Valuing values

FeaturedValuing values

Around this time last year I took the opportunity to reflect on why I do what I do every day. Now, a year on, I want to take a slightly different approach.

In April 2020 it will be nine years since I sat down at my desk for the first time as an independent consultant, event speaker, trainer and writer. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then but the core values behind my business, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, remain the same. Shortly after the company launched, I wrote a piece on my old blog site explaining those values and I want to revisit that because the principles I signed myself up to back then still hold true today.

So, here is that 2011 article. It has been edited slightly to tidy it up – I think I have become a better writer in the last nine years and can’t help but make some changes! (NB. a link to the original version is at the end of this article).


Organisational values. Rarely have I encountered a topic in my career that has provoked so much scepticism. From those who are totally against corporate values to those who just think its is all hot air and no action, it’s unusual to come across anyone who thrills to the idea of discussing values.

Copyright Scott Adams.
Copyright Scott Adams.

A former boss of mine talked about people, not companies, having values. People, he argued, are all individuals and have differing values. Companies cannot force their values onto people, so there is always going to be some tension between people living their personal values and abiding by corporate values. The conclusion, therefore, was that talk of corporate values is pointless.

On the other hand, one charity I know restructured and, rather than deciding which skills and competencies they wanted and redeploying and recruiting staff accordingly, they decided to focus on values. The recruitment process was focused on exploring individual employees’ congruence with the charity’s values. Those with the strongest fit stayed. Those with the weakest fit were first in line for redundancy. They firmly believe this has given them a more committed staff base to build on for the future.

One of the nice things about being your own boss is that your corporate values are your personal values. There should be no conflict between the way the firm goes about its business and the way the owner behaves. That’s why I want to use this article to explain the six values of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, or as I put it on the website, what I believe about the way I go about the work of engaging and inspiring people to bring about change.

1 – Honesty

This is a non-negotiable for me. It is an absolutely fundamental value. That’s why it is first in the list.

I will always be honest in my dealing with clients and potential clients.

I will not sell you a service if I don’t think you need it.

I will not commit to doing a piece of work if I don’t think I can do it (either because of availability or fit with my skills).

I will be honest and upfront about how I can help and what it will cost you.

I will also be honest in what I say and write about the volunteering movement. In my view there aren’t enough people speaking up and speaking out about volunteering issues. I want to help fill that void with honest views, opinions and advice. That’s what I hope this blog will increasingly be used for.

This is a critical time for the volunteering movement in the UK and I hope in some small way that I can honestly and helpfully speak and write about the issues we face.

2 – Passion

It say’s on the company website:

“At Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd we are passionate about the potential of people, about their potential to effect change and make the world a better place.”

In fact passion is a word that I keep hearing when people talk about how I go about my work. I am happy about that because, for me, being in the volunteering movement isn’t just a job, it is a vocation.

I am passionate about volunteering, about what I do, about how I do it and about the difference it makes. I want to bring that passion, that enthusiasm to my work with clients. I want others to share that passion and enthusiasm. I want volunteers to feel even more passionate and enthusiastic about their work and the difference it makes. I want paid staff to feel even more passionate about what they do and the challenges & opportunities they face.

It is this passion about the potential of people that is at the core of my vision for the business to engage and inspire people to bring about change.

3 – Fun

According to a survey I once read, the average person spends 99,117hrs at work during their life. That’s about eleven years! I don’t know about you but I don’t want those eleven years to be devoid of any enjoyment.

That’s why I want to bring a sense of fun to my work. Yes, what my clients and I do is serious and we take it seriously. But let’s also get serious about having fun.

In early years education children learn through play, through having fun. Who says this has to stop when you’re a child? In my experience people learn more if they are having fun learning. I know I do.

So I want to enjoy my work and have fun doing it and I want that to be your experience of working with me too.

4 – Integrity

There is a great book on leadership called ‘The Leadership Challenge’, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. In it they argue that a critical ingredient to effective leadership is integrity – living out your values.

That’s why I wanted to blog about them here, so I can be open about them and let people judge for themselves if I live them in my work.

Kouzes and Posner sum integrity up in a chapter on leaders modelling the way as DWYSYWD – Do What You Say You Will Do.

That’s my goal – please tell me if I get it right (or wrong!).

5 – Value

In the past I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in shaping the content for conferences. One of the things that delegates had always fed back about previous events was the price – it was, in their view too, high.

