Three reasons why do I do this every day

FeaturedThree reasons why do I do this every day

“Why do I do this every day?” It’s a question I haven’t properly asked myself since the early days of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd back in spring 2011. It’s a good question to ask ourselves every now and again. Our friends at Realized Worth celebrated their tenth anniversary earlier this year by asking and answering that question. Inspired by their example, and as a way of reflecting as 2018 draws to a close, this post is my attempt to answer that question afresh.

But first, let’s address the potential elephant in the room.

An elephant. In a room.
An elephant. In a room.

I don’t do what I do for the money. Well, that’s not strictly true: I do need to pay the bills just like anyone else. But some people think that consultants are out to make a quick buck from non-profits, that we are laughing all the way to the bank to top up our already healthy account balances.

David Dickinson holding money with the caption, "Quids In!".
David Dickinson holding money with the caption, “Quids In!”.

Let me assure you this isn’t true, not for me anyway. My take home income as a consultant is about a third of what it was in my last proper job and, thanks to combined VAT, Corporation Tax & income tax, my annual taxes are a much higher proportion of my income than they ever were when I was in full-time employment.

I love what I do, but I’m not in it for the money anymore than I suspect that anyone works in volunteer management or non-profits world is. None of us are buying a super yacht and mooring it in Monaco harbour!

A super yacht at sea
A super yacht at sea

So, if it isn’t for the riches, why do I do it? Here are three main reasons:

1. I have a passion for volunteering
2018 marked three decades since I started volunteering. It was at school and at 14 years old that I got the bug. I’ve volunteered ever since.

Volunteering has helped me in so many ways. I’ve made friends, gained new skills and done things I’d probably never have done otherwise.

I want volunteering to be such a transformational experience for everyone.

No matter who you are, there should be an opportunity for you to do more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider good (credit to the late Ivan Scheier for my favourite definition of volunteering). You should have as much chance as anyone else of being exposed to experiences that will change your life as you change the life of others.

When I wake up in the morning that’s what drives me out from under the warm cosy duvet and gets me in front of the computer, or standing in front of a training group, or working with a consulting client. That belief that today I can help make it easier for someone to volunteer and make a difference for themselves, their community and the world.

A neon sign saying passion
A neon sign saying passion

2. It’s a lifestyle choice
I used to commute to London every day from Lincolnshire. When the trains worked it was a three hour round trip every day. When the trains didn’t work, I was stuck 100 miles from home with no alternative route back. For a third of the year I didn’t see my house in daylight. I did that for six years. I’d rather not do it again.

Of course I still travel. Recently I was training in North Wales. The ten hour round trip on the railway (with the associated stress of missed connections) and night away from my family was worth it to spend time with twenty-two brilliant people doing amazing work.

This time last year I had just finished a work trip to Australia and New Zealand. That’s a 20,000 mile commute, taking over two and a half days just to get there and back again. It was nine weeks away from home and family, eating alone and spending more time than is sensible in hotel rooms and airports.

But this morning my commute took me from my bedroom to my office at the foot of the stairs. This afternoon I get to take 45 mins away from my desk to walk the dog with nobody questioning my absence.

Being your own boss isn’t for everyone. The worry about where the money is coming from, being your own IT, marketing, communications, HR and finance department (to name just a few) comes with it’s challenges. But they are far outweighed by the flexibility, fun and enjoyment of doing what you love whilst still having time for the people you love.

My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby
My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby

3. I want to engage and inspire people to bring about change
2018 also marks twenty-four years since I started paid work in the volunteering movement.

Volunteer management is my vocation and my career. Through my work I’ve formed friendships that have lasted longer than any others in my life. I’ve travelled to countries I never dreamt I’d go to and I’ve worked with and for some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

Volunteer management has seen some changes over those twenty-four years, some good and some not so good. But too little progress has been made. Many of the issues that concerned volunteer managers in 1998 still concern them today – risk, criminal record checks, whether we’re a profession, how to deal with problem behaviour, influencing senior management, whether we are the same as HR…the list goes on and on.

