due to lack of privacy at home, caring for children, living with abusers etc. So we are trying to plan for how we manage what we will be a significant increase in demand without additional resources or capacity.”

In order for groups to continue to deliver we need to find ways to answer the main concerns that they identified.

As face to face work becomes harder or impossible groups are looking at how they can move their support on to digital platforms. For some this has been a painless experience, but for many it has proved much harder.

Groups are struggling with out of date IT systems and a lack of funds to replace these or invest in the software packages they need. Groups are also struggling with the skills to move to digital delivery and to update their systems.

There are also serious issues with many communities of a growing digital divide, with many people that groups could help digitally not having the technology, skills or data to engage.

As previously mentioned many charities are losing money, however even those that have benefited from new funding support worry about the longer term future. As funders open their coffers to address the crisis this will inevitably impact on the funds available going forward. At the same time the public has dug deeper into their pockets to support local and national campaigns but Caf[2] report that fewer people are saying they will donate in the next months as people are concerned about their own income.

Funding as we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic will be equally as important as it was to meet the initial emergency. If funders have seen endowments reduced, and have offered additional funding immediately then there will be less money available than normal, this will be compounded by local authority and government belt tightening as they seek to address the extra spending they have had to make during the crisis. This will be further compounded as charities continue to lose income from events and activities that will not be able to start for a while, and as the country moves into a recession and donations are impacted.

Volunteers have played a massively important role in the current pandemic and many more people would have had serious problems if it hadn’t been for the army of good neighbours who have stepped forward to help. But there have been problems, locally there have been more volunteers than roles, but also volunteers have been asked to carry out roles without the proper training and support. Nationally the plans to have volunteers run the testing stations went quiet after uproar from the sector, but it is important that volunteers receive the support and training they need.

What the pandemic has shown is that people will volunteer given the right opportunity and a way to do it. Moving forwards if we as a sector are to make the most of this we are going to have to adapt the volunteer roles we have and allow people to volunteer on their terms and not ours.

Mental health services, both those provided by the voluntary sector and those provided by the health sector have done an incredible job in moving their support online or to the phone. Despite this there is a recognition that the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.[3] The BMJ state

“Early research has brought attention to the psychological impacts of such viral epidemics and protracted physical distancing measures, including those that are expected (such as loss of identity, disruption to usual activity, increases in feelings of loneliness) and those that may be unintended (including increases in domestic violence, child maltreatment and cyberbullying). For many, several coping strategies to deal with this psychological impact can be detrimental to mental health; including alcohol and drug misuse, and online gambling.”

This will impact on staff and volunteers as well as the clients and organisations have to recognise this and adapt to it.

Coming out of lockdown and the immediate crisis charities and community groups will become even more important. As individuals and communities struggle to find their ‘new normal’.

The CAF Coronavirus Briefing shows that in April there was a mixed reaction to this question with only 1 in 4 charities reporting an actual increase in demand. Our research saw charities that might have reduced services due to the virus recognising the fact that there was likely to be increases in demand as they reopen. This will coincide with organisations potentially having reduced capacity or having to find new ways of working. It is important that where possible organisations address this before any surge in demand.

There are two issues here, the first around those organisations that have formed as a direct response to the pandemic, and the second for those organisations that have had to furlough staff to be able to survive.

In the first case groups of well meaning volunteers have suddenly had to think about health and safety, safeguarding, and other issues that keep both the volunteers and those they are helping safe. No one signs up to volunteer around these things, but they have to be there and they have to be understood and acted on.

The second area is where trustees and volunteers are suddenly trying to keep an organisation functioning without staff input. This can be very hard as they are often not connected enough with the operational side of the charity. We have spoken to trustees that have stepped up to take on staff roles and groups where services have been turned round and adapted with little staff input. It is essential that trustees are given the support to do this, but that they also have the time to keep staff on board.

The ‘New normal’

Charities and community groups are doing fantastic work to make a real difference to individuals and communities, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. Times are hard and confusing, again this is a given. Charities don’t need support because they need to survive, they need support because of the work they do with people and communities across Cambridgeshire and the country. There is no ‘right’ to continued existence.

But charities will need to adapt, and those that do will come out of this pandemic stronger and able to make a bigger impact.

I believe charities need to think about

Volunteering – It has been proved that people want to and will volunteer, it needs to be on their terms and that means we need to offer more flexible, short term, local opportunities that fit with people’s lives and passions.

Technology – We have all become more digital out of necessary. This will impact on how and what we deliver, but this has to recognise that not everyone has, or wants, access to digital tools or data. Whilst working to incorporate digital delivery we have to reduce the digital divide, and this includes working with our staff and volunteers to give them the skills and confidence to embrace and champion technology.