From the view of the organisation I was working with, the price was the minimum they could offer as it allowed them to break even, just. So we took a different approach. We increased the price just enough to cover inflationary rises to our costs but re-focused the content so that is gave really good value to the delegates. After the next event we got very few comments about the price, but lots about how valuable the conference had been.

Value refers to the perception of benefits received for what someone must give up, in this case the price. Where the organisation in question had gone wrong in the past was in focusing solely on the price (keeping it as low as possible without making a loss because they thought this is what got people to book places) rather than on the value of what people were paying for.

That is an important point I am taking into my new business.

I have to charge a fee for what I do. This is my livelihood now. This is how I pay my mortgage and feed my family. That’s why there is a price for what I do.

But if you hire me I hope you don’t feel like you get a service that simply costs money (price). Instead, I hope you feel like you get a service of real value, a service that is built on many years of experience and that is dedicated to bringing you benefits that will help you achieve your goals.

6 – Effectiveness

Someone wisely said that efficiency is doing this well but effectiveness is doing the right things well.

There isn’t much to add really, it speaks for itself and that’s how I want to help my clients – focus on doing the right things well.


I’d love to hear from you in response.

Have you worked with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd over the last nine years? Do you think we lived out our values? How? And if not, why not?

What values are important to you in your work? Why?

Please leave a comment below so we can explore this topic further together.


This article appeared in it’s original form on 12 April 2011.

Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Earlier this autumn, the BBC aired a show called The Big Hospital Experiment. In my view it should be essential watching for anyone leading volunteer engagement in any setting, especially healthcare.

The programme followed fourteen young people giving their time for four weeks as clinical volunteers on wards at the Royal Derby Hospital in England. The hospital has a long history of volunteer involvement but this was something new, volunteers undertaking clinical tasks alongside nursing staff and doctors in challenging departments like Accident and Emergency (A&E), Cancer, Renal, Paediatrics and the like.

The volunteers undertook a range of tasks, from monitoring patient’s blood pressure to feeding to intimate care (washing and toileting) to simply sitting and having a cup of tea with patients and their families. The roles were part of a pilot designed to assess if clinical volunteers could work effectively alongside medical staff too improve patient care and increase the capacity of medical professionals to do what their specialist training required them to focus on.

It is important to note that the show made no judgement about whether placing volunteers in these roles was ethically good or bad, both in regard to the responsibilities placed on the volunteers but also whether such roles should be undertaken by paid staff, not volunteers.

Almost all the young people were new to this kind of work. Little was said about the recruitment and selection process (were they chosen because they ere the best for the roles or because the producers though they’d make for good TV?) but we did get to see all fourteen of them doing two weeks of training before their first placement. They were also closely supervised throughout the pilot by ward sisters, the senior nurse who trained them, and executive nursing staff motioning the efficacy of the pilot.

Here are my reflections on the four episodes.


Episode one

It’s fair to say that nursing staff were cautious about the pilot, fearing that too much time would be taken up managing the volunteers, detracting from patient care. This wasn’t helped when cancer ward volunteer Will requested a different break schedule for his shifts so he could have more frequent cigarette breaks.

Very quickly, however, the nursing staff discovered that by investing some time in the volunteers they developed engaged, committed and productive people who were keen and able to help in meaningful ways. This demonstrates that if we get the right people in the right volunteer roles, train them properly, support, trust and encourage them to do a good job, they invariably will.

Episode two

This episode focused on the emotional impact of the work on the volunteers. What wasn’t really acknowledged was that everyone experiences challenges adjusting to the emotions faced in a hospital setting. On day one you have the same lack of experience and strategies for coping, whether you are a nurse, doctor or volunteer.

Similarly, how everyone copes when they do get onto a ward is different. For example:

  • Will (he of the cigarette breaks) came face-to-face with the reality of death as he cared for a patient. After initially struggling he persevered and adapted.
  • In comparison, Erik, who had led a sheltered and spoilt life before the programme, struggled more with his role. He made excuses for not turning up one morning because he couldn’t face being with the patients. He arrived four hours late for his shift, leaving the ward short-handed.
  • Finally, Aleshpa was placed on the children’s ward with a boy called Blake. She stayed two hours after her shift ended to check on the results of Blake’s MRI, such was her concern for him. So much for volunteers being unreliable!

On the Head and Neck ward the lead sister had already made her mind up about the clinical volunteers – the experiment was extended into subsequent weeks after what she judged as strong early success.

