Starting from scratch: a minimalist approach supports eLearning success at Yorkshire Cancer Research

How do you approach training volunteers if you have no knowledge or experience of learning and development? That’s the situation that Michael Dickinson, Retail Development Manager, found himself in at Yorkshire Cancer Research. His solution has been a minimalist approach to eLearning, keeping things simple, focusing on quality over quantity, and ensuring that everything meets volunteers’ needs.

When Michael Dickinson joined Yorkshire Cancer Research at the end of 2019, he was tasked with helping to expand its retail operation. At the time, the charity only had one shop and 15 volunteers but had ambitious plans to rapidly increase that to 10 shops in five years, launch an eCommerce business and create a collection, donation and sorting centre. Michael and his colleagues were effectively building a retail business from scratch.

In early 2021, as the retail business expanded post Covid, the charity started to recruit hundreds of extra volunteers to help them run everything, which brought with it some key training needs. 

Member fact file:

Yorkshire Cancer Research has been a member of the Charity Learning Consortium since 2021 and uses the learning management system and eLearning that we provide, specifically for training its volunteers.

To help them recruit and train volunteers at speed and scale, the charity decided to use two separate platforms: one for recruiting and managing volunteers, and a second to provide eLearning. To ensure that everything ran smoothly, it was vital that both platforms could integrate. The charity chose a new volunteer management platform called Assemble, which replaced its previously manual, clunky approach. Training volunteers had also been very ‘hit and miss’ and Michael was keen to introduce eLearning for efficiency and consistency, as well as establish training records. The learning management system (LMS) provided by the Charity Learning Consortium offered the best fit. “Getting the two platforms to work together was the dream – and the Charity Learning Consortium came out on top,” said Michael. “A lot of charities were really recommending the integration as well as the service that the Consortium offered.”
Michael decided to initially use a pared down, minimalist approach to the LMS, switching off some features and functionality to keep everything as simple as possible. Before launch, he focused on both creating and curating six simple eLearning courses that would provide volunteers with everything that they needed. These included courses in health and safety and Gift Aid. Alongside eLearning, animations from the Charity Learning Consortium’s Clear Lessons video learning library were used to help keep everything visual, colourful and engaging. In the Autumn of 2021 both platforms were successfully launched together, with volunteers and managers liking the new approach.

The LMS provided by the Charity Learning Consortium has landed really well,” explains Michael. “The feedback we’ve had from our volunteers and managers is that the training is really clear and easy to use. And it’s given managers peace of mind as well because it’s consistent as well as automated, so they’re not having to chase their volunteers.

Volunteer managers running shops that have opened since the LMS was launched have seen even greater benefits, as they have been able to roll out training and get everyone prepared in advance of stores opening.

Spotlight on Yorkshire Cancer Research volunteers

200 volunteers – expanding to 300 in 2024. Volunteers help to run:

  • Eight retail shops – a ninth is due to open late 2023, with plans for a 10th
  • A collection service, donation and sorting centre
  • Fundraising via eBay and the charity’s website
  • The charity’s first cafe, opening late 2023 as part of a bespoke Yorkshire Cancer
  • Research centre – the first of many centres planned

Challenges and solutions

Some long standing volunteers questioned why they were being asked to do training retrospectively.
Solution: Talking to them, giving them context and explaining the benefits – for example, that training is enhancing their transferable skills – has brought them on board. Running specific training campaigns to help make learning fun, for example offering prizes during safeguarding awareness week, also helps to keep volunteers engaged.

Volunteers have incredibly varied needs. Some people may not be confident using technology, English may not be their first language, or they may have learning difficulties.
Solution: Working with volunteer managers to offer tailored, one-to-one, face-to-face support to those that need it. This might mean managers simply sitting down with volunteers and, for example, talking through the technology being used.

The knowledge, skills and experience that volunteers have varies widely. For example, volunteers might include newly retired CEOs as well as people with special educational needs.
Solution: Michael has focused on keeping everything as easy and approachable as possible to create inclusive learning. Some courses are optional for those that want more.

Volunteers giving even more of their time is a big ask. Michael was very conscious that volunteers already give their time for free. So he has had to balance what knowledge the charity needs them to have in order to operate safely, without making it onerous, boring or taking up too much time. “Ultimately they don’t want to be sitting at a computer for hours on end doing eLearning.”
Solution: Initially at least, offering a pared down LMS to keep things as simple as possible, so that volunteers are not overwhelmed and can immediately just see what needs to be done and by when. In the future, Michael may add more optional courses to give a wider choice to those that want it.

Evaluating effectiveness for something that is very new, when there is nothing historically to compare it with, is challenging.
Solution: An annual questionnaire is being planned to ask volunteers for feedback. Over time, results can then be compared.

The Charity Learning Consortium is one of the best companies I’ve worked with in terms of the support and guidance through the whole process. Right from the initial consultation with Rosie, it’s always been a really supportive experience. I always know that if I need anything, I just have to ask Keith Carter, my membership manager, or Josh Willcock, Head of Technology, or any of the people in the development team, and they will help me straight away. Nothing is too much trouble. It’s been a really enjoyable experience all the way through.”

“It’s so simple and easy to use the platform that I would recommend it to anybody. I love the fact that it’s so customisable. And if it doesn’t contain something that you need then you can build it yourself, or have it tailored, so you can have exactly what you want. I did look at some other platforms, which were very rigid by comparison.”

Courses for volunteers include:

  • Induction
  • Retail Gift Aid
  • Safeguarding
  • Compliance
  • Health and safety
  • New food and hygiene courses

Courses have been both created and curated by Michael Dickinson, using eLearning from the Charity Learning Consortium as well as animations from the Consortium’s Clear Lessons video library.

About Michael Dickinson

Michael Dickinson is the Retail Development Manager at Yorkshire Cancer Research. He won the Charity Learning Award 2022 for being the Rising Star of L&D.

Yorkshire Cancer Research is opening a bespoke new centre in Harrogate in late 2023 with its first cafe, a retail shop and donation centre all run by volunteers. This will run alongside a staffed cancer rehabilitation exercise studio and the charity’s head office – all under one roof. This unique approach is based on the concept of reciprocity, so donors can see first hand where their money is going. The Yorkshire Cancer Research centre is the first of its kind, with plans already in place to create more.


’10 reasons why charities should use eLearning’

There are hundreds of reasons of why charities should use eLearning but we’ve whittled it down to 10. 

Whether you’re making the case to start your eLearning journey or are looking to enhance the investment you’ve already made, these are the benefits of eLearning that will deliver significant results. 

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