So how are we progressing with our new year resolutions? Fallen off the diet bandwagon yet? Exercise commitments already forgotton? Has the email inbox exploded from unread spam? Every year I await the media shower of new year commitments and ambitions. Magazines full of diet suggestions, clearing out your closet and managing your time more effectively. As my colleague Emma Lindley has already blogged its clear that we relish a blank page at the beginning of the year and in this digital world its harder than ever to do so (although there is always the reset button).
Don’t get me wrong starting afresh can be a good thing, it’s heartening and positive but I am conscious that too often we feel we have failed and then demoralised from our inability to change the little things and keep to our personal goals. But let’s not be too disheartened and give ourselves a break. 2012 was a challenging but celebratory period and 2013 looks as though we are in for the same, but being a positive person I firmly believe we will get through to the other side.
Volunteer as a business mentor?
The RSA’s involvement in enterprise has long been established. Here is an opportunity for Fellows with business experience to be trained as mentors through the Get Mentoring, which offers free training and supports a community of enterprise mentors across the UK.
Research has shown that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs. Experienced mentors not only boost capability and capacity in small, medium and micro businesses, but also radically increase survival rates. As well as the benefits for the businesses, Mentors report major benefits including an insight into the hot topics effecting businesses today, development of skills which can be applied to other interactions and the chance to build some meaningful contacts with individuals in the next generation of businesses. Training is free and can be undertaken at workshops or online. Register on the Get Mentoring website
Become a School Governor with SGOSS
The RSA is working to alongside the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) to try and fill some of the many school governor vacancies that currently exist across the UK. SGOSS is a small charity that recruits and helps place governor volunteers working in partnership with employers, local authorities and schools. It has already helped place over 15,000 volunteers and its services are free to all.
Why do it?
- Children need all the help they can get to equip them for life after school. SGOSS are looking for great school governors who can help improve educational standards across the UK.
- Good governing bodies make a material contribution to the performance of their schools. (Ofsted)
- The need for governor volunteers with transferable skills has never been greater. There are 33,000 vacant governor places in schools in England.
You will need to be 18 or over; however you don’t need to have children or have any detailed educational knowledge. Schools want governors with varied experience from all walks of life. The role involved 6-8 hours per month in term time only. I myself have recently agreed to be a governor for a school in Furness Vale, Disley.
As for my own resolution for 2013? Four years ago I made a resolution not to have any more new year pledges and have stuck to it ever since!
Deputy Head of Regional Programme
It’s been ages since I posted a blog here on our Fellowship pages but this doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. Whilst we all bask in the olympic glow I am currently thinking about three key areas of improving the Fellowship offer, specifically from a regional (and in some cases national) offer namely; Regional Development Plans, Innovation and Volunteering.
The RSA has recently gone through a major period of governance review; the outcome of this is the creation of new regional/national teams across the UK bringing together a core team of Regional Chair, relevant Council member and Programme Manager. These working teams will have mixed approaches and styles but all will be focused on one objective over the next few months – the preparation of Development Pans for their relevant area. These plans will be outline proposals project development, local activity, objectives - all led by Fellows. It will be interesting to see how some areas overlap and others differ in their approaches and respond to local priorities. I hope to encourage all Regional/National Chairs to post guest blogs here and provide an overview of their vision.
Innovation is a theme close to the RSA mission. I think it will be a topic appearing more frequently on these blogs. Recently we have been running Catalyst roadshows and the need for case studies of practical and innovative projects that have received Fellows support and resources remains the number one request. Today, I provided a Fellow in the North West some examples of community-based projects as case-studies for a new community wellbeing project in Cheshire. I found myself recommending Social Spaces and the work undertaken by Tessy Britton FRSA and Laura Billings FRSA to collate local community projects and share positive stories and ideas for others to adopt, replicate and refine.
Which of course leads me to volunteering. This is an area that I am keen the Regional Programme Team (which I lead) take an active role in developing further with Fellows. Fellows are volunteers and we need to ensure that we use this valuable resource wisely, effectively and most importantly to mutual benefit. Whether its mentoring a young entrepreneur or simply advising on Fundraising for a potential project the connection Fellows share through knowledge, expertise and skills is the most valuable resource I know. So dear reader (hello Dad!) could you please signpost me to the examples you know about volunteering management and mobilisation. I want to hear how volunteer engagement works and learn why some organisations are so successful.
I have a personal objective to ensure the RSA improves its understanding and development of all volunteers. So over to you – please let me have your suggestions.