Episode three

Fittingly there were three key points for me:

  1. Patients and the families can respond differently (in a good way) when they engage with a volunteer rather than a paid nurse or doctor. This unsalaried credibility was a real asset for the wards involving volunteers.
  2. The senior executive nurse noted the importance of placing people into the right roles. Piotr had excelled in A&E but struggled with the increased interpersonal engagement with patients on another ward. Finn had struggled on the cancer ward but was very effective when placed on a ward treating older people.
  3. After Charlotte experienced three patient deaths during one shift on the renal ward I thought about how few of us are exposed to such experiences at such a young age. I’m pretty confident few of the nursing staff would have had such experiences at Charlotte’s age. So, yet again, a person’s ability to cope in roles such as those given to the volunteers is not down to their pay grade. It’s related to their competence, confidence and temperament, all of which can be screened for during recruitment and addressed in training.

Episode four

The final episode focused (in part) on how different volunteers responded to more challenging patients.

Mark had been admitted to A&E having been found unconscious in the town centre. He was homeless, an alcoholic and had taken an overdose. One volunteer was immediately compassionate towards Mark, whilst another privately remarked that people like him should take personal responsibility and sort themselves out. After spending more time with Mark, the latter volunteer’s views softened as their understanding and empathy for the patient grew.

The point was also repeated that patients can respond differently to volunteers than paid staff. Eric, a patient who has been bed bound during his hospital stay, got out of bed for the first time thanks to the efforts of two volunteers. None of the paid staff had managed this with Eric. The success of the volunteers was attributed by the nursing staff to the strength of the relationship the volunteers had with Eric because of the time they’d spent with him.

As the episode concluded we learnt that the hospital senior management had judged the pilot a success and were rolling it out on a permanent basis across the hospital. Furthermore, two of the volunteers, Piotr and Michael, had decided to join the NHS, as a nurse and paramedics respectively.


As I said at the start The Big Hospital Experiment is must watch TV for anyone working in volunteer engagement. It would help challenge the prejudices and stereotypes some paid staff hold about the competence and reliability of volunteers. Also, when was the last time a programme about volunteering and volunteer management got a four-part prime time series on the BBC?! To not watch it would be a missed opportunity.

Did you watch the show?

What did you think?

Leave a comment below – I’d love to read your thoughts and reflections.


See also, “Patients, volunteers and the NHS were all winners in the Big Hospital Experiment” in which the Chief Nursing Officer for England gives her views on the programme.

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Next Tuesday is the 20th annual International Volunteer Managers Day. To mark the occasion, this article is the second of two posts on the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.

Internatuional Volunteer Managers Day logo for 2019, "Change The Tune"
Internatuional Volunteer Managers Day logo for 2019, “Change The Tune”

Last time we looked at three such mistakes. If you haven’t read that article please do so now because in this piece we’re going to look at solutions to those three mistakes.

Ready?

Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

A hand moving a chess piece
A hand moving a chess piece

The actions that can be taken to resolve – or better still, avoid – this mistake are pretty simple. So simple, I wonder why more organisations don’t embrace them. For example:

  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to regularly present to and discuss with the board and / or senior leadership team on strategic issues regarding volunteer involvement.
  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to strategic planning away days when new plans are starting to be formulated or existing plans reviewed and revised.
  • Allocating lead responsibility for volunteer engagement at a strategic level to a board member and recruiting that person for their specialist knowledge, as well as their competence in governance. For a while now I’ve advocated that Volunteer Managers should volunteer to join the boards of other Volunteer Involving Organisations to provide volunteer engagement expertise at a governance level. Maybe you could partner with a colleague locally to do this for each other?
  • Including meaningful measures on senior management team KPI / scorecard or other performance monitoring dashboards. When I say meaningful I do not mean how many volunteers the organisation has, how many hours they give, or recruitment rates stated in isolation. I mean measures that link back to outcomes and / or impact achieved e.g. recruitment rates tied to a specific outcome that needs to be achieved, such as recruiting ten new volunteer mentors because ten new clients have joined the programme .

Turning to a more research informed perspective, take a look at this article I wrote last year, “Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers.” It drew on on work that explored how Chief Executive’s (CEOs) recruit, support, and resource four key positions in USA based non-profit and public sector organisations, including Volunteer Managers. Two key points are worth quoting: the first about getting more senior leaders to understand the strategic importance and value of volunteering; and the second about how we Volunteer Managers can scupper our own efforts to be taken more seriously.