Partnership – This is going to be increasingly important as we struggle to address complex issues, but also as resources get scarcer. We are going to need to find ways of learning from others as well as thinking about joint work. Organisations that think they can ‘go it alone’ will find themselves being marginalised by funders as well as excluded from policy making and delivering solutions.

At the same time there will need to be a recognition that things have changed for who we work with. We know that behaviours will change, research is showing that inequalities are growing because of the pandemic, and simply winding the clock back to February isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an option. Organisations like CCVS will be there, we will be able to act as a sounding board, we will be able to bring people together, but we don’t have all the answers. I believe that the local charity sector can emerge


[1] https://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/2748-every-day-counts-as-charities-still-wait-for-government-support#footnote1

[2] https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf-report-coronavirus-how-charities-and-donors-are-reacting.pdf?sfvrsn=15276c47_2

[3] https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/05/05/the-long-term-mental-health-impact-of-covid-19-must-not-be-ignored/

VAT’s it all about

This is a short piece about VAT as we want to collect some of your experiences with tax, and as it is a topic that has crossed my desk a few times over the last couple of weeks.

Picture used under licence

Like most small charities we are not VAT registered and therefore do not claim any VAT back, and honestly don’t really think about it. But it appears that once parliament has settled back into some semblance of normalcy after the election there will be some reform of VAT in a bid to make tax simpler. (Apparently the UK tax codes are longer than the bible).

We do know that VAT and other tax issues do cause concern for charities and we are lucky that we have the Charity tax Group who do a wonderful job of representing charities on all things ‘tax’. Do check out their information if you have any issues. They are also carrying out some research into VAT which you can find out more about here.

We have recently made contact with a local company VATadvice.org who specialise in VAT for charities. We are looking at how we can work together to bring more information to local charities. At this stage we have no firm plans apart from agreeing to continue to chat but

This brings me to the principle reason for this article. Is VAT an issue for you? Are you registered and if so how much work does it entail? Do you know what counts as VAT able when working out if you have reached the registration threshold? Are contracts subject to VAT? How does it work if we own a building?

Please tell us about your issues and questions about VAT are, this will allow us to get a feel for what we might be able to explore. We can’t promise to answer everything, but we will start to think about how we can provide members with more information, and possibly training in this area.

Contact us in the usual way or leave a comment.

Is Competition bad?

This is a response to a great blog on the Community Matters Yorkshire page. You can read it here. The blog poses some questions about competition in our sector, both around the role of different support organisations (like CCVS) but also around to the wider sector as well.

The national body that supports organisations like CCVS is called NAVCA and they are undergoing a major strategic review and this is what has prompted these blogs. CCVS was one of the many organisations that the new chair of NAVCA met with before he (unfortunately) retired. At this meeting I spoke about the importance of support organisations working together and not bidding or working in a way that might put others out of business. This may seem odd as the CEO of an organisation that has taken over the work of one very small CVS and has also bid against another to work across Cambridgeshire. That said neither of these things happened on my watch, but that does not mean I would not have made the same choices.

What concerns me is that we are seeing increasing instances of work that was grant funded being put out to commissioning and procurement. We are also seeing cuts to the funding that many support organisations receive from local government and health providers. The days of a CCVS type organisation working in every district are long gone, we now see a broad church of organisations working in different areas and providing very different services. Some are large and some are small. Some provide direct services and projects some don’t. Some are well funded some are not.

I wanted NAVCA membership to have a clause that one support organisation from outside an area would not bid against an existing organisation to deliver core CVS services. I want us to be working together to deliver the best services to the sector not competing against one another. I still want this.

That said the Community Matters blog does make some good points. I think that there are instances where there will be competition, this could be because it is a new service, or it could be because the existing service is not producing the impact it should be. I think that the first conversation should be about collaboration, but if this fails there will be, and should be, a more competitive process.

So is this possible or am I being unrealistic? I think that a more collaborative approach is possible, I think we can be more open and I think we can embrace politeness. This means being open about plans to move into other areas or provide new services in an area you haven’t worked in before. This applies to local organisations growing and moving to new areas, but also to national organisations looking to deliver locally. So if you are a national support organisation delivering locally then talk to the local support organisation to see how you can add value to local groups. If a new opportunity is tendered then start by talking with other providers about how you can submit joint applications. I also think that if collaboration is to happen you have to be open and honest, so no hidden agendas.

Too often we are as worried about collaboration as we are of competition, we all fight for our organisation and we feel threatened by new kids on the block with new ideas. I don’t think that I am immune to these fears, but I have found that where we do collaborate we have better impact and I have faced and overcome (mostly) those fears.

