Community and Business Partners (CBP) is a Community Interest Company in Blackburn. CBP runs a range of projects that benefit the local community focussed on recycling and preventing waste. It also supports growth hungry businesses across Lancashire with mentoring support and global entrepreneurs bring their innovative and scalable businesses to the UK.
The CCSF Learning Strand team chatted with Amanda Meachin, Chief Executive Officer, to find out about their work with volunteers and what changed for CBP during the pandemic.
Thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us about the work you do and how you involve volunteers?
Before the pandemic we had ten paid staff and about 350 volunteers, ranging from people who’ve set up businesses floated on the stock market down to community volunteers who can’t work because of a health issue.
We run many different things at CBP and all our projects rely on our volunteers: a Scrapstore that recycles and upcycles goods destined for landfill; Waste Not Want Not (WNWN), a project collecting food near or past their best-before date and offering it to families in crisis; Community RePaint, a project that redistributes surplus paint to voluntary and community organisations and individuals in need; and a number of projects that support start-ups, existing enterprises and those who want to scale up what they do.
At the start of the pandemic, I corralled the whole team of employees into one of our big warehouse spaces and said we’re going to stay open because the families that have relied on us for food for the last seven years will still need that support. We got £30,000 off DEFRA [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] to buy food, moving about 100 tonnes in the year. When there’s a crisis we’re at our best because we respond really quickly: we’re very agile.
The volunteers, in full PPE, came to help pick and pack as we were buying in bulk. Because we have the space it was all completely socially distanced. Some community volunteers took deliveries out to people who were self-isolating.
We also have business volunteers who mentor businesses to grow and become more successful. They’re usually successful businesspeople, with lots of skills that they can pass on to help companies grow by acting as mentors. Some are retired or semi-retired, travelling the world, playing golf. During the pandemic, this was suddenly taken away.
Did you lose any volunteers over that period?
Yes – some of our clinically vulnerable community volunteers who shielded for 14 or 15 months.
Did you gain any new ones?
Yes we had 10 new volunteers joining us during the pandemic. One example is S. Her antiques shop had been forced to close and she literally knocked on our door and said, ‘do you need any help?’ She came five days a week for the whole year, helping to put all our scrap store items online in an eBay shop. She also made buckets of craft materials that we distributed to some school children who were isolating.
Where did most of the other new volunteers come from?
Usually they heard about our work through word of mouth, or because they’d been a customer. Most were in employment, or self-employment, before the pandemic and wanted to do something to give them some purpose. We gave them that. They were all women.
Almost all the volunteers that could come to work came. They wanted employment but they did not want money. They came every day to help.
Some of our tenants in the building also volunteered. During the pandemic, some couldn’t pay their rent, so we said, ‘we’ll give you a rent holiday but can you come and volunteer with us to get the pallets off?’, and they did.
What were the challenges of that for you in in managing these new kinds of volunteers?
We have a clear induction process: all volunteers get a health and safety manual and an agreement. The communication is very clear with them about what is expected. I have three project managers who’ve been doing what they do for more than seven years. So, we didn’t have to start from scratch – everything was already in place. With the experience of the managers and the clear process we didn’t come across any significant challenges. We just had a logistical issue and moved into a bigger space, as the food packaging needed to be done on a bigger scale.
How did you support the work of your business volunteers during this period?
We set up something called CONNECT on our virtual platform to allow us to communicate with our business mentors more efficiently and held more regular online meetings to share updates, best practice and check they were ok! We had that up and running fairly quickly. We also set up a weekly peer-group meeting for businesses and mentors on Zoom on a Wednesday morning at 8am. It became a really close network, coming through this whole thing together, digitally. So we’ve pushed the digital agenda, which was resisted prior to Covid.
Where did the resistance to moving online come from?
We were concerned about our mentoring and business relationships. Experience told us that the best way to mentor a business was face-to-face: one-to-one or in a conference format with 100 business delegates and a couple of specialists delivering a presentation or action-centred learning. We were concerned that building rapport would take longer but actually it has been very effective and an efficient way of working.
Fast-forward to July 2021: what’s changed?
A couple of clinically-vulnerable volunteers who’d been shielding have come back to help with the food distribution. This has shrunk down to a more manageable level again, because there’s no lockdown anymore. We’re still doing it four days a week, but the volumes have gone back to what they were prior to the pandemic.
So, what changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic do you want to retain?
The way that people pick up their food. We used to have a rugby scrum, sometimes literally, when the food was brought into the building — the first people in the queue got the best choice and the last got the crumbs. We’re keeping the queuing mechanism that we put in place during the pandemic, in response to social distancing. It’s so much better: we now make 30 equal portions and nobody is allowed to go off with the best of everything. The volunteers also get to do all the prep without any customers around. They’ve got their little community back, counting things but also chatting to each other. The weekly online peer-group meeting of businesses and mentors is still happening and they don’t want it to stop: there’s about 30 of them every Wednesday. Some of the business volunteers won’t revert back to face-to-face — they’ll do everything via a digital platform from here on in. Others want to get out and about again, and some are happy to do both. So that’s about allowing a plurality of models to account for individual differences and choice: they can come to an action-centred learning event when we hold them or do it in a digital peer group.
For funding reasons, business mentors used to have to sign documents showing what they’d done, how many hours etc. with ink on real paper. Finally, they’ve allowed us to use digital signatures. It’s made the process a little bit longer as we have to check that it has been completed correctly. It’s also transferred the task away from the volunteer business mentor to our admin team. Instead of sitting in a conference room, we also started ‘netwalking’: we meet monthly and go off into the woods or down to the river, discussing the business while walking — it might be a couple of business owners and some senior managers from different organisations.
Are there things from the pandemic that you couldn’t wait to see the back of?
Having such a big building with so few people in it was quite sad; I’m really glad that people are coming back in now. Seeing people losing their livelihoods — businesses that were thriving before the pandemic struggling, and some disappearing. The business mentors became more of a friend in need, rather than ‘let’s have a look at your marketing plan’.
What advice can you give others about managing volunteers?
- These are human beings giving you a gift of their time, not cheap resources for you to use. They need respect and not to be spoken about as if they’re not there or spoken down to because they’re doing what is considered a menial task.
- Communicate what they should expect from you and what you expect from them. Ask them to explain what they understood so that you know whether they’ve got it.
- Human interaction can help some volunteers recover. They’ve come from an abusive relationship or might be a recovering addict and some can’t even look you in the eyes. Then, maybe six months down the line, they walk in and greet you. Treat your volunteers like your employees and provide them with the same support for them to be able to do their volunteer role. The language should be equal to everybody. There are different levels of responsibility and accountability in legal and financial terms but take those titles away and we’re all on the same level.
- I really want in the third sector to measure how people have improved their lives. With our business mentoring programme, we have to measure outcomes in job creation, gross value added etc. This could be replicated by others in the sector — how many people stopped taking their medication because they feel better or have changed their diet or don’t feel so depressed or angry? I think those measures are equally if not more valuable than profit and jobs.