Chris Clements considers a challenging, but potentially game-changing new definition of volunteering.

4 minute read

We all know that volunteers can add value to your work. Yes, engaging them can be hard work and time-intensive – you have to invest in relationships, supervision and support. But it all feels very manageable and familiar.

But what if we thought about volunteers another way? Imagine your goal was to engage volunteers so that you can add value to their work?

Every Christmas time, over 2,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable people come together at 11 venues across London. They include rough sleepers, long-term hostel residents, migrants and sofa surfers. Over several days, they access a range of medical, advice, learning and wellbeing services. They often provide more support than people have received for months previously.

Everyone is treated as an individual, using proper safeguarding procedures, and given the help they need. You’ll find the same thing happening in other cities, such as Edinburgh and Birmingham, and in South Wales. And it’s all done without a paid member of staff anywhere to be seen.

‘Crisis at Christmas’ shouldn’t work, but it does. I’ve seen it and I know that the 11,000 volunteers who make it happen each year are remarkable, resourceful people.

Earlier in my career, I was lucky enough to oversee the services that Crisis shelters provide. I learned many lessons and one of the most powerful was what you can achieve by unlocking discretionary effort[1] when you see your role as enabling others.

Reward for trust

The Crisis advice service was a prime example. I remember one man who had been rough sleeping after losing everything following a legal dispute. It was a complex case. But within 24 hours, the volunteer team had used their networks to locate a specialist advisor to take on his case, and had reconnected him with family and found a secure housing option. The depth of thinking, speed of response and outcomes achieved trumped anything I’d have achieved with triple my budget!

My organisation considered me the ‘Service Manager’, but I was more accurately the ‘Service Facilitator’. I’d relinquished some control and it actually made me feel a little uncomfortable.

It really shouldn’t be surprising that people are more motivated to deliver when you put your trust in them. There’s lots of evidence to show that engaging people emotionally unlocks more discretionary effort than when you create transactional relationships.

In the advice service example, putting volunteers in the lead meant they picked up the phone to their contacts on Boxing Day. They had a different relationship than any paid staff member would have with the client (or ‘guests’ as they are called at Crisis). The guests also responded differently, in part because of the volunteers’ investment in them.

Unlocking the community

More recently, I’ve worked to support community-led models of refugee resettlement in the UK. Traditionally, local government have led efforts to resettle and integrate refugees, typically with a staff member paid to support multiple families.

‘Community sponsorship’ switches responsibility to a local community group, who instead have multiple community volunteers supporting one family. Rightly, groups have to demonstrate they are ready for such commitment, but they typically step up and contribute more than they would have otherwise. And they unlock more support than any local council-led scheme would manage.

Take my local sponsorship group, Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees. They have grown from a group of three people meeting in a living room 18 months ago to attracting 300 people at a recent launch event to welcome a second refugee family. It’s very rare to get that kind of momentum if you’re asking for volunteers to get involved in an existing service.

Community sponsorship definitely makes some people uncomfortable. The scheme the refugees arrive on is called the ‘Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme’, and shouldn’t we leave vulnerable people to the experts? Isn’t switching services paid for by government to volunteer-led models just letting government off the hook?

Yet the refugees are the real winners here. Take the example of the Syrian family supported by the Raynes Park Salvation Army community in South London. They used their network to help the Dad find work within four months, arranged peer-befriending for the children, organised additional language lessons and interpreters in the early days.

As the family put it, “In London we found a new family waiting for us.”

An uncomfortable truth?

This potential to improve outcomes for refugees was the reason I got involved. But the real magic of sponsorship comes from the richness – and messiness – of welcoming a family into a community.

To make it feel more comfortable, there’s a temptation to turn it into a service – to write a specification of what will be delivered. This is honestly the first reaction to sponsorship from most people in authority. And yes, we can ask volunteers to complete application forms that answer our questions. We can ask them to explain how they’ll do the things we would normally do. But this slightly misses the point. Sponsorship starts with shifting control. It’s about genuinely empowering the community volunteers to respond as required, including drawing in any relevant expertise.

I’m not arguing that volunteers should operate without support, training or boundaries. The people they help deserve that – particularly with vital issues such as safeguarding. But I am suggesting we consider how much we have to specify and control. And whether nudging ourselves towards the uncomfortable can release the potential in our volunteers.

For those of us focussed on trying to have systemic impact there’s a bigger prize here too. I’ve seen countless Crisis volunteers go onto to be some of the most vocal advocates for homeless people. I’ve heard from community volunteers that seeing refugee sponsorship first hand has recruited unusual advocates and transformed communities.

Nick, the church leader behind the Raynes Park group, put it like this: “I’ve learnt that it takes a community to resettle a family. I’ve also learnt that it takes a family to make a community. We’ve made many new friends locally and have all grown closer together because the family came here.”

It can be easy to criticise system change as too conceptual or ethereal. But examples like Nick’s remind us of something very important. At its core, transformation is just about people – and we can achieve some truly incredible things when we challenge ourselves to engage with people differently.

 [1] Discretionary effort refers to the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required.

Share this post: