Coursework beats exams any day

First published on the NAVCA website

When recruiting a new team member during the Covid 19 pandemic, VODA (NAVCA member from North Tyneside) attempted to redress the traditional recruitment power-balance by sharing the interview questions with the applicants in advance of the interview. After all, it’s not an exam is it? The results were fantastic.

Josie Robinson, a member of VODA’s Leadership Team, explains why she believes this was the right thing to do.

“I am not ashamed to admit that traditional forms of interviews fill me with dread. Whichever side of the desk I’m on, I always feel very uncomfortable. If I’m interviewing for a role, no matter how confident I feel about my ability to fulfil that role, being put on the spot just doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m good at what I do, but I struggle to articulate myself during formal interview situations.”

I can’t stand that stereotypical interview scenario which consists of an intimidating panel trying their best to be friendly but ‘professional’. Welcoming in a terrified interviewee who has no idea what the next 45 minutes is going to look like. That tokenistic glass of water as a peace offering before an onslaught of questions. There’s always one who asks a ‘quirky’ question just to see what sort of person you are… like ‘please tell us how do you fit an elephant into a fridge?”

So when it was suggested that we trial a new approach to recruiting staff I was sold. Providing candidates with the questions we intended to ask in advance offered up an opportunity to create a really unique environment for the interviews. As a panel member, I personally felt more relaxed, knowing that I wasn’t delivering curve ball questions left right and centre to candidates caught in the headlights. It levelled out the power dynamic in the (virtual) room, giving candidates the chance to consider is this the organisation for me? Just as much as whether we’re the right organisation for that person.

“It gave me a really interesting insight to see how people prepared for these questions in advance. There’s the people who saw it as a test; which involved frantically preparing cue cards, post-it notes and scribbles on notebooks which were to be used as a prompt if they felt they hadn’t given the perfectly rehearsed answer. For other candidates having questions in advance was an opportunity to plan, reflect on their achievements and respond in a manner that was not only human, but heartfelt and genuine. The latter are the candidates I was most interested in, it showed me that these people shared the values of our organisation and could bring with them their own unique professional and personal circumstances.”

The interview process resulted in VODA recruiting two new members of staff to their Good Neighbours project.

Emma Brookes:

“I was going through quite a difficult time before I saw the job advertised with Good Neighbours at VODA. I had left a job that I had loved and been there many years, to start what I was hoping would be a new career. A few months into starting this new job, during a lockdown and restrictions, was very challenging and I realised that the job just wasn’t for me. On top of that, at one point I was afraid to leave the house unless I went out with my partner.

“An old colleague pointed out the Good Neighbours’ vacancy and said I would be perfect for it. I was hesitant to apply at first as I had lost most of my confidence in myself and my abilities after struggling for some months. However, I talked myself into it and applied. I received a very prompt response inviting me to an interview over Zoom with questions supplied in advance of the interview (which I have never had for previous interviews). This almost immediately alleviated a lot of my anxiety about this interview. It gave me the opportunity to prepare properly and to be able to present myself and my abilities effectively. I don’t believe I would have performed as well without having the questions beforehand. I was successful and it gave me some of my confidence back.”

Jen Mars:

“I really appreciated getting the interview question in advance – applying for jobs during a pandemic is overwhelming as it is. Getting the questions in advance put me at ease before the interview, as I knew what to expect. In addition, with now having time to prepare for the specific questions, I felt as if I could properly evaluate my most applicable experience and skills. The focus in the interview would lie more on the quality of those skills and past experiences than on my ability to answer questions on the spot.”

This recent experience has been such a success that VODA intends applying it to all future interviews.

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VODA Team Q&A: Alison Donkin

Ali Donkin NT LIFE Recovery College Lead Coordinator usually spends her days as the friendly face of NT LIFE facilitating sessions at The Hub in the Linskill Centre, enrolling students and volunteers into the project, organising volunteer facilitators and coordinating the timetable and a multitude of tasks that these main duties create. However, in response to the pandemic, Ali’s role changed considerably.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?
When the Linskill Centre was forced to close its doors to the public it was only a week after I had had hip replacement surgery. So possibly, unlike many other people, something somewhere inside me experienced joy. A strange emotion at this time however I could now focus on what I was able to do from home.

