Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

FeaturedThree 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.

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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.

My everyday carry essentials

My everyday carry essentials

One of the hardest things about producing a regular blog is coming up with new ideas for topics that might interest and engage readers. So I was interested when I saw and article online recently, “101 Best Blog Post Ideas That’ll (Actually) Drive Massive Traffic in 2019”.

I had a browse through and decided I’d give idea number twenty four a try – my everyday carry (EDC), the essentials I carry with me for work. As I like productivity, gadgets and travel the idea resonated with me and, apparently, EDC has become a popular theme online in the last few years. So here goes with a very different kind of blog article – let’s see if it drives massive traffic as the article I read promised!

Carrying my everyday essentials

I love a good bag. Right now I have three that I use to transport all those work essentials around with me.

For those times when I need to carry very little – just a laptop, notebook and not much else – I use a Bellroy laptop brief. This little bag is perfect for light travel and designed to encourage a minimalist approach to what we all need with us each day.

When I do an overseas, often long-haul, trip I need more room. Much more! So I turn to my Samsonite CityVibe 1.0 backpack. Great build quality and plenty of room for carrying everything I need for work when I am away. Importantly, even when full, it fits easily in almost all overhead lockers and racks on planes, trains and busses.

Day-to-day I use an M&S brown leather double zip briefcase. Normally I’ve got with me a lot of the stuff mentioned in this article, as well as a case full of charging leads, a portable speaker and adapters to connect my computer to projectors for training and presentations. I find most briefcases are too small to carry all this. Not this bag! It gets it all in and looks good.

Notetaking

Whilst I love my technology, I am a big believer in pen and paper when it comes to note taking. I’ve tried making notes on a laptop or iPad, whether using keyboard or stylus, and whilst it has some advantages, I just can’t get on with it. Often my mind wanders and I end up doing other things on the device, losing focus on the meeting or event I’m attending.

Instead, I keep things old school and rely on an A5 notebook, all wrapped up in a Bellroy notebook cover. This includes space for business cards and associated papers, as well as handy pen loop for my trusty Parker pen. As with all things Bellroy the quality is excellent and it looks great.

Communications tools

I have four essentials here:

  1. My 2014 MacBookAir
    It just keeps on going, year after year, and never lets me down. I could go on about all the apps I use to get stuff done on the Mac but that’s for another article (if you’re interested of course).
  2. My iPhone X
    Yes, I’m an Apple fanboy, in part because of the practicality of all my devices integrating and seamlessly linking to each other (a big time saver when you work away from the office a lot). My phone rarely leaves my side and allows me to manage a wide range of business tasks whilst away from the office.
  3. My iPad Air 2
    It’s a bit old now (for a tech product) but it does the job. The one thing my iPad is essential for is paperless speaker notes when I am presenting. It connects to my Mac and Apple’s Keynote presentation software, allowing me to control a slidedeck and see my notes without needing to cull a forest for paper notes.
  4. My AirPods
    I do use them as headphones for music but the main benefit for me is as good in-ears for making a receiving phone calls. They enable clear phone calls with little wind noise or distortion from other external sounds.

Entertainment on the move

I love my music. By far and away the biggest memory hog on my iPhone is Apple Music downloads. Add in podcasts (Adam Grant’s WorkLife and the F1 Beyond The Grid are two essentials) and watching Netflix etc. when staying away from home, and a good pair of ear cans are vital for me.

My headphones of choice are a silver set of Bose QC35 II noice cancellers. I don’t do a flight without them and train journeys become an oasis of focus, peace and quiet. They are not cheap but worth every penny.

The other essential item is my Kindle Paperwhite. So much easier than carrying lots of heavy books around all the time – I rarely have just one book on the go at anytime.

Food and beverage

OK so these aren’t strictly everyday carry items – more like most days – but I’ve included them because I think it’s important we all try and do our bit to reduce our consumption of non-recyclable products and, as someone who travels a lot, these three items help me with that.

First up is a good water bottle. I use a Joseph Joseph 600ml one. Big enough for a proper drink but still able to fit in a bag.

Second, a reusable coffee cup. The Keep Cup I have from John Lewis is perfect. It doesn’t leak and it holds a 350ml coffee, the standard size in most UK coffee chains. I just wish someone would make a cup holder that I can attach to my bags and then clip this into.