When I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd 2011 I didn’t just want to do the basic volunteer management work: how to recruit a volunteer, how to deal with problem behaviour. I also wanted to get stuck into bigger issues. I wanted the work of people-raising to be regarded as as important as fundraising. I wanted volunteering to be a strategic priority for organisations, not just a casual afterthought. I wanted to expand people’s horizons beyond the accepted wisdom of our field, challenging assumptions, tilting at windmills and encouraging new thinking.

I’ve made some progress but there is only so much one independent consultant trainer and writer can do. That’s why the one sentence description of what I do is ‘Engaging and inspiring people to bring about change’.

I want to help everyone in volunteer management step up to the plate and advocate for volunteering and our profession.

I want to inspire, enthuse and equip people to feel confident in speaking up for volunteering, not just for the sake of it but because of a shared passion for the power of people doing great things in the world.

The word 'change' spelt out in jigsaw pieces
The word ‘change’ spelt out in jigsaw pieces

Why do you do what you do every day?

What gives you your get up and go?

Share your thoughts and reflections in the comments below or on social media with the hashtag #WDIDTED.


If you’d like to know more about Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, what we do, our values and how we can help you then please check out our website.

We’d love to hear from you.

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Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

One of the enduring issues in volunteer management (at least in the UK) is the avoidance of volunteers working under a contract of employment. In fear of this, many organisations follow restrictive practices, increased bureaucracy, reduced scope for providing attractive benefits to potential volunteers, and allow wrong-headed thinking on the issue to predominate. In my view, it is time for this to stop.

Someone signing a contract
Someone signing a contract

Most conferences on volunteer management will feature a lawyer or other legal expert speaking on the issue. Whilst there are some good ones out there, most use the platform they are given to scare volunteer managers into submission. Whether ensuring nobody gets any possible benefit from giving time, or pontificating on what volunteers can and can’t do, Volunteer Managers are encouraged to put legal considerations before all else, rather than take a more considered and common sense approach, a situation not helped when boards and senior managers listen more to legal advisers than their own volunteer management experts.

A bit of background

The issue of whether a volunteer has a contract or not gained attention in the 1990s with a small number of high profile cases where volunteers successfully claimed they actually worked under a contract of employment. This entitled them to the same rights as any employee, enabling them to bring discrimination cases against the volunteer involving organisation.

Understanding this context is important because the creation of a contract of employment with volunteers is actually a risk issue. To my knowledge, in those 1990s cases, the volunteers who claimed employment rights were actually discriminated against by the organisations they volunteered for. Having no means of addressing this via their volunteer status, the individuals concerned had to claim under employment law as the legislation doesn’t cover volunteers. Yet if the organisations had treated these volunteers properly in the first place the contractual status of the volunteers would never have been an issue.

It’s all about risk

Rather than fixating on whether there is a possibility our volunteers might be entitled to contractual status as an employee, perhaps we should be focusing first on managing the risk that a volunteer feels so aggrieved with us that they want to claim employee status in the first place? In short, perhaps we need to practice risk management not risk avoidance!

Risk management involves four simple steps:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?

Risk avoidance takes the more nuclear option of not doing something just because a bad thing may happen (by the way, not all risk is bad). It is as naive as it is misguided – risk is an inherent part of life. If we wanted to avoid all risk we’d just shut up shop and stay in bed all day.

