Who is our enemy?

FeaturedWho is our enemy?

I often find writing hard. Sometimes the words flow freely and easily, sometimes there is a topic I want to address but I just can’t find the right way into it, and other times I just sit and stare at a blinking cursor wondering what I can say that will be helpful to others.

This is commonly called writer’s block. American author Anne Lamott has some helpful words of advice when we encounter it:

“Writer’s block isn’t a block. When your wife locks you out of the house you don’t have a problem with the door! The problem is acceptance. Accept you are empty.”

When I feel empty like that – empty of inspiration, empty of energy, empty of words – I read, often books and articles that have nothing to do with volunteering, like the Originals book I reviewed in my last posting.

Two of the places I go for inspiration are For The Interested by Josh Spector and the weekly newsletter from Charles Chu. In his recent article, “Feeling Lost? Maybe You Need An Enemy”, Charles explores how having an adversary to focus on can be a uniting force. That got me thinking. Who is our enemy, the nemesis of leaders and managers of volunteers?

  • Is it governments, who consistently fail to understand volunteering and what is needed to make it happen?
  • Is it fundraisers, who are so focused on getting in the cash they fail to see the potential of people?
  • Is it CEOs and senior managers, who consistently ignore us, cut our posts first when times get tough and take advantage of volunteers?

Whoever we may consider our enemy to be – and perhaps this is the first time you’ve even considered that person or institution to be an enemy – Charles Chu has a challenge for us in this quote from the late Umberto Eco:

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”

Charles continues:

“This enemy I am fighting  – the enemies we all fight  –  could they…simply be fake enemies that we’ve “invented” to satisfy our own needs? However scary it is, we should also pause and ask ourselves, “Does this enemy that I fight truly exist? And, if not, then what is it that I’ve been doing this all for?”

Are CEOs, fundraisers and governments really the enemy of leaders of volunteers? Have we invented them as adversaries so we have a common cause to unite behind? Are we rallying against a group, body or individual in order to demonstrate our own worth (as Umberto Eco put it)? Is this all just a convenient way for us to blame others for our frustrations rather than do something about them ourselves? What if we stopped viewing them as enemies? What if we stopped blaming others for our lack of progress, whether personally or as a profession, and started viewing them as potential allies?

Back to Charles Chu again:

“Those we make enemies out of are, in the end, still people. Deep down, they suffer from many of the same fears and worries. If we take the time to see the world as they do, it becomes a whole lot harder to hate them.”

Just spend a few moments reflecting on the following questions, either in regard to your personally and what you are trying to achieve as a manager of volunteers, or as our wider profession:

  • Who do we see as our enemy?
  • Why are they our enemy?
  • Have we invented that enemy or are they real?
  • How can I see the world as my enemy does and how might that help me achieve my goal?
  • What might I be avoiding doing because I’m blaming someone else for my challenges?
  • What action would help me take control of the situation and move forward instead of blaming someone else?

I hope that through tackling my writers block I’ve produced something that’s got you thinking. I also hope it inspires you write too, in the form of a response by leaving a comment below.

I’d love to know what you think.

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Book review: Originals by Adam Grant

I haven’t written a book review for over thirty years, most likely since primary school. So what’s making me write one now? The simple answer is the excellent and valuable content of the fantastic book, “Originals” by Adam Grant.

I’d never heard of Originals until a friend on Facebook recommended it. I don’t know why, but I took a punt and added it to my list of business reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve not come across the book, Originals is described as, “A manifesto for originality and a guide to championing new ideas that challenge the status quo.” As the description on Amazon puts it:

“Adam Grant shows how to improve the world by championing novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battling conformity, and bucking outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Parents will learn how to nurture originality in children, and leaders will discover how to fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.”

The book was a joy to read as Grant not only informed but entertained. What really hit home for me was how strikingly relevant and helpful some of his points were to leaders and managers of volunteers, especially in our essential work of influencing others – volunteers, colleagues, bosses, funders, policy makers etc..

One of Grant’s points from Originals inspired me to write my July 2017 piece for the UK’s Third Sector magazine. Described by infrastructure body NAVCA as the article they never thought I’d write, “Three reasons why involving volunteers might not be a good idea” takes Grant’s concept of selling an idea by emphasising it’s weaknesses and applies it to volunteer leadership management. Take a look and let me know what you think by leaving a comment on the Third sector site.

