What have we learned from online volunteering during the lockdown?

This has been a year of experiment, and it is natural to reflect on what we have all learned and what we should take with us in future, rather than simply reverting to what we did before. These thoughts below come out of our work at Pilotlight and focus on the shift of our work from face to face to remote volunteering online.

For me, I learn first through doing and second through conversation, so I would warmly welcome hearing of your experience and your thoughts.

Pilotlight is a charitable social enterprise that curates pro bono volunteering programmes in support of charities across the UK, drawing in over six hundred senior volunteers from business (we call ‘Pilotlighters’) and using their skills to provide organisation development support free for small charities.

Because our services are about relationships, we could and did move it all online. And we kept a close tab on this all through a systematic approach to impact assessment, sensing and adapting as we went along.

Looking at the impact data for 2020 as a whole, we can see that the move to virtual delivery, from face to face before, was as successful as before in terms of the direct outcomes for charities and the experience of volunteers. But it was also less effective for some indirect, relationship and network benefits to volunteers and to the charity leaders that they are supporting.

The levels of satisfaction with the Pilotlight Programme were very high, in line with ratings before for 2019 (see chart 1). Charity leaders were particularly positive about the way in which Pilotlight had managed the move to virtual delivery and the skill of the project manager in ‘re-calibrating’ project aims where necessary.

Chart 1: satisfaction with Pilotlight Programme 2020 and 2019 (out of 5)

“Pilotlight pivoted on the spot and did not miss a beat but smoothly moving things online.”

However, in terms of indirect benefits, the percent of charity CEOs saying that their involvement had increased their professional networks was significantly down from 98% in 2019 to just 50% in 2020 – an indicator of the increased challenge to relationship building in a virtual environment.

“The process was great, the only reason that it didn’t exceed my expectations was due to the pandemic and the restriction that it placed on human contact. I do believe that the connection would have been far stronger earlier on if we had have been able to meet in person.”

“The more stilted nature of zoom engagement meant that the relationship building took longer than would have been the case with more face-to-face interaction.”

Similarly, the percent of charity leaders saying that their involvement had increased their career development was down from 68% to 50% – even if this is not surprising, perhaps, in the context of an economic crisis threatening jobs in the sector.

For the Pilotlighters, 96% felt their involvement with Pilotlight had increased their understanding of other perspectives, 91% felt it had increased the awareness of different leadership styles and 79% felt it had increased their personal wellbeing.

Mirroring the findings on impact on charity leaders, there was a fall in the percent of Pilotlighters working in a corporate setting who see their involvement as benefiting their career development (down from 81% to 66%) and professional networks (down from 89% to 73%).

Many of our Pilotlighters are or go on to become trustees on their journey into social engagement. For charities looking to attract people to these roles, there is a great new resource published today – The Trustee Recruitment Cycle.

Produced in collaboration with Getting on Board, Association of Chairs and Small Charities Coalition, this resource provides practical help and inspiration to charities to recruit openly and inclusively – from an initial dialogue about board composition through to evaluation of the process. Equity, diversity and inclusion are embedded through every stage of the cycle, with tips, tools and insights from other charities.

Charity Commission research shows that over 70 per cent of boards still recruit their trustees informally, using their own networks. As a result, boards often lack diversity and skills in key areas like lived experience, marketing and digital.

We are still collecting impact data and feedback ourselves, so these are interim findings for an age of social distancing. Over the Summer, around our annual event on June 1st, on the theme of The Power of Charity, we will publish our overall Impact Report, as feedback and a tool for learning and accountability for our members and partners.

Now, more than ever, we need to know what works.

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