“(There is) a need to include volunteer leadership and management in the curriculum of university non-profit management courses…how can we educate people to lead civil society organisations effectively if we say nothing about the strategic value and importance of volunteer engagement?”

“By describing what they do as a volunteer programme, leaders of volunteers reinforce the view that volunteer engagement is a tactical and not a strategic aspect of an organisations work. This limits the way they are viewed as a strategic asset to the organisation’s work and suggests why Volunteer Managers are often left out of strategic planning discussions.”

Finally, I did say last time that I am increasingly coming to think that where the lead post for volunteer engagement is located within an organisation is secondary to the inclusion of that person in strategic planning and decision making. That doesn’t mean their place on the organisational chart isn’t important though, which is why I addressed this in a 2016 article, “Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?”.

Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

A circie of people putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A circie of people putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

It’s easy for most of us to reach into our pockets and give a couple of quid to a good cause. It’s far harder for us to find a couple of spare hours to help that good cause through volunteering, especially if that commitment is needed regularly.

However, engaging me as a volunteer is truly that, engagement. It’s more than a transaction. We form a relationship, hopefully a positive one where we both benefit. A relationship where I will most likely become strongly affiliated with your mission.

Too many organisations prioritise the shallow, transactional “£3 a month” donors over other, deeper forms of public support, missing out so much potential.

What we need is an approach in organisations that seeks to find friends, allies and supporters and then creates a way for those people to engage with us in whatever way is appropriate to them at whatever stage of their life they are in. In the jargon, a truly integrated support focused journey.

This means we have to adapt as our supporters’ motivations, interests and availabilities change. This means we should have systems, processes and supporter relationship management tools in place to make this happen, not simply using a tool that works best for one kind of supporter (shout out to all of you Volunteer Managers forced to use Raisers Edge as your volunteer database because that’s what fundraising use, not because it’s the right tool for you).

Ultimately, this means different departments don’t see people as ‘our’ volunteers or ‘our’ donors anymore, but a wider, well-stewarded pool of friends supporting our work – friendraising.

NB. You may be interested in Meridian Swift’s article “Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate” which explores a similar theme.

Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

Four hands with the text underneath' "It takes a village to raise a child"
Four hands with the text underneath’ “It takes a village to raise a child”

As I said last time:

”Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.”

The solutions here aren’t difficult. For example:

  • Every staff member should have engaging with volunteers in their job description. Everyone. That means the CEO and Senior Management (and not just saying they should work with the board!). How engaged these senior roles are with volunteers in their own work is a good indicator of how strong a volunteering culture an organisation truly has at a senior level.
  • Every new employee recruited should be selected in part for their willingness to engage with volunteers in the work of the post they are applying for. Ideally, they should have some experience of working well with volunteers. They should at least be asked at interview how they’d manage someone who is a volunteer and how this might differ from managing paid staff. This applies to the CEO and senior managers too!
  • Every new paid staff hire should have something meaningful about working with volunteers as part of their induction course so they understand that volunteers are an integral and important part of the team.
  • Every person working with volunteers should be required to attend training on leading and managing volunteers, just as they would usually be required to attend training on managing paid staff if they were in a management role. In fact, this could make all managers better managers, as working well with volunteers enhances someone’s ability to work with paid staff (the opposite isn’t always true!).
  • Effectiveness in working with volunteers should be evaluated as part of every employee’s annual appraisal and regular performance reviews.

I’ve looked at just three mistakes. There are, of course, many more that organisations can and do make. That’s why I wrote “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis. It make a great Christmas present for your CEO and is available now from Amazon (link is to UK store only – check your local Amazon store for availability if you’re outside the UK) and the Directory of Social Change in both print and electronic formats.

What mistakes (and solutions to them) would you add? Leave comment below with your thoughts.

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

It’s a little over two weeks until International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) 2019. Aside from the surprise that another year has passed and the day has come around again so fast, I am also astounded to realise that this year mark’s the twentieth anniversary of the very first IVMDay!

Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of 'Change The Tune' alongside the radio
Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of ‘Change The Tune’ alongside the radio

Since its inception, IVMDay has been about education through celebration. Whilst Volunteer Managers are welcome to mark the day in whatever way they wish, the core purpose is about educating others about the essential role we have to play in effective volunteer engagement.