As a result I got busy with contacting all of our participants to update them with how we were changing. Initially, this was achieved by email and phone calls. Then, as adverse as I am to social media, I engaged the use of Facebook and our webpage on VODA’s website to ensure participants had a range of courses, information, positive affirmations, puzzles, games and links to other useful sites as I could create and or find. Fully believing that these would serve as great distractions, coping tools and hopefully keep people connected with NT LIFE.

As a result of these efforts our followers rose to 303, almost 100 more than pre-Lockdown and our reach exceeded 4500 views weekly, some 100 fold increase on past Facebook performance.

With the help of Jo Woolley and Hannah Barugh I embarked on the delivery of art packs, craft packs and activity packs delivering these to around 80 of our participants in the first five weeks. We also created and delivered 20 Sunflower grow packs with everything needed to grow your own Sunflower, with pictures uploaded on to Facebook of their progress.

With the help of several volunteer facilitators: Julie Bishop (Guided Meditations), Mick Turnbull (Art Group) Emma Farrell (Creative Writing & Book Club), Gemma O Connor (Creative Writing) we also delivered over 10 hours of Zoom meetings throughout the week. Zoom meetings engaged on average three to eight people per session, with people connecting outside of these sessions in Zoom meetings and phone calls of their own.

At about five weeks into Lockdown through the daily contact I recognised that there was quite a number of people we weren’t engaging or being able to connect with. Coupled with my rising concern that the initial stoic spirit was waning. I knew I had to do something else to let people know they mattered. This led to the creation of our Little Box of Hope.

The Little Box of Hope was designed to be both a caring gesture, demonstrating that NT LIFE values and cares about the wellbeing of all its students and volunteers, as well as giving people useful tools to help them cope. With the help of volunteers for packing and distribution and the wonderful design skills of Amy Millar we successfully delivered over 200 packs to our registrations, a further 20 packs to the staff of a local nursing home as a nod to the NHS, and 18 to the diligent and selfless VODA staff.

With some of the delivery volunteers creating packs of their own and distributing them personally, and teachers and service staff requesting use of the template the ripple effect continues.

I have also helped devise with North Tyneside Council and the Young Mayor a NT Quaran-Teen Survivors bracelet for teenagers returning to school. To remind them of the resilience and strength they have shown and also to be used as a tool for positive change.

As restrictions were eased, I was also able to accompany a few participants on socially distanced walks, which also helped aid my new hip recovery.

What lessons have you learned?
I’m not sure whether they were lessons learned or beliefs strengthened?

Firstly necessity is the mother of all invention. Or put another way “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time. Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” Just look at what was achieved in such a short space of time not just here at NT LIFE but throughout the North Tyneside Community

Secondly this was done with the selflessness of individuals, having a purpose external to ourselves benefit’s not only the receivers but the givers and the onlookers. Creating a sense of connected-ness which ultimately I believe is one of the greatest psychological human needs for our mental health and wellbeing.

And finally keeping productive kept me sane. It may be personality, conditioning or simply a distraction coping mechanism working towards something kept my mind away from the WHY questions and focused me on the HOW. In other words instead of why is this happening to me/us/the world which would lead me into feelings of sadness, frustration anger, I focused on How: How can I make a difference, how can I improve things How can this be better.

What do you think you would have done differently?
As a result of these events, I am revamping the enrolment process so that we have more detailed information that is updated more regularly. I know some people missed out on opportunities as we didn’t have the most up to date contact information.

So many people had birthdays during the lockdown, those I got wind of were celebrated but I know we missed some. To have been sent a card could have made all the difference to some people so I’m going to ensure where possible we have date of birth info, just in case we have a second wave.