Some of Grant’s observations help shine a light on contradictions in our field. For example, studies of Volunteer Managers often illustrate that we are happy wth our roles yet frustrated at the (lack of) support we get. Grant notes the work of John Jost, commenting that “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject or change it”. He goes on to explain why, giving a useful thoughts as to why, despite the frustration many Volunteer Managers feel, they may not seek to change the status quo.

Other points from the book could be applied to: volunteer recognition (affirmation of character, p168); volunteer induction (entry interviews rather than exit interviews, p 204); motivating others; challenging groupthink; improving brainstorming & ideas generation; and both understanding and working with or against organisational culture. Helpfully, Grant provides a list of actions individuals and leaders can take to apply the principles to their lives and work.

I’ve always liked reading books outside of the usual volunteer management literature and seeking insights to apply back to our field. Adam Grant’s book Originals has been one of the richest sources of these in a long time and is a text I will keep referring back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Tilting at windmills again

Tilting at windmills again

Since setting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 I have been writing and speaking about the need for senior managers to take volunteering seriously as a strategic priority. Despite six years of effort it seems little has changed.

Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have recently published a new study, “Charities Taking Charge”. They surveyed 300 charity leaders, of whom only 51% thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!). 16% thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).

Furthermore, when asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”. By contrast, 31% chose funding and 23% public profile.

What it is going to take for those at the top of non-profits to pay proper attention to the strategic role of volunteering in delivering organisational missions? When will the focus on money as the only resource at their disposal change, opening minds to the full range and wealth of community resources available to change the world for the better?

Susan Ellis has been tilting at these same windmills since the 1970s. That’s why she wrote From The Top Down in the 1980s and why we adapted the book for the UK in 2015.

I’ve only been at it six years and I am not going to give up.

Now, where’s the nearest brick wall?

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Campaigning is now well underway for the UK General Election on 8 June. NCVO have wasted no time in issuing their election manifesto, “Charities and volunteering make Britain great”, and I want to quickly look at four things I was pleased to see them highlight.

1/ An access to volunteering fund

Back when I worked for Volunteering England (2005-2011) we were funded by the Office of Civil Society to pilot an Access to Volunteering Scheme. This provided funding to help organisations meet the costs of opening up their volunteering opportunities to people with disabilities.

Sadly the change of government in 2010 killed off the short-lived pilot. Calls were made for it’s revival ahead of the 2015 general election but went unheeded. So I’m really please to see NCVO officially calling for Access to Volunteering to return.

“Providing a support fund to address barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities. This could make volunteering accessible to more people, helping with costs such as travel or adaptations to buildings or equipment.”

2/ Strengthening volunteer development and management

NCVO have really been upping their game on volunteering over the past few months, starting with Sir Stuart’s new year letter to the sector. These efforts have built upon the excellent work of the small volunteering team at NCVO over recent years, dedicated individuals who have worked hard to support volunteerism.

I am really pleased to see this work continue in the manifesto with a call to strengthen volunteer management. For too long, volunteer management and it’s role in enabling effective and rewarding volunteering experiences has been low profile in civil society’s calls for support from politicians. Putting it front and centre in the NCVO manifesto is a welcome step towards changing this.

“Strengthening volunteer development and management, to ensure volunteers have the right skills and support to make a bigger difference, and a rewarding experience.”

3/ Make it easier for charities and volunteers to support our public services

Volunteering in public services isn’t new. Neither are the controversial issues raised, such as job substitution, the role of the state and the responsibilities of individual citizens.

With public services changing, not least because of the tremendous affects of austerity, it is right that we have a grown up debate about the role of charities and volunteers in public service delivery.

Kudos then to NCVO for being brave enough to put this in their manifesto, emphasising the positive and constructive role volunteers can play in the NHS, social care, emergency services and other services.

My only note of caution comes with their suggestion that volunteer numbers could be increased in public services. More volunteers aren’t always the answer.

“(NCVO would like to ask) services such as the NHS to set targets for the management and development of volunteering. These would aim to increase volunteer numbers, involve volunteers in a wider range of roles, and improve the experience and impact of volunteers.”