This year’s IVMDay theme is “Change The Tune”. As colleague DJ Cronin said when he proposed the idea:

“Time to be proactive instead of reactive & discover our power & harness it for good. Time to teach HR the dynamic science of leadership found in volunteer management. And time to stop whinging about our lot!”

Here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog I’m doing my bit for IVMDay 2019 with a two part mini-series of articles.

In this first part, I briefly look at three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. I’m taking a step back from volunteer management to look at the wider organisational context in which volunteering takes place and three ways that organisation leaders can get things wrong, impeding the work of Volunteer Managers and limiting the potential of volunteer engagement.

In the second part (due out on 1 November) I will look at three solutions to the mistakes outlined below, giving ideas for how organisational leaders can create a more friendly volunteer culture.

So, here we go with part one – three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.


Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

Pieces on a chessboard
Pieces on a chessboard

This might be a bit controversial but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the question where volunteer management should sit in an organisation’s structure is to miss an important point. The location of a Volunteer Manager in a structure chart isn’t entirely irrelevant, but more important is whether they are involved at a strategic level in organisational leadership, management and planning.

Consider this from the 2014 “New Alchemy” report by nfpSynergy:

“It is no coincidence that charities doing particularly interesting work with volunteering also tend to boast meaningful senior roles in the field, where those leading volunteer development sit on a level with peers in Fundraising, Membership or Communications and are therefore better situated to champion their agenda and argue for joined-up strategy across these departments.”

Yes it’s talking a bit about hierarchy but the key point is a bigger one about strategic thinking. That’s why the first mistake I am highlighting here is the failure to think strategically:

  • failing to learn from the insights volunteers can provide as well as the talents and skills they bring to the organisation
  • forgetting to think about the role volunteers can play in fulfilling the mission until the last minute when all the other planning is done
  • not involving the volunteer management function in strategic planning

Which leads us to our second point.


Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

In the same report quoted above, the next paragraph says:

“Such organisations have been able to discern the benefits of a more integrated understanding of engagement across donor, member and volunteer co-ordination functions and may also have significant functions around external engagement more broadly; rightly seeing community volunteer engagement as knitted in with voluntary income, partnership-building and marketing objectives.”

Money is important, I get it. But it isn’t the only resource non-profits have at their disposal. If it were we’d be no different from for-profit organisations. Furthermore, an organisation’s current money donors aren’t the only source of individual donations. Volunteers can be some of the most generous donors, if asked – and asked in the right way!

NB. Donors could also be a great source of volunteers, if they were allowed the opportunity to give a bit of time.

Keeping donors, volunteers, members and others in separate silos fails to maximise the potential of all an organisation’s supporters, however they show that support or might wish to show it in future. This is a potentially serious mistake, limiting the resources an organisation has to achieve its aims.


Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

Four cartoon hands with text below them saying "it takes a village to raise a child"
Four cartoon hands with text below them saying “it takes a village to raise a child”

It doesn’t matter how great your volunteer manager is, they can’t realise the full potential of effective volunteer engagement on their own. As the late great volunteer management expert Susan J Ellis used to say:

“Even the most effective Volunteer Manager cannot engage volunteers alone, it takes everyone’s attention”.

Expecting the volunteer manager to do it all on their own is akin to expecting the HR manager to be the sole person responsible for effective staff engagement, from recruitment to retention, discipline to reward, induction to performance management and everything else.

Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.


So there are three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. Stay tuned for our next article on 1 November 2019 which will explore three solutions to these mistakes.

If you can’t wait that long, why not take a look at “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, the book Susan J Ellis and I wrote for senior leaders to help them understand the key role they play in creating a positive organisational context for effective volunteer engagement.

You can go your own way

You can go your own way

As a professional speaker and trainer I get asked lots of questions. One of the most popular is :

“Which organisations are doing really great work on adapting their volunteering offer to meet the realities of the modern world?”

I always struggle to answering this question. Not because I don’t think anyone is doing such great work but because:

  1. Despite my 25 years experience, I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what every Volunteer Involving Organisation on the planet is doing.
  2. When I engage in consultancy work with clients it’s professional to maintain confidentiality about that work, not blathering what those organisations are doing to the rest of the world.

There are, however, some more fundamental issues I have with that question:

  • Why are we leaders of volunteer engagement always looking to someone else to pave the way?
  • Why are we focusing our effort on borrowing what someone else is doing?
  • Why would what someone in a different organisation is doing work in our setting and context?
  • Why aren’t we coming up with our own innovations and solutions to the problems we face?

