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Five things we can learn about innovation from Volunteer Centres

In our challenging economic climate, there are continuing calls for charities to work with new audiences, diversify their income and adopt creative working practices. But what does this mean in reality?

Last year, eight Volunteer Centres were awarded coaching and funding through the Cabinet Office Innovation in Giving Fund to do just that – to develop and grow innovations in their work over the course of a year. We worked with them during this period to learn about their successes and challenges – and I think what emerged is relevant to any charity looking at new ways of delivering its services.

Here, I want to share the five most important things that struck me:

1. Don’t get hung up on the term innovation

This might sound odd as the whole project was about innovation but it’s important to recognise that innovation means different things to different people – and that while many people love the term, others may not. But I’ll stick with it for now. Innovation also often depends on the starting point of the organisation involved; what is innovative, creative and different to one organisation may appear to be established practice to another.

Equally, good innovation is led – and funded – by those who are comfortable with risk and failure. Innovation is as much about the process as it is about the end point, and the culture change that can emerge out of challenges and new experiences can often be a very valuable outcome.

Finally, any innovation should build on existing experience and contacts, and supplement the more ‘traditional’ and existing ways of working rather than replace them.

2. Work with new people

This may sound obvious but successful innovation relies on the engagement of new audiences and contacts – it’s more about people and partnerships than the latest technology. In this project, the Volunteer Centres worked with police commissioners, prisons and libraries, as well as digital agencies and social enterprises.

This frequently involved new ways of working, such as promoting greater transparency, testing ideas methodically, pitching to commissioners, or simply adapting to differing levels of bureaucracy.

3. Be clear what skills you have and what you lack

An early review of the skills required meant that projects were well-placed to quickly develop recruitment strategies, minimise later delays and costs, and highlight future opportunities for staff and volunteer development. 

It is vital to know what skill sets you already have within your team – which may not always be obvious – and what gaps you need to fill by drawing in people from outside. With the Volunteer Centres, this often involved buying in technical support for website development or social media work.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Developing a communications strategy at an early stage can help people to understand the novel ways of working being tested, open up new channels of communication with potential users, customers or clients, and provide useful user feedback.

The Volunteer Centres found that this was particularly useful when working in more controversial or contentious areas, such as involving volunteers in public services that were once provided by paid staff and therefore at risk of being criticised for job replacement.

5. Evaluate, adapt and learn

Innovation is about trying new things, adapting them when they don’t work, and trying it again in a constant cycle of improvement. The Volunteer Centres found flexibility in relation to changing circumstances and unexpected events was crucial, although they needed to balance this alongside over-arching plans and milestones.

They also found that evaluation and monitoring are key elements of the process, increasing their ability to communicate the value and impact of their work.

The full research report – including detailed case studies of the eight Volunteer Centres – is available to download now.


Nick Ockenden

Nick is the Head of Research at NCVO.