Interview: Jamie Ward-Smith

The head of ivo outlines his plans to introduce new ideas to the volunteering website Do-it

Head of ivo Jamie Ward-Smith
Head of ivo Jamie Ward-Smith

Jamie Ward-Smith has the look of the cat that got the cream. In December, ownership of Do-it, the largest and best-known volunteering website, was transferred to a consortium led by ivo, the volunteering community website founded by Ward-Smith only 18 months earlier.

Ownership of Do-it was surrendered by YouthNet, the online youth charity that founded it in 2000, after a decision early last year that it would focus solely on its websites for young people.

Ward-Smith dismisses the notion that ivo has taken over its biggest rival, pointing out that Do-it is primarily a listing website for volunteering opportunities and ivo is mainly a social networking site for those involved in volunteering, although it also lists volunteering opportunities. But there's no question that a considerably smaller volunteering website is now in charge of a bigger one: Do-it has more than 200,000 unique monthly visitors, compared with ivo's 20,000.

The acquisition has come with a healthy slice of government funding. The Cabinet Office is continuing its financial support for the site by providing about £1m over the next three years to help ivo run and expand Do-it.

Ward-Smith says that one of the changes will be the introduction of a more social element where people can share ideas online and find other people interested in setting up new initiatives. "If people want to do something in their community and find other people who are interested too, Do-it should be a place to enable that to happen. It's a big move from where Do-it is currently."

Other developments will include allowing volunteers to log activities, build up a portfolio online and gain access to paid job opportunities, something that Ward-Smith hopes will support those wanting to use volunteering to further their careers. It also plans to introduce a rewards system for volunteers to earn points by volunteering and potentially convert them into cash or other rewards that they keep or donate to charity. "This will be an interesting development for those who might need a nudge to get them to volunteer," says Ward-Smith.

He is a fan of RockCorps, which allowed young people to earn tickets to music gigs by volunteering, when it came to the UK. "A lot of people in the voluntary sector were uncomfortable with the concept because it's not entirely altruistic, but not all people are motivated in the same way," he says.

He describes the existing Do-it website as "a bit confusing for Joe Public", saying that it can be difficult to find relevant opportunities among the listings. He also wants the site to give more prominence to less popular kinds of volunteering opportunities, not just high-profile campaigns.

The site should offer more than just traditional volunteering opportunities, he says: "It should celebrate volunteering in its different forms. It's almost like charities want to create different territories of volunteering, but the public just wants to do something - and it wants a simple process to make that happen."

Some in the sector resent the government's influence over volunteering and believe websites such as Do-it should be independent. Ward-Smith, a former Whitehall volunteering official, understands such concerns, saying that one of the attractions of founding ivo was its independence. "It's a challenge for me to work with government," he says. "But Do-it is an established service and, because there's a lot that we need to do to transform it, we need government funding. It would be churlish to say that we don't want that money."

The plan is for Do-it eventually to become self-sustaining, says Ward-Smith. It is exploring ways to make this happen, although these do not include charging charities for a straightforward listing. "In the current climate, saying to charities that you've got to pay to advertise for volunteers would be crazy. But we might introduce premium opportunities where some charities may want to pay to get to the top of the list."

Another pressing issue will be tackling some of the technical difficulties volunteer centres have faced in uploading their opportunities to the Do-it website. Some centres have reported problems with version 3 of the V-Base software developed by YouthNet. Ward-Smith says: "There are some people at volunteer centres who are not as happy with that product as we would like. I have assured them that we're building a much better, cloud-based system."

He adds that it's an exciting time for ivo, but he does not underestimate the scale of the task. "Do-it is a major part of the volunteering infrastructure and we're treating it with the reverence it deserves," he says.

CV:
2012: Founder and chief executive, ivo
2011: Consulting head of volunteering, Norwood
2006: Chief executive, Red Foundation
2003: Assistant director for community participation, Home Office
1999: Marketing and communications director, YouthNet
1995: Executive director, Volunteer Centre Kensington & Chelsea

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