Finally, a new addition to the collection, reusable bamboo cutlery. I got my set from eBay and it includes a knife, fork, spoon, chopsticks, straw and cleaning brush all in a handy canvas wrap. No more cheap plastic throwaway cutlery for me.

So there are my EDC essentials. I now have two questions for you:

  1. What are your EDC essentials?
  2. Would you like me to try other slightly off-topic themes for my articles? Volunteer management will always remain the core of what I write about but I’m open to trying new things.

Leave a comment below with your answers.

When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

I’m sat writing this article on 11 June 2019. My weather app tells me it feels like six degrees celsius outside (42.8F). It’s pouring with rain and blowing a howling gale.

On British summer days like this I wish there was an element of truth when I say to people “If I had £1 for every time I’ve heard someone ask if we should call volunteering something different…”. If it were true then, after 25 years in volunteer management, my view wouldn’t be of rainy England but something like this…

View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day
View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day

Yes, we’re still we having the same old debate. If we called volunteering something else wouldn’t it make it more attractive to non-volunteers? Wouldn’t it sound cooler and sexier, like GamesMakers did at the 2012 Olympics?

My answer is no.

Consider the term social action. This gets bandied about all the time here in the UK, especially in regard to young people. In the report into full-time social action for young people that was published in February 2018, social action was defined as being:

“…distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights.”

As I noted at the time:

”Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s). Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment). Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.“

Calling volunteering something different doesn’t solve a problem, it creates new ones. Every time we come up with a different term for volunteering we have to spend time, effort and energy explaining what it is so people understand it.

Look at what the report mentioned above found:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”.

As I observed at the time:

“In other words, whilst they may of heard of it (social action), half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem (i.e. volunteering)?”

What then is holding us back from rebranding volunteering as an alternative to inventing new words for it?

I think part of the problem is that organisations can have a very traditional, almost purist, approach to what is and isn’t volunteering. This then reinforces a traditional, outdated view of volunteering which isn’t attractive to people. For example, if valid volunteering requires a regular, long-term commitment to low level tasks then count me out. I want something more dynamic, flexible and meaningful that I can dip in and out of.

This traditional mindset can also impede the ability of volunteer managers to influence others, further limiting our ability to reclaim the v-word. As Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling pointed out in their 2007 article:

”Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the “true” or “real” volunteer.”

That’s why I have always loved the late Ivan Scheier’s definition of volunteering – doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good. It’s a personal definition. It implies organisations should start with what people want to do, the passions and experience they want to bring. It means creating roles with them that both meet our needs and fit with their availabilities and interests. It means a volunteering experience they enjoy, they find fulfilling and rewarding, and that doesn’t conform to the stereotype of old fashioned models of giving time.

John Ramsey, the founding chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, once said:

“Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities.”

John was talking about the need to keep debating what volunteering is because society is always changing and so, therefore, is volunteering. But John always came back to and used the term ‘volunteering’. He didn’t go down the linguistic equivalent of the emperors new clothes, with terms like social action. We mustn’t either.

We have to reclaim and re-brand the word ‘volunteering’ so that its essence isn’t lost or diluted as others try to give it new names.

That’s why I run a workshop called ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’. It gives people space to think hard about their fundamental beliefs on volunteering and what that means for their practice as leaders of volunteer engagement.

Sadly, ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’ is one of the sessions I am asked to do least. What a shame! It’s exactly the kind of session we need to ensure we resist clinging to an outdated, purist doctrine of volunteering in a fast changing world. It’s exactly the kind of session we need to help us inject new vitality and energy into the v-word.

Whilst it would be nice to get booked to run my philosophy workshop more often (hint hint!) there are other steps we can take to ensure the word volunteering remains relevant and important. Here are just two ideas:

  • When you hear another word for volunteering being used (e.g. social action, community action, time giving, pro bono etc.) ask why the v-word isn’t being used. Challenge any spurious distinctions being used to justify not calling something volunteering.
  • Keep abreast of how society is changing and what that means for volunteering. Years ago people giving short term commitments weren’t seen as valid volunteers, that status was reserved for the long-term, high commitment people. Those times have changed (thank goodness). How might today’s orthodoxies need to shift for the future?

What else would you add? What do you think about the use of v-word?

Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think.

Anatomy of an overseas trip

Anatomy of an overseas trip

This article will be a little different from my usual musings on volunteer management and leadership. I thought it might be interesting to give you a glimpse at what it is like doing an overseas work trip as a volunteer engagement consultant.

