Case study: Mission improbable

How London's Whitechapel Mission saw its volunteer numbers go through the roof.

The Challenge
Whitechapel Mission’s low number of volunteers meant that both the level of service it could offer was limited and the cost of fulfilling its core mission was high since most of the work had to be done by paid staff.

In addition, the volunteers it did have were predominantly retired people. “We had a lot of little old ladies from church groups,” says Mission director Tony Miller, “but the potentially more useful element was missing: namely, people who work all day.”

The process
Miller’s response was to “go to the professionals”. His first stop was City Action, a body funded by the Lord Mayor of London to connect big city companies with volunteering opportunities. He also went to the “fantastic” Heart of the City group, which does the same for smaller companies.

At the same time, he undertook a thorough re-think of Whitechapel’s attitude towards its volunteers.

“We learned very early on that the most important thing is to be precise in your approach,” he says. “There’s no point just saying ‘we need volunteers’. You have to say exactly what you need them to do, and what kind of hours are acceptable for them to do it.”

Most of all, Miller concluded, the Mission needed to make its volunteers feel valued. One aspect of this was to make them feel “physically, mentally and emotionally” comfortable. All volunteers are given an induction session intended to “relax” them: overcome their fears and, in some cases, acknowledged prejudices about the homeless.

In addition, a redesign of the building has made the kitchen into a 'safety cocoon', whose serving counter forms a partition between volunteers and clients. According to Miller there is little genuine physical risk to volunteers (“With a lot of people it’s the mad dog syndrome,” he points out. “You expect the dog to bite, so it bites”). But the barrier provides reassurance, both for the volunteers themselves and for their companies. It also prevents the potentially costly insurance issues that would inevitably arise if someone really were injured.

Another aspect of the Mission’s efforts to value its volunteers is to provide an environment in which they are properly supervised, and in which their concerns are listened to and acted upon.

“It is a question of treating them with the same respect as staff – recognising, for example, that they too need holidays and sickness absences,” says Miller.

Unfortunately, it was not easy to make Miller’s existing staff regard the volunteers as their equals.

“They had tended to see volunteers as a pain in the arse because their attendance is unreliable and they need a high level of supervision,” Miller explains. “They tended to think it would be quicker if they did things themselves.”

The hardest part of the whole process, according to Miller, was to overcome such negative attitudes and convince staff to value the free skills the Mission’s volunteers bring – many of which it could not afford to buy. “We actually had to dismiss two people whose attitudes wouldn’t change,” he confides.

Within six months of its initial discussions with “the professionals”, the Mission had various partnerships in place with City companies, and it continues to actively seek more as existing partners move away or close down. One highly productive way of doing this is to exploit the contacts – existing and aspired – of the companies with which it already works.

“If it’s a big City firm, we ask: ‘what law firm do you work with?’” says Miller. “If it’s a law firm, we ask: ‘what auditors do you work with? What partnerships do you want to build? Maybe you could help to build them through cooperating on volunteering opportunities. This way, we all come out winners.”

The outcome
“What has happened to volunteering here is just unbelievable,” says Miller. Within twelve months of the new initiative, all of the Mission’s voluntary opportunities were taken up, and that remains the case today.

“We are almost booked up already for the next six months,” says Miller. “Next Christmas is almost full. We are even taking bookings for volunteers next January! Everything has expanded at a phenomenal rate.”

Miller suspects that the managers and trustees of some voluntary organisations are worried that if they give their volunteers as high a status as he does, they would lose control of the organisation’s direction. However, he gives such fears short shrift.

“Since we began this process my staff has risen from six to six thousand,” he enthuses. “Could I afford to pay for staffing levels like that? Of course not!”

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