Knowing the Journey

FeaturedKnowing the Journey

We have a guest author on the blog this week, Ann Hall, who is Head of Volunteering at Humankind. Ann and I connected on social media earlier this year in a brief discussion about putting people before processes in volunteer engagement. I immediately asked Ann to write for the blog and, thankfully, she said yes, so read on to learn from her approach.

We’ve always sent our volunteers an exit questionnaire when they leave, we all do it. We then learn from this when reviewing our volunteering offer for others. That’s great for new volunteers who join after the leaver has left, but it doesn’t help the ones that have already walked out of the door.

At Humankind, we decided we wanted to do something about that. So, we created a New Starter Questionnaire for volunteers to complete when they join us. The form is sent to volunteers during their first week with us, along with a ‘Welcome to Humankind’ card. It is designed to help us find out how people found out about us (so we know which of our marketing techniques are working), why they came to us specifically and what they want to get out of volunteering (we then compare this with the leaver data to establish if people’s end goal was met).

We ask:

  • How did you find out about us?
  • What attracted you to us?
  • What do you hope to gain by volunteering with us?

“Don’t you ask that at interviews?” I hear you say.

Yes, we do. But the interviewer doesn’t necessarily share that information with any-one else, why would they? The interviewer is generally going to be that volunteer’s supervisor if they join us, so they don’t share responses to interview questions any further.

Most volunteers say they come to us because they, or someone they know, has had previous contact with our organisation. That means we must have a good reputation, so we are off to a great start.

We’ve found out through the questionnaire that volunteers choose us, over other organisations because they like what we are about. They can connect with what we are trying to achieve, and they want to be a part of that and help others. One volunteer said they were attracted to our, “Actions towards social inclusion and helping individuals and families see better opportunities for themselves”.

We also get a straight to the point answer to what they ultimately would like to gain. The majority say employment, but also to “just help”, to “do something worthwhile” and to “feel valued”.

Here we have a theme, a trend, people see volunteering as a route to employment. So, we nurture that, and we build foundations to support volunteers to achieve that goal, and our efforts are working.

Since April 1st 2022, 43% of volunteers that have left, have done so due to gaining employment, and 76% of those people gained employment with Humankind.

Knowing people’s end goal at the beginning, and not waiting until they’ve left to find out their end goal wasn’t met, works well for us and our volunteers.

We can then work together and have open and honest conversations from day one.

You can find out more about HumanKind on their website, where you will also find details of how you can work for them.

Ann Hall is the Head of Volunteering at Humankind. Ann went to Leeds Metropolitan University aged 18 to study Law. During her first year, she started temping as an Administrator in a Needle Exchange. This job changed Ann’s career path, and she now has twenty years’ experience of working in the Charity Sector in both front line and management roles. In 2009, Ann joined Humankind and has been working on their Volunteer Programme for the past ten years. The Volunteer Programme has held Investing in Volunteers since 2015 along with five Volunteer Quality Marks.

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The Big Help Out: I have some questions

The Big Help Out: I have some questions

As you are probably aware, Monday 8th May will be an extra bank holiday across the UK to mark King Charles III’s coronation. The date will also see the key focal point take place of The Big Help Out, a six-month so-called festival of volunteering.

Details of the Big Help Out so far are still a bit thin on the ground, which means I have some questions.

Is it wise to politicise volunteering like this?

Volunteering is a political activity. People vote for causes they care for by giving their time as volunteers. Political parties and labour unions run on volunteer effort. Women in the UK have the vote because of the ‘volunteer’ efforts of suffragettes over a century ago. As Susan Ellis used to say, “Nobody gets paid to start a revolution”.

For me, there is a difference between volunteering as a political act and politicising volunteering. By aligning a ‘festival of volunteering’ so closely with the King’s coronation, does that risk potentially (and unhelpfully) politicising the act of giving time? For example, I can image a sizeable portion of the population of Northern Ireland being less than thrilled with celebrating the King’s coronation through volunteering given the Crown’s history across the Irish Sea, and that’s before we consider those with republican leanings throughout the rest of the home nations.

Might this do some damage to the concept of volunteering rather than encouraging more of it?

Are we happy for decisions to be made that risk volunteering being politicised in this way without the majority of the volunteering industry (for want of a better phrase) having any say in the matter?

Of course, anyone who dislikes the idea can simply not take part in The Big Help Out. But I doubt the point of the campaign is to highlight that volunteering is as much about the choice not to do something as it is the choice to do something.

Do people want to volunteer on a bank holiday?

I have been around the volunteering movement for almost thirty years. I’ve seen the debates come and go about creating an additional public holiday for volunteering and community action, something that is common in the USA (think MLK day, 9/11 day etc.).

Both Labour and Conservative governments of the last thirty years have previously dismissed the idea of a new bank holiday, citing the negative economic impact of giving everyone an extra day off. Many in the sector have been sceptical, arguing that the public would probably just take the day to relax and do anything except volunteer.

Which leaves me wondering — will people use 8th May to actually volunteer? An extra day off in a month when the weather is generally good. An extra day off in what will, for many, become a three-day run of parties and celebrations.

I’m not so sure. Call me cynical, but I can’t help but feel that recovery from earlier excesses that weekend, BBQs and relaxing in the (hopefully) sunny weather might feature far more highly on many people’s agenda than volunteering, especially when everyone is working so hard, and is so worn out by the cost-of-living challenges we all face.

Do Volunteer Managers and sector staff want to work on the extra bank holiday?

Assuming people do want to volunteer on the bank holiday, did anyone planning The Big Help Out ask volunteer managers if they intend to give up their extra day off to steward the new volunteers who will hopefully come forward?

Did anyone ask the employees of charities across the UK to give up their day off to support this because Volunteer Managers will not be able to do it alone, especially if plenty of people get involved?

