Transforming volunteer management training at Cats Protection

Cats Protection has been shortlisted for a Training Journal Award, after turning a highly successful face-to-face Volunteer Champions Programme into an innovative online experience. Called VCP at Home, it provides volunteer managers with the knowledge and confidence to support their volunteers. It means the charity can reach more people and ultimately improve the welfare of the cats it support. 

‘Great volunteer management helps us help more cats’ 

The business challenge:
Volunteering plays a significant role within the much loved charity Cats Protection: more than 11,000 volunteers all donate their time, energy and passion to cats. In recognition of this significant contribution, in 2011 the charity began to develop a strategy to give volunteers the attention and investment they deserve. 

Change was needed throughout the organisation to ensure it was able to recruit, manage and retain volunteers. Specifically, it wanted to help those that lead, support and manage volunteers to become more confident in their roles. This led to developing a highly successful Volunteer Champions Programme, an in-house management and leadership course. 

The face-to-face course has been running for seven years and includes four full-day modules. Over 600 volunteer managers have completed the programme and evaluations show it’s achieving its aims. But a new approach was needed to reach those people who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to attend. 

“We found that Volunteers faced a range of challenges that meant online learning was their chosen way to learn, this could including caring responsibilities, time and distance to travel, mental health or medical conditions” explains Laura Shaw, Flexible Learning Specialist at Cats Protection. 

The primary aim of developing an online course was to make access easier. It also meant the charity could double the number of courses it runs while also reducing costs. The time that volunteers and employees needed to commit to the course was also less, which has a knock on benefit in terms of retaining volunteers. 

Taking up too much of a volunteers time is a well known challenge, highlighted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations 2019 report Time Well Spent, a national survey on the volunteer experience. The report found this element of ‘too much time’ being taken up was the most common negative experience for volunteers. Conversely, knowing their time could be flexible was most likely to encourage them. An online equivalent of the Volunteer Champions Programme (VCP) would offer this flexibility. 

Cats Protection has developed a range of courses for its volunteers and employees, from cat welfare to health and safety. Around 5,000 courses were completed online in 2015. “This new course was an opportunity to find out more about our learners and why attending an online course was ideal for them,” explained Laura.

The solution:
VCP at Home was developed collaboratively by the Volunteering Development and Learning & Development teams at Cats Protection over two years. To make it happen, they had support from the charity’s IT, Design and Operations departments. They also worked closely with Little Man Project, who developed the self-study modules and were integral to all aspects of the programme design. The result is an exciting innovation, delivering a new way of learning at the charity. 

The face to face course offers a rich experience, as people learn together and from each other. It was vital to ensure there was a viable alternative to this element of collaborative learning, which had made the face to face course so successful. Traditional online self-study wouldn’t be enough to facilitate this group dynamic. 

The hard work that had been put into creating the original face-to-face programme meant it was embedded into the charity’s volunteer development strategy and the content was of high quality. This really paid off, as it meant the teams could review content to see what would work well as self-study modules, and then focus on how to replicate the group dynamic online. This led to the development of what they branded OLEs: online learning experiences. 

Working across Cats Protection ensured the content was thoroughly reviewed and tested. Teams worked closely to bring together content expertise and online learning theory. Little Man Project facilitated workshops, created a discussion paper on potential programme designs and developed the self-study modules. This meant that Cats Protection staff could focus on developing the online learning experiences.  

OLEs are similar to webinars but are incredibly interactive: both tutors and learners discuss content, engage in activities and share experiences. The functionality of Webex makes the sessions engaging. Learners needs are central to the experience, with support to help them feel comfortable using the technology. 

“The online learning experiences are really dynamic, and without them I don’t think that VCP at Home would have been the success that it has been,” says Laura. 

The result & impact:
The first cohort in 2019 was a pilot of 10 learners and two tutors with technical support from the learning and development team. The group’s feedback and evaluation has been exceptional.

