With a little help from VAL, James Rogers, Assistant Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, describes his day at Kirkstall Community Garden testing out the Council's Employer Supported Volunteering initiative.
Back in January, Volunteer Centre Leeds, run by Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL), kindly offered the council some staff time and expertise to support our employee volunteering initiatives. It was a very simple idea – to formally ‘test out’ how team volunteering can assist us in meeting our business objectives, whilst also producing some benefit for a local community. All they needed was one manager to volunteer to lead a small group of about ten staff for one day. Unfortunately, despite extensive promotion of this offer, there was very little interest; and those who did come forward all ended up dropping out because they were too busy with work to do volunteering!
It isn’t the first example of people being too busy with work to support volunteering that I have come across. Every so often I will hear of a case where a manager has refused someone the special leave that the council provides to employees to support their volunteering (up to ten paid hours per employee per year) because the service is too busy. And I get that, I really do. Every year we are asked to do more and more with less and less and it has never been more challenging to deliver the services that our communities need.
However, that is why supporting employee volunteering is important to our communities, to our employees, and to our business. Every hour that an employee puts into supporting local communities where they live or work can help to produce some amazing things:
- If every employee volunteered for just the ten hours, that would contribute a staggering sixteen years’ worth of work every year to our communities. Many of our colleagues volunteer far more hours in excess of that, and in their own time, so just imagine the overall contribution.
- There is considerable evidence that employee volunteering improves morale, reduces stress, and reduces sickness levels. Anything that contributes to a happy and healthy workforce is a good thing.
- As budgets contract we have less and less resource to put into team building, training and similar things – volunteering can help us to support these objectives whilst costing us little or nothing, and delivering essential business support.
So, with no takers for the team volunteering opportunity, and with members of my customers services team eager to do something, I decided that I would show some leadership and take up the offer from the Volunteer Centre.
We pulled together a group of ten of us, all with different backgrounds, roles and skill sets and then started a dialogue about what we actually wanted to do! To be fair, I left the detail to the team saying that “I was prepared to do anything” – which was a bit risky for me as I usually like to have a bit of influence and control! Anyway, there’s so many opportunities for volunteering I had no idea what the team were going to pick. When I was first informed that we were going to do a day of volunteering in a community garden I was relieved (I can at least do gardening!) but a little disappointed (gardening is not something I would ever choose to do) and a wee bit apologetic (the flak I got from my wife Dawn was not good – “YOU can do a day’s volunteering doing SOMEONE else’s garden but flatly refuse to do anything in YOUR own garden!”).
Anyway, the day arrived for our day of volunteering and off we headed to Kirkstall Community Garden – it felt different (and good to be honest!) to come to work in my scruffs with a packed lunch and a flask of coffee - I hadn’t done that since my first job as a painter and decorator nearly 30 years ago!
It was a beautiful sunny day and we were met by our hosts Paul and Jonathan at Church Lane Allotments, a relatively new community led allotment site with a 100 full size and half size plots. After being shown around the site and told about the amazing work done by volunteers to turn the previously unused land (was many years ago a mining site/area and therefore now unsuitable for development) into allotments. We were soon shown the community garden – a full size plot used for community participation and learning with food being donated to a local charity to help feed vulnerable people – and whilst the plot was well developed, it was clear that much more work and further enhancements were needed.
Paul then informed us of our challenge for the day – one group would start weeding and tending to the garden and another group would do something a bit more practical and build something! There was suddenly a smile on my face, I wouldn’t be gardening after all if I had anything to do with it, so as quick as a flash I volunteered to be on the building project, along with Becky and Tom!
Our task was to build a chicken hut – Paul was keen to have chickens on site so that local children could experience looking after livestock. Paul had given a lot of thought to the design of the hut to get value for money, ensure it was secure and to keep the local foxes out – trouble was the design was all in his head! With minimal instruction, Becky, Tom and I set to work. We were a little hesitant at first as we tried to work out the design and structure – there were no drawings or plans, just Paul’s ideas which he had explained verbally to us.
We soon realised that we didn’t have all the tools for the job – this was a relatively major job and a hand driven screwdriver would limit our progress as well as probably blistering our non-laboured hands - so a quick trip to the local hardware store was required to get screwdriver bits for the drill we did have.
We set to work on the outline frame building the bottom and top exactly to Paul’s instructions – the three of us worked excellently as a team, sharing the drilling, hammering, holding and carrying and we soon got into a rhythm and the base started to take shape. The roof structure soon followed and by 11am we had got both fully complete. It was now time to join the base and the roof with the supporting columns and this at first was a major challenge bearing in mind the supporting columns were some 8ft high. Anyway, a bit of a pause for a coffee provided some thinking time and together we soon figured out a way and in no time the outline structure was complete.
All we had to do now was figure out how to incorporate a door and build a supporting structure to make it sturdy – this is where we started to influence the design with our own thinking and it was good that Paul was willing to listen to our ideas and let us deviate from the original plan! Also at this point we realised the battery on our drill was diminishing quick and with no power on site we were going to have to revert to manual screwdriving. A bit of quick thinking and we agreed to drill all the essential holes needed for the remainder of the work before the battery died – continuous drilling meant we broke three drill bits in very quick succession and another trip to the hardware store was required. We were by now that keen to get as much of the task completed in the time we had, that a lack of tools or hardware was not going to stop us! We also decided that the structure was sturdy enough with the screws used so far that for the remainder of the structure we could use nails – a decision I did come to regret later when I hit my finger firmly with a driven hammer! At least it was my own fault rather than Becky’s - there had been a few near misses when I had been holding the nail and Becky was in control of the hammer earlier in the day!
So back on task and by 2pm we had incorporated a door, built the supporting structure to make it sturdy and added chicken wire to the bottom so the hut could be buried a foot underground (to stop the local foxes tunnelling underneath!) before it was completed.
At this point we realised a fairly significant challenge – we had built the frame 40 meters from where it actually needed to be located, with two three foot fences between us and the intended location. Easy you might think, but with the amount of wood used this was no ordinary chicken hut – it was a monster and it weighed a ton. Now was the time for real teamwork and everyone else on site was drafted in to move this super-structure. It took twelve of us to lift it and move it very slowly and very delicately 40 metres and over two fences – there were a few shaky moments as some bodies were unable to take the weight, but again with great skill, team work and quite a bit of perspiration (caused by both the physical exertion and the soaring temperature) we did it!
It was now late afternoon and with a sense of achievement and knowing Paul had to pick his daughter up, we called it a day.
Poor diary management meant I had to now attend a meeting in the Civic Hall – with the leader of council and my line manager Tom Riordan, no less. Should I get changed into my normal work gear (which was never really going to happen as my work clothes were 20 miles away at home!) or just go into work in my scruffs? Anyway, in I walked to the meeting and after letting the leader and Tom look at me strangely for a while, I explained what I had been doing! Recognising themselves the value to local communities of volunteering, they were very supportive, understanding and appreciative of what I and the team had done for the day. A great example of supportive bosses to our employee volunteering initiative.
When I got back to my office the team asked if I had had a good day – I summed it up by saying, absolutely brilliant, for once not only did we talk about doing something in the same day we actually delivered something, small in the overall scheme of things, but a massive contribution made to an important community project.
During the day I asked Paul what motivated him to devote so much of his time to this and other community based initiatives. His answer was simple – to provide learning and development opportunities for local people in the area in things they would otherwise not have the opportunity of experiencing and to help address social isolation. I am pleased that I was able to contribute to meeting Paul’s ambitions for his local community and I look forward to making a return visit soon to see the community chickens safely housed in their new home!