People often say how lucky I am to be able to travel with work, and I am. It’s a privilege to work with passionate Volunteer Managers around the world and to learn from their experiences. But travel overseas isn’t always the glamorous experience it might appear. So here is a warts and all summary of six nights away in the USA last month for the 2019 Points of Light conference.

16 June 2019

Arrive at Grantham railway station in Lincolnshire around 2pm for my train to London. Thanks to it being a weekend, first class is a cheap option so I won’t have an issue cramming my suitcase into limited the limited bag space down the back of the train. If only my flights were first class too!

Grantham station
Grantham station

London Kings Cross to Heathrow via the tube and Heathrow Express is blissfully uneventful. London is so much nicer at the weekend without all the commuters striving to be the first into the office (seriously people, what’s the rush?). The struggle comes in finding the Hotel Hoppa bus stop at Heathrow Terminal Three for the service to my hotel. The Hoppa service is a great idea but so confusing to understand for a UK resident and seasoned traveller like myself that I’m amazed foreign visitors, unfamiliar with the airport, can use it at all.

After waiting for 30 minutes the bus finally turns up and a short while later I am at my hotel and getting settled in for the night, knowing I have an early start in the morning.

17 June 2019

Alarm goes off at 450am. Another wait for the Hoppa bus back to terminal three, thankfully not half-an-hour this time.

The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3
The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3

Slightly worried to receive an email from American Airlines that my connection from Chicago to Minneapolis-St Paul has been brought forward. It was already a tight one hour and 45 mins, and that’s now been reduced by 20 minutes.

Breakfast and coffee at Heathrow before boarding a lovely new 787 Dreamliner to Chicago. I spent almost 17 hours on one of these from Perth (Australia) to London last year, so today’s eight hour flight time across the Atlantic will be a breeze.

Happily my flight leaves on time and, even better, looks likely to arrive 30-45 minutes early at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Unfortunately, as we are about 100ft off the ground the pilot has to go around because the plane landing before us hasn’t cleared the runway. That means another 30 minutes in the air and the hopes of making my tight connection take a blow.

As is typical at O’Hare, the border control queue is huge and takes ages to get through. I grab my suitcase and head for flight connections where they tell me I need to leave 45 minutes to get to my next flight as the usual train between terminals is closed for maintenance and I’ll have to re-clear security (TSA). With only 35 minutes until the connecting flight leaves, I reluctantly change my plans, re-checking myself and my bag to be put on standby for a 5pm flight (instead of my original 120pm departure) and confirmed on an 840pm fight. Endless additional hours at an airport await – such fun!

The replacement bus service (it isn’t just the UK that does these then) gets me to terminal three where I jump on the free wifi to: tell the person in Minneapolis who is picking me up that I’ll be later than planned; and advise my keynote co-presenter (the brilliant Beth Steinhorn) that I will miss that evening’s technical run through.

But what’s that airport tannoy announcement saying? Turns out my 120pm flight has been delayed to its original departure time of 145pm, about ten minutes from now. I rush to the gate and explain the situation to the gate agent – who puts me on the flight! Happy days. Much frantic messaging ensues before takeoff to rescind my earlier delay notifications.

After all that stress I arrive at Minneapolis-St Paul pretty on time. Sadly, my suitcase doesn’t, having been re-checked for one of the later flights. American Airlines make arrangements to get it back to me, hopefully that evening, and I head off to the hotel.

Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA
Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA

Checking in I explain the bag situation and ask them to take the bag in for me, even if it arrives in the middle of the night, so I don’t have to stay awake – no point making the jet lag worse. No time to rest though, as I head straight out for the technical run through with Beth and get first sight of the room where tomorrow morning we’ll be doing our keynote address to 750 people.

The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through
The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through

I then connect with my friend Barry Altland for an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for some sleep. At this point I’ve been up for about 22 hours, it’s 9pm, I have no suitcase and I need to be up at 5am as we have a final technical run through at 7am ahead of the main session at 830am. All of which means I am delighted to see an email telling me my suitcase is due to arrive at 330am!

Please make the glamour of overseas travel stop!

18 June 2019

After a few hours of bad sleep I wake at 145am having dreamt my suitcase has arrived, but was empty. I check my email and see a message that my bag has indeed been delivered. I dash down to reception where I am re-united with my clean clothes and other essentials! I unpack at 2am and grab three more hours of sleep.

