A few months ago, a friend of mine tried to volunteer to become a Leader in his local Scout Group. His son was a Beaver Scout in the Colony and his enthusiasm for Scouting had quickly rubbed off on his dad.
However, the Group didn’t want him. My friend wanted to work with the Scout Section, but was told that the Group needed a Cub Leader. If he wanted to help, then he’d have to work with that age range, so my friend didn’t end up working with his local Scout Group.
Instead, he phoned me and told me that he was surprised the Scout Group didn’t want him. So was I; after all, he is a keen hill walker and mountaineer and the governor at his son’s primary school, whilst professionally, he’s the marketing director of a small business. But despite all of these facets, his local Scout Group didn’t want him.
I put him in touch with another Scout Group, whose Group Scout Leader I vaguely know. Three days later, the phone rang and it was the Group Scout Leader on the other end of the line. It turned out that there was a problem. Apparently, my friend had explained that, because of his job, he wouldn’t be able to come to every Scout meeting as he often had to work late, or be in another part of the country at short notice. ‘How can we expect the kids to turn up regularly,’ she asked, ‘if their Leaders can’t be bothered to make the same commitment?’
Amazingly, my friend was still not put off. I think he had begun to see the whole situation as a bit of a game and was determined to find a Group that would accept him. I explained the problem to the local District Commissioner, who was as surprised by the whole situation as I was. He found a third Group and this time the leadership team couldn’t have been more welcoming. They recognised that my friend had a wide range of skills to offer and everyone in the Group worked hard to welcome him. Most importantly, they made sure that he didn’t feel guilty when work kept him away. He’s just done his first camp, absolutely loved it and is now looking forward to getting his mountaineering qualifications up-to-date, ready for next year.
I have learned some useful lessons from this episode. Too often in Scouting we look for people to fit roles rather than creating roles to fit people and we can be poor at accepting people for the contribution that they can give. Instead, we prefer to squeeze people into what we typically see as the way that people volunteer in Scouting – once a week, filling the traditional Section Leader role.
We need to be smarter, because people volunteer for a whole host of different reasons, but they all benefit when their volunteering allows them to follow what’s often known as the FLEXIVOL approach:
• Ease of access
• Flexibility needs to be a top priority, particularly regarding working times for volunteering. We should recognise that people today have numerous demands on them and find it hard to make the time and commitment to volunteer.
• Legitimacy is needed throughout Scouting. We must be vocal about the benefits of Scouting so that people don’t feel embarrassed about volunteering to work with us. Both our Chief Scout and the ‘adventure’ brand are working hard to challenge the antiquated notions of woggles and Scoutmasters, but there’s still much work to be done.
• Ease of access is still a barrier to joining Scouting. Many simply don’t know how to go about it. When was the last time someone in your Group actually spoke to your local head teachers, librarians and councillors about what you need and how to get in touch
• Experience is high on people’s wish list for volunteering. They want relevant and interesting experiences which will stand them in good stead in their personal and career development.
• Incentives are about making people feel good about their volunteering. In Scouting, this is usually just a case of remembering to say ‘thank you’ – and doing so sincerely and often.
• Variety is an obvious and widely recognised requirement. Too often, new recruits are given just one job to do and then asked to do it over and over again. Variation should be offered in the amount of commitment, the level of responsibility and the type of activity that we ask everyone to undertake.
• Organisation of volunteers needs to be efficient, but it also needs to be informal, providing a relaxed environment in which people feel welcome and valued. We are often at risk in Scouting of using the same management jargon that we use at work – and so our Scouting becomes too much like the day job.
• Laughs for me, keep me in Scouting. Volunteering should be enjoyable, satisfying and, above all, fun. Let’s avoid cliques and organise activities that will be of interest to everyone. And if we can do all that, then people like my friend will be attracted to join Scouting as a volunteer and, more importantly, stay.