4/ Immigration

Under the heading of “Give everybody a stake in post-Brexit Britain” NCVO rightly highlight the barriers to non-Brits who wish to volunteer whilst in our country.

For those from outside the EU this requires specific permission to volunteer within their visa’s and poorly phrased limitations on those holding student visas. For EU citizens no restrictions exist, but this will surely change after Brexit in March 2019.

NCVO’s call for simple and effective visa requirements, or a visa waiver programme, are to be applauded, as is their request for the next government to quickly resolve the right to stay of EU citizens.

People from the EU have enriched our culture, society and economy. Along with their families, they work and volunteer in our public services, including for charities. We think it right that they should continue to have a stake in the future of country.

So there you have it, my four highlights from NCVO’s 2017 general election manifesto. What do you think? Do you agree with me? Do you think NCVO missed anything? Do you disagree with their manifesto requests? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Participation branding – three takeaways for leaders of volunteers

89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered. Of those who do notice advertising, more and more people then take steps to actively block it. In other words, most of those adverts for volunteers you’re putting out are being ignored by people.

When you think about the amount of advertising organisations do for volunteers, and how much that costs, it’s shocking to think how little impact you’re apparently having in getting people to want to volunteer.

So, when I read this article from nfpSynergy, ”Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z”, the term ‘participation branding’ caught my eye. That lead me to this article, ”Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”.

Here’s what I took away from these two articles and the little bit of additional research I did online.


Creative innovation network Iris believe that the most potent and efficient brands in the world today are being built with people, not for them. A new breed of brand is not just surviving, but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are getting their market to do their marketing. These are what Iris calls Participation Brands.

These brands are thriving by activating the power of people to build their brand and creating content and conversations that people want to actively participate in.

Ben Essen, executive planning director at Iris, says:

“Brands no longer influence people. People do. With the Participation Brand Index we wanted to understand more deeply why people are choosing to get involved with certain brands and what the secret is for those brands who manage to get their market to do their marketing.”

“It’s become ever easier for consumers to shortcut the media-driven decision making process and access beliefs, behaviours and new ideas directly from other people. Communities can now live on their own terms and agendas without the need for organisations telling them what to do and what to buy. Participation Brands are those who have responded to this change by designing content and experiences that positively disrupt the networked lives we now live.”

The brands who top the Iris The Participation Brand Index study are those seen to not just have a positioning, but a passionate purpose at their heart. They are the ones felt not to just respond to culture but actively shape it. They are the brands creating content, conversations and experiences that people want to get involved in.

For example, the number one brand globally was Apple, who excelled against all these aspects. The number one brand amongst a millennial audience was Netflix, for whom there is a stronger sense of anticipation in ‘what the brand is going to do next’ than any other brand in the study.

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).


I’m a big fan of taking ideas from outside our field and applying them to our work. For example, see my article about how organisations can adapt their approach to volunteer recruitment in light of what’s called influencer marketing.

So what does participation branding mean for those of us leading, managing and recruiting volunteers? Here are my topthree thoughts.

Get your market to do your marketing

Word of mouth has always been an effective way of recruiting volunteers. I am more likely to support a cause if someone I know and trust asks me than if I see a poster or leaflet saying I should get involved.

Remember the quote from earlier, “Brands no longer influence people. People do”? Put simply, participation branding is just a fancy new term for word of mouth. It recognises that a personal ask is more powerful than an impersonal advert.

How can we get more of our volunteers to talk to people they know about volunteering with us? Here are two simple tips to get started:

  • Ask your volunteers to ask their friends and family if they consider volunteering. You’d be surprised how few organisations actually do this.
  • Help volunteers to ask others. For example, tell them what your current recruitment needs are, give them some information about that, and perhaps create a hashtag they can use on social media when talking about volunteering.

Be passionate about your purpose

According to Iris, the brands who top theThe Participation Brand Index are those that have a passionate purpose at their heart. That may be hard for some corporates to find but it shouldn’t be an issue for non-profits who, by their very nature, are driven by a passionate purpose.

Yet so many volunteer recruitment messages don’t really address they purpose. They talk in a dry way about what the organisation wants people to do, but not why.