”The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because we – and the non-profit sector more broadly – are so risk averse? Risk is seen as a bad thing, something we must avoid at all costs. It isn’t. Risk is an inherent part of life. It’s how we manage risk that is important.

Read more of my thinking on this in my March 2018 article.

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because so many workplace cultures create a fear of failure? Not achieving your target, not hitting a key performance indicator (KPI), not reaching a goal – they are all seen as failures, poor performance. But failure is how we learn, it’d fundamental to learning, improving and innovating.

Susan J Ellis and I addressed this subject in a 2017 article in e-volunteerism.com. The article is available for free and I encourage you to read it here.

”There is no losing in jiujitsu. You either win or you learn.”
Carlos Gracie Jr.”

Carlos Gracie Jr.
Carlos Gracie Jr.

Whether it is anxiety about risk, or a fear of failure, or something else holding us back, I want to encourage us to stop looking for solutions elsewhere and start to find them ourselves.

You have unique insights and experience that are well placed to solve the problems you face in a way nobody else can. Without your pioneering solutions to your volunteer engagement challenges we will be stuck in an endless cycle of casting around for someone else’s ideas to apply to our – often very different – situations.

Your solutions can inspire others to do the same and start a snowball of innovation in our field.

Go and make it happen!

“The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” – John McAfee

John McAfee
John McAfee


Because I know the title of this blog will have triggered an earworm for some of you, here is a link to the classic Fleetwood Mac track of the same title – You Can Go Your Own Way.

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

September has turned into guest post month here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog. Last time Andy Fryar’s shared his tips for Volunteer Managers looking for a new job. Now, Chris Reed from the British Red Cross explores whether it’s always a good idea to consult with volunteers when seeking to improve your volunteer engagement work.

Enjoy!


Back in June Rob wrote about leaders of volunteer engagement needing to put pen to paper or alternatively, as I’ve done, finger to keyboard and ‘share our views, opinions and insights on anything and everything’. I responded on Twitter violently agreeing, as I do with so much of what Rob says, and now here I am!

I must confess, Rob and I have history! Our paths have crossed on many occasions, we’ve both been Trustees of our respective charities over the years – Rob on my Board when I ran a Volunteer Centre and I on his when he was at Volunteering England. Since then I’ve spent a bit of time (understatement alert) dabbling in volunteering at a few household name charities.

With all this under my belt and a commitment to craft a blog what was I going to write, where do I start, what will strike a chord, what will be of interest?

Early days of volunteer management

When I started out in the world of volunteering there was no Association of Volunteer Managers, there was no Volunteer Centre network (we weren’t even called Volunteer Centres back then) and networking opportunities were quite rare. What did exist was UKVPMs (an email group for UK Volunteer Programme Managers) set up in 1997 by, you guessed it, Rob! It was realistically one of my only sources of help and inspiration in my early career in volunteer management.

UKVPMs gave me chance to see what others were thinking in the sector, to read opinions, views and gain insights from folk I thought far more knowledgeable than myself. Over time my connections and networks grew, I moved on from the volunteer centre and began working for household name charities. As a Head of Volunteering I had my own volunteers and wasn’t just advising other organisations on how best to look after theirs. These volunteers were the lifeblood of the organisation, without them we couldn’t deliver our mission.

This is where for some of you I may start to get controversial.

Every volunteer manager, whether new to the role or long in the tooth will know of a time where your organisation hasn’t had enough volunteers. Either the recruitment process is taking too long (if you’re able to measure it) or you’re losing too many people (if you can measure that). So we diagnose a recruitment and retention problem and, having identified the problem, say ‘right, in order to fix this we’re going to set up a working group of volunteers to find a solution’. This has the added benefit of allowing us as leaders of volunteers to demonstrate a real commitment to volunteer involvement, showing the rest of the organisation how it’s really done.

But wait! Remember the title of this article – beware your existing volunteers. In the situation I describe you absolutely don’t want to be engaging with your traditional consultative group of longstanding volunteers, for three very good reasons:

  1. If recruitment is your problem, what does a volunteer you recruited twenty years ago know about what it’s like to go through your recruitment system today?
  2. Your longer standing volunteers might be the ones who are the ‘go to people’ for consultations but you should be thinking about those that have only just joined you, ideally those who started the process, but gave up (non-volunteers).
  3. If retention is your problem, what are you doing talking to your existing volunteers, they are the ones who have stuck around. Get to those who left! They will be the ones who have the stories to tell about whether you’re actually offering a good quality experience or not.