Someone lying in bed
Someone lying in bed

How then would risk management look when it comes to the issue of volunteers and employment contracts? Let’s consider those four steps again:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
    Twenty-three million people volunteer every year. There have been perhaps half a dozen cases of volunteers successfully claiming employment rights in the last thirty years. The implication therefore is that the risk is very low. So low it isn’t really worth considering.However, if your organisation; fails to invest properly in volunteer management; allows volunteers to be treated poorly by paid staff and other volunteers (including trustees); doesn’t have sensible policies in place around volunteer engagement; actively discriminates against volunteers etc.; then your risk is higher. But a volunteer still has to feel so aggrieved they want to seek legal recourse rather than just walk away.Either way you look at it the risk is still pretty low. Sadly, few organisations seem to look at this step in the risk management process, jumping first to the next step…
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
    The worst case scenario is that a volunteer takes you to an employment tribunal claiming employment rights, wins, then returns to tribunal with a discrimination case, and wins again. Aside from the resulting fines and sanctions possible under employment law, there is the potential for reputational risk and associated impacts on fundraising, future volunteer recruitment and negative media coverage. This is why many people rightly think the risk is pretty severe.Unfortunately, this is where the risk management process not only starts but also stops for many people. The risk is severe so they do everything they can to avoid it. But that fails to acknowledge the next step…
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
    Considering the statistics alone, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk. Assuming six successful claims for employment rights happened in one year (and 23 million people volunteered that year) the percentage chance of you facing such a successful claim would be 0.00000026%! The only way to reduce that risk further would be to stop volunteer involvement altogether, a drastic solution to a minuscule problem.Instead, let’s focus on the other issues we raised in step one.Your organisation can minimise the risk of a volunteer claiming employment rights by; investing properly in volunteer management, perhaps employing someone who takes a sensible approach to these issues and has experience in the field; not allowing volunteers to be poorly treated, disciplining staff who do, and educating everyone about how to work well with volunteers; establish clear and well thought through policies around volunteer engagement that are regularly reviewed and consistently implemented; never discriminate against a volunteer.

    With the exception of the last point there will be a cost associated with all of these actions. That cost is an investment to manage risk, enabling volunteers to make a transformative difference to your work whilst reducing the potential of the serious liability identified at step two.

  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?
    The formula for working this out is pretty simple: we know the worst case scenario is bad; we also know the likelihood of the risk happening is very low; and we’ve identified sensible and implementable steps to reduce that likelihood further. I’d see the retained risk as low to medium as a result, although you may view it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and your personal and organisational attitude to risk.So we have a low to medium retained risk. With that in mind, how sensible does it seem to avoid involving volunteers in some roles (or altogether)? Or limiting access to things that might help with volunteer recruitment (such as access to training and skills development not directly related to their role) just because there is a vague chance it might cause a problem down the road? Pretty silly really isn’t it?

In summary

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence it’d be this: Instead of focusing first on contracts and what creates them, let’s concentrate on treating volunteers well in the first place. Do that and the contract issues become less of a priority, not something to be ignored but certainly not something to be obsessed about. The result? Our work will be more enjoyable, and we will create a more impactful and fulfilling experience for our volunteers.

Useful resources

For some useful resources on risk management for leaders and managers of volunteers, take a look at a recent issue of Energize Inc’s Book Buzz newsletter.


Please note that I and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd are not legal experts. We are sharing our experience of over twenty-four years in volunteer management and, as usual, challenging accepted wisdom. Please do take legal advice if you are in anyway unsure about the legal position in your organisation.

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

On the 12th October I published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after my American friend and colleague the amazing Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Meridian and I got our thinking caps on and devised some further questions that we felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of our joint efforts to try and provide some answers.


HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME, IN MY OFFICE, IN MY TOWN, AND WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

SHOULD WE BE PREPARED FOR MORE OF THIS? IS THIS WHERE CORPORATE VOLUNTEERING IS GOING?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUSINESSES WHO ADMIRE STARBUCKS AND WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, SO THEY WILL ATTEMPT TO MODEL THIS INITIATIVE?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.”

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

”18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

Furthermore:

“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE “SERVICE FELLOWS” DOING? A REGULAR VOLUNTEER’S JOB? A REGULAR EMPLOYEE’S JOB? OR SOMETHING THAT CAN’T REPLACE ANYONE ALREADY THERE?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.”

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take.

DID THEY CONSULT A VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT EXPERT? WHAT ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN PLACE WITH THE POL AFFILIATE NONPROFITS?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

IS THIS ONE OF THOSE LOFTY, NOT THOUGHT OUT EDICTS FROM ABOVE THAT WILL MAKE A VOLUNTEER MANAGER’S LIFE A LIVING HELL BECAUSE NO INPUT WAS ASKED FOR?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.”

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

WILL VOLUNTEERING BE ON-SITE OR IS IT PROJECT BASED OFF-SITE?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD BODIES LIKE POINTS OF LIGHT HAVE IN FUTURE, REPRESENTING NON-PROFITS AND VOLUNTEER MANAGERS?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employer Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

”The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.”

