I am pleased to report on the success of a new innovation for 2020, a Volunteer Managers’ Café, that started before Covid-19 and has carried on through the crisis and is becoming more important during the recovery phase and beyond.
At Volunteer Centre Camden we have a dedicated service to support best practice volunteer management called Best Practice Plus. Over the years we have developed and evolved workshops and forums for volunteer managers in Camden to help support their organisation’s volunteer programmes. These are well attended with the workshops being more formal with the focus on a specific topic for learning/development and the forums enable more discussion and peer networking.
We also offer one-to-one support with volunteer managers but this is a reactive service and relies on a volunteer manager to pick up the phone or email us with a particular issue they need help with. This service does not get so much use whereas the workshops and forums are far more popular.
I thought maybe this just reflects what volunteer managers want but I have always had a sneaky feeling there must be other issues going on that we were not being told about that they do not want to say. If we could get just more of their trust then we can be even more helpful to volunteer managers.
I was at a conference at the end of last year and as part of this we were split into breakout groups and asked to do an activity. I am always a bit cynical and sceptical of such activities, unless its purpose and end result are very clear and relevant, as they often they seem like time-fillers or just contrived ways to stop you falling asleep or doing work emails.
Despite my scepticism I participated in a positive spirit, as otherwise my scepticism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and part of this session was to talk to the person next to me about something that I now forget. She was from a church and she told me that she found that she got people to open up about issues whilst they were doing gardening together. It was not that she pushed them to talk but whilst they were gardening together the person voluntarily opened up and she was able to listen and support.
A light bulb went on somewhere inside me. I realised that we needed to have our own version of the garden for volunteer managers. So, at the beginning of the year we launched our new Volunteer Managers’ Café.
It was a no-brainer to try as it does not cost anything. We simply advertised that our very excellent and nice Volunteer Management Best Practice Manager, Shafia Begam, would be in a particular coffee shop for a couple of hours on a certain day. She would bring her laptop and if no one turned up she could quietly get on with her work. Not a problem.
But volunteer managers did show up and it turns out they did want to talk.
Shafia reports, ‘Volunteer Manager Cafes work well in comparison to forum/workshops because the Volunteer Manager benefits from a 1-1 session in an informal setting. This allows for the exchange of honest communication in a safe space and imbues a feeling of ‘friendliness’ which isn’t easily replicable in other environments.’
We cannot divulge precise details of what volunteer managers have told us, but this process has given them an environment where they feel they can open up about problems they face that they could never do in a forum or workshop. It is obvious when you think about it. When we are in a setting with representatives from other organisations it is our duty to be an ambassador for our charity and we do not feel comfortable talking about the inner problems the organisation is facing.
It became apparent that both large and small organisations experience volunteer management issues that we were not hearing about before but we now do and so can give them tailored and discreet support.
Because the support takes place in a café, we can hold them all across the borough which means we can better engage volunteer managers. The Volunteer Managers’ Cafés, which now take place virtually, really help us to learn about issues volunteer managers face so we can help them.
They are free and effective. Every Chief Executive’s dream.
They have been a great innovation to our services and they are here to stay.