What happens if the interest is there from the public, but the staff capacity isn’t available to make the volunteering actually happen? Has this even been considered?

Which brings me to my next question…

How informed by Volunteer Engagement Professionals are the plans?

The list of charities taking part is impressive. There are certainly many big hitters among them, the names many of us would immediately think of when asked to name a charity.

Those same charities have some great Volunteer Engagement Professionals working for them. I know many of them. Which is why I wonder how involved they’ve been in the early stages of developing the Big Help Out concept.

All of those Volunteer Engagement Professionals know that the only thing worse than not having enough volunteers respond to a recruitment campaign is having too many people respond and not being able to give them something to do. Potential volunteers do not want their time to be wasted.

We saw this with the NHS Volunteer Responders, where hundreds of thousands of people were left twiddling their thumbs when they’d been told they were urgently needed in their communities. Sadly, we didn’t learn the lessons then, lessons that would have helped in planning for The Big Help Out.

Instead, The Big Help Out feels like a solution from people who think they know about volunteer engagement, but don’t really. I can imagine the thinking: ‘We don’t have enough volunteers? Let’s have a big, high-profile campaign to recruit people.’ That’s a much easier concept to grasp and implement than the root and branch organisation change, and investment in effective volunteer engagement that might actually be needed.

I commend the Volunteer Engagement Professionals at the participating organisations for doing all they can to make the day work. But I can’t help but think we’d have got a better initiative than The Big Help Out if these colleagues had been involved in the planning much, much earlier.

Is this just about big charities?

As I said, there are over thirty big charities who have supported The Big Help Out since it was announced in January. Which prompted many people to ask if there was anything in the initiative for smaller volunteer-involving organisations and local Volunteer Centres to benefit from.

I think the mood music from The Big Help Out has changed since the initial announcement, with the role of smaller, community-based organisation starting to percolate through. They’ve even made the point that the system they will use to manage the opportunities is Do-It, perhaps because this is at the software that powered the brokerage efforts of many English Volunteer Centres in the past.

What the Big Help Out organisers seem to have missed is that many English Volunteer Centres ditched Do-It years ago and use completely unrelated systems now. Furthermore, many Volunteer-Involving Organisations and Volunteer Centres in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland don’t use Do-It either — some never have — because they have their own systems in the there home nations.

Which makes me wonder if the creators of The Big hello Out grasp the reality of working with smaller, local groups any more than they seem to grasp the idea of working across four nations, who all organise volunteering differently. If they’re using a database many organisations don’t use, and running the initiative so close to the well-established campaign of Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June) — which many organisations and Volunteer Managers will be busy preparing for — I’m not certain how much bandwidth will be left for The Big Help Out.

Whilst I am sure the intention is good, I think this will end up being all about the big charities benefiting, and a missed opportunity to shout about the need for better investment in local volunteering activity and infrastructure in England, and the distinctiveness of volunteering in the other three home nations.

Could we have done something different?


I had a conversation last week with Ruth Leonard, chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers. Ruth made an excellent point, as she always does.

During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many communities self-organised through informal volunteering, mutual aid groups and the like, to deal with the challenges the lockdowns presented.

As an alternative to the Big Help Out, we could have used the street parties that local communities will inevitably be holding (as they are a mainstay of Coronation and Jubilee events) to celebrate the informal, community volunteering of the last three years, and support and encourage more of it in future.

As the Vision for Volunteering in England points out, volunteering is an inherently local activity. Wouldn’t it be great if plans for a Coronation celebration of volunteering had recognised that fact, and be designed to showcase the efforts of local volunteers during the difficult years we’ve had across the four home nations?

Ruth’s idea is a good one, but I guess it doesn’t allow much room for big charities — some of who pulled up the volunteering drawbridge when Covid-19 hit — to have much of a place in the celebrations.

All of which brings me to my final question…

Who will benefit?

I hope plenty of people will.

I hope many people volunteer and have a fantastic time doing so. I hope they continue to volunteer into the future.

I hope many Volunteer Managers see eased pressure on their workloads as an influx of volunteers helps to ease the demands they face to recruit.

I hope communities benefit from new energy and enthusiasm from a diverse group of new volunteers.

I hope Volunteer Centres get some love and attention, resulting in a more in-depth understanding of what they do and better funding to do it.

I hope we all benefit from the Big Help Out in a way we didn’t from the International Year of Volunteers, The UK Year of Volunteers, The Millions Hours campaign (and previous BBC and media efforts to stimulate volunteering), three Commonwealth Games this century and an Olympic and Paralympic Games, none of which left any volunteering legacy.

My optimistic side really, really hopes this time is different.

My cynical side says it won’t be.

My cynical side says there may be a fleeting moment in the spotlight that will boost the profile, plaudits, and honours of some, whilst volunteering at large will be left where it was before The Big Help Out happened. The 8th of May 2023 will fade into the past, with volunteers, Volunteer Engagement Professionals and Volunteer Centres facing the same challenges and lack of understanding from the public, government, and some senior sector leaders.

My cynical side says a lot of effort will be (is being) diverted into the Big Help Out, with the very real possibility that all that effort will result in little benefit, at a time when we could be putting our energy into things that might really move the needle on volunteering. Whose tune exactly are we dancing to, why, and is it the tune we want and need to hear?

I hope I am proved wrong.

I really, really do.

I’d love to know your views on these questions, and whether you have questions of your own.

Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

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Recruitment and retention aren’t the answer

Recruitment and retention aren’t the answer

We all know that the Covid-19 lockdowns and the current cost-of-living crisis have affected volunteering rates. I’ve written about it on this blog, and the sector press has shared reports of volunteer shortages, like this one from last year and this from just last month.

The solution to these woes is often suggested to be the two Rs: recruitment and retention. Personally, I do not believe that this focus on the two Rs is the solution, at least in a traditional sense.