The benefits of thinking differently

As far as retention is concerned, doing some digging with those who have left you may well reveal that you have delivered such a great volunteering experience people have used it to go on and get a paid job. On paper that’s a retention problem, but in actual fact by talking to people who are no longer your volunteers you’ll find out whether there is really a problem with retention or that you’re success at getting people into work means you’ll just have to live with always refilling a bath with the plug out. You can then focus on how to turn the tap on more and bring more people in at the front end. (Very oversimplified I know, but you get what I mean.)

You can be more nuanced in how you benchmark good and bad. After all, a good volunteer recruitment process for your volunteer with twenty years service may not be the same as a good experience for today’s tech savvy social media user who, if you’re too bureaucratic, will simply get a load of their online friends / followers together and set up their own social movement (#activism).

You’ll get the benefits of an external perspective – do you have marketing experts in your organisation and, more importantly, have you ever talked to them? If not can you get some pro-bono volunteer support in this area? Ask them to help you find out what the outside world, your non-volunteers, think about your volunteering proposition.

At some point though, despite the title of this article, you should engage with your volunteers. They are the ones who know what it’s like today. They know what works and what doesn’t (and have probably found workarounds for the latter completely unbeknown to you!). For this their experience is invaluable, but be cautious, use their skills, knowledge and experience in conjunction with and not at the expense of other equally valuable sources of insight.

To conclude

Take a step back and think hard about who are the right audiences to engage in the right things and at the right time. What’s the exam question you’re trying to answer as you transform your volunteer programme to make it fit for purpose, or indeed just keep it on track and up to date? And, for goodness sake, talk to others in the sector. At best someone will have done what you’re doing before, at worst, someone else will be tackling exactly the same problems as you and you can share the pain. So don’t just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, be curious and read as well, network, engage and share, and good luck!

PS Thanks Rob for the challenge of writing this, its been a pleasure (for me at least but hopefully for the reader too).


Chris Reed is Director of Volunteer Mobilisation at the British Red Cross, one of over 190 Red Cross/ Red Crescent Societies across the globe. Chris’ previous experience includes Head of Volunteering positions at Barnardo’s and St John Ambulance and Chris was Chief Executive of Volunteer Centre Westminster.

His voluntary roles include Trustee of Horsmonden Social Club and Committee member for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups.

Chris has been a Trustee/ Board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), Volunteering England and Greater London Volunteering.

All the views expressed in this blog are Chris’ and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organisations Chris has worked or volunteered for.

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Getting a new job can be exciting. You get that initial thrill of excitement at the opportunity to make your mark in a new organisation. For many leaders of volunteer engagement, that feeling often disappears when we realise volunteer management has low status and we have little or no influence to make change happen. How do we avoid getting into jobs like this?

Helpfully, my friend and colleague Andy Fryar wrote an article in 2015 to address this very question. I was reminded of it recently whilst talking with a colleague and, having read it again, I reached out to Andy to see if he’d be willing for me to share it as a guest post on this blog. Happily he said yes, so here it is!


As leaders of volunteers one of our specialty areas is (or at least should be) the ability to properly interview someone:

  • To ask the right question.
  • To draw out that extra layer of information.
  • To determine a candidate’s suitability.
  • To safeguard our programs.
  • To get the very best out of each candidate.

Over the years I’ve interviewed thousands of people and if I might say so myself, I am damned good at it!

Recently, however, I have been thinking a lot more about interviews from a completely different angle. This different line of thought has been spurred on by a number of independent discussions I have had with volunteer managers who have taken on new positions, only to find that the job that was advertised – that was promised – was not the job that was delivered!

Of course, by the time many learn this cold hard fact, it’s far too late to turn back. They have already given their notice and embarked on a whole new journey – and sadly for many, the new job that promised so much, is often actually a role made up of lacking resources, little support, cultural clashes and working in isolation.

The typical scenario that ensues over the months that follow gaining a new (but unsatisfactory) position often reads something like this:

  • Happiness and excitement
  • Oh really, that’s not what I was led to believe?
  • Hmmm – OK, well I can still fix this!
  • Wait – WTF!
  • You gotta be kidding me!
  • OK – I am outta here

Which brings me to my point about interviewing.

