Volunteers Voice #11: Reviewing your volunteer programme

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator.

As in all aspects of an organisation, it is always a useful exercise to review your volunteer programme. This isn’t a review of the volunteers themselves but an overall review of the entire programme. A review enables you to take a step back from your day to day work, take a look at where you and your programme are heading and what improvements or changes need to be made. It is also useful from a strategic point of view and provides you with all those hard facts and figures needed for reports.

A review should cover everything from documentation, training, staff and of course asking the opinions of the volunteers themselves. We are constantly developing and changing, pushing further, growing organically, and reflecting the world around us. It is important that your documentation is up to date and accurate, reflects changes in your organisation and future goals you aspire to. I go through our four volunteer policies and our volunteer handbook with a fine toothcomb to ensure that details (e.g. phone numbers, members of staff) are still correct. I also change photos in the handbook to freshen it up a little.

Volunteers at Ufton Court

Volunteers and staff on a visit to Ufton Court

Of course, at the heart of any volunteer programme are the volunteers themselves; their welfare and happiness is crucial. Through experience I have found the best way to collate an accurate snapshot of volunteer happiness regarding the programme is an anonymous survey that should take between 5-10 minutes to complete. The survey asks questions about communication, support and training, as well as some open questions. This helps me look at the programme from a volunteer’s perspective and highlights any problems that need to be solved.

Alongside a written review I invite volunteers in for an informal chat. This isn’t mandatory but some like to chat face-to-face. It’s also important to gauge feelings and problems of staff as well as those of the  volunteers. I hold one-to-one chats with members of staff who work with or manage volunteers, where I encourage them to be as open and honest as possible. Again, this provides me with a different opinion of the volunteer programme and highlights any problems that I may not be aware of. It is also important for staff to feel they are supported with managing their volunteers and volunteer projects. Once you have completed the review, don’t sit on your results, act on them!

Rural Reads review #5: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

We had to take February off for Rural Reads this year, which allowed us plenty of time to stew on our latest book: The Last Runaway. Its author, Tracy Chevalier, is probably better known for her other historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, since adapted into a movie.

the-last-runaway-pbSet in the 1850s, The Last Runaway is told from the perspective of young Quaker woman called Honor Bright, who sails with her sister for a new life in Ohio. Billed as a historical novel, the domestic detail and life on a Quaker farm certainly shine through, but we felt the book could have dwelt more on establishing a sense of place, as well as being more adventurous in exploring the issue of slavery at a pivotal point in American history.

After travelling to the United States, it turns out that life in Ohio is far less rosy and significantly less stable than life in the sleepy coastal town Honor and her sister hark from. America is presented as brash, practical and selfish. This is in comparison to the close-knit Quaker communities of England, comfortable with their bedrock of history, tradition and mild climate.

After a tragic turn of events, Honor finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers in this strange new land. Already homesick, Honor spends most of the novel in culture shock. She despises both the heat and the snow, the mud, the dust, the architecture and the people of Ohio. The characters are also stereotypically American: strong-willed, independent and outspoken, they strike a sharp contrast to our demure protagonist, whose highest virtue is silence. Eventually, however, she finds her niche in society, first working for a fiery old haberdasher with a slave-catcher for a brother and then, after a tumble in the hay, settling down with a husband on his family’s farm.

Slavery, however, is the only thing which Honor cannot bring herself to normalise, and so she joins the Underground Railroad. The Ohioan Quakers, although opposed to slavery in principle, take a passive resistance to it because of threatened prosecution and violence. Honor, who risks relations with her new family, the law and much else besides, nevertheless helps the slaves that pass through her land.

A view of 1805s Ohio

A view of 1805s Ohio

Although slavery is an underlying theme of the book, we felt it is not explored to any great depth. Slaves are often unseen, taking food left out in the night or hiding in the haberdasher’s shed, and only one or two runaway slaves have a voice in the book. Instead, the overwhelming focus is Honor’s reaction to slavery and how it clashes with her moral framework. Indeed, the group generally agreed that this is a book more about Quakers than it is about slavery. For instance, Chevalier is obviously comfortable and knowledgeable discussing practices such as quilting, sewing, farming, and the meditative nature of Quaker gatherings than about the lived experience of slaves. Personally, I feel that Chevalier struggled to hang an exciting narrative on the monotony of a Quaker woman’s life in 1850s Ohio. She is best when contrasting this monotony with Honor’s intense, internal monologues exploring love, fear and the ethical tug-of-war between her own morals and that of her community and religion.

In conclusion, the group was somewhat divided. This is by no means a bad book, but neither is it an excellent one. It is simply an easy read or, as one of us put it: ‘a good book to read on a sick day.’

Next month’s book is Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. We are meeting at 17:30 in the Museum on April 24th.