Why? Well, my view is that if we pursue recruitment and retention as it is typically understood in the sector, we would be putting our effort into actions like this:


  • Work harder (not smarter) at what we’ve done before: do more of the same, but with more intensity and frequency.
  • Craft new recruitment messages to try to grab people’s attention and stand out from the pack.
  • Find ways to seek to more people, for example: through large-scale recruitment campaigns; attending recruitment fairs; finding new sites for posters; signing up with different recruitment websites etc.


”We never have enough volunteers. Because they are always scarce, we tend to take on (and keep) volunteers even if they are problematic or not a perfect fit.”

  • Find ways to keep people for longer, even if they aren’t that keen to do so, perhaps starting to formally recognise length of service, or providing other incentives to stay.
  • Guilt trip people into staying. For example, ‘if you leave then we won’t be able to keep helping people in the same way, so please stay for a bit longer’. Be honest — we’ve all done it at some point!

The problem is, none of these approaches will work in a context where attitudes to volunteering have shifted. As many people have said for several years (including pre-pandemic), people today want more flexible volunteering that fits around their availabilities & interests, that connects them to a larger sense of purpose, and that really makes an impact. If you want the evidence, look no further than NCVO’s excellent Time Well Spent report, which lays all this out in detail thanks to a survey of some 10,000 people.

(NB. The Time Well Spent report was published in 2019, but a new version is coming in May 2023!).

Similarly, people want to volunteer on their terms and perhaps do things that may well not match your organisation’s traditional understanding of volunteering. No more making cups of tea and stuffing envelopes, instead we may see a growth in activism, campaigning for social justice or action to tackle the climate crisis. All volunteering, even if society rarely labels it as such.

All of this change means that, as I am fond of saying, doing what we’ve always done (or doing more of it) won’t get what we always got.

The world has changed, and so must we. Trying harder to recruit and retain volunteers just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyone reading this who is a Volunteer Engagement Professional will probably know this. They’ll be all too aware of the need to change and adapt if they want to find and keep good volunteers who will positively impact the cause and mission of their organisation.

Maybe the rest of this article needs to be read by others in the organisation? The board. The CEO. The Finance Director. The management team. Your colleagues who look to you, the Volunteer Manager, to find them volunteers.

Because if the roles we want volunteers to do aren’t flexible and impactful enough, then however well-crafted and fancy looking our recruitment campaign is, we will struggle to engage new volunteers.

Because, in a cost-of-living crisis, if we don’t make available the funds to reimburse volunteer expenses, then people won’t volunteer because they simply can’t afford to be out-of-pocket to subside our work.

Because, if we are not prepared and set-up to be flexible, to let volunteers take a break, to switch roles, to walk away, then our retention efforts will stall and likely fail. All those beautifully designed length-of-service certificates will be wasted. We keep volunteers by being open to letting them go, not hanging onto them for dear life.

Because, if we think now might be a good time to scale back funding and support for volunteer engagement because the Volunteer Manager post doesn’t bring in any income and budgets are tight and getting tighter, then we are only going to make the volunteer recruitment and retention problems worse.

For our organisations to succeed at volunteer engagement post-lockdown, we need systemic change.

Volunteer engagement can’t be left to just one overworked Volunteer Manager any more.

Volunteer engagement can’t be the first thing to get cut when money gets tight.

Volunteer engagement requires proper resourcing, proper support and needs to be elevated to a genuine strategic priority, not just something senior leaders talk nicely about in Volunteers’ Week and then neglect for the rest of the year.

Yes, we all face challenges in 2023, some more than others. Yet in time of adversity we see creativity and innovation bloom.

With the right support, the potential of volunteering in our current context is huge.

Change is needed if we are to realise that potential.

Change that we, as Volunteer Engagement Professionals, have to drive. Because if we don’t, it’s likely nobody else will. We have to become more influential, more persuasive, more tenacious in our efforts to shape the wider context for volunteering in our organisation.

There are no shortcuts or quick fixes, but the rewards have the potential to be huge.

Are we up for the challenge?

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Volunteers, cuts, and strikes: free resources for you

Volunteers, cuts, and strikes: free resources for you

Everyone knows 2023 will be tough financially. This means a growing possibility that volunteers will be called on as a way to save money, or help deliver services during strikes. Thankfully, I have some free resources to help you, fellow Volunteer Engagement Professionals, to navigate these difficult waters.

I’ve been writing on the subject of job displacement and job replacement (often simply, but unhelpfully, called job substitution) for well over a decade.

In 2011 Lynn Blackadder and I wrote an article for The Guardian entitled, “Dispelling the myths around job substitution by volunteers”, where we talk about why job substation is an unhelpful term and dispel some myths about the issues involved.

A year later I wrote an article, “Why we need to think differently about job substitution” which critiqued the then new Volunteering England ‘Guide to avoiding job substitution”. In it, I noted that:

“This whole issue is a thorny, complex and emotive one. It is an issue that mainly affects voluntary and public sector organisations, and it isn’t a new one. Sadly, it is also an issue that many in the sector, including volunteer managers, shy away from. Because of its emotive, complex and challenging nature, job substitution is often a topic that, if given any time at conferences and the like, provokes such strong views that few want to face the conflict it raises.”

Sadly, I think we, more often than not, still shy away from these issues. That puts others in the driving seat when decisions are made. So, it’s important, in the challenging times we now face, that we get on the front foot and proactively engage in relevant debates.

If we want that mythical seat at the table, we need to take it, not wait for it to be offered.

What, then, are some more contemporary resources around these issues?