Review your recruitment messages. Do they sell the cause before they sell the organisation or role? Do they inspire people to action by showing how they can change the world with you?

Measure return on involvement

I love the phrase Iris use, “The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).”But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most helpful definition I found online was from this article:

”Return on investment to me is something lucrative that you put into a company with the purpose of getting more value back, than the money you put in.”

”Return on involvement is some engagement that you put into a company and you get more value back, because you engaged in the company.”

In volunteering we’ve traditionally tried to measure the return on investment for volunteering in a purely financial sense. Whilst this can be helpful when arguing for more financial resources to support volunteer engagement, speaking about volunteers in financial terms can cause problems.

With return on involvement we could start to look at how building relationships with volunteers brings a return for us in ways that benefit our organisation. For example, if we invest time in our volunteers, do they have a better experience and so are more predisposed to talking to others about our organisation, making recruitment easier and cheaper?

Return on involvement is a new concept to me and one I want to look into further so I can develop my thinking on this. I’d love to hear your ideas and any suggestions you might have for how it could apply to our work as leaders of volunteers.


Over to you. What do you think about participation branding and how it might apply to volunteering. Share your thoughts below.

A national gathering with an important purpose

A national gathering with an important purpose

In July this year leaders of volunteers from across North America will gather in Minnesota for a significant event.

The National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be the first time in almost a decade that volunteer mobilisation and support will be the total focus of a major conference in the USA. As in the UK, many conferences address general non-profit issues, with volunteering just one of several tracks. At this Summit, leaders of volunteer engagement will be front and centre.

Plenaries and small group discussions will allow participants to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect our profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers we engage.

Over one hundred workshops are on offer throughout the Summit, presented by leaders and practitioners in the field. In addition, it’s the first time in years that many of the thought-leaders, authors, and trainers in our field will all be together in one place. From established personalities like Susan J Ellis, Greg Baldwin, Betty Stallings, Tony Goodrow and Sarah-Jane Rehnborg to newer leaders like Liza Dyer, Jerome Tennille, Betsy McFarland, Elisa Kosarin, Meridian Swift and Tobi Johnson, the Summit is going to be an inspiring and educational event.

I am super excited to be attending the Summit. I’ll be taking part in a pre-event affinity group for writers and bloggers, as well as delivering three of my favourite sessions during the main programme:

  • Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers, Wednesday, July 26: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
  • The Philosophy of Volunteering, Thursday, July 27: 2:15 pm – 3:45 pm
  • Customer Service and Volunteering, Friday, July 28: 8:30 am – 10:00 am

Plans are also afoot for a fringe session over breakfast on the Thursday – watch this space!

As I don’t fly back to the UK until the day after the Summit finishes, I will be joining others who want to stay after the closing session as we continue to meet so that the Summit truly moves our field forward. More details on this after-Summit event will be announced so if your travel schedule permits, please consider joining in.

If you’re going to be at the Summit I’d love to hear from you. Maybe leave a comment below or just come and say ‘hi’ when we are in Minnesota in July.


The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will take place in Minnesota, USA between 26 & 28 July. To register please visit the Summit website.

If you are unable to attend then you can join in via Facebook, Twitter and the official hashtags, #2017nationalsummit, #mappingthefuture, #VolMgmt

The Lords report on charities: what’s good, what’s bad and what’s missing when it comes to volunteering?

Last weekend the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities published their report, “Stronger charities for a stronger society” (NB. link opens a PDF). It’s a long read but thankfully the section focusing on volunteering runs to just a few pages (pp 62-68). NCVO have also helpfully summarised all the Lords’ recommendations in a document available online.

In this article, I want to share my initial thoughts on what the report says about volunteering. I’m not going to focus on the five associated recommendations which I broadly agree with. Rather, I want to highlight some of what I found to be good and bad in the report as well as note a few things that seem to be missing.

The good

Two really positive things struck me in the report.

First, paragraph 300, in which Karl Wilding of NCVO says:

“All the evidence from the volunteer managers we work with tells us that volunteers do not want to replace paid staff in the sense that they do not want to put people out of jobs, but they absolutely recognise that they can contribute something to a service over and above what the paid staff delivering that service do.”

