I've been thinking a lot about Good Neighbour schemes lately. It seems to me that there's a big opportunity to make these small voluntary schemes work better, with a bit of shared technology and a large dose of local collaboration.
Good Neighbour schemes are the heroic all-year-round schemes that routinely help the less mobile members of our communities to get to hospital appointments, pick up prescriptions, and provide other useful neighbourly services. Some offer basic handyman services, some offer shopping, and others extend into befriending.
What qualifies me to talk about this?
Er, not much. I haven't run a Good Neighbour scheme of the sort I'm talking about.
I did start a pop-up version of a Good Neighbour scheme back in 2013 called Horsell Snow Angels
and I still run it, but it operates only in winter, and does not have 'regular' clients. It does have 120 volunteers on its books (in name only, as there's hardly any call on their time!), and a 'committee' of 6 who are available to man the phones if needed. I've learnt a lot from getting it up and running and working out the technology and processes to make sure it's efficient.
I'm not qualified but I am
Some local Good Neighbour schemes are too small to support manning a phone line 5 days a week. Through the Surrey Group Leaders Network
I was recently told about a local scheme that only has 6 volunteers, 2 of whom are leaving the area later this year. The organisation is on the verge of a crisis and urgently needs more volunteers. But it still needs to man the phones 5 days a week.
Last week I also heard about a scheme in another local village. Their scheme has 44 volunteers, but only about 8 volunteers are ever active.
Their common problem is usually expressed thus: "Our volunteers are pretty much all aged 60-75 as they're the only people who have time during the day to commit to volunteering. At some point they become unable to volunteer and some even need our help. New volunteers aren't easy to find".
Across the whole of Woking (a borough of 100,000 residents), I've counted 13 very similar Neighbourhood Care schemes - Horsell Care, Goldsworth Care, Byfleet Care, Pyrford & Wisley Helping Others, South Woking Help at Hand, Knaphill Care, New Haw & Woodham Good Neighbours, Brookwood Assisting Neighbours, Woking SECAM Care, Neighbourly Help around Mayford, Sheerwater Helping Hands, South-west Woking Assisting Neighbours, St John's Care. Perhaps there are some I've missed.
Here's the crazy thing. Each scheme operates its own phone line which is manned during weekdays (although some schemes only open the phone line for 2 hours a day). The person who mans the phone usually has possession of the paper details of volunteers and clients, and can then call round volunteers to get the jobs done. Anecdotally, volunteers who man the phones are called infrequently, but need to stay by the phone in case calls come through.
If the average scheme opens the phone lines for 4 hours a day, that's 13 schemes in one town x 4 hours a day x 5 days a week = 260 hours per week spent on the task of monitoring the phone and deploying volunteers on these schemes in Woking alone
Some of these schemes are too small to support the heavy overhead of phone monitoring, which is nonetheless vital to the scheme.
What's the solution?
In public services, 'shared services' was all the rage about 10 years ago. This was when large organisations such as local councils got together with others to have a shared call centre. On a very micro-scale, perhaps that's our Good Neighbour schemes need.
I'm not suggesting that the different Good Neighbour schemes would merge their organisations and lose their names. It's important that the schemes continue to feel local, and that they do volunteer recruitment and management, and advertising of the service, locally.
However they could get together to have a single phone number across Woking, and a simple phone diversion system so that phone calls are diverted to whoever is on duty at a given time.
Perhaps, to be safe, Woking might need as many as 3 volunteers on duty at any given time to man the phones for all its 13 Good Neighbour schemes, to cope with phone calls from across the whole town. Let's say the service runs from 9am-5pm on weekdays.
We've just saved 140 hours of volunteering per week,
which are now freed up to do something else. That's 7,280 volunteering hours per year which could be spent on something else. (That's about the equivalent of 4 full-time staff!)
We've also made the service better in each local area, as the phone is now manned for twice as long each day.
With a single phone number across town, we've made it easier for residents to know what phone number to call.
We've also added to the resilience of each of the local groups, as our phone-answering volunteers don't need to be from any particular part of Woking, so those struggling areas without many volunteers have a weight off their shoulders.
Why isn't this happening already?
Maybe someone's already doing this? If they are, it definitely hasn't reached Woking and no-one I've talked to about this has heard of it. If you know of a technology-led solution addressing this problem, please point me in the right direction as I have no desire to reinvent the wheel!
Why might it not exist?
Data sharing is an issue. Phone-answering volunteers need access to volunteer lists, and probably client lists, of all the local participating schemes, in order to match a client with a volunteer. This means not only do records have to be digitised, but also protocols have to be established for the sharing of data across organisations or volunteers, and data security needs to be top priority.
Perhaps the smaller core of volunteers who man the phones might need to be more carefully trained and vetted, because they'd need to be working across a bigger set of data and the opportunity for errors might increase. I don't know.
Perhaps an obstacle might be the lack of digital confidence on the part of many volunteers who currently man the phones, or their unwillingness to change.
I suspect the biggest problem of all might be persuading individual local groups to be part of a shared scheme. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. If they see something working already or elsewhere, they might be willing to join it, but until it's proven, their attitude might be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". For most schemes, it ain't totally broke. But from the conversations I've had, it's only a matter of time before client demand exceeds supply of volunteers.
Is it possible?
My feeling is that all these obstacles to collaboration are not insurmountable.
At Horsell Snow Angels we have worked out how to patch together various out-of-the-box technology solutions. Admittedly we aren't operating across multiple organisations, and our CMS (contact management system) is nothing more than a shared spreadsheet. But there are plenty of cloud-based CMS providers that I'm sure might help us solve this problem, or of course we could build or customise something ourselves.
I am optimistic about the capacity of local Good Neighbour schemes to change the way they do things. Psychological barriers to using technology are coming down all the time, and there's a lot of support available to volunteering organisations to help them use digital technology (eg Social Media Surgeries
, One Digital
Is it worth it?
What do you think?
Even if there's a bit of investment (and work) required to get there, I'm convinced that the benefits would pay back quite quickly. This sort of 'shared services' approach would enable local voluntary groups to do 'more with less' and maximise the value which their own communities get from the community's volunteers. Volunteers should be supportive of this too. Spending their time more efficiently means that more good can be done, and more time can be spent face-to-face with clients helping them. Councils should also be supportive of the increased resilience and the single-point-of-contact.
Shall we try?
I've decided to see if I can gather together some key local people to start an informal working party to look at how we could make this happen in a place like Woking (but we could pilot it anywhere, so don't let location be a barrier to getting involved). We'll invest a bit of time to think through how we could use technology to get Good Neighbour schemes working together, to improve their efficiency and free up more volunteering hours.
If you'd like to join this informal working party (perhaps talking shop might be a better phrase, at least initially!), email me at email@example.com. I'd love to have anyone interested on board, whatever you've got to offer.