When Covid-19 arrived and the world shifted, there was anxiety from many that fundraising would cease, budgets would shrink, Volunteer Managers would be let go, and volunteers asked to do more. In that context, I wrote some articles (and published one classic resource) that, I think, are still instructive for Volunteer Engagement Professionals in 2023. They are:

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers (this is the classic resource)

How Covid-19 may change our views on job substitution forever

Four mistakes Unions sometimes make about volunteering

These were then collated into a free PDF eBook called “Cuts and Change” which is still available from the homepage of my website or via direct download here.

None of these resources will give you easy answers or quick fixes. But they will help you critically assess the issues as they affect your organisation and your work with volunteers.

I especially commend to you the “When The Axe Falls” article which was written in 2009 by the late, great Susan J Ellis. It gives solid, practical advice on how organisations that are laying off staff can ethically engage volunteers to ensure services don’t suffer. You may not agree with everything in it, but it will get you thinking.

Finally, and with thanks to my former boss at Volunteering England, Justin Davis Smith, I have unearthed a copy of the Drain Guidelines.

These were reissued in 1990 following their original publication in 1975. They are guidelines for relations between paid staff and volunteers in health and social care settings but, crucially, set out key principles for volunteers during strike action. To my knowledge, these principles haven’t been updated in over thirty years and still stand as the best advice we have on the role of volunteers in organisations where paid staff are taking strike action. To that end, I hope they are of help.

(NB. Obviously, labour laws vary from country to country, so non-UK readers are urged to check your own context, regulations and legislation as well.)

I hope all of these free resources are useful to you, whether you are seeing them for the first time or have read them before.

If you have other resources in a similar vein that you think readers would benefit from seeing, please share them in the comments below.

And if you want to discuss the circumstances you are facing, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Here comes 2023: three reflections on the year ahead

Here comes 2023: three reflections on the year ahead

As 2023 gets underway, it is perhaps wise to take a moment to reflect on what the year ahead might have in store for Volunteer Engagement Professionals.

Here are three refections from me.

1/ In-person becomes ever more common

Living our working lives online has become the norm over the last three years. And this approach has much to commend to it. It means less travel — so it’s better for the environment — it gives people more access to a wider range of events, and helps overcome some barriers to inclusion, to name just a few benefits.

My prediction is that in 2023 we will really start to see a return to in-person volunteering (not least because people want somewhere warm to volunteer where they don’t have to pay the bills!) and in-person events, trainings and conferences, alongside the continuation of some things happening online. A better balance will, I think, be found.

“Volunteers were likely to appreciate digital interaction under lockdowns. Outside of lockdowns, the sense of connection is hard to achieve online.” — Time Well Spent: Impact of Covid-19 on the volunteer experience, NCVO 2022

Last year, only the AVSM conference was held online. All the other large, national volunteer management conferences took place online. This year, the Volunteer Management Conference is happening in-person in London on 31st January, and I expect others will follow.

Of course, some things will stay online. I hope this will happen because online is the best way to do these things, not because it’s just how we’ve done things since 2020 and so become the default norm.

And, for a similar reason, I think in-person will grow in 2023: because after three years of staying at home, being back with others in the same physical space is sometimes the best way for us all to get what we need as we advance into the opportunities and challenges of the months ahead.

2/ The cost of living continues to bite

We all know that the cost of living crisis isn’t going away soon. We’re all feeling its effects. That includes volunteers, and I continue to hear of organisations facing a range of issues as volunteers change behaviours to simply survive the winter.

In such times of hardship there exist the conditions for innovation, for creative new approaches to spring up, for change to happen.

I’m excited to see how Volunteer Engagement Professionals, Volunteer Involving Organisations and communities find new ways to do things in these challenging times.

Nobody wants the cost-of-living crisis to last any longer, but here we are. How we respond will say much about us as a volunteering movement and could lay the foundation for a brighter future ahead.

3/ Visions, actions and strategies

Which brings me to my third point. In 2022, we saw the launch of England’s Vision for Volunteering and Scotland’s Volunteering Action plan. We also so work get underway for a new National Volunteering Strategy in Australia, to be launched this year.

All these initiatives are pointing to a better future for volunteering, one where it is recognised, valued and supported as vital to healthy and successful communities.

In 2023, we all need to seize the moment of opportunity these plans, visions, and strategies provide. We need to find the time and energy to lift our heads from the day-to-day of our roles and find a way to contribute to the better future being envisioned.

We cannot wait for someone else to make the first move or seize the initiative. The future is in our hands. So, we must ask ourselves, what role can we play as individuals Volunteer Engagement Professionals and as a collective volunteering movement?

I want to conclude this article with a short post I shared on social media before Christmas 2022. Whether you read it at the time or not, I think it sets out a positive visions of our role as Volunteer Engagement Professionals that you may find helpful to reflect on as we face the opportunities and challenges of the year ahead.

Stewards of hope

That’s what we are as Volunteer Engagement Professionals — stewards of hope.

It’s easy to focus on the day-to-day of our work. Systems, processes, forms, meeting, frustrations, budgets. All are important. All help us get things done.

But we do so much more. We are so much more.

We are stewards of hope.

We help people to channel their hope for a better world into tangible action, volunteering to bring that future closer to reality.

We are stewards of hope.

We help people to take actions that give others hope. Those who see hope in the acts of kindness towards others. Those who, through the support of a volunteer, perhaps see a glimmer of hope in their personal world.

We are stewards of hope.

We help channel people’s hope to rebel, speak up, campaign, disrupt and (yes, sometimes) fight against oppression, discrimination, prejudice, and hatred.

We are stewards of hope.

Without us, the world would be a darker, less inspiring place. A world that would be harder to face every day.

We are stewards of hope.

So, when what you do gets you down, take a pause and remember the position we have.

We are stewards of hope.

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Four highlights from 2022

Four highlights from 2022

Another lap of the sun is almost complete. In many ways, 2022 has been a challenging year for all of us, so I want to focus on some positives from 2022 in this brief end of year review.

