Building volunteering at ECDP through 'Lived Experience'


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The details of a talk I gave at Volunteering England's Volunteer Management conference at University of Warwick in March 2010. The talk was based on ECDP's experience of using the 'lived experience' of volunteers to build the profile of volunteering work within our organisation.

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Building volunteering at ECDP through 'Lived Experience'

  1. 1. Volunteer Management Conference, Volunteering England 24–25 March 2010, University of Warwick Conference Rich Watts Director of Policy & Development, ECDP Introduction I wanted to talk briefly about what we call the “Lived Experience” of disabled and older people at ECDP and how we are using this to build a higher profile for our volunteering work, both internally and externally. About ECDP Very briefly, it is useful to provide some background to ECDP. We are a user- led organisation and our vision is to enhance the everyday lives of disabled people in Essex and beyond. We have just over 3,500 clients for whom we provide a range of support services for. We also have 1,540 members and our work covers all impairment groups – for example, just over 22% of our members have a learning disability and just under 10% have a mental health condition. We have just over 120 current and potential volunteers across all of our volunteering projects. These range from people representing the views of disabled people through us to various public sector organisations in their local communities, through to the project kindly funded by Volunteering England – the Independent Visitors Scheme.
  2. 2. Under this project, both disabled and non-disabled volunteers support a disabled „client‟ to achieve a personal goal. This could be anything from visiting the shops regularly to completing an Open University degree. ECDP as a support services organisation I think it‟s fair to say that ECDP was until last year perceived only as an organisation for people with Direct Payments or Personal Budgets. It was a great irony for me that the very thing that makes ECDP unique as an organisation – that we are led by our users and that we use the everyday lived experiences of people to inform everything we do – was precisely the thing that the wider community didn‟t recognise us for. I think there was also a view internally – both amongst staff and amongst managers – that the support services we provide were a higher priority, particularly since they had a significant amount of staff and money attached to them, compared to our volunteering-based work. Whereas our services clearly made a tangible difference to people‟s lives, colleagues often didn‟t know what difference our volunteering work made. Using lived experience So we needed to think about how to overcome this perception of our volunteering work – both internally and externally – as being somehow „lesser‟ than the other things we do. The vehicle we used to do this was lived experience. “Lived experience” represents the everyday lives of disabled people. It is the experience that people develop from living with and managing their impairments on a day-to-day basis and the attitudes, reactions and barriers they encounter in society.
  3. 3. Lived experience brings a unique perspective that can, if it‟s channelled well, ultimately have a positive experience – not just for an individual themselves but for other individuals and organisations they come into contact with. At ECDP, we fundamentally recognised the importance of lived experience. We also spotted that it was our volunteering projects – particularly where we had disabled people as volunteers supporting disabled people as clients – where lived experience was so clearly already making a difference. A great example is a lady called Susan. She had spent years being housebound and isolated because of her impairment, and with it lost her confidence and self esteem. After becoming involved as a client with the Independent Visitors Scheme, Susan regained her confidence through joining a local single parent group and attending a college course. After she completed her course, she felt confident enough to become a volunteer herself and has since become an Independent Visitor for two clients of her own. Thus, fundamentally, Susan is now using her own lived experience to provide support to someone else who is in a similar situation. Benefits of the lived experience approach Within ECDP, lived experience – and the peer support that it often gives rise to – became a powerful concept that articulated the difference our volunteering work was making in people‟s lives. And this gave rise to a number of benefits. Internally, it meant that many of our staff who were using their own lived experience as disabled people to provide advice and support to individuals with social care needs could see that our volunteering work was in exactly the same business. And this meant that some of our staff decided to become volunteers themselves, with all the benefits that come with that, particularly in
  4. 4. terms of breaking down the silo mentality within that occasionally exists in the organisation. And talking about it being the same kind of business, I would actually go further and argue that our volunteering work is richer because it moves people beyond the realms only of social care and having their support needs met to achieving wider Independent Living goals around transport, education, employment, a social life and so on. This had a knock-on benefit in terms of how people – particularly those in local government – perceived ECDP, and enabled us to build strong arguments for the „added value‟ we provide as a user-led organisation to our contracted work. In turn, this meant that volunteering became an integral part of the overall success of ECDP – not just some fluffy stuff that happens on the side. Externally, it allowed us to create the stories which we could share with both disabled and non-disabled people to encourage them to get involved in our volunteering work. This was useful not only in terms of attracting individuals to out work, but also in developing that crucial hook that means local press were interested in the stories we were telling. And from a volunteers‟ manager point of view, lived experience also means that made our volunteering work more sustainable: alongside the new levels of interest we‟ve had from staff within the organisation and people outside of it, the role of our volunteer coordinators becomes one of encouraging clients and creating pathways so that they may go on to be volunteers in the future. Thus, at its heart and alongside all the other benefits which flow from it, lived experience means that the disabled people who are clients today will be our volunteers of tomorrow. Thank you.