Wednesday, 30 March 2016

New to volunteering? Some top tips for successful outcomes (Guest blog from Ruth Kaufman)

Many thanks to Ruth Kaufman (President of The OR Society) for writing this guest blog.

New to volunteering? Some top tips for successful outcomes

“O.R.” is one of the most adaptable disciplines imaginable, and its practitioners are among the most flexible, prepared to bring scientific rigour and methods to any question even if it is outside their previous specialism. Given this adventurous approach, it is always a good idea to see if there are any tips from previous explorers.

For Pro Bono O.R., there are two types of novelty for many of us: working with charities, and working as volunteers. Neither of these are terribly difficult areas, but they both bring special issues which are worth noting. This post looks at working with charities for the first time, and a second will look at working as a volunteer.

In most ways, working as a consultant to a charity is no different from working as a consultant anywhere, and the same success factors apply. Here are five top tips for charity special features.

1) before you meet the client, do prior research. Make sure you understand the basics of the charity sector (there is a useful summary available as part of the Pro Bono resource set). Armed with that, find out, for your client: what are their charitable objects; who are their beneficiaries; what are their main funding sources; how many staff, volunteers, and trustees do they have. These will all be part of your client’s day-to-day reality, and they’re all things you may not have come across in a non-charity organisation, whether or not it is not-for-profit.

2) identify the stakeholders In particular, find out about how the work is split between paid staff, volunteers and trustees (who are usually also volunteers); and in particular how they manage the interface between staff and trustee board

3) understand clients’ time constraints. Charities – small ones, especially – are run by volunteers to an extent that is unthinkable in other organisations. Trustees, in particular, will have a significant role in decision-making, but will be doing this as a tiny part of their day-to-day life. Only rarely will a trustee have signed up in advance to commit a significant amount of time, at regular well-specified intervals, to the charity. This can also be an issue for paid staff, depending on sources of funding; sometimes there is no money for staff to do anything other than deliver services specified by the funder, so thinking about strategy or change is all done in ‘spare time’ snatched from other activities.

4) build communication and trust A critical issue here can be language. Many charities will have staff who are suspicious of ‘business agendas’ and anxious that commercial considerations may be used as an excuse for driving out the qualitative aspects of their work. This is mainly a matter of being sensitive to the fact that terminology or arguments that sound professional and normal in the business world may bring different connotations to people focused on helping beneficiaries. Of course it is important to say what you mean; just do it in ordinary human language.

5) co-producing with the client It takes two parties to deliver a successful consultancy project. Agreeing terms of reference, project plans and deliverables; adapting these as necessary; managing expectations; keeping commitment through to the end; these crucial success factors rely on both consultant and client . The difference with charities is that the charity is less likely to have experience of such things than other organisations you have worked with. Make allowances! Watch out for risks such as specification changes, project drift, misunderstandings, reprioritisation. Never put these down to incompetence or lack of interest from the client, unless the evidence for that is overwhelming – they are much more likely to be due to inexperience with project management, or the organisation’s vulnerability to external events temporarily blowing it off course. Responding with a suitable mix of empathy, sympathy, and professionalism will make all the difference.

To see some of the projects we've worked on and to find out how to get involved please visit the Pro Bono O.R. webpage