Here are four professional highlights for me.

A return to in-person

Back in January, I attended my first in-person event since 12 March 2020. The “Future of Charities” conference only had about forty people attend, but we all had a great day learning, debating and building connections in a way that I still think is superior to Zoom.

Since January, I’ve attended several in-person events, meetings, and trainings. This includes two large, multi-day, national conferences as well as smaller events across the country. For someone who thrives on engaging with people, this has really energised me and provided a nice counter-point to participating from home in the events that have stayed online.

Which begs the questions:

Should everything go back to in-person in 2023?


Should everything stay online in 2023?


For me, the key is to intentionally choose in-person or online for their specific benefits, not just because we did things differently online in the exceptional circumstances of 2020 and 2021 and don’t want to change.

A brief word about hybrid events too. Simply letting a couple of people join an in-person gathering online doesn’t cut it. Hybrid events need careful planning and thoughtful consideration to make them work effectively. Having been involved in exceptional hybrid events in the past, I hope we see more of them working well next year.

Whether in-person, online or hybrid, I’m excited to see what 2023 will bring to the world of conferences, events, training and consulting.

A big step forward for the Heritage Volunteering Group

The main outlet for my personal volunteering is with the Heritage Volunteering Group(HVG). I’ve been involved for a few years now, and they are a great group of people to work with, doing excellent work to connect Volunteer Engagement Professionals working in the heritage sector.

This year, HVG took a step forward in its evolution to become a constituted group, and I was appointed to the Executive in a non-portfolio role. It has been exciting and challenging to get to grips with the changes this has brought, all of which will help the group strengthen the work we do for Volunteer Managers working in heritage.

Whether it’s been reviewing constitutions, planning AGMs, engaging with members, speaking at events, supporting the organisation of conference, or just the day-to-day engagement with some fantastic people, I have loved my volunteering for HVG and look forward to what 2023 has in store of us.

Visions, action plans and strategies

In the last few months we have seen the launch of England’s Vision for Volunteering, Scotland’s Volunteering Action plan, and some great work from Volunteering Australia as they develop their new National Volunteering Strategy.

With many organisations and Volunteer Engagement Professionals struggling with the perfect storm of post-Covid recovery and a cost-of-living crisis, it’s great to see these initiatives setting out a positive and transformative future for volunteering in our communities.

These initiatives not only inspire us all to build a getter future, but also challenge us to change, to transform our practice to meet the needs of those who volunteer or want to volunteer. As Jayne Cravens has recently argued, we can’t simply blame Covid-19 for all our ills — we have to act to adapt to succeed.

I’m excited to see how these and other such initiatives develop into next year, and how we will all embrace the change we need to make if we want people to change the world for good.

Working together

As I said this time last year, one of the joys of the last couple of years has been working with fellow consultants.

Thanks to some lockdown networking in 2020, a small group of us have found opportunities to collaborate on several projects over the last couple of years. This adds fresh ideas to the work we all do and gives our clients fanatic value for money, drawing together a broader mix of skills in areas like consulting, training, research, coaching, and facilitation.

So, a huge thank you to the consulting colleagues I’ve worked with in 2023. I’ve loved working with you and hope we can do more projects together in 2023.

Those are four of my highlights from 2022.

What are yours?

Leave a comment below to share the positivity.

Please note that because of the fortnightly publication schedule for this blog, and when I am taking time off over Christmas and New Year, the next article will be published on 20th January 2023.

Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?

Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?

What makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had consistent answers from people. This includes the answers from those familiar with professional credentialing programmes, such as the Certificate in Volunteer Administration (CVA) or the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) we used to have in England.

But it’s a question we should be able to answer, right? We should be able to articulate what makes us good at what we do, especially if we want to influence others around volunteering and the importance of good volunteer management?

I was, therefore, pleased to recently discover this article from the UK’s Canal and River Trust which set out “Seven qualities of a great volunteer manager”. There is little to disagree with in the article, but that also means there is little to distinguish a Volunteer Engagement Professional from any other role.

Which begs a further question: Is what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement the same as what makes someone a good leader of paid staff, or of anything else?

In trying to answer that, I turned to the Volunteer Management Progress Report(VMPR), a piece of research specifically looking at Volunteer Engagement Professionals, which is conducted annually by Tobi Johnson. The VMPR has been running for seven years now and is perhaps the best source of up-to-date data on the profession.

The 2021 VMPR was the last one to contain comprehensive information on the characteristics of respondent volunteer mangers. Assuming those who respond to the survey are typical of the field, we can determine that good leaders of volunteer engagement are:

  • White (83.8% of respondents)
  • Female (88.1% of respondents)
  • Aged between 45 and 65 years old (mean and median average of respondents)
  • Work full time (80% of respondents)
  • Paid (93% of respondents)
  • Have more than ten years of experience in the field (56% of respondents)

Readers will hopefully realise that I am being facetious by suggesting these characteristics are what makes someone a good volunteer manager. There is, however, no getting away from the fact that they describe the typical Volunteer Engagement Professional. As Tobi put it in her analysis of the 2021 VMPR data (using her native USA for context):

“Research show that 66% of US nonprofit employees are women. While people of color are roughly 40% of the population, 32% of nonprofit employees are people of color, which is double the number of those who work in volunteerism (16%).

“Volunteering data in the US shows that volunteers also look like those who engage them – White (26.4% versus 19.3% of Blacks, 17.9% of Asians, and 5.5% of Latinos/as), educated (65.3% with at least some college education), and women (27.8% versus 21.8% men).”

“Our big questions continue to be – Does a lack of diversity affect who becomes a volunteer? Does this impact which volunteers discover opportunities, and which volunteers invite their friends, thus reinforcing a cycle of sameness?”

Let’s pause for a moment, then.