From a personal point I definitely need to schedule self-care time, I’ve realised that the difference in being productive and just plain busy is enormous and most definitely self-care has a lot to do with being productive

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?
Luckily for NT LIFE was one of the first of the VODA projects to get back to some normality. From early July I have been delivering a series of Catch Up Sessions on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s back at The Hub in the Linskill Centre. Over these sessions we have been connecting weekly with over 35 of our students and volunteers in face to face meetings.

I have deliberately kept these sessions informal so that people can catch up and share their experiences. Lately we have introduced some taster sessions for crafts and creative writing lead by Amy Crammond and Emma Farrell (volunteers). With the regular Art and DB Cuppa T groups lead by Mick Turnbull and Julie Bishop (volunteers) this means that when we launch our September timetable we already have bookings.

One of the big changes moving forward, to ensure people are Covid safe, is the introduction of the booking system to limit group sizes and avoid disappointment. Highlighting a need for someone better equipped than I to run our admin system, so I will be recruiting a volunteer to assist.

We have also been assigned some amazing Peer Support Workers who will bring a range of different skills and strengths to the delivery team, I’m eager to support them with this.

I’m very much looking forward to facilitating face to face sessions again, especially the Wellness Recovery Action Plan 2 Day Awareness course that me and 4 of our volunteers have just qualified to deliver, courtesy of Recoco Train The Trainer sessions.

Whilst there will be new skill sets and new tasks to perform I see my role remaining to be to recognise, that irrespective of diagnosis individuals possess strengths and skills of value, to present opportunities that engage them and allow them to be the best version of themselves whilst developing their own self-care, self-management and autonomy.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?
My biggest achievement through the crisis without doubt was The Little Box of Hope which couldn’t have been achieved without the help of so many volunteers and VODA staff.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?
Apart from not taking out my feelings of frustration on my husband? Who knew how important it was to me that there is a proper way to fill the dishwasher? You had to be there!

Feeling I was enough or did enough- I’m still not convinced that I did, and this is a common theme for people with lived experience of mental ill health. I’m humbled to have witnessed the tremendously courageous and valiant efforts of so many North Tyneside Residents throughout this crisis.

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VODA Team Q&A: Ian Dodds

Ian Dodds, VODA’s Sector Connector Manager usually spends his days connecting businesses and the VCS together, arranging free training, free and discounted services, finding ways for businesses to provide volunteering opportunities for their employees, identifying ways the VCS can also support businesses and much more. However, in response to the pandemic, Ian took on a completely different role ensuring the vulnerable residents of North Tyneside were able to get their prescriptions.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?

Obviously, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, many businesses that contributed to Sector Connector in the past shut down and furloughed staff.  Similarly, many voluntary organisations closed their doors.  So it was not been possible to continue Sector Connector’s work to forge stronger links between the business sector and the voluntary sector in North Tyneside.

As a result, my role has changed from managing Sector Connector to become one of coordinating volunteers to collect prescriptions for vulnerable people who are shielding or self-isolating.  At the height of the crisis we would get up to 30 requests a day for people to collect their prescriptions for them.

What lessons have you learned?

The crisis has shown just how many people there are in North Tyneside who have no friends or family to provide support. In the past, many of these people would have not appeared on our radar as they are socially isolated, but the COVID-19 crisis has forced them to come forward for help. Many of these people are very lonely and our voice on the phone to arrange prescriptions or shopping, coupled with the visit by the volunteers to drop off their delivery are often the only contact with the outside world that they have had in days.

In terms of arranging for prescription collections, the one thing I’ve learned is not to trust that a pharmacy will hand across all of the medicines that our beneficiaries need! The number of times that we’ve had to send volunteers back to collect items that the pharmacy had forgotten to put into the bag!

What do you think you would have done differently?

Ideally it would have been better if we had an easy system for volunteers to let us know their availability, as on some days a lot of time is spent trying to identify volunteers who are able to volunteer that day and live within a reasonable distance of the collection/delivery.