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

IF WE WERE VOLUNTEER MANAGERS ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS, WHAT WOULD WE LIKE TO KNOW?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian

Make volunteer management great

Make volunteer management great

In June this year I was lucky enough to visit Australia to attend their National Volunteering Conference. As anyone who has made the journey ‘down under’ will know, the flight is the epitome of long haul.

Exhausted, having cleared immigration and customs, I relaxed into my taxi – the first comfortable seat I’d sat in for almost 24 hours – but rather than having a snooze I was shocked to see this giant billboard which loomed into view as we left the airport.

Clive Palmer political post - Make Australia Great
Clive Palmer political post – Make Australia Great

The poster – featuring Clive Palmer, leader of the nationalistic United Australia party – also included some wording my jet lag addled brain has since forgotten. Something along the lines of, “Keep Australia for Australians”. It was all clearly positioned so every international visitor to Sydney would see it as they left the airport. Welcome to Australia!

Of course, such nationalism is growing around the world and it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the Australian poster came from.

Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election - Make America Great Again
Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election – Make America Great Again

The problem with both these slogans is that they imply Australia and America aren’t great and need to be made so. I’ve been to both countries on many occasions and, in my view, both are already great. I’ve always been impressed, amazed and inspired by the people I’ve met, the landscapes I’ve seen, and the cultures created by bring diverse people together as both countries have.

What has all this got to do with volunteer engagement leadership?

Well, as I reflected on the Make Australia Great billboard over the following days I started thinking about our quest for volunteer management to be a profession. It’s a topic that comes up at conferences, trainings and events around the world – when will volunteer management truly become a profession? When will Volunteer Managers be professionals just like our fundraising, Human Resources, Programme Management and other non-profit colleagues.?

Back in 2014 I wrote an article called, “Is our destination clear?” which suggested that we may not be entirely sure about what we mean when we talk about volunteer management being a profession. I stand by the points I made in that article (please do give it a read) but the Australian poster got me wondering if our mindset doesn’t play a big role in the professional standing of our field.

Australia doesn’t need to be made great, it already is.

America doesn’t need to be made great again, it already is.

Volunteer management doesn’t need to be made into a profession, it already is. Why? Because volunteer managers are professionals.

If we go around indicating we aren’t a profession then by extension aren’t we also going around implying we aren’t professionals? If that’s the case then no wonder our job equity with other non-profit professions suffers.

How can we take a more confident attitude towards our status as a profession? How we can advocate for the professional status of our field and for us individually?

Well International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) is a little over a week away (5th November) and provides a perfect opportunity. This year’s theme is Time For Change. Perhaps one the big changes we can all make is to stop being so nice. I don’t mean we all become mean, rude and grumpy, but that we should use IVMDay to take a stand for our work as volunteer engagement professionals. We should commit to asserting our professional status every day, rather than unintentionally undermining it by asking when we will be seen as a profession. That way we will become the change we want to see.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week. These so called ‘service fellows’ will put in twenty hours at their Starbucks store and then another twenty hours at a local Points of Light affiliate. This non-profit will be doing work that aligns with Starbucks’ social impact priorities. According to The Guardian, the stated goal of the pilot is to accumulate a total of 17,000 hours work before the end of February 2019.

Having pondered this scheme for a few weeks, here are five questions I have about it.

Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices
Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices

1 – Is this really volunteering?

There are some people who do not consider any time given by any employee during the normal working day to be volunteering. The argument is that they are being paid by their employer and, as financial benefit is excluded from the definition of volunteering, such activity can’t be volunteering.

It’s not a viewpoint I agree with. If you are an employee, then your employer pays you for the time you take as holiday (it is sometimes explicitly called paid leave) but you wouldn’t consider yourself to be at work on the beach with a drink in your hand. Why should volunteering been seen differently?

But I digress slight. Getting back to the Starbucks pilot, it is interesting to note that the money being used to pay for the time spent working at non-profits will come from the Starbucks Foundation rather than direct from the company. Does this make a difference?

