Volunteering is a two-way process that makes a difference to everyone involved

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 1:44pm

I was once approached about a role as a Chief Executive of a large, national, volunteering organisation.  I replied that it was hard enough leading and motivating a paid workforce and that it must be so much harder to lead volunteers. Now, with two powerful volunteering experiences under my belt, one volunteering on the ward of a Hospice and more recently setting up the COVID-19 Community Response in Rhossili, Gower; my views have mellowed. I can stand back and reflect more comprehensively and mindfully on the value of volunteering to our nation.

Without doubt, volunteering is an incredible two-way process. The recipient(s) of the volunteering receive something that they might not otherwise get and it can make all the difference to their quality of life. The volunteer also receives a sense of well-being from the giving of their time/skills/experience. This is often powerfully told through stories at a human level, as well the articulation of some powerful figures demonstrating the economic value of volunteering to the country.

My recent experiences have deepened my personal learning; in governance, communication, control and the hidden talents within a community. Let me explain.

The importance of good governance

My career background has steeped me in governance arrangements; from safeguarding to GDPR. I brought this to bear in developing systems and arrangements for the safe support of the vulnerable in our community of Rhossili during COVID-19. This was seen as “overkill” by some, but I stick by my own head knowledge and gut feeling that good governance protects us all. 

Effective communication

Communication has to be clear, precise and timely, particularly in times of crisis. This is not rocket science, but when working with volunteers I found that many wanted time to “chat” and that is important too. However, the ability to be clear about any need and expectations of individuals and groups at some point has to be made in a way that sticks. Communication upwards, outwards and to other voluntary bodies had to be coordinated. Having a SPOC (single point of contract) to make sure there was clarity and consistency was so important.

Knowing where control sits

I prefer the word accountability. This has to be clear. It does not mean that the person accountable is any better or above others; but clarity on accountability means all the cogs in the system can work together well.

Recognising and using hidden talents

Without doubt, everybody I’ve worked with during this challenging time had amazing talents that we could match to the needs of the community response. Data handling, compassion, community engagement, website building, project management, social media, local knowledge and endless human kindness. These all played their part. Looking out for these hidden talents and using them is key to success.

I like to think that my colleagues and friends in the community felt able to give in a way that honoured their talents and yet made an invaluable contribution to the whole system.

In this quiet period, it is a time to reflect, regroup and reenergise. Many colleagues at Audit Wales and in my community are still working at pace and pressure in responding to the current situation. Many are also now looking ahead to what might happen next and to build on the learning gained so far.

It is in this spirit that Audit Wales has undertaken this powerful piece of work around the Covid Learning Project. The current focus on volunteering is about sharing the examples of what people have done so that learning spreads. My hope is that it reaches those who continue to make a difference and those who could make a difference.

I have grown, been humbled and felt grateful for the opportunity to use my talents during this period. I wish to continue to learn and play my part in public life, as a citizen and as a volunteer.

About the author: 

Isobel has a broad portfolio career where the common theme is improvement in public services. She provides leadership through her role as Chair of Audit Wales. In addition, Isobel is the former lead Non-Executive at the Wales Office in Whitehall and recently completed an extended term as a Non-Executive Board Member of the Health and Safety Executive reporting into Ministers at a UK level. She has chaired the Audit and Risk Assurance Committees for the HSE and the Wales Office. Isobel’s most recent Senior Executive role was as Chief Executive of Wrexham County Borough Council from 2003-11. Isobel also undertakes leadership development work for Executives and Non-Executives and is also a Mentor to a number of individuals.