Does any of this bring us any closer to answering the question, what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Not definitely, no. But that’s why I titled this article,“Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?” In almost thirty years, I’ve struggled with this question. So have others. And if you’ve ever though about the question, perhaps you can see why.

My aim in writing this article is to challenge all of us to find some sort of coherent and consistent answer. To that end, I want to propose some questions to engage what Hercule Poirot would have called the little grey cells:

  • What exactly do we mean by good in the context of leading volunteer engagement?
    • Is it truly about leadership (doing the right things) or management (doing things well)?
    • Put another way, is it about our ability to engage with people, or manage systems and processes, or both and, if both, what is the correct balance?
    • Do our professional credentials (CVA etc.) adequately reflect this?
    • Does our learning and development activity, sector conferences and events etc. adequately reflect this?
    • Is it about something else altogether?
    • If so, what?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement context specific? In other words, is ‘good’ in sports volunteering different from ‘good’ in health and social care volunteering, or ‘good’ in fundraising?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement different for formal volunteering compared to, say, informal volunteering, community engagement, movement building, mutual aid etc.?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about serving and reflecting an existing audience of volunteers, or about actively implementing change to address inclusion, diversity, equality, and access issues?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement related to being different from the typical profile of our profession? If it is, then why? Is that because we can be more relevant and engaging to a wider range of potential volunteers?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about delivering or innovating? Or both? And what is the correct balance if it is both?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about being steeped in the traditions and knowledge of our field (as laid out in the tried and trusted texts of the profession)? Or is it about being inductive learners, embracing and adapting the practices of others and applying them to our work (e.g. learning from the experts in marketing and customer service to enhance volunteer recruitment)?

What do you think?

What are your reflections on these questions?

What other questions would you ask to help answer this challenging question?

If you had to say it in one sentence, what do you think makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation going.

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Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Earlier this year, Catherine Wearden at Agenda Consulting wrote an interesting piece on their website entitled, “What are the differences between how employees and volunteers feel about your organisation?”. Great question!

In this article, I want to reflect on Agenda’s findings and what they might be telling us about volunteer engagement and Volunteer Involving Organisations.

So, before you go any further, I highly recommend reading Catherine’s Agenda Consulting piece here.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on whistleblowing

Catherine highlights that employees are 26% more positive than volunteers when asked if they know how to report poor practice.

I agree with her that this is worrying. Volunteers should know how to report issues, to whom, and they should feel supported in this.

Volunteers can sometimes be more objective than paid staff, and perhaps feel more free to raise concerns, not least because they may not be putting their main source of income at risk by raising an issue as a volunteer.

If volunteers aren’t able to raise concerns, organisations may be missing out on valuable learning opportunities, as well as key information to support effective safeguarding.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager action on poor performance

It doesn’t surprise me that employees feel more confident than volunteers that managers take prompt action if people’s performance falls below acceptable standards.

If an employee is performing or behaving poorly, we know something needs to be done. Nobody like doing it, but action will inevitably be taken.

Whilst most Volunteer Engagement Professionals would be clear that they need to act if volunteers are behaving or performing poorly, it is often other paid staff (or volunteers) who do the day-to-day management of volunteers

These people may feel they can’t challenge poor performance or behaviour by volunteers. Perhaps they lack the confidence to do this. Perhaps they lack the emotional literacy to deal with people who aren’t being paid. Perhaps they fear that volunteers will get angry and leave, not ideal if you are already short of volunteers. Perhaps they think that because volunteers are unpaid they cannot be held to standards of behaviour and performance — they are doing it for ‘free’, and out of the goodness of their heart, after all.

We need to be equipping those who work directly with volunteers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to act where it is needed. This is a good place to start.

Effective volunteer engagement is everyone’s job, not just the responsibility of the Volunteer Engagement Professional.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on receiving feedback

As Agenda Consulting put it:

“Volunteers are less likely to receive feedback from their managers, which they could find valuable in their development.”

To my mind, this is closely tied to the previous point. If we avoid having difficult conversations with volunteers, then perhaps we are also not giving volunteers timely and effective positive feedback. Given how important this is to retention and recognition of volunteers, we may be missing a big trick because of our fear about talking to volunteers when things aren’t going so well.

In saying this, I am aware that the opposite may be true — we may be happy to give good feedback to volunteers, it’s just the bad stuff we avoid — as we’ll see shortly.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager support with problem-solving

This is how Catherine puts it:

”Employees are also 18% more positive than volunteers on the question “My manager helps me find solutions to problems”. This indicates that volunteers are receiving less support from their managers than employees. Is this because line managers of volunteers typically have less time to devote to them? Or is it seen as less important to help a volunteer solve a problem than a paid employee?”

I’d say both of the questions Catherine asks are valid. I’d add another question too — is the work we are giving volunteers so basic and easy that they don’t need to solve problems along the way?

When a volunteer is tasked with envelope stuffing, tea making and filling, problem-solving isn’t really an issue.

When a volunteer is tasked with developing a new project, service or way of working, then problem-solving is far more likely.

But how often are volunteers given that kind of responsibility?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling valued

This is great news. 87% of volunteers gave a positive response to this question. It suggests that we are doing a great job of recognising the contribution volunteers make.

It is sad, however, that paid staff don’t feel as valued, and suggests that those managing paid staff in the sector might have a lot to learn from those of us who get the best out of people without paying them for their time.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on information sharing

As Agenda Consulting state:

“Volunteers are 16% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation is open, honest and shares information effectively”.”

This is interesting as anyone, whether employee or volunteers, needs accurate, timely and honest information to do their job.

Perhaps what the data is revealing is that organisations and managers are working harder to communicate with volunteers than paid staff. Perhaps they assume staff will pick things up from the endless stream of emails and Teams messages (because we all studiously read those, don’t we?), whereas they know they need to work harder to get information to volunteers who don’t have access to these forms of communication.