I think that for far too many of us, the opportunity to work in a new agency, for a new cause and with new people often sweeps away our usual common sense. It takes us to a point where somehow we morph into simple starry-eyed applicants, champing at the bit just to get started, not asking clarifying questions and, all too often, resulting in us letting our guard down.

The most important part of any interview, for me at least, is that point in the process where our potential new employer asks that critical question, “So do you have any questions of us?”

Here’s where we need to force ourselves to think beyond simply clarifying what our new pay packet will look like and blurting our details about pre-planned holidays we have booked!

For it’s at this point that we get to do some of the interviewing – and remember, we are good at this!

So to this end, I have prepared ten questions that I believe we should all be asking of our potential employers during the interview process, to ensure the environment we are walking into is worthy of the skills that we bring to the table.

So, here goes (in no particular order):

Question One – What is your agency’s philosophy surrounding the utilisation of volunteers?

This is a pretty broad question, but what you are looking for here is a response that gives you some assurance that the agency you are about to throw yourself into has a well thought through position on how volunteers add to the delivery of services and the value of the organisation. You want to know that volunteers are not some sort of ‘add on’ – but a properly planned human resource within the organisation.

Question Two – How does having the support of volunteers impact the mission of this organisation?

Taking it one step further – and if the previous answer does not draw this out – you’ll want them to be clear about how the involvement of volunteers helps to achieve the organisation’s mission. If they can’t clearly demonstrate that, then perhaps volunteers are more of added ‘extra’ rather than a core part of the agency and its drive.

Question Three – How do you measure the successful engagement of volunteers in this agency?

This is an important one. If they talk only about growing volunteer number and hours for the simple sake of growing number and hours then run! Their response should ideally demonstrate that the engagement of volunteers is measured alongside the organisations mission – these two factors are inseparable!

Question Four – Do you have clear goals about where you would like to see the volunteer program head / grow?

You would hope this response is able to be clearly articulated, especially as they are heading through an interview process. However, that may not be the case! Be sure they are not simply working through a ‘replacement’ process but rather that they have clear ideas about the future of the program.

Question Five – What resources have you committed to this growth?

Possibly, the most critical of all these questions. This is also a direct flow on from the previous response they would have given to you. If they are serious about program growth and development they will not only know where they want to head but what resources they have to throw at achieving it! If you are going to accept an offer from this group, then be as sure as you can be that adequate resources (financial, physical and emotional) are available to you

Question Six – Does this agency value the input and feedback of volunteers and the volunteer department in its planning and review processes? Please explain.

It’s one thing to involve volunteers – another to seek their input. Ask them to articulate!

Question Seven – Who will I be answerable to and what are their direct views of volunteer engagement?

It’s critical to understand that your direct line manager is on the same page as you. If they are not at the interview be alarmed! And if they are, don’t be afraid to eye ball them and ask. This person will be your first line of both defence and support. It’s such a critical relationship you need to make sure it is a good one.

Question Eight – What is the agency view of the position / role of the VM in an organisational context?

We are moving away from the role of volunteers now and focusing on the volunteer management role more specifically. Listen out for clues that give you an assurance that the Volunteer Manager is seen as a lynchpin in an organisational context. Is the Volunteer Manager part of the decision making team? Is the role valued and critical to the agency?. Do they consider your role to be that of a volunteer management ‘specialist’ and do they expect you’ll jump up and down and challenge stupid decisions they might be considering? Do they see your role as the one that just does the ‘busy work’ of volunteer recruitment or do they consider it to be more strategic?

Question Nine – What mechanisms are in place for me to be able to undertake professional development?

Make sure you can subscribe to journals, attend conferences and participate in network meetings. Ensure that the agency understand that this is a critical part of the role and that professional development is central to growth.

Question Ten – Ask for a referee!

By now they’ll either be sick of you or caught up in your zeal for the role! So why not hit them with one more whammy?! If they can ask you for a referee, there’s no rule to say you can’t ask for one back! Ask for the name of some employees or department heads – or even volunteers – to see if the rhetoric they are spinning you matches reality! If nothing else you’ll gain their attention and they’ll know you are serious about the role.

As Volunteer Managers I don’t need to remind you that an interview process should always be a two way process and by asking a series of the right questions there is a much higher possibility that you are going to find a suitable match for the skills that you bring to the table.

Try it – I’d love to hear the outcome.

I’d love to hear your feedback too!


This post originally appeared on OzVPM on the 17th November 2015.