Rethinking the volunteer model

This year I’ve been working full-time for a governmental organisation, and working on Upwards and Savvy Up quietly in the background. One small sea-change happened in early October - I was talking to someone about Upwards and he said, why don’t you use the volunteer model with extra training and support? Now, I’ve always been very adamant about finding ways to value peoples’ time by paying them adequately. So in the past, I’ve always refused to use the volunteer model for the schools part of Upwards. But his comments made me think, how might this work?

With this model, you value people by giving them valuable experiences that they can use to create new roles for themselves in paid work, a stepping stone into others. And support. Lots of support.

I am starting to see the seeds of a model for this, and (as is usual with Upwards, this ever-circling spiral of a job creation engine that it is) it’s one that supports young people to get valuable work/leadership experience as well as further strengthening the social fabric and support of a community. Plus I can leverage Savvy Up expertise and information, including our new Talent LMS e-learning platform. It’s this kind of synergy that makes me think I’m on the right track.

I can also turn it back into a paid role for people - the infrastructure and policy creation is the same. Actually grateful right now for the experience I’m getting in my current contract role in learning how organisations make internal policy.

Then I went down to Christchurch for the Great Southern Unconference at the end of October - and met a bunch of people who were doing other things that worked, so I got to pick their brains about the volunteer model and what worked and didn’t. (Once again a big THANK YOU to the sponsors because it is the second time I’ve been and it has always given me a huge boost in my businesses.)

Some key points that I recall from the discussions:

  • The importance of ensuring people have agency - really emphasised from other peoples’ work. I’m still trying to work out how we can have older students lead the sessions.

  • You need a paid person to coordinate volunteers.

  • Treat volunteers like employees - because they are. That’s something I really want to do well.

  • Focus on what works, not on what doesn’t.

In November, I went to VSA’s Annual Congress (annual conference and recognition ceremony for returned volunteers) as I’m on one of VSA’s committees. The theme for 2018 was “Pawa Mere/Strong Women”, and it featured a fantastic panel discussion with six amazing women working to end gender-based violence across Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific. (You can watch it here on Facebook.) I was listening to them talk, and idly drawing in my notebook - and suddenly an entire programme structure for the volunteer programme was sitting there in scribbled boxes. And I marvelled that the gestation of this part of the programme has taken a year. A year of limited outside activity, but slow and steady progress nonetheless. I can see the next steps, once again.