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?

As we move back towards the recovery phase, things will start to swing back to Sector Connector work.  We are now starting to try to engage businesses to help out voluntary organisations who are wanting to reopen delivery of their services safely again. So far, we’ve managed to get businesses to deliver sessions on how to use Zoom effectively to support beneficiaries, how to carry out risk assessments, how to reopen community buildings safely, and effective use of PPE.  More Zoom sessions are on their way.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?

The big achievement is that of the volunteers who have between them delivered nearly 600 prescriptions to help people to stay healthy over the last few months.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?

Trying to find volunteers on a Friday afternoon to collect prescriptions! I’m sure there was some big party going on to which all the volunteers were invited, but that we knew nothing about).

Seriously, the main challenge has been to meet the sheer scale of demand for prescriptions to be delivered on some days, and it never ceases to amaze me how dedicated our volunteers are and how willing they are to go the extra mile (literally!) to ensure that people got their medicines when they need them – often at very short notice.

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VODA Team Q&A: Robin Fry

From the role of the great thinker, to lugging food boxes around the North Tyneside Council support hub, COVID-19 has certainly changed the day to day life of VODA’s Chief Exec Robin. But one thing the pandemic has not changed is his steadfast belief in the vital role the VCS plays in our community.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?

Significantly! I’ve gone from sitting in my own office with time to ponder and plan, to squatting at North Tyneside Council making decisions on the hoof, lugging around food parcels, working with new partners and meeting some incredible volunteers on a daily basis. My role has changed but my belief remains the same – that the work of volunteers and community organisations is absolutely essential.

What lessons have you learned?

The importance of building an organisation with a clear vision and shared values. Establishing these foundations over the last few years has paid huge dividends in a crisis situation. We have proven to be a resilient organisation with a staff team focussed entirely on the needs of our community. Our quick and clear response to the COVID-19 pandemic required a huge effort from our staff team. Doing nothing, or the bare minimum, would have been far easier – but this was never going to be an option for us.

What do you think you would have done differently?

I should have established regular online team meetings more quickly. In such a fast-moving and ever-changing environment it is important that our staff feel involved, connected and informed. I should have focussed more on providing clarity and certainty to help offset the general confusion and anxiety many of us were feeling. Because we’re such a passionate and determined bunch some staff were left feeling frustrated early on that they did not have a clear role to play. This was resolved over time but could have been done quicker.

Not everything went according to plan, if indeed there was a plan, but we did not allow this to dampen our resolve. Some ideas failed, quickly, but we were able to reflect and adapt our approach to find a better forward.

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?

My role is to ensure that as an organisation we resist the temptation to try and get ‘back to normal’. Instead we need to build on some of the fantastic new ways of working we have developed out of necessity. These new ways of working will make us more effective in supporting volunteers and community organisations to continue changing lives in North Tyneside.

I believe that, by and large, the VCS has provided an incredible response to supporting vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular some of the smaller neighbourhood groups have demonstrated that local ‘place-based’ action can be incredibly powerful. The support we offer our members as part of the recovery phase will need to recognise the diversity of the sector and that there will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?

Simply ‘turning up’ us a team of staff. It would have been far easier for us to step back but that would have been at odds with our character as an organisation. We wanted to be part of the solution and to be able to look back and know that we did our bit as best we could. It has been an absolute privilege to be able to support such an incredible community response.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?

I am immensely proud of the work we have done. The praise and thanks we have received from a range of audiences has been very flattering indeed. A challenge for me has been to use this as a platform to promote the voluntary sector more widely rather than simply basking in our own glory. We have done our best to deflect this praise onto our volunteers and our member organisations. That’s why we produced an animation showcasing the sector’s response using the #NeverMoreNeeded hashtag.

Anything else you would like to add?

