What we found from working on the Green Zone project is that for most of the voluntary groups on the estate, there was little support or opportunity for entry-level volunteers. This is mainly because there was also a lack of people willing to take on the role of volunteer co- ordinators.
There was an expectation for the Green Zone project to support the current volunteer co-ordinators and take up some of the strain of their jobs. We did take on some of this work.
However, we were wary of taking over the roles from those existing co-ordinators. We did not want there to be a vacuum in terms of volunteer co-ordination when our project ended.
We set ourselves guidelines for what tasks we would take on and what ones we would not, in order to avoid us taking on too much responsibility for existing projects. We took on volunteer co-ordination roles for new initiatives but set up a timetable where we slowly withdrew our support to allow the group to be self-sufficient by the end of the project.
The Challenges of Co-ordinating Volunteers
During the Green Zone project there was a general reluctance for residents to take on volunteer co-ordination tasks. Whilst disappointing, it is easy to understand why this might
be the case. Although there can be a great sense of achievement for those that do take on co-ordination, there are also many challenges. Some of these include:
- making yourself a target to other members of the community who are unhappy
- having to be tactful when checking meeting notes, and chasing up tasks that have not been carried out
dealing with conflicts within the group
- providing support and praise for volunteers without getting support in return
- organising meetings and publicising them can seem a time consuming and never ending job
Sadly, during the course of the Green Zone project we saw a lot of negative feeling expressed by a small minority towards volunteers who had “stuck their heads above the parapet‟ to take on co-ordinating roles or who had worked with the housing association.
Co-ordination skills are in demand in the world of paid work and are usually rewarded with higher salaries. However, in a community group setting, there is little incentive other than a sense of greater good to reward those taking on co-ordinating roles. Ironically, these roles get more difficult as a group gets larger. In theory, recruiting more people to the group should lessen everyone‟s workload. In practice, it will often increase the stress of anyone taking on the co-ordination of the group. It could be argued that groups find
their natural size depending on the amount of work that its members are prepared to put into recruitment, co-ordination and keeping the group accessible.
There can be a perception that applying for funding can help reduce the strain on volunteers. However, applying for funding to run projects, like the Green Zone, involved committing to undertake certain activities within a given timescale. Often, successful funding bids increase the workload of volunteers who put themselves forward to help co-ordinate activities.
Unfortunately, some volunteers are forced to do work reluctantly when no one else is prepared to do it. The danger in this situation is that the added stress that these volunteer co-ordinators face because of these funding bids makes them withdraw from the activities that they made happen in the first place.
Overcoming Challenges to Volunteer Co-ordination
In our project, we sometimes sensed there was a feeling of mild desperation to repopulate what were seen to be flagging groups. It felt that this feeling had become part of the culture of community volunteering on the estate. „We work so hard. We‟re so unappreciated. Why will no one join our group?‟ New volunteers can be put off by this.
During the Community Development Values training, provided as part of Green Zone, it was suggested that if people resented co-ordinating certain activities or projects, they should give themselves permission to step back, even if that were to mean that certain activities stopped. In this way, space is created for new volunteers to come forward and get involved under their own terms.
As Green Zone workers we tried to overcome some of these challenges by starting new projects with outside help. We found that the injection of energy and enthusiasm that someone from outside established groups could bring was helpful in attracting new people.
We also ran specialised, self-contained workshops. We let workshop participants find out about existing groups/projects without making them feel that they were obliged to join them.
We chose workshop leaders that had some kind of link to the estate and understood some of its history and character. We are confident that residents and the housing association will find ways for these projects to continue. There is a feeling they were very valuable, both in the work they carried out and also as a way of including new people in the community life of the estate. For more information, see the case studies on bike maintenance and community radio as well as the gardening section of the Toolkit.