Incalculably Diffusive

‘Incalculably diffusive…..’

Here at St Columba’s Hospice, we are in the middle of various consultations to inform the development of a new Strategy, which will come into effect (once we’ve written it) in 2020. As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about volunteering, and volunteering stats – which you can hear about at the AVSM conference! I’m also reading various books about volunteer management. I’m most of the way through Meridian Swift’s book ‘The Disruptive Volunteer Manager’ (most of my colleagues will probably tell you I don’t need a book to tell me how to do that), and I’m also working through ‘Measuring the Impact of Volunteers – A Balanced and Strategic Approach’. Both of these are making me think about impact, and how we measure it – but also why we measure it. We do all the usual numbers here – numbers of volunteers, numbers of hours donated, demographic breakdowns. And we’ve done some work with volunteer surveys about the experience of our volunteers. We’ve formally evaluated the impact of one new volunteer role here, which has involved feedback from staff and patients.
I’d love to do more evaluation, but finding a way to work out the difference that a volunteer makes is quite tricky. My books are telling me that everything that volunteers do should link to the mission (mission-centric roles). They also tell me that the modern volunteer doesn’t just want to come in to do something – they want to see or know that they are making a difference. The trick is working out how to capture this.
If you know me, you won’t be surprised that I am also thinking about this more broadly. If we’re trying to create teams of staff-and-volunteers, I’m wondering why I’m trying to work out what difference having volunteers in that team makes, when we do an evaluation of the service or department as a whole. It’s as if we are constantly justifying the involvement of volunteers – but would we ask ‘what difference did the paid staff make’? So why do we make ourselves justify the involvement of volunteers?! When I speak about the involvement of volunteers at our Hospice Induction day, I tell everyone that the involvement of volunteers is an organisational decision. It’s a given. So the role of Volunteer Services isn’t to tell you to have volunteers within your team – that’s a strategic decision from the Trustees. Volunteer Services is there to tell you how to do it well, and to support you with that. I will still be working to find some measurements of the difference that volunteers make, despite my rant! The volunteers themselves want to know that they’ve made a difference, and we need to be able to articulate that. So wish me luck with my impact measurements. And if you’re wondering where the title of this piece comes from, it’s the last sentence of ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, which I think is one of the most powerful descriptions of the positive impact of volunteering, and just how difficult it is to capture that impact: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts: and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Karen Filsell
Volunteer Services Manager
St Columba’s Hospice
15 August 2019