Risk – learn to love it

FeaturedRisk – learn to love it

Risk is everywhere. From dawn to dusk we live with risk all around us. Consider – 450 people in the USA die from falling out of their beds each year and more than 1,000 people die every year in the UK after falling down stairs?

How do you respond to that information? Will you now avoid going to bed or using stairs? I doubt it. Instead, armed with that knowledge, you’ll adapt to the risks you face and respond accordingly.

“The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen” – The Oxford English Dictionary definition of risk

Likewise, if you know electricity and water don’t mix then you don’t sit in the bath with an electric fire on the edge of the tub. If you know what a car does when it hits a human body, then you’re likely to wait for the crossing to be clear rather than just wandering into traffic. This is risk management.

Risk avoidance, not management

Yet that isn’t how risk plays out when it comes volunteering. All too often I see organisations practice risk avoidance, not risk management. To continue our examples, they avoid bed, avoid stairs, avoid baths (no wonder these organisations stink!) and avoiding crossing roads, never seeing the possibilities on the other side of the street.

A story from New Zealand

I saw a wonderful – but maddening – illustration of this in New Zealand last year.

A lady I met volunteers with two environmental organisations, located on opposite sides of a road. One organisation is community run, the other is a local government run. In the community organisation, volunteers use all the machinery and equipment (there are no paid staff), but only once they have been properly recruited and trained. In the local government project volunteers are not allowed to use the machines and equipment because it is deemed too risky – only the paid staff can use it. It doesn’t matter if they are trained and qualified to use the kit from the organisation across the road (and many people volunteer for both groups), because they are unpaid their use of the machinery is too much of a risk.

Three lessons this story teaches us

  1. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because they are volunteers. If someone does not get paid it does not mean they are less competent. Pay, and how much someone is paid, is not a determinant of competence.
  2. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because of ignorance about good volunteer management practice. Competent Volunteer Managers recruit the right people for the role, equip them with the training, skills and tools to do the job properly and safely, and regularly check in to make sure everything was going OK. They manage risk.
  3. Organisations miss out on a huge pool of talent, ideas and resources to fulfil their missions if they practice risk avoidance. Not allowing volunteers to do something because there might be a risk is not the same as being cautious and taking steps to minimise that risk.

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

Of course, not every organisation thinks this way, but many do. I passionately believe that if we lead and manage volunteers then need to advocate more forcefully to overcome such ignorance and prejudice towards volunteers.

An example from Australia

Last year I had a workshop participant explain that her organisation wouldn’t let volunteers do a certain role because they can’t get insurance for it. I urged her to go back to the organisation and explain that insurance is not risk management. Insurance provides a pay out if risk management fails.

I urged them to go back and lobby for some proper risk management to take place, asking questions like:

  • How big a risk would it be for a volunteer to do that role?
  • What might happen if things go wrong?
  • How likely is that?
  • What could they do to reduce the likelihood?
  • Are they comfortable with the retained, net risk?

The point being that the organisation could probably secure insurance cover if it could demonstrate good risk management. Not doing so actually revealed a resistance to engaging volunteers – insurance was just the excuse.

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

Looking back history we can see the huge societal changes that have come about because volunteers took a risk. For example, one hundred years ago women in the UK gained the right to vote because many people took huge risks volunteering to fight for that right. Today, volunteers serve in risky situations and save lives doing so – look at lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and volunteer firefighters across the globe, to name just three examples.

We need to learn to love risk, to embrace it as a marker of the potential for the world to be changed.

We need to help our organisation rediscover their pioneering, life changing, world shaking possibilities.

The potential of those who give time to transform the world is too great for us to stay silent.


Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

The 2018 Volunteer Management Progress Report (VMPR) is full of insights about volunteer leadership and management.

Now in its third year, the VMPR is the only tool that explores global trends and issues that leaders and managers of volunteers face.

Key findings

The four most striking findings from the 2018 report are:

  1. The satisfaction of Volunteer Managers and their intent to stay in the profession directly relates to how engaged their co-workers are in supporting volunteer engagement.
  2. Those who lead and manage volunteers are spending less time doing so, often because they have other responsibilities beyond their volunteer management duties.
  3. Almost 10% of respondents have no budget for volunteer management and 21% don’t know if they have such a budget!
  4. Diversity is an issue, both amongst those who lead and manage volunteers and amongst volunteers.

”Volunteer Retention is a Challenge on the Rise – Anecdotally, leaders of volunteers increasingly note the challenge of maintaining volunteer involvement over longer periods of time and point out that volunteers increasingly appear to prefer short-term, episodic assignments.”


According to the report, the top five challenges leaders of volunteers face are:

  1. Recruitment: Finding enough volunteers & the right volunteers for specific roles
  2. Respect and “Buy-In”: Lack of executive support /understanding & co-worker resistance to volunteer involvement
  3. Retention: Fulfilling commitments to service & volunteers “aging out”
  4. Roles & Matching: Designing impactful roles & meeting volunteer interests
  5. Time: Splitting time between competing priorities & not enough paid staff

If the findings and challenges from VMPR 2018 ring true for you then we can help.