As with the previous point, whatever organisations are getting right with volunteers might be worth focusing on, so we do a better job for paid staff as well.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling cared for

It’s great that volunteers are reporting a positive experience here. Feeling valued, cared for and communicated with creates a strong bond with an organisation, so it’s good to see such efforts paying off with volunteers.

Once again, it seems more effort needs to be placed on doing the same things with employees, especially when remote and hybrid working has replaced the bonding that can come from working in an office together.

If volunteer managers are getting so much right, why aren’t HR colleagues learning from us?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on organisational values and ethics

I’ve nothing to add to this beyond what Catherine wrote:

”Volunteers are 15% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation has strong values and operates to high ethical standards”, with 91% positive on this question. It is difficult to say why this may be, although it is encouraging that volunteers tend to believe this. Perhaps volunteers have lower levels of access to “insider information” that could lead employees to be more sceptical on this.”

Those are my thoughts and reflections. Why do you think?

Leave a comment below to continue the conversation.

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A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

In this guest post from Laura White, you have a fantastic opportunity learn first had about volunteering in Berlin and gains ’em insights that you can apply in your own organisations wherever you are in the world.

Over to Laura…

It’s rare that someone gets to drop out of their normal life for twelve weeks, but thanks to Sustrans’ career break policy, that’s exactly what I was able to do between April and July this year. I put cover in place for my job for three months, packed my bags and travelled to Germany with literally zero plans, apart from to try to volunteer.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be – I can speak a bit of German, but I wondered if volunteering opportunities might be limited by the fact that I couldn’t commit long-term. In my job looking after volunteering on Scotland’s National Cycle Network, I’ve seen a huge growth of interest in episodic and short-term, flexible volunteering – would the same be true abroad?

To skip to the happy ending…YES, it was. Incredibly true. I was able to volunteer for many different projects in Berlin, for different lengths of time. It was easy, fun, fulfilling and, quite frankly, a real eye-opener.

Most of this was thanks to a volunteering platform called Vostel – after a simple registration I could search for opportunities based on my level of German language (“basic”) and my preference of activity (“hands-on”) and was immediately given nearly fifty opportunities in the Berlin area. For many, you simply read through the task outline and signed up for a shift, after which you receive exact details of where to be and who to ask for.

My first choice was to try to give time to a project supporting the huge number of Ukrainian people escaping the war and arriving into Berlin. I signed up for a three-hour shift with Berlin Caterers for Good at the main train station, where they distributed food and drink donated by local companies – I was welcomed, given a short briefing and put on the sweets and drinks stand, where I quickly learnt the Ukrainian words for juice and water, found out that people of all ages like a lollipop, and was reminded how much a smile can bridge a language barrier. I returned again a couple of weeks later.

Through the same shift sign-up process, I started volunteering with Bikeygees – a project supporting women from across the world to learn to cycle. For the twelve weeks I was in Berlin, I joined them nearly every week, and made new friends, helping women from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria progress from not being able to ride at all, to cycling solo around the park and repairing a puncture. Each week I simply registered for a shift and turned up. I had chosen to commit, but the admin was no greater.

With a slightly different start, I volunteered regularly for Berliner Stadt Mission at their Haus der Materialisierung – a collaborative zero-waste project based in an old multistorey carpark. They had advertised on Vostel for people to help upcycle old textiles into bags, and invited me along for an initial chat where I was shown the Haus and the task, and then we worked out what time commitment I could give and for how long – I chose four hours every Wednesday for ten weeks, and filled in their volunteer registration form (with a bit of translation help from Google Lens). They were the only project to ask me to report my hours and how much I had done, but also the project where I gained the most skills, thanks to one-on-one support from the project officer.

A commitment of a different kind came in June when I applied to be a volunteer with the Special Olympics National Games – a week-long competitive event for 4,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, supported by 2,000 volunteers. I had a role in Volunteer Management, which required training, a uniform and a commitment to a number of shifts that week, but which also gave me the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, practise my German, and dance at the Athletes Disco under the Brandenburg Gate.

Between these commitments, I also joined Clean River Project for a litterpick on the Landwehrkanal where I was put in a double kayak with a pharmacist named Nina, who gave me an informal tour of Berlin neighbourhoods as we paddled along and pulled bottles, plastic and an Oktoberfest Mickey Mouse from the water. (The latter won the Best Piece of Litter competition, judged by a volunteer clapometer…).

And I took on a stint volunteering to give out finish tokens at parkrun at Hasenheide Park. As I take part in the runs, I already knew the task and that these events rely on parkrunners volunteering themselves – a mutual-aid community.

What did I learn from all of this?

Taking part in every single one of these opportunities felt frictionless. There were no barriers. When I was asked to do more admin in order to volunteer, it was after I had a clear idea of what I would be doing and it was in return for support, skills-development or feeling part of a team; sometimes all three.

Almost every opportunity was based around the activity, rather than a volunteer role. In most cases I wasn’t asked to ‘become a volunteer’ for any organisation; I was supported and welcomed to undertake a task, at that moment, for the duration that I had committed to. I felt free to try new things and to step away from those that weren’t for me. But I could also commit to those that felt right. My time in Berlin was limited, and therefore precious. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on interviews, inductions, and getting started on something I didn’t know if I would enjoy and want to continue.

But this is always true for a lot of us. Time is a scarce resource for those of us who fit volunteering around other commitments and we need to maximise our use of it. Since I’ve been back in Edinburgh I’ve decided to step down from a voluntary Committee role I’ve been doing for thirteen years, and try some new voluntary activities, inspired by the things I did in Berlin. Many projects I contacted asked me to go through time-swallowing admin, including reference checking, lengthy handbooks and in-person inductions before I had a chance to try out the activity and decide if it’s something I want to do. It has taken ten weeks from starting to look, to be actively volunteering anywhere new – almost the length of my whole career break.