As I have written elsewhere recently, we need to take a more intelligent and measured look at the issues labelled under the broad heading of ‘job substitution’. To have Karl, the volunteering lead at NCVO, take a similar line is very welcome. It shows strong leadership by NCVO on a difficult issue.

Second, I am heartened that the Lords heard evidence suggesting there is a need for a fresh vision and drive behind volunteering (paragraph 303). They quote Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA and chair of the Modern Employment Review set up by the Government:

“How we think about a society where being a volunteer has the same status as being an employee, and it is an important part of how people feel they are fulfilled, develop and grow in their lives, is a big opportunity. We still kind of think that the big thing in your life is your work, and you then might do a bit of volunteering on the side. It may be that in 30 years it is reversed.”

To know that some thoughtful and intelligent input into the future direction of volunteering has been considered is encouraging, even if the resulting recommendations are largely more immediate and practical in nature.

The bad

As I read the report’s volunteering section I began to sigh at the limited view of volunteering expressed by some of the charities who gave evidence to the Select Committee. Take paragraph 298 for example:

”Visionary argued that that an over-reliance on volunteers risked hindering the growth of a charity. Age UK Runnymede and Spelthorne noted that charities using volunteers to deliver services were at risk, as volunteers could not be compelled to work.”

First, why must volunteers limit the growth of a charity? The vast majority of charities are completely reliant on volunteers and continue to exist and grown quite well without paid staff. Many well established and large charities rely on a mainly volunteer workforce (for example, Samaritans and the National Trust), with paid staff in the minority. Almost every charity grew from an entirely volunteer run organisation.

Second, charities do not use volunteers. Volunteers are people. We do not use people. We use things.

Third, why must services be at risk if delivered through volunteers? Samaritans services are delivered through volunteers. Lifeboat crews are volunteers. Magistrates are volunteers. St John Ambulance provides first aid through volunteers. They all seem to manage OK. Why can’t other services?

Until these patronising and limiting views of volunteers are banished, we will forever limit the potential of volunteering to play it’s full role in transforming society for the better.

The missing

Three things struck me as missing from the report.

First, I saw no meaningful consideration of the potential of older people as volunteers. The report, like so much of volunteering, focuses on young people. This youth obsession risks blinding us to the opportunities and challenges of engaging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as volunteers.

Second, I can find no mention of the importance of local volunteering infrastructure. As I have outlined in another article, local Volunteer Centres are essential for supporting and nurturing effective volunteer involvement. I don’t expect the Lords to lobby for a return to the days when Volunteer Centres were better funded than now, but it would have been good to see their role and importance acknowledged.

Third, there seems to be no acknowledgement of volunteering as a strategic priority for the sector. Writing for Third Sector, the chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Pitkeathly said of the challenges charities face:

“Grant programmes are being reduced or eliminated, and contracts are increasingly prescriptive and short-term, stifling charities’ ability to innovate, cover costs and plan for the future.”

Whilst access to funding is rightly identified as part of the problem, where is the mention of volunteering in this strategic context? One of the unique aspects of charities is their ability to innovate, to experiment and to find new solutions through engaging volunteers. This ability to draw in talent and extend the limited budget in creative ways is a key distinctive between the voluntary sector and the public and private sector. It is how almost all charities started – volunteer effort, trying something new and finding creative solutions. To not acknowledge or encourage this aspect of volunteering is a significant weakness in any work that claims to understand and support the sector.

A final thought

I said earlier that I wasn’t going to look at the report’s recommendations. Sorry, I lied. I want to single out just one, recommendation 28 at paragraph 311:

”Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base. We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”

Whilst on one level is totally agree with this I do have a worry. It’s the same worry I get whenever I see anything that places an emphasis on external funding for volunteer engagement – why do so many organisations seek external funding for volunteer involvement rather than pay for it themselves? I know resources are tight but organisations could choose to prioritise funding for volunteer involvement rather than leave this to the vagaries of external funders. Failing to do so indicates just how little importance those organisation place on their volunteers.

Over to you

Those are my thoughts on the good, the bad and the missing from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, at least as it relates to volunteering. Now it’s over to you. What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.