How we can help you

Since 2011, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd have been engaging and inspiring people to bring about change, delivering expert support that is passionate about the potential of people. Our consultancy and training services are aimed at helping you give people a great volunteer experience, make the most of the valuable time they give you and, above all, achieve your goals.

We have training courses and workshops directly related to the top challenges from VMPR 2018. Here are just five examples:

  1. ‘Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers’ will help you recruit and retain volunteers in our ever-changing world
  2. ‘From The Top Down for Volunteer Managers’ will help you influence peers and senior managers to lobby effectively for volunteer engagement
  3. ’Developing Meaningful Roles For Volunteers’ will help you create great volunteer roles that will attract and keep volunteers
  4. ‘Time and Productivity Management for Volunteer Managers’ will help you manage yourself and your work for maximum impact
  5. ‘Measuring Volunteering’ will help you build a case for more support as well as provide more meaningful recognition to your volunteers

Learn more and get in touch

For more details download a copy of our training information, testimonials and rates or get in touch to discuss your needs and how we can help through our consulting services. We’d love to hear from you and help you reach even greater success in delivering roles that make a difference for your volunteers, your organisation and it’s clients.

Nine reasons the Steve Holiday report into full-time social action is a disappointment

Nine reasons the Steve Holiday report into full-time social action is a disappointment

February 3rd saw the publication of Steve Holiday’s much anticipated report into Full-Time Social Action (FTSA) for young people. The report is the result of an independent inquiry into full-time volunteering commissioned by the government a little over a year ago. It is the same piece of work I mentioned in a recent article on this blog that looked back on 2017.

I started drafting this article shortly after reading the report but have held off publishing it until now to allow myself to calm down and reflect on the contents. You see my initial response was mix of anger, disappointment and frustration. Whilst there is some good in the report, much of it is weak and, frankly, poor. So here, tempered by a few days of reflection and re-writing, are my top nine reasons (in no order of importance) for feeling so disappointed by the report.

1 – No mention of family volunteering

Whilst it speaks about the role of government and education providers in encouraging young people to embrace volunteering, the report barely mentions the importance of families. Family volunteering is recognised as great way to instil values of service and volunteerism in young people, yet it doesn’t even warrant a mention. Yet again, an initiative to explore engaging more young people in volunteering places all responsibility on the state.

2 – The role of National Citizens Service (NCS)

I am concerned that the Holiday report places too much emphasis on NCS as a framework for developing full-time volunteering. I worry about the independence of a report commissioned by government that seeks to strengthen the argument for a government scheme, funded in excess of £1billion, and with big questions still to be answered about its efficacy. Whilst I see the sense in not creating yet another new organisation, questions still remain about the effectiveness and value for money of NCS. For example:

  • A key NCS volunteering metric is that eight million hours of volunteer time have been given. However, nothing is said about the impact that time had and the difference it made to young people and their communities.
  • 64% of NCS graduates would consider engaging in social action. This is touted as a success but, as I argued in my recent article about the problem with volunteering pledges, considering future engagement in volunteering does not mean they will actually go on and do more volunteering.

3 – Quality vs. quantity

Throughout the report there are calls for further evidence before action is taken. Yet this demand for evidence weakens significantly when it comes to discussion as to whether the quality of a volunteer experience is more important than how many people engage in volunteering, and how such time they give.

“Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity. However, intuitively, the more a young person engages in voluntary activity, the greater the impact will be – although we need more research to substantiate this belief.”

Basic common sense would argue that if the quality of the experience is not good then it doesn’t matter how many people participate, they will not gain from it as much as they would if they had a great experience. Evidence surely isn’t needed to substantiate this?

Furthermore, I noticed in the call for evidence responses on page fourteen of the report (“What impact does full time social action / volunteering have on young people and providers in comparison to part time social action / volunteering?”) that the arguments for full-time volunteering over part-time volunteering relate to how well designed volunteer roles are (quality) and not how long people spend doing them (quantity).

4 – A missed opportunity regarding volunteering infrastructure

Page six of the report briefly notes the the inadequacy of infrastructure support to help young people engage in volunteering.

Since 2010 funding for volunteering infrastructure in England has been slashed, resulting in the closure of many local Volunteer Centres and, in many, cases a reduced service from those that remain.

It would have been good for an independent report such as this to acknowledge that the impacts of austerity on volunteering infrastructure have had, and will continue to have, long-term and significant effects on support for young people to engage in part- or full-time volunteering.

5 – Recommendation two – is there an echo in here?

“To ensure that social action is accessible to all, we recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions supports Job Coaches, to proactively inform young people who are Universal Credit claimants of their right to reduce their job-seeking hours up to 50 percent to participate in voluntary activities. We also favour extending this right to all benefit claimants and ask that the crucial role of volunteering is better recognised by this department. The Department for Work and Pensions should explore this and report back on implementation plans within 12 months.”

Different words may have been used on this occasion but that’s the same recommendation countless reports have made to the Department for Work and Pensions and it’s predecessors over the last 20 years. Still nothing has changed.