Only my thanks to everyone who has offered their support so far. Any doubts I may have had about whether our COVID-19 response was the right one were soon blown away by the positivity of colleagues and sector friends. Meeting our food parcel volunteers on a daily basis and hearing from the beneficiaries reassures me that we’re involved in something very special.

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VODA Team Q&A: Josie Robinson

Josie Robinson, VODA’s Ending Loneliness Project Coordinator talks about the drastic changes in her daily working life since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the challenges it brings have forged new innovative ways of working, team bonding and the addition of three new adopted Grandma’s in her life.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?

Pre COVID-19 my role was focused around partnership work to tackle loneliness and social isolation in North Tyneside. I managed and supported the Good Neighbours Project which worked alongside the likes of Age UK North Tyneside, North Tyneside Carers’ Centre, Citizens Advice and The SIGN Directory. The purpose of my role was to find innovative ways of working within the partnership and beyond to reach the boroughs most vulnerable and isolated residents. Prior to COVID-19 I had little direct involvement with the day to day running of VODA’s Good Neighbours project in terms of coordinating volunteers and arranging tasks. Instead I was focusing on awareness raising and social action activity to reduce isolation and loneliness. I was responsible for a scheme called ‘Happy to Chat’ which was an opportunity for people to come together, meet someone new and have a cuppa. This was a roaring success when we were allowed within two metres of others, with 40-50 people attending a weekly session at the Beacon Centre in North Shields.

Since COVID-19 the main change to my role is that I am now working remotely from home, which ironically leaves me quite isolated! However; here at VODA we responded to the crisis pretty quickly and my role formed a new team of staff who have been channelling their skills and enthusiasm into evolving the Good Neighbours Project in response to the pandemic.

My days are now filled with chatting to our amazing brand-new team of Good Neighbours Volunteers and responding to referrals for requests for help. I take between 10 and 20 shopping lists a day from local people who are unable to get out and do their own shopping and match them with a volunteer local to them.

What lessons have you learned?

Since we’ve all had to adapt to working differently, and everything has been heightening in terms of demand for the project, volunteer involvement; I’ve learnt that I actually respond quite well in a crisis situation, but that this isn’t sustainable in terms of practical working, and now understand the importance of a work routine and taking frequent breaks… so I now no longer dream about shopping lists!

Another thing that has totally blown me away has been the power of the local community, every day I am absolutely astounded by the determination and compassion from our team of volunteers. They are the ones out there changing people’s lives and building relationships with isolated and vulnerable residents. It’s a way of working that I hope to continue to build on and I think VODA can provide volunteers with the tools to empower them to change the local community for the better and make sure that North Tyneside is always the best place to live!

What do you think you would have done differently?

I’m not sure I would have done anything differently; every decision we made since the start of lockdown to respond to the pandemic has shaped the project and we’ve learned a lot. Even those decisions that might not have been the right ones, allowed me to reflect and understand the implications of each decision.

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?

I’m really keen to help take Good Neighbours into the next phase of delivery. I’m aiming to catch up with the Ending Loneliness partnership, share success stories, learning opportunities and ideas for moving forward. I’m also really excited about the partnership with the Local Authority support hub and how we can evolve ‘Happy to Chat’ to become more virtual for those who are housebound. I’ll also be working closely with Claire Howard from VODA, as her role entails working in partnership with local GP’s and health services to identify isolated individuals and be able to offer activities and support to those people.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?

My biggest achievement has been being able to be part of an organisation on the frontline of the COVID-19 response. The entire staff team at VODA has been able to respond so quickly by creating innovative ways of working. We’ve managed to create a system that works, and is really making a difference to people’s lives, the relationships we’ve built with people just over the telephone have been incredible (I now have at least 3 adopted grandmas!). I’ve always known that we’re good at what we do, but this has really solidified it for me. I think the borough is also now aware of the power of the voluntary and community sector as a whole and that makes me really proud.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?