Evaluation included participants completing a self-assessment of learning prior to the course and again on completion:

  • At the start, 50% agreed that ‘good volunteer management will help us help more cats.’ By the end of the programme this was 100%. 
  • 100% of learners agreed both their knowledge and confidence of volunteer management had increased 
  • 100% of learners agreed the OLEs had added to the learning experience 

Learner Feedback has also been impressive:

“I’ve really enjoyed being on this pilot, it’s been so amazing and to be able to hear others’ feelings and how they would do certain things in different ways, it’s been fabulous and I would love to do more as I have learnt so much.”

“Fifteen years of me being a volunteer and this has opened my eyes to how we should be doing things and doing them properly. Thank you to the team, it’s pure magic.” 

The challenge for Cats Protection had been to replicate the learning that took place in a popular, established, successful face to face course – which it achieved. This is no mean feat. As a result, VCP at Home is being rolled out this year, and the charity will also be sharing its successes with other members of the Charity Learning Consortium, who have expressed an interest in the online learning experience. Cats Protection has also been shortlisted for a Training Journal Award for the project!  

“The results of VCP at Home have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Laura.  “It’s always great to see such positive results from hard work. But in this case, I think we saw the benefit of trying something new and thinking creatively, and that is what has made the difference. We didn’t lose the magic that happens in the classroom where learners learn from each other aided by a tutor.”

Due to the success of the OLEs word has spread and other departments at Cats Protection now want to develop them too. The Contact Centre, for example, has around 200 volunteers and is expanding. Their current method of training isn’t scalable so the L&D team is helping them develop OLEs and improve the flexibility of their courses and resources. 

The focus of the Volunteer Champions Programme has never been lost: a positive impact on people and animal welfare. Lives are changed on a daily basis through volunteering. Cats Protection is committed to supporting this. By providing learning in flexible ways it can reach more of its amazing volunteers, who care for around 200,000 cats a year.

A quick look at VCP at Home
The course spans three months, and includes 12 self-study modules and five online learning experiences (OLEs) delivered using WebEx. The self-study modules include videos of volunteers from Cats Protection and interactive exercises to bring activities to life, especially around the legal aspects of volunteer management. The OLEs last between one and two hours but learners are constantly engaged, completing activities on screen or discussing experiences within the group. 

Laura Shaw shares three tips tips to online learning success:

    • Collaboration is essential: Work closely with your subject matter experts to create online learning experiences. We had some incredibly creative sessions, where I contributed online instructional design skills and they bought their experience of what worked well in the classroom. Listening to others and drawing on their knowledge has been vital to our success. 
    • Upskill: If you want to learn how to design an engaging online learning experience (OLE), attend something like the Certified Online Learning Facilitator course run by the Learning & Performance Institute. OLEs are nothing like your classic webinar. They are the closest thing to classroom learning you can get, but online.
    • Test and test again: Test and review everything, and then test again. All of the online content we create goes through three review rounds with a huge range of people, including lots of end users. I would never skip these steps because it means what we produce leads to learning and ultimately there are very few technical issues to overcome when we go live. 

About Cats Protection: Cats Protection is the UK’s leading feline welfare charity and helps around 200,000 cats and kittens each year through a national network of around 250 volunteer-run branches and 36 centres.

Founded as the Cats Protection League in 1927, the charity adopted the name Cats Protection in 1998. The charity’s vision is a world where every cat is treated with kindness and an understanding of its needs. More information about the work of Cats Protection can be found at www.cats.org.uk

About Laura Shaw

Laura Shaw has been working in the field of online learning for almost 20 years and now combines this with her passion for cats and cat welfare. Five years ago she started working at Cats Protection. Previously she had worked in further and higher education, as well as in advisory and national project roles at Jisc. There are over 11,000 volunteers and 1,000 employees at Cats Protection so online learning, whether it’s a webinar or online induction, is a perfect complement to excellent face to face training. Laura also volunteers, socialising kittens in her lunch breaks. She loves her work and volunteering because she can see the difference it makes to cats and their welfare.

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