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Giving the Gift of Time - A problem solving approach

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Giving the Gift of Time - A problem solving approach
Marianneweb (cropped)
25th November 2015
So where to start? When faced with the question of 'how to establish a sustainable retail volunteer program?', it can be hard to know. Here is a problem-solving approach that I've used to break down this question.

The importance of the 'right question'

Firstly, I've spent time making sure we're asking the right question in the first place. Investing time ensuring everyone is clear on the question being asked is really important, and will pay dividends later on.

When I first approached the charity, the scope started as targeting a particular group of volunteers the charity was currently unable to offer volunteering to. After a bit of digging and understanding, I realised this was actually part of a much bigger question. For example, why did they think this group was going to be important or even want to volunteer? From this point, we made the decision to take a much bigger step back and look at volunteering much more broadly - where they should target, what their needs were and what the volunteer offer should be.

This meant there were a few iterations from the original question:

Example showing how the question changed from the original one asked

In the final question, including the word 'sustainable' was really important as it means that the links or activities established need to continue to feed an ongoing pipeline of volunteers for the future. This influences the approach I'm taking - creating more of a need to step back and identify where we should focus our efforts, rather than jumping in and recruiting volunteers for the short term. Without this I would focus my time very differently.

The word 'retail' is also important, as it focuses the scope on this group and their specific needs. With three quarters of the Hospice's volunteers falling into this group, it is a key group to focus on.

A lever tree - breaking down the question

So after getting to the right question, a 'lever tree' can be a really helpful way of breaking down an opportunity, question or problem into its component parts or key drivers. It can help to answer; 'what levers could we pull to make a difference?'. Or more importantly, 'which lever, if pulled, would make the biggest difference to the problem we are solving?' This can help to focus efforts, which is even more important in a charity where resources are limited.

A good lever tree should be 'mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive'.

'Mutually exhaustive' - this means levers or branches of the tree do not overlap with each other
'Collectively exhaustive' - this means that you have covered all possible options with your levers or branches, so nothing has been missed

Diagram showing a lever tree which can be used to break down an example

A lever tree

By meeting this criteria, it can help you break down a problem, by helping you structure your thinking:

Helping you identify where you may want to investigate further
Helping you de-prioritise levers which are not significant
Helping you share with those you are working with to ensure you have a common understanding of the problem or question you are asking

So to apply this to my problem, 'how to create a sustainable retail volunteer program':

Lever Tree - A sustainable retail volunteer program

Making it SMART
As you can see, I have also included a SMART objective, SMART stands for:


This was important to agree to establish what would be the key measure of success.

Defining what is out of scope

Finally, this has been really helpful in defining what is in and out of scope. There are other areas which also impact volunteer demand and turnover, but are significant questions in their own right.

For example, much of volunteers' time is spent sorting, pricing and preparing stock; so the approach to how donations are managed will influence the demand for volunteers. However, given this is a significant question in its own right, it is out of scope for the project to ensure it is focused enough to enable recommendations to be made and landed with the six months.

You can read more from Marianne over the coming months, or via her website here. Why not follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Google+ while you're at it?