All of this is fuelling the fire of things I’ve been thinking about recently, as we’ve been implementing the Sustrans’ Five-Year Volunteering Strategy. How do we move to a more person-centred human approach for volunteering that removes friction and makes the most of people’s time? One that recognises a person’s unique strengths, interests and needs, and gives them choice and flexibility from the start? And how do we do that in a way that continues to take account of important volunteer processes, such as safeguarding and data collection, but that feels appropriate to an individual’s involvement?

I’ve been really pleased to see all of this referenced in the Systems map in the Scottish Government’s new Volunteering Action Plan – ‘fit’, ‘less bureaucracy’ and ‘accessible opportunities’ all feature in the system. Martin J Cowling talks about the same in his recent Engage article, suggesting we may need to “repackage elements of our volunteering to give people ‘taster’ experiences of volunteering in more supervised environments with fewer checks”. I’m excited to bring this all together in my own work with volunteers, and aim to give more people the same fulfilling volunteering experience that I had in Berlin.

Laura White is the Network Engagement Coordinator (Volunteering) for Sustrans, and has been volunteering since she was 18. Laura can be contacted through Twitter, through LinkedIn or via email.

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I’m sorry, what did you say?

I’m sorry, what did you say?

I enjoyed writing this article because, after what seems like ages, I once again get to question Government plans for volunteering.

I’m not being party political. All the parties get plenty wrong on volunteering. Some even get some things right, sometimes. It’s just that I used to enjoy writing articles highlighting the apparent default ignorance of politicians about what makes for successful volunteer engagement.

So, I was eager to put finger to keyboard last week when reports started coming through in The Huffington Post that the new UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (and deputy Prime Minister), Therese Coffey, had announced a “Call For One Million NHS Volunteers This Winter” (NB. This only applies to the NHS in England). The story then even got a mention on Have I Got News For You!

I went to the UK Government website to verify the announcement and found that it is indeed correct:

”As part of the plan, Dr Coffey will also call on the public to take part in a ‘national endeavour’ to support the health and social care system, calling on the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again. This will include a push for more volunteering across the NHS and social care.”

I have four immediate questions.

1—Why a million?


That’s a lot of people.

Where did the figure come from?

Is it just there because it sounds big and so make for a good press release, or has there been a proper consultation and engagement across the NHS that has led to one million volunteer vacancies being identified?

I’m guessing the former.

2—What will a million volunteers do?

Assuming some thought has gone into this, what exactly are these volunteers going to do to help? Answer telephones? Triage patients? Make cups of tea? Take blood samples? Give injections? Drive ambulances?

I mean, volunteers can do all those things (if the right people are recruited, screened, trained and placed), but should they be doing them?

When public sector pay is lagging far behind inflation, when strikes are commonplace and more threatened, is this really a good time to be recruiting a million volunteers into the health & social care sectors? Don’t we risk accusations of volunteers undermining paid roles and strike-breaking?

That’s not a good look for volunteering and could damage us all.

3—Is there time to get them all recruited, screened, trained and placed?

To quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming.

How are a million people going to be found, their paperwork processed, interviews conducted, references taken up, criminal record checks done, training delivered and placement secured, all in the next few weeks?

And we are talking weeks, not months. It took RVS months to mobilise 400,000 NHS Volunteer Responders during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Government seems to want a million volunteers up and running by the new year! That’s a tall order, even if some of them have been active before.

Volunteer Managers in the NHS do a brilliant job, but they are often under-resourced, like the rest of us.

Is there a massive investment in volunteer management capacity coming to meet this million volunteer ambition, and soon?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

4—Are there enough people able and willing to help?

To quote the Huffington Post article I referenced earlier:

“The government hopes that the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS will come forward again.”

Do they now? Let’s look at some data.

Six million fewer people volunteered in the second lockdown in late 2020 than in the first lockdown that spring. The numbers dropped again in the third lockdown in early 2021. Oh, and of the 750,000 NHS Volunteer Responders recruited, over 300,000 were never given anything to do — not a particularly positive experience, as I can personally attest.

This suggests that it’s highly unlikely that there are a million people just sitting around with time to give to the NHS when the government wants them to.

It appears that the days of poorly thought through announcements about volunteering are back, announcements that completely fail to consider the practicalities and realities of effective volunteering engagement.

Politicians and officials really must do better. If they are going to come up with such ideas, however well-intentioned, they really ought to talk to the experts first — for example, Volunteer Engagement Professionals and Volunteer Centres.

They also need to invest for the long term too, so short-term ambitions like this are a little more manageable. As I said, back in 2020:

“Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts too funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on bare-bones resources that diminish year-on-year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times, it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best, but capacity is much reduced.”

I made similar points at the start of this year too, when I argued why volunteering infrastructure needs to be supported by all of us, not just those working in it.

But it isn’t just government that have to buck up their ideas.

I’m going to say it — our sector must also do better. So much of the post-lockdown narrative about volunteering has built this myth that there are millions of people who loved helping so much in the spring of 2020 that they are desperate to come forward and volunteer again. This narrative was being peddled just this week at the Labour Party Conference.

As if nothing has changed in the last two years to affect their availability and interests.

As if we were all still sat at home, furloughed on 80% pay, bored with Netflix and looking for something to fill our time.

As if, in a cost-of-living crisis, people can just find the time to volunteers and forget about making enough money to pay the bills.

In England, we have a Vision for Volunteering through to 2032. We need to use this to have a sensible, well-informed and realistic conversation that helps ministers and officials to understand how volunteers can help, and what is actually needed to make this happen.

It’s time for a reality check, and for sensible heads in government to prevail.

One can only hope.

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