Deputy Head of Regional Programme
Volunteering is often seen through an all too simple lens. If you were to ask someone to describe an example of ‘volunteering’, they might say helping to serve food at a homeless shelter, checking up on an elderly neighbour, or tending to a community garden. They are less likely to say doing the bookkeeping for a local charity, writing a business plan for a social enterprise or undertaking some desk-research for an NGO. Yet it is arguably these kinds of activities that third sector organisations will need greatest help with over the coming years, not least because they are being enticed into taking on more sophisticated functions such as tendering for public service contracts.
The changing face of third sector operations will in turn require a transformation in the calibre of the volunteers we recruit. In short, we will need to get better at identifying and mobilising skilled individuals who are up to the challenge of undertaking more demanding tasks. This is in part what we have attempted to do with the RSA’s ‘ChangeMakers’ project. Using an innovative new method, we were able to identify some 240 ChangeMakers in Peterborough who are driving positive change – among them businessmen, housing officers, students, artists and social entrepreneurs – and are now in the process of bringing these individuals together as part of a new collaborative network which works to improve the city.
Although mobilising this group will prove something of a challenge, we are not starting from scratch – by definition, ChangeMakers are already highly active in their communities and have experience of applying their skills for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of most skilled individuals. Despite the fact that twice as many people with a degree volunteer compared to those without any qualifications, there are still many out there who we have been unable to galvanise into action and whose wealth of talents remain untapped.
One reasonable explanation for this is that these highly educated, experienced individuals have less time at their disposal. They are more likely to be in senior positions at work, meaning that even if they want to help out at a local charity or social enterprise they simply don’t have the time or energy to do so. Another reason is that they don’t recognise themselves as particularly skilled or talented. Or if they do, they fail to see how their abilities could be applied in such a way to support a third sector organisation. Judging from our experience with the ChangeMakers project, this is entirely plausible: many of the people we identified were genuinely surprised that they had been nominated as someone driving positive change.
Bring these and other explanations together and we can begin to paint a more detailed picture of the difficulties in recruiting and managing ‘elite’ volunteers. The big piece that is still missing, however, is an acknowledgement of the mental demands that accompany participation. We can ponder endlessly about whether people have the time, the skills or the knowledge to volunteer. But this debate will prove fruitless unless we understand that ‘participation is personal’, something which is ultimately tied up in the nature of our identities and how we see ourselves in relation to others.
Take an example. A high-flying graduate who works for a major consultancy firm has the necessary time and skills to help undertake an audit of a charity in their neighbourhood. On the face of it, there should be no barrier stopping this person from offering their services. But this would be to ignore the hidden mental demands that are associated with the task. For instance, as somebody who may be in a position of authority at work, they may feel some discomfort at being directed by a less senior person in a smaller organisation. It may also be that the culture of the third sector environment doesn’t go in tandem with the one they’re accustomed to in the private sphere. Likewise, they may have to work with individuals who they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with in their work or private lives (see our Beyond the Big Society report for a fuller explanation of this ‘hidden curriculum’).
What this means is that any aspiration to grow the numbers of skilled people offering their services as volunteers will have to be accompanied by a much more considered approach to identifying, recruiting and coordinating those individuals. It will need to be one that thinks not only about matching specific skills with need but also about linking people and organisations based on their like-mindedness and cultural similarities. The immediate costs may appear too large at first and the exercise overly complex, but in the long run the dividends will justify the time and expense. Indeed, it’s not a case of if we choose to reform the way we recruit and manage volunteers but rather when and how.
One of the main reasons that older people give for not going online is that “people like them” don’t using the Internet. No amount of free computers or cut priced broadband will change that. That’s why Race Online 2012, the organisation that is pushing to get more of us online, constantly uses examples of older people using the Internet as a key way of encouraging other older people to go online. If people feel that it is normal for people like them to do something, then it is very easy for them to do it.
I recently interviewed a middle aged woman, let’s call her Lynn. She explained to me that she does not have enough time to be involved in her local community. She said that she would love to volunteer but she has so many other responsibilities that she just can’t find the time. She seemed to regret not being able to volunteer and, more importantly, she seemed to be somewhat ashamed. I think she felt like she should volunteer and that I might disapprove of her for not volunteering.
The more Lynn spoke the more amazed I became at the range of things she did, in her community. As well as working full time she also looks after her dad on Saturdays, her mum on Sundays and various grandchildren 3 nights a week. She also helps neighbours write letters to officials and has a regular drink with her neighbour whose husband died recently.