The sheer volume of requests for help that we had in the first 6 weeks of the response was on another level. At times it felt like we were fighting a losing battle as for every one referral you completed, another 15 would be added. That was really tough to manage, but we just had to focus our efforts on those referrals that were most urgent. It also helped to be reminded that we’re only human, and we can only do what we can do. So now gone are the days working ludicrous hours and everything is a bit more settled.

Anything else you would like to add?

Just that I’m really excited about the future of Good Neighbours, the Ending Loneliness Partnership and VODA as a whole. The silver lining has been that we have found a new way of working, an ability to reach more people and have such an incredible team of volunteers alongside us that are changing people’s lives every day. Plus I am very much looking forward to organising a big celebration event for all the volunteers, beneficiaries and partners of the project.

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VODA Team Q&A: Keith Hardy

In the first in a series of Q&A’s, we’re taking a look at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the VODA team, in particular how things have changed for us and how we see our roles going forward.

First up is Keith Hardy, VODA’s Core Services Manager…

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?

My role has changed quite significantly, the bulk of my work is now COVID-19 related, working in partnership with the Local Authority and other organisations to provide support to North Tyneside’s most vulnerable residents.

With a good proportion of voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations in stasis or providing a very limited service, there has been a drop in requests for support around governance and charitable law, which is my usual role. Although I suspect this will explode once lockdown is relaxed and organisations start to deliver services again.

The other change has been in my work environment, I am now working out of North Tyneside Council’s headquarters at the Quadrant, partially because the building VODA is located in is closed and also so that we can work more closely with the Council. It’s been really useful as a lot of my day-to-day work involves liaising with the Local Support Team.

I also have to be more creative in how I provide support to my staff team, with many of them working from home. It is important for them to receive the right support and ensure that their wellbeing is being looked after, things like taking time off, providing support sessions in formats to suit them etc.

I worry about isolation, working collaboratively and feeding off each other’s ideas and energy is a big part of how our team works, I have to find ways to ensure we continue to be innovative and mobile in our support for the VCS.

What lessons have you learned?

Main thing is that working in partnership is a great way to maximise our resources and reach.

Also, remote meetings on Team and Zoom have been a real bonus. I’ve never really used them before and this is definitely something we will incorporate into our work going forward.  In fact the use of technology in general has increased across the VCS, which is a good step forward for the sector.

What do you think you would have done differently?

It took a bit of time to get all the partners working in unison and understanding their roles in the COVID-19 Response Teams. It works fine now though, so I think the lesson learned for me would be to devote a bit more time to planning and to ensure that everyone in the team understands what is required of them and who is responsible for what.

We have had to be more creative about supporting the VCS to deliver services during this crisis and we have been able to use our partnerships with the Local Authority and CCG to help in a range of ways.

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?

I think it will be a difficult time for organisations and many will require support around funding or recruiting volunteers and trustees, as well as needing help with their own recovery planning. We are contacting organisations now to find out what support they require now and in the future, which will help us focus our support in the right areas.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?

I think the biggest achievement isn’t down to one person, the speed and professionalism in which VODA was able to mobilise support for the most vulnerable people was amazing. Within one week we had a shopping service, food parcel delivery and prescription collection service operational. Also, recruiting over 250 volunteers in a couple of weeks was pretty amazing!

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?

When we first set up the shopping service many of the beneficiaries were not tech savvy and couldn’t manage to shop online or make payments. We worked with the Council’s Finance Team to find a solution and now people can ring Finance and give payment details over the telephone, making it much easier to access money for shopping. As of 26 May 2020 we had processed £18,000 worth of shopping trips.

Anything else you would like to add?

I have been staggered by the response of the volunteers, they are amazing and make our jobs so much easier. Every day they go shopping, deliver food parcels and wellbeing packs and collect prescriptions, as well as some more unusual jobs like fitting a fridge freezer in someone’s home, topping up gas and electricity cards and even shopping for an internet MYFI connector so someone could shop online. Nothing is too much for our volunteers! We are going to organise a well-deserved celebration at the end of all this.

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