Anyone who has been part of a not-for-profit membership organisation will know it’s not like running a business. It may look the same, the need to balance income and expenditure, run the day to day, but really, it’s not. Apart from perpetual questions around what our members want and expect, there’s the challenge of delivering that expectation through volunteers. Perhaps you have experienced the deafening silence that follows blanket, direct or multiple pleas for help. Here at Herts Visual Arts, we’re beginning to break that silence, to blur the edges between volunteers and members, by getting them to work together and discuss the future of the organisation.

By way of background, I’ve been Chair, responsible for Herts Visual Arts for just a year. Many years ago, I joined as a member and then became a volunteer, followed by a brief period as Vice Chair. Who am I? That depends on who’s asking, but my heart and background is firmly in creating, connecting, and building: an engineer through and through, I started out in software development, then manufacturing systems and now business development. I also strongly believe in adventure, inclusion, engagement and giving everyone a voice, an opportunity.

There are a lot of opportunities to volunteer with Herts Visual Arts. Our volunteers help by organising events, doing the accounts, updating the web site, graphic design, answering web site support questions and more. The core organising group meets regularly to plan next steps, manage finances and wide-ranging management issues. Organising events can be very wide ranging.

Despite the range of volunteering roles available, we had this little problem of lack of volunteers, as every charitable organisation also does. The volunteers we have are fantastic, but they could always use more assistance. However, we wanted to move on from this historic permanent worry about a lack of volunteers. Over a few Organising Group meetings, we talked about how to move forward and agreed that the most important thing was a thriving community. If we had that community, then there would be more income and the potential to do new things; more opportunities mean a more diverse pool of potential volunteers. But how did we reach the community?

Once changes would be made, the volunteers and organisation would just happen naturally, because we would be thriving, and people would be joining in. This partly coincided with several new faces in our Organising Group but then the big catalyst was our first Members Conference in January 2017. I led the day as an open ‘where do you want HVA to go’ event, with lots of activities and creative thinking. Getting so many of our artists together in a single space to talk to each other was a real springboard for all sorts of new ideas, connections and collaborative working.

They started to act like volunteers, focusing on the experience they wanted to provide. The Big Art Fair is one event that sprang directly from that with a small group deciding they wanted to organise an art fair. Now our dedicated and enthusiastic team of volunteers started to focus on being an organisation that artists value and want to be part of. The reason we’re here is to deliver the best possible range of experiences and opportunities for our artists – a home or haven for them to grow in.

‘More creativity, more fun, more buzz, more laughter in our lives’ is now our motto, our focus. From our free Members Conference in January, through a range of opportunities leading up to our flagship Herts Open Studios in September, our membership now has plenty to choose from. We’re seeing many more step forward to join in, to build their own connections and continue their growth through our organisation. Without a doubt it’s been 18 months of hard work for OG, building these new events and networking opportunities. Yes, it’s taken a lot of volunteer time and effort, but it’s an investment that paying dividends.

At the end of our most recent event, our happy participants and volunteers agreed it was fun and were already planning for next year. So, job done for today, but there’s always tomorrow.

Reading this as an organisation, how do you solve your volunteer shortage? What methods do you use to change your situation? Comment below with your musings.

www.hvaf.org.uk

Hillary Taylor, Chair, Herts Visual Arts. Her email address is chair@hvaf.org.uk.