March 25th, 2010
When you help a volunteer access support or advice from other agencies, your role will often be as advocate. Many vulnerable people struggle with the bureaucracy and complexity involved in finding an emergency NHS dentist or getting the benefits they are entitled to. Often all they need is someone to help them obtain the correct forms and help fill them in. In other cases it is more complex.
Accessing expensive and extremely limited drug rehabilitation treatment, for example, is going to take spectacular powers of persuasion. Even then you are unlikely to make much of a dent on the queue. However in many cities and some towns there are agencies that specialise in advocacy work for such cases. If you can’t access the service needed yourself, identify other agencies that possibly can. In urgent cases, friendly local councillors or your MP’s office can be extremely helpful and may make a phone call on your behalf. Community radio stations are in an unusually fortunate position when it comes to accessing external support. You may well already have working partnerships with many of the agencies you will need, and that usually means personal connections.
Don’t be afraid to use them. When you are seeking help for a volunteer you want to be able to bypass the switchboard and ring up your contact, tell them the nature of your problem, and ask who the best person to talk to is. Politely remind them of the value of community radio to their own function, and stress the value of the volunteer to the station. It can take time to build up such relationships, but in most cases it will be worth persevering. Ideally you want to be on first name and direct line terms with someone at:
- Local health providers;
- Social services;
- Housing authorities;
- Housing associations;
- Education providers;
- Youth services;
- Legal aid solicitors;
- Service users groups;
- Benefits and welfare advice centres;
- Debt advice centres;
- Immigration advice centres;
- Housing and homelessness advice centres;
- Citizens Advice Bureaux;
- Drug and alcohol agencies;
- Community psychiatric services.
Appraisal and supervision
The most common way you will identify problems developing for a volunteer is in the supervision you give. ‘Supervision’ in this context does not mean constantly leaning over their shoulders and watching their every move. Instead it means offering regular face-to-face contact to identify any problems the volunteer may be having or any additional help or support he may need. Supervision and appraisal are of course vital for training in broadcasting skills (see Chapter 13), but they serve a valuable function in personal support too. They should be designed around process (i.e. what is being done) rather than outcome (what has been achieved on paper). It’s worth having a formal appraisal system where every volunteer has a meeting with a staff member at regular intervals (monthly, or quarterly at the outside) but in addition it is good practice to try to spend a few minutes chatting informally with every volunteer whenever you get the chance.
There should be records kept of formal appraisals, and these should include information regarding ‘soft outcomes’ – those changes in an individual that are hard to quantify with statistics and training records:
- Appearance, grooming, personal hygiene etc (significant as a measure of self-esteem);
- Judgement and decision-making;
- Communication skills;
- Social and inter-personal skills;
- Organisational skills;
- Ability to get up in the morning and other attendance issues;
- Standards of behaviour.
Making a note of such soft outcomes should give you a valuable insight into the progress a volunteer is making, and if there is no progress or the volunteer appears to be going backwards, some efforts should be made to establish why. It may be something simple and easily resolved – perhaps their alarm clock or washing machine is broken – but there may be deeper underlying problems in play. Measurement of soft outcomes is also often useful – or even essential – for your own (and your funders’) monitoring and evaluation systems (see p84-87). In asking such questions it is vital that you explain why you are collecting such information and that a high degree of confidentiality comes into effect when it is stored. If it is likely that soft outcomes need measuring for a funder, do let the volunteer know why and that any data passed to the funder will be made anonymous.
Involving volunteers in the design of this data collection – suggesting areas of behaviour that might change in the course of volunteering – will increase their sense of ownership of the process.
Recognising unmet needs
Many different agencies are willing to train voluntary sector workers in identifying possible problems and spotting needs. If they can’t offer face-to-face training there should certainly be a ready supply of hand outs and other information. Any volunteer support worker should seek out training in the following areas:
- Literacy and numeracy. Adult learning centres, including your partner college, should have basic skills assessment courses.
- Mental health problems. Your primary mental health care team, your local MIND office, and other voluntary sector groups should all be helpful.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. Again both the statutory drug and alcohol teams and voluntary sector agencies should have help and advice to hand.
In other areas, for example problems with money or housing, you would normally be reliant on the volunteer bringing it to your attention spontaneously or in answer to questioning. You must build a relationship of trust with your volunteers that will allow them to discuss embarrassing personal issues with you. It’s a difficult but necessary task.
The role of volunteers
When a community radio station is running well, volunteers should not be passive recipients of training, support, management and services but actively involved in all of them. This can include a role in supporting their fellow volunteers, which should be encouraged at every level, from making each other cups of tea to assisting with radio production, from offering help with IT and other technical problems to sharing any other relevant skills they may have.
This type of low-level co-operation should spring naturally from a good working environment. When people are happy and inspired in their own activities they invariably feel more inclined to help others with theirs. If an atmosphere develops where volunteers don’t feel like they are sharing resources (whether that’s broadcasting time, staff support, IT access or teabags) but instead feel like they are competing for them, co-operation is likely to go out the window. So fostering a good team spirit is crucial. Things that can help include:
- Social events and parties;
- Regular volunteer meetings – although this won’t help if meetings are negative, stressful or boring;
- Making sure everyone is introduced when they cross paths at the station;
- News and information about your volunteers in newsletters and other internal communications;
- Systems that make it easy for them to contact each other – e.g. pigeonhole system, message book or internal email.
The potential support role of volunteers can go even further – very often situations arise where the volunteers will end up supporting the staff.
This may be as simple as reversing the role of supportive shoulder. Many’s the time a stressed out staff member will be helped through a difficult day by a sympathetic volunteer who is available to accompany him for a break or go somewhere for a sandwich and a chat at lunch-time.
At a more practical level, every community radio station should seek to involve at least some volunteers in management and administration tasks. This will ease the workload on paid staff and free up their time to expand and extend the activities of the station. There is always a temptation for staff to think that they don’t have time to train volunteers in administrative tasks. It is always quicker to do something yourself than it is to teach someone else how to do it. But in the long term it is time well invested. While it’s unlikely there will be many volunteers begging to do the accounts, you can never be sure what hidden talents they may have unless you give them the chance.
If some of the volunteers are at least aware of the basics of your management systems, they will have a fighting chance of stepping in if the doomsday scenario arises and the station suddenly loses much of its funding or several staff members simultaneously leave the station or fall ill.
As we saw in Chapter 5, good induction is essential if you are to have a healthy working relationship with your volunteers. It should be the opportunity for the volunteer to learn everything she needs to know about the station, with particular regard to the rules, and the rights and responsibilities she will have. At the same time, it is vital that the station staff learns everything they might need to know about the volunteer. This will include:
- What skills and experiences can they offer?
- What skills and experiences (beyond broadcasting) might they want to develop?
- What issues in their private life might intrude on their involvement?
- What health problems or attendant issues might the station need to know about?
- What learning or support needs do they have?
The induction needs to stress that the answers given to these questions are confidential, that they are only being asked so that appropriate support can be offered, and that the answers they give will not count against them in any way. Obviously such questions should be asked tactfully in a one-to-one situation, not in a group.
As before, the data collected at the induction can be retained for use in any ‘soft outcomes’ monitoring that you conduct.