Developing an effective volunteer strategy

11 December 2017


by Damian Sherwood-Johnson, Sistema Scotland 

Learn from the experience of the Volunteer Development Coordinator of the national charity Sistema Scotland.

About Sistema Scotland

Sistema Scotland is the charity which runs Big Noise – a social change programme which aims to transform the lives of children through music and strengthen disadvantaged communities.  Every week we work with 2,500 children from birth to young adults at Big Noise centres in Raploch, Stirling; Govanhill, Glasgow; Torry, Aberdeen and Douglas, Dundee. 

We equip children with resilience and confidence to reach their full potential across all areas of their lives. We could not achieve this without the help of over sixty volunteers.  Volunteers support the children and musicians in our after school and holiday clubs; they sit on the Sistema Scotland Board deciding the strategic direction of the organisation; and join our Youth Board, which we introduced in Raploch to give children a strong voice in Big Noise

So...

You may have no experience or training in how to develop a volunteer strategy but it is something that you want to do.  You are not alone.  In this blog series, I share my personal experience of the development of a volunteer strategy.  In this first post, I offer the opportunity to pause and examine the commitment you need to make. 

Where do you start?

Devise a volunteer strategy.  That’s the task so you naturally Google “volunteer strategy” and you get a bewildering, if not paralysing, list of results.  Where to begin is often the most difficult part of accomplishing a task.  Keen for action and results, there is a risk that we neglect the planning and preparation required to successfully achieve our outcome.  Make time though to understand the theory before you move onto the practice.  It will increase your confidence, improve your ability to engage and gain support, and make your process more effective. 

So before you even start to plan how to develop a volunteer strategy, reflect on the following:

 

Do you need a volunteer strategy?

As volunteer managers, there are always a hundred and one things to do.  You may think that you do not have the time to develop a strategy.  However, the hundred and one things may be an indicator that you need a strategy.  Rather than spend time and effort to fix things in a piecemeal fashion, it may be more beneficial to take a strategic response.  This can help you to manage things in a more co-ordinated manner.  Importantly, it will identify if you have the necessary resources to achieve the desired developments.  And make the argument for getting them if you don’t.  Think also of your strategy as an opportunity to promote and raise the visibility of your volunteering.

Or it may just be that the hundred and one things means that the programme needs to reach a stage where a strategy has a better chance of being successfully implemented.  It may not be the right time if you have particular challenges to contend with.

Ideal times to consider a strategy are if the organisation is developing an organisational strategy which the volunteer strategy can be part of or aligned with, or if you want to achieve Investing in Volunteers or the Volunteer Friendly award.

Are you confident you know what a strategy is?

A strategy is not a policy or a process or a procedure.  Confusingly, it is also not a mission or vision statement, or action plan although it may have these associated with it. 

A strategy articulates what needs to be done to achieve the purpose of an organisation, group, programme, etc.  It tells the story of where you want to be in the future and provides the direction that is to be taken.  When you read through a strategy, you should be able to identify changes or developments that need to happen before this purpose can be realised. 

Some examples of volunteer strategies for you to consider:

As you read over the strategies, think about:

  • What instantly do you notice about the strategy?
  • What do you like/not like about the strategy?
  • Is it clear what needs to happen for the purpose to be achieved?
  • How could the strategies be developed to be more effective?
  • What is the overall impression/message that you come away with?

Remember though that creating a strategy is not a copy and paste exercise.  To be of benefit, strategies must be unique and tailored to the needs and ambition of the organisation. 

A quick word on the use of volunteer strategy to describe your document.  I am comfortable with describing it as a strategy although I do understand the risk that it may act as a barrier to people engaging with it. 

For me, this is more about how you promote and make it appealing rather than the title itself. You may want a subtitle to soften this description though.  At Sistema Scotland, we have adopted, “The Big Picture – A Volunteer Strategy for Sistema Scotland” as the title.

What do you need to do to produce the strategy?

In the activity for this, there is a spectrum between sitting in a room by yourself and just writing it, and engaging with everyone and having lots of collaboration and feedback.  You will be best placed to determine and understand the factors which will influence the extent of the process.  Important elements to think about to decide what can be achieved are:

  • Deadline
    When does the strategy need to be ready for?  Is there a particular driver for the strategy and is this time-critical?  Do you want the strategy to dovetail with the beginning of your financial year or be ready to launch at a particular event such as Volunteers’ Week?
  • Your capacity
    This will be one thing amongst the other demands of your day job.  How much time can you really devote to it?
  • Legitimacy and gaining support
    You will want to affect some change identified by the strategy and will probably need other people in your organisation to help with this.  If you have not consulted with them, this may undermine the legitimacy of your proposed developments and could make it difficult to get support.

At Sistema Scotland, we hope to launch the volunteer strategy in Volunteers’ Week of 2018.  Feels like ages away right now.  However, this is not to say that I have the next six months to work on it exclusively.  It is one priority in amongst a few others.  And I work three days a week.  And other people that I need to chat with are busy.  And so on.  All these considerations will be common to you and need to factor into your planning.

A plea though to involve volunteers somehow.  However short on time or resources you may be, find a way to engage with your volunteers to obtain their views.  Their perspective and experience is vital to a well-informed strategy.  Any volunteer strategy that does not reflect the views of the volunteers will experience greater difficultly in its implementation.

Suggested Useful Resources

Training

  • Volunteer Scotland run a one-day course on, “Developing a Volunteer Strategy”, which is great for a number of reasons.  You will increase your understanding of how to put together a strategy, have time to reflect on what is needed and even do some of the preparatory work, and have the chance to form a network of peers to support you.  Find details here.
  • Check out the training schedule of your local TSI or even ask if they could put a session on.
  • VolunteerMatch run a series of online webinars, which includes this topic.  Upcoming webinars can be found here but just remember the difference in time zones.

Books

  • "Strategic Volunteer Engagement - a Guide for Nonprofit and Public Sector Leaders" by Sarah Jane Rehnborg
  • "Volunteer Management - How and Why?  A Book on Developing Sustainable Volunteer Environments" by Frederik C. Boll and others
  • “Business and Strategic Planning for Voluntary Organisations” by Alan Lawrie

Articles

  • A Unique Model: A Personal Account of an Innovative Volunteer Program by Andy Fryar
  • Creating a Strategic Volunteerism Plan: We Did It! by Mary Ella Douglas, Melissa Gilmore, Katherine H. Campbell and Marybeth K. Saunders
  • Moving Beyond Program: Developing a Volunteer Engagement Strategic Plan by Beth Steinhorn

These articles were accessed through the Energise Inc. website (found here) although you may need a subscription to view them.

Networks

We are not the first volunteer managers to devise a strategy and there exists a wealth of experience and learning.  Finding an individual or group to share this with you can really help to provide clarity about the task in front of you. 

I effectively sent up a flare on the UKVPMs forum and the response was fantastic. Professionals in the field were amazingly generous with their time and shared hugely useful information. I sincerely thank all who responded and provided some illumination.  Don’t forget that you will have your own network of peers so ask them.  And there will be a time in the future when you will be the expert that others will want to learn from!

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