Similarly, when it comes to defining what they do as volunteering, if the millennial Starbucks employees participate of their own free will (and perhaps even choose the non-profit they will work with), does this exercise of free will help classify what they do as volunteering?

Will participating non-profits make a meaningful distinction between this scheme and, for example, a business releasing employees for a couple of hours a week to perhaps help kids who are struggling to read? Or will they just gratefully grab 20 hours a week of someone’s time that they don’t have to pay a salary for?

Definitions of volunteering are notoriously unhelpful and vague. So is this volunteering or not, and does it matter?

2 – Who is creating and funding the 20 hour a week roles for these millennial Starbucks staff?

My second question is for those Points of Light affiliated non-profits who take part in this scheme. You are getting 20 hours a week of time from a (hopefully) enthusiastic young person. You’re not having to pay for that time. But how are you funding the creation of the roles these people will do?

Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?

Where is that time and money coming from?

What mission-focused work might not get done because your colleagues are focused instead on giving Starbucks some good PR?

3 – What are the implications for volunteer management in the host organisations?

As I just mentioned, the Starbucks ‘service fellows’ are going to need management support. I can’t see many HR departments falling over themselves to step up to that job. Nor can I imagine most current managers are going to thrill to the idea of having another person to line-manage, especially a millennial part-timer. Inevitably, whether we think this scheme is volunteering or not, it’s the Volunteer Managers who are going to be asked to step in.

If Volunteer Managers get involved in this work, do they have the time and resources to take on this extra responsibility? Remember, most people who lead volunteering are not employed full-time in that role. Most are lucky if they get a few hours a week to focus on volunteering because their main job responsibilities come first. What will not get done if they now manage Starbucks ‘service fellows’? Will support for other volunteers suffer?

Finally, whether it is the Volunteer Manager or someone else who ends up managing the ‘service fellows’, will Points of Light be vetting the participating affiliates to make sure they have good volunteer management practices, especially for engaging millennials? After all, we don’t want to put people off volunteering by giving them a bad experience!

Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it
Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it

4 – What are the implications for volunteering and paid jobs in non-profits if initiatives like this supply volunteers who work 20 hours a week?

Let’s say this scheme is a success. Starbucks are happy, their employees are happy and the non-profits they work with are happy. The scheme is extended. Great! But would it be?

I can see many non-profits stampeding to avail themselves of 20 hours a week of ‘free labour’. They would prefer these ‘service fellows’ to those annoying regular volunteers who: sometimes don’t turn up; gripe if their expenses don’t get paid; moan when nobody thanks them for coming; and are a huge risk because they don’t get paid and so can’t be trusted or relied upon.

Would non-profits start to think differently about their paid workforce too? After all, if they can have people work there for twenty hours a week for six months (or maybe more in future) and someone else pays their salary, doesn’t that mean more money for the mission rather than those blasted admin costs and overheads that the media and public always complain about?

Whether employee or volunteer, if I was at the participating non-profits I’d be worried.

5 – It’s all about Starbucks, isn’t it?

Isn’t the emphasis and implied benefit here all about Starbucks and their ability to attract and retain millennials? As my other questions suggest, the impact on non-profits might actually be harmful – job losses, increased costs, volunteer turnover etc..

Remember, the goal by which the pilot’s success will be measured is whether seventeen thousand hours of time is spent by ‘service fellows’ in partner non-profits. Nothing is said about the impact those millennials will have on the missions of those organisations. Sigh.

So, what do you think?

Have you got an opinion on any of these questions?

Have you got additional questions you’d like to ask?

Engage in the debate by leaving a comment on this article or the your social media network you found this story on, using the hashtag #questionsforstarbucks

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?

What is volunteer engagement?

My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword(subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):

“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”

How can we increase volunteer engagement?

My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:

“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:

  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
  • The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”

In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?

Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager

In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.

Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:

  1. Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
  2. Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
  3. Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).

Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?

Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.

Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership

In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:

  • Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
  • 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
  • When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.

In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!

This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.

Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:

  1. We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
  2. We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.

Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work

Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.

This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:

So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.


Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:

All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.