Lynn doesn’t volunteer in the way we normally understand the word. However, she does an incredible amount to improve the lives of those around her. In fact, the strain this had on her was obvious to see. She told me that she feels like she never has any time for herself and she takes medication for depression.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons
Why does Lynn feel like she should give more to her local community? Why does she feel ashamed by how little she is doing, when she is doing so much? Perhaps the answer can be found in our stereotype of the volunteer.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons.
For Lynn, volunteers are not “people like me”. They are people who can afford to give their time to others for free, expecting to get nothing back apart from perhaps a sense of satisfaction.
Under the banner of the Big Society, the government has made a number of recommendations and exhortations to increase the amount of volunteering in Britain. According to Ipsos MORI the number of hours that people say they volunteer has remained constant for decades now, despite various governments’ best efforts. I am sure I am not alone in being sceptical about the potential of current government initiatives to increase this number.
There is a risk though that exhortations from the government for us to volunteer more will make people like Lynn feel slightly more ashamed.
The government could take a different approach; recognising and celebrating the contribution that people like Lynn make, so that others find it easier to contribute to their community in the way that Lynn does.
Do the ends justify the means?
There has been much discussion recently on how to get more people to volunteer but how important a goal is this? How much would we be willing to sacrifice to see this goal achieved? My guess is that the answer for most people would be “not much”.
Matthew Taylor has written on his misgivings on what he calls “involunteering” i.e. forcing people to volunteer.
I am certainly not saying that we should hope for either, however, these observations do raise lots of questions about how much of a goal increased volunteering really is.
Indeed, perhaps one of the (many) PR problems with Cameron’s idea of The Big Society is that it appears to be both a means (reforming public services, training community organisers etc…) and an end (people feeling more responsible for their area and more empowered). Without making this split clear it’s hard for us to debate which means we are or are not willing to tolerate for which ends.
The news that Nat Wei, the Government’s advisor on the Big Society, wants to spend more time in paid work and with his friends and family, and less time volunteering as the Big Society Tsar has lead to much gloating.
Some of this ridicule is just the rough and tumble associated with being a public figure in a country that loves cutting people down to size.
However, some have seen this episode as an “allegory” of the impossibility of building the Big Society. As Polly Curtis writes in the Guardian “people don’t have time to run a public service on top of holding down a job and seeing their families”.
Nat Wei himself has replied to these criticisms, saying that the Big Society “is about much more than volunteering – it’s about helping people to take control over their lives, however much time they have”.
I think that the episode does tell us something interesting about the prospects for building more empowered communities in the UK but I don’t think that it has much to do with how much free time we have.
In fact, as repeated surveys have found, we currently spend, on average, three to four hours a day watching tv or dvds, and 15 minutes doing voluntary work. Having more free time does not make it easier to volunteer. Unemployed people are less likely to volunteer than people in work, even though they clearly have more “free” time.
This incident does not tell us much about the impossibility of more people volunteering, since it is quite plain that more people could volunteer more of their time than they do currently. The fact that he will still be volunteering two days a week is quite impressive.
What I take from this episode is the importance of the labour market and the lack of any serious comment on how the labour market should be reformed as part of efforts to build the Big Society.
Another article in the Guardian today looks at the labour market in Morpeth. We are told that one unemployed person is “overqualified for the few public sector, minimum-wage posts that are available – a support worker in a local care home, a contract cleaner for the council, a census collector.”
Why does he not want to do these jobs? They seem to be perfectly noble lines of work.
Dan Pink has found that people are happier and more productive at work if they have autonomy, develop mastery and work in an organisation with a sense of purpose. I would bet that these low paid jobs are not attractive partly because they are low paid, but also because they do not give workers much of a feeling of autonomy, mastery or a sense of purpose.
Whoever came up with the phrase “work/life balance” has a lot to answer for. The idea that our paid work must be something we endure in order to pay for activities that we enjoy seems a horrifying thought, especially given that we spend most of our time working, sleeping and watching TV.
If the Government were serious about giving people control over their lives then it would be contemplating ways of reforming the labour market so that people’s experience of work is itself empowering.
A recent poll found that more people agreed than disagreed with the principles behind the Big Society but thought that the Government’s policies to build this society had little chance of working. Partly, this is good old fashioned British cynicism, but it must also be a recognition of the major structural barriers that prevent people having more control over their lives and the Government’s lack of appetite to confront these barriers.