Out with the old, in with the new
It is safe to say that 2021 has been an even more challenging year than the unprecedented year that came before it.
Starting the year in lockdown the importance of our woods was brought into focus by the increased volume of visitors to our sites. It is wonderful to see so many people enjoying the benefits of nature, though sometimes not every visitor has been a responsible one. Volunteers and particularly wardens continued to play a critical role in being the eyes and ears for us, often in very challenging circumstances. Because of the enthusiastic and passion of all our volunteers, from woodland working groups, wildlife monitors, guided walk leaders through to National networks of volunteers monitoring tree health, ancient and veteran trees and the 1000’s of volunteers and supporters updating Nature Calendar, we have, together still been able to provide special places of escape and peace in a very unusual year.
Though starting in the year in lockdown, was not the biggest challenge of the year, we had lockdowns in 2020 after all.
In December 2020, the Woodland Trust had been the victim of a sophisticated, high level cyber-incident. We reported the incident to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Charity Commission as well as the Police Cybercrimes Unit. What has become evident is that these sorts of attacks have become all too prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the organisation this had significant implications, volunteering included. However, we were lucky that Whittle was completely unaffected, so we still had our main method of communication with our volunteers. Most notably this affected us through the first half of 2021 as we could not recruit new volunteers until we had created a workaround that replaced our normal system. This was frustrating for everyone, volunteers, potential applicants, and staff. January is usually our busiest period of recruitment, so the timing couldn’t have been worse. On the face it, creating a manual system on a spreadsheet sounds straight forward. However, it was anything but, the most important thing was to create a workaround that was absolutely secure, and that would ensure we recorded all of the information we needed, leaving nothing out. This was the combined work of several teams. During this process we had one standout star that worked tirelessly, didn’t go on furlough, often worked extra hours, all the time learning and adapting to the new technology and new systems that had been brought in which none of us were familiar with. Catherine in my team was that star and she will be appalled that I have mentioned her, but I have often held the belief that administrators are the unsung heroes of many organisations, and she is definitely mine, and I wanted to show her this small measure of recognition.
Recruitment didn’t properly resume until July, and we have since welcomed over 600 new volunteers, which demonstrated there is as much appetite as ever to get involved in conservation and support the aims of the Trust.
We continue to use the workaround process which is extremely time consuming for all the volunteering team, this includes your regional and country officers. In the week leading up to Christmas we have received 100+ applications, jump starting what is usually our peak period of recruitment. So please keep this in mind if you are waiting on a reply to an email, we will be slower than usual for the next few months at least. In most instances your volunteer managers and volunteer development officers (VDO’s) should be able to answer most of your queries and questions as they normally do.
As we start 2022, we have three vacancies in the volunteering team, two vacant VDO positions and a vacancy in my team. We have taken this opportunity to change the focus of the role in my team, the role will focus on diversity and inclusion within volunteer recruitment and will also support the gradual growth of youth volunteering as we look to create more opportunities for young people to get involved with us. Our youth offer is limited, only at Mead our Forest of Youth do we currently offer volunteering opportunities for under 18’s without their parents. We are looking at providing more opportunities and I am working with a group internally to support a youth strategy which will be signed off later in 2022. More information on this new role, and new opportunities will be shared on Whittle as the year progresses.
We also took the difficult decision to close the National volunteer panel. The launch of the panel was effectively overshadowed by the UK moving into lockdown two weeks later, which was obviously followed by many staff going on furlough and the various challenges this came with, meaning the panel did not get the opportunity to become operational as it was intended. None of us could have foreseen what the last 2 years have brought or how it would alter our perspectives or ways of working.
It is still very important to the Trust that a volunteer voice is represented. With the new technology that we are currently using and the opportunities that a new volunteering website will bring, which is part of our plan, I believe we can have a more representative voice from more volunteers using potential areas such as forums, video meetings, connecting through an app on smart phones and tablets to name just a few. We will be able to provide a much more inclusive volunteer voice to consult and take feedback from a wider range of volunteers across the organisation, rather than just 14 in this model that the panel provided.
We have an opportunity through the new technology to provide more of our volunteers with a voice into the Trust. Taking advantage of the new options open to us will provide more volunteers with an opportunity to engage with us on subjects they feel passionate about, without necessarily feeling they must engage in areas that they have less investment or interest in.
Recognition for volunteers is also changing this coming year. We have held some workshops with staff and volunteers over the summer and we are currently finalizing the new plans to provide formal recognition to volunteers. We stopped using the volunteer awards method in 2019, this had been very successful for many years. However, we recognised and acknowledged that it was time for a change and that new formal paths for recognition should take into account long service and reach further than the awards scheme did. More information to follow in the first quarter of 2022.
Finally, I’d like to mention that we are planning an online National conference in March 2022, the date will be released very soon. This will be a combined effort from all members of the volunteering teams across the UK and include content from all countries and regions and all national networks. We will be using a platform called Steam Park that is as innovative and engaging as an online conference can possibly be, I certainly haven’t seen anything like it. For anyone that joined the online Tree Charter conference in 2020, Steam Park was also the platform used for this.
Thank you to anyone that made the effort to read through this far, I appreciate this hasn’t been a short update. If this update raises any burning questions for you that your local team can’t answer, then please drop an email to the volunteering inbox and I will get in touch at the first opportunity.
Thank you for being part of the Woodland Trust team, I hope you that you will continue to be an active member of the Woodland Trust family in 2022.
Happy New Year to you all.
National Volunteering Manager