Finally there is a nod to the commissioners. It is important that things like local knowledge, social value, the local economy etc. are taken into account when dealing with our sector. These are hard to put a monetary value on but they do make a great difference to those receiving a service. There have been too many examples of national organisations winning local work only to see the quality of service go down because it was all about outputs and money.

I don’t think any charity has the ‘god given’ right to be a local provider just because they always have been. In the end it is about those receiving the service, they need the best whether they are a group looking for funding support or an individual looking for support. I do think that sometimes smaller local organisations struggle to compete against bigger organisations, and this should not be the reason they fail.

Competition can drive improvements and help develop new services, but so can collaboration. Maybe we should be calling for collaborative tendering and not competitive tendering. We should all be thinking collaboration first, competition second.

Written by Mark Freeman, CEO of CCVS. Follow him at @skillsmark on Twitter or on LinkedIn

Struggling to recruit volunteers, it may be your fault!

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If CCVS had a pound for every group we hear about who are struggling to find volunteers then we would be rich (or at least have a much lower fundraising target)!

As the local support organisation for the sector we get many calls from groups looking for new volunteers or new trustees. I covered some of the issues with trustee recruitment in a previous blog and in this blog I am looking at volunteering.

One of the scariest slides I use when talking about volunteering is from NCVO via the Third Sector Research Centre and this states that 9% of the population are responsible for just over half of formal volunteering. 9% of the Cambridgeshire population equates to 58,340 people which sounds a lot but is only 17 people per square kilometre, so this means those committed volunteers are pretty spread out. I am sure many in the sector will recognise that ‘serial volunteer’ in their community, and in fact my experience is that many who work in the sector are those serial volunteers.

The NCVO research into Volunteering, Time Well Spent, shows that 7 in 10 of us have volunteered at some time in our lives, but only 40% have done so in the last 12 months, and only 7% see volunteering as something that has consistently run through their lives. It also shows that older people are more likely to have volunteered recently, and that those in the higher social classes are more likely to volunteer.

We know we need more volunteers; we also know that people’s lives are changing. And yet are we as organisations changing our volunteering offer and what we are asking of them? All the surveys show that people do have free time, but we are competing with many new distractions and leisure opportunities that take people away from volunteering.

This gets me to the heart of what I think is the issue. I think that some of the problem, and perhaps most of the problem, with the lack of volunteers lies with us, the people looking to engage them and get them on board. I think we have to change two key things. This won’t be easy; it won’t be the same for everyone; and it may mean we have to compromise a bit on what we do.

We have to change how we ask people to volunteer.

Time well spent showed that 35% of people who had never volunteered had not been asked or had not thought about it. This is a ringing indictment of the sector. We need to be asking more people to volunteer, we need to be making this ask engaging, and we need to ensure that the ask stands out from all the other messages people receive.

There are any number of great volunteer recruitment ads doing the rounds. For me they need to concentrate on the impact the volunteer will have or the difference they will make. They need to engage and draw interest so there has to be an eye-catching photo or strapline. An advert should give the basic information about where and what the opportunity is about. There needs to be somewhere for the volunteer to go for more information – a website, the other side of the leaflet, a phone number.

Initially you need to make sure you have grabbed the attention of your audience; this means that you need to know the audience and what will grab their attention. You probably need a series of adverts and asks that appeal to different groups. You will have to invest some time and thought into this. The scout and guide movement have done this, check out some of these images.

I have collected some examples in this Pinterest board but to be honest there are probably more bad examples than good out there, and what I find engaging will not be engaging for everyone. Get creative and understand your audience.

We are not offering the right things

For too long we have had a Henry Ford approach to volunteering offers “You can have any colour as long as it is Black.” In other words organisations develop and define the volunteering opportunity they want, then try and recruit to it. Too often this does not fit with how people want to volunteer or what they are able to commit to. If we are doing this then no wonder we find recruiting hard work. People want to enjoy their volunteering, not feel guilty that they have missed a session.

I volunteer for Junior Parkrun as my youngest enjoys running it. But with young kids and a busy life we do not go every week, so we are probably at 60% of the runs. Luckily the way that Parkrun manage volunteering if I don’t turn up then the run still happens. There is a flexibility that suits me. This may mean a little extra work for those volunteers that organise the runs (and who do have to commit more), but if I had to commit to being there every week, I wouldn’t be able to and I would not volunteer at all!

What I am saying is that organisations have to think about how people want to, and are able to, volunteer and design the volunteering around that. That does not mean that volunteers can mess organisations around. If you have made a commitment it is important that you keep it, as in those weeks where I have signed up to volunteer but on waking up and seeing the rain my daughter decides she is not running – I still turn out and don’t just ‘not bother’.

