Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working together with Skill Givers – a project that aims to harness the power of employer supported volunteers and connect them up with sports clubs and community groups in Manchester and Salford. Skill Givers is funded by Sport England and has a specific focus on working with groups that help people get physically active; from local sports clubs and community centres that host activities such as yoga or keep fit sessions, to gardening projects and local park groups. My work with the project was specifically focussed on connecting with these groups and helping them identify ways individual employer supported volunteers could support their work.
Many of the groups that I contacted were micro or small and many were volunteer-led. In both Manchester and Salford, we know that these groups make up the majority of the sector (69% of groups in Salford and 66% in Manchester operate on an income of less than £10k per annum). It feels important that these often tiny, less formal groups also have the opportunity to benefit from the skills and additional capacity that employer supported volunteers can bring.
So, what did I learn from the many conversations with groups and clubs and working with them to generate ideas for opportunities suitable for employer supported volunteers?
Here are my five key learnings:
1. Groups are powered by passion
Many of the groups that I connected with were volunteer-led, with people often juggling multiple other commitments alongside running the group and delivering activities. I had many conversations with people who were at work, caring for family members or completing a placement as part of their studies. For those who were paid employees, they were often the sole staff member or part of a tiny team. What they all had in common was a passion for the sport or activity that they were involved in, an understanding of the difference it made to the lives of others and, often, a desire for more people (and a more diverse mix of people) to be able to get involved and experience the benefits of physical activity. We know that understanding impact and a sense of connection to a cause are important motivators for volunteers, so part of my work involved helping groups to articulate this in the wording and design of volunteering opportunities.
2. Groups need skilled volunteers
Groups and clubs often struggled initially to translate the development needs within their club or group into the type of short term opportunities that are suitable for employees, who may have only one or two days a year available to volunteer. What emerged in our conversations was that there is a definite need for volunteers who bring specific skills and who can spend time working on specific tasks for the group. A learning for me was that very few groups and clubs responded to initial emails about Skill Givers and what employer supported volunteers could offer. Taking the time to talk with groups, helping them identify their needs and skills-gaps and to think creatively about how short term volunteering could work for them, was key to encouraging them to register.
3. Groups want to improve their marketing and comms
In nearly all of the conversations I had, the first need that people identified was for greater support around marketing, comms and social media. Many groups had websites that needed refreshed and felt that they could improve their presence and level of engagement on social media. Reaching new audiences, or involving a more diverse range of participants, was a key aim for many clubs, but many felt they needed help with understanding targeted marketing and identifying the most cost-effective methods to use.
4. Involving employer supported volunteers is a commitment
A key learning for me was that even if groups were enthusiastic about what employer supported volunteers could offer, there was no guarantee that they would register with Skill Givers or upload opportunities onto the site. Groups were often quick to register, but stalled at the point of actually uploading opportunities, even once these had been written up and agreed. Getting groups to commit to being involved means building trust on a number of levels: trust in Skill Givers, trust in the employer supported volunteers themselves and trust that the benefit and impact for their group will be worth the effort. For some groups, this investment included putting things in place like insurance cover for volunteers or updating policies or risk assessments. Due to time constraints, most of my contact with groups was by phone and my sense is that it takes longer to build trust, without that face to face contact. It often took several calls to build a relationship with a group, to create an understanding of how ESV works in practice and to get to a point of clarity about the opportunities they could offer. It seems important to remember that you are taking groups with you on a journey – sometimes from an initial point where they don’t think that ESV is relevant to them or could be of benefit. Taking them with you takes trust and it takes time.
5. We are social beings
In my conversations with groups, people were curious about individual employer supported volunteers, their skills sets and what they would hope to get out of the experience. Many said that it would be useful to be able to view profiles of individual employee volunteers, to help spark ideas for opportunities or ways that people could help. What this communicated to me was a sense that groups recognise the reciprocal nature of the volunteering relationship and that sometimes it’s easier to start from the point of what someone can offer, rather than slotting them into a pre-defined role. Also, perhaps, that volunteering is often powered by relationships – the relationship with people in the group, beneficiaries and the cause.
I am also curious about how social media is shaping us all (whether we are avid users or not) and our expectations and motivations when we are using online platforms like the Skill Givers site. Many groups (even micro ones) are already using social media in some form. Would groups be more motivated to interact with a platform that enables connection with volunteers in a “social” way; where they are able to browse volunteer “profiles”, see photos and background information, check out who has viewed or “liked” their opportunities. Is our curiosity (or plain nosiness) a motivation to jump through the hoops of registering and engaging with a site. This isn’t possible within the current format of the site, but I’m interested to see how things evolve, as the project grows.
Laura Hamilton, Specialist in volunteer involvement and volunteer management
 Damm, Prinos & Sanderson Greater Manchester State of the VCSE Sector 2017 Report, Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University https://www.gmcvo.org.uk/publications/greater-manchester-state-vcse-sect...