My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference
My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference

After a final early morning tech run through, the keynote address kicks off on time and is a success. We showcase examples of volunteer managers as catalysts of change, featuring three stories on video and two in person thanks to our guest speakers, Jess and Joanne. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive, which is gratifying after six months of preparatory work to pull the session together.

Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
The opening pleanry in full swing
The opening pleanry in full swing
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh

After lunch at the food truck festival outside the venue I get to attend a session by the amazing Dana Litwin on dealing with volunteer problem behaviour, by way of cuddling penguins (or stabby footballs as Dana calls them) and a bit of singing (I said Dana was amazing).

Next up is meeting my friend Tony Goodrow, CEO of Better Impact, to discuss two possible work projects over a beer and dinner. Then straight to the Al!ve and Better Impact networking reception. I get to meet in person a few people I have known online for a while as well as re-connect with fellow blogger Meridian Swift.

Sleep comes easily when I finally reach my bed.

19 June 2019

Oooh, I get a lie-in this morning – until 6am!

Given the six hour time difference to the UK I spend breakfast dealing with email and social media before the three block walk back to the River Centre in downtown St Paul.

American conference centres are huge!
American conference centres are huge!

The morning is more sessions and networking following lunch at the food trucks again, catching up with fellow Volunteer Managers in the sunshine to the sounds of an esoteric DJ who the conference organisers have hired.

In the last session of the day I go from attendee to presenter, delivering (for the first time) my workshop, “All Volunteer Mangers Are Liars”. It seems to go across well with the 150 people in the room with yet more lovely feedback. I do like the willingness of American’s to be effusive with their praise if you do a good job.

Well branded podiums in all the rooms
Well branded podiums in all the rooms

That’s the formal programme done but it’s straight to the Intercontinental Hotel for a reception hosted for funders to which I have been invited. From there, Beth and I head out for dinner to reflect on yesterday’s keynote and discuss the thorny issue of payments for volunteers and how the rules and practices vary between the USA and UK.

Once again, I don’t struggle to sleep!

20 June 2019

Up at 6am again, clearing messages from back home before heading to the conference venue for my 830am “Philosophy Of Volunteering Workshop”. This is one of my favourite sessions to run. 150 of us have ninety minutes of fun, challenge and great conversation about the values and beliefs we have about volunteerism.

Over coffee I have a revelation in event catering as the snacks provided are maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. How have I lived for 45 years without these?!

Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!
Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!

Before we know it the 2019 Points of Life Conference concludes with a very American closing session featuring cheering, a singer, a TV news anchor, the brother of a former US President and the announcement that the 2020 conference will be in Washington DC. I’m left wondering how that style of closing event would go down at home.

The conference may be over, but work isn’t. I catch up with fellow Energize Inc. Associate Betsy McFarland who I had the privilege of seeing present a workshop earlier in the week. Betsy heads off for her flight home and I get stuck into work I need to catch up on after three days at the conference.

Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week
Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week

I treat myself to dinner at a restaurant I like in St Paul which happens to be next to the park where the city’s jazz festival is kicking off. Despite the wet weather a big crown has turned out for a rather good latin jazz band.

21 June 2019

Rising early again means I have the best part of a day until I fly home. So getting to experience the St Paul legend that is Mickey’s Diner for a late breakfast with Meridian Swift is a welcome distraction from hours of boredom before meeting my lift back to the airport.

The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340
The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340

My flight to Philadelphia passes uneventfully and I easily make my connection to a British Airways flight to London, even having time for a quick meal before the scheduled departure at 10pm. All of which means I’ve spent 15 hours awake before I even get on the plane that will take me back to the UK. There is nothing more glamorous than sitting in hotels and airports on your own waiting to go home (disengage sarcasm mode).

22 June 2019

BA do their thing and get us into Terminal Five at Heathrow nicely ahead of schedule. The connections to Kings Cross go smoothly, too smoothly in fact as I end up with over an hour to kill before my train home.

I finally make it back home about 2pm, six days from when I left. By the time I go to bed I have been awake more than 36 hours and have just the Sunday to recover before I drive to Liverpool on Monday to run some training for a client. This trip may be over, but the next is about to begin.


Movies watched in flight on this trip:

  • Flags Of Our Fathers – very good
  • Fighting With My Family – amusing
  • Captain Marvel – best Marvel movie so far, imho
  • Bumblebee – meh
  • Widows – excellent