I understand that in some settings it is important for clients to see people they know so volunteers have to be a bit more consistent, but there are ways of sharing a role or organising an organisations volunteering opportunities so there are a variety of roles that require different commitment levels – this is what the Parkrun model has done.

There are examples of organisations that run regular events like Parkrun but with a different volunteer team each time. Foodcycle https://www.foodcycle.org.uk/ is one, every week they put on meals using volunteers who sign on when they can and for roles they are interested in.  There are systems being developed to help manage this, one example of which comes from the museums sector.

If our volunteering opportunities do not reflect the lifestyle and availability of the potential volunteers then we will struggle to recruit. Similarly if we do not support and train our volunteers and make the activity enjoyable then we will not retain our volunteers. It is up to us to adapt to what potential volunteers want and not expect them to adapt to us. If we do not change potential volunteers will decide to re-watch Game of Thrones, or go for a run, or pop to the pub or do any one of the things people choose to do with their free time.

To Conclude

If 70% of the population have volunteered at some stage, and half of those who have never volunteered are prepared to give it a try that is a lot of potential volunteers.

We need to reach out to the lapsed volunteers and those that have never tried it. We need to ensure that volunteering is fun and flexible as well as rewarding and impactful. We need to create volunteering opportunities that fit with the lifestyles of those we are looking to attract, and adverts that make opportunities stand out.

If you want to get more information on all aspects on Recruiting and retaining volunteers then keep an eye on our training pages we also have a few tips on the website.

Volunteer management in a digital age

This blog is written by Chris one of the CCVS development workers and is one of the pieces in the CCVS May newsletter that has a volunteering theme in the run up to Volunteers Week.

If you have more than a handful of volunteers you will probably need to create a spreadsheet to record key data to help you keep on top of things.  Once you have a larger number of volunteers, especially if you are recruiting and managing several different volunteer roles and rotas, you may want to look at using software adapted to volunteer management.  The best of these systems can improve the volunteering experience, thereby aiding recruitment and retention, and can reduce the administrative burden on the volunteer coordinator.

Common Features of Volunteer Management Software (adapted from www.softwareadvice.com)

  • Recruitment
    Volunteer management systems include online volunteer applications that sync contact information into the database, diverting the time spent on manual entry to increasing the number of prospects. Customisable directories can also be added to a nonprofit’s sites so that visitors can search for opportunities, role descriptions and site locations.
  • Management
    An advanced contact management system allows users to organise contact information and history, including volunteer type, frequency, restrictions and more. This allows users to group volunteers, filter search criteria and reach out to appropriate supporters.
  • Communication
    The communication features allow users to send email campaigns to volunteers, requesting service and adding automated email reminders for upcoming service commitments they’ve volunteered for. Some advanced programs also offer recognition features that automatically award volunteers whose performance has exceeded certain criteria.
  • Volunteer portals
    Portals allow volunteers to sign into an organisation’s site, inquire about upcoming volunteer opportunities, sign up for events and update contact information. Volunteers can also change their communication preferences through portals, opting in or out of particular communications.
  • Volunteer schedules
    Nonprofit organisations can post upcoming volunteer needs with scheduling features. Prospective volunteers can then peruse opportunities and fill empty slots based on their availability.

Some organisations use their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to also manage volunteers.  For example, Charity Log and Salesforce which has the Volunteer for Salesforce (V4S) tool

There are many options and the links below are shown as examples and are not intended as recommendations.

  • Three Rings is UK based and is a volunteer run CIC.  Costs are based on turnover and the website quotes the cost for a community shop as being £150 a year and up to £600 for a large organisation.  It could be free for the smallest organisations and the same product is available regardless of payment level https://www.threerings.org.uk
  • Team Kinetic also UK based and have a free to use system through their national brokerage site  http://tryvolunteering.com/ allowing an organisation to manage one opportunity.  To manage more opportunities the ‘advanced’ product costs £62.50 per month
  • Volgistics US based, costs start at about $17pcm. The sample account demo is worth having a play with at as it is prepopulated with data giving an idea of how volunteer management systems can work  https://sample.volgistics.com/ex/login.dll/Auth
  • Better Impact is UK based and their basic version will cost about £14 pcm https://www.betterimpact.co.uk/free-trial-volunteer-impact/
  • Assemble   https://www.goassemble.com/software/ prices available on application.

There are also some free tools available for recruiting volunteers for events such as www.signup.com and https://trello.com/inspiration/event-planning

Further guidance can be found on the following links 

NCVOs Knowhow Non Profit site

Sheffield Volunteer Centre site