Reading the DWP ‘ statement in the report – which I can only assume is included to show they are responsive – I am struck by their failure to acknowledge that the rules aren’t the problem, it is how individual advisers interpret them. Doing what we have always done will get what we have always got. New thinking is needed to get DWP to change and I see no evidence of that here.

6 – Recommendation four – I’m sorry, what?!

“…the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should lead an activity with NNVIA, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers and V-Inspired to develop non-mandatory guidelines specific to 16-25 year olds with support and encouragement from government. This could include of ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses, setting realistic targets, good recruitment and safeguarding processes and reiterating that completion of social action programmes does not guarantee employment. Furthermore, they should develop a plan that encourages charities to operate transparently with young people, and encourage charities to provide better information, advice, guidance and support to young people during their social action journey.”

Whatever this ill defined activity is, this kind of work has been ongoing since Millennium Volunteers was conceived in the late 1990s. Exhibit one, the 1996 book pictured below from the National Centre for Volunteering, based on a year-long research project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996
Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996

I can’t help but think that energy directed towards this recommendation will reinvent wheels. Much better would have been a focus on helping Volunteer Managers to create relevant and engaging full-time volunteering opportunities and support them in challenging the institutional barriers many would face in doing this e.g. paid staff feeling threatened that full-time volunteers will take their jobs.

Recommendation four demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding about volunteering and volunteer management, not surprising given no leaders of volunteers were on the inquiry panel.

7 – Recommendation eight – know your history

I was astounded to read this in recommendation eight of the report:

“…FTSA programmes are still in their infancy in the UK…”

Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters, has been running full-time volunteering programmes since 1962. Something fifty-six years old is hardly in its infancy!

8 – What about the clients?

The report talks extensively about the benefits of full-time volunteering to the volunteers and the organisations that involve them. Not once does it mention any benefit to the clients and beneficiaries of the organisations people volunteer for.

In fact, the only time this ever gets a mention is a point made (I assume by a young person) in the consultation with young people (page 17) which says:

“…full time social action opportunities need to have greater impact, led and developed by the communities they work within.”

Cliched it may be, but volunteers want to make a difference to the lives of others. Missing this element from the discussion of full-time volunteering is a significant omission.

9 – What’s in a word?

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted I have talked throughout this article about volunteering, not social action. That’s because I am a firm believer that we do not need a new word for volunteering. What we need is to reframe volunteering so it is more relevant for people.

Page fifteen of the report states:

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

In other words, whilst they may of heard of it 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?

Furthermore, on the same page, social action is shown as distinct from volunteering by this statement:

“Social action is 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. It is often personal to each young person, and that is the biggest motivating factor to getting involved.”

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.

Because volunteering is never a personal act. I’d give an example to challenge this but I don’t even know what point is being made. How is giving your time not a personal act?

Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.
Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.

So there you have it. As you can tell, I am less than impressed. But what do you think of the Holiday report? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment below.

And before I go, for a different spin on the Holiday report, take a look at Shaun Delaney’s assessment on the NCVO website.

Borderline stupidity

Borderline stupidity

Do volunteers have a place monitoring and securing the UK border? That is the question raised by a new idea under consideration by the UK Government – “Border Force Special Volunteers”.

Border force volunteers?

According to the BBC, who reported this story on 31 December 2017, there are concerns about the UK Border Force’s capacity to cover smaller ports and entry places into the country. An assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, published in July 2017, looked at 62 normally unmanned ports on the east coast and found that Border Force officers had not visited 27 of the sites between April 2015 to June 2016.The report also revealed the number of clandestine migrants detected at the ports had almost doubled in 12 months.

One option under consideration to plug this gap is a scheme similar to the Special Constables, often volunteers who work for Police Forces throughout the UK. The Home Office has said that if it was to introduce volunteers, they would be used to “bolster” Border Force staffing levels and would not be used by Immigration Enforcement.

A UK Border Force employee

In response to these ideas, the Conservative MP for Dover & Deal, Charlie Elphicke, was reported by the BBC as saying, “We can’t have a Dad’s Army-type of set-up”, bringing to mind the much-loved British sitcom about bumbling, incompetent WW2 Home Guard volunteer soldiers.

Mr Elphicke, went on to say that he would:

“Urge great caution before seeking to adopt a model like that used by the police, with special constables. Border security is a skilled job, which takes many years of training.”

There are two things that concern me about this idea which, to stress again, is currently under consideration and not due for immediate implementation.

My first concern

First, I find Mr Elphicke’s remarks astoundingly insulting to volunteers. As a politician, volunteers are essential to Mr Elphicke’s work. They are the ones who knock on doors and beat the streets campaigning for him at election time. He represents a constituency where there is a strong culture of volunteering, where people give of their time to help others and strengthen the community.

Yet Mr Elphicke chooses to caricature volunteers as bumbling, incompetents like those in Dad’s Army. He further suggests that border security is a skilled role and so incompatible with the model used in the Special Constabulary.

I assume the police would disagree with Mr Elphicke’s inference that being a Special Constable is an unskilled role. A quick look at the Kent Police website (Mr Eplhicke’s constituency is in Kent) makes it clear that Specials in the county have to undergo training lasting six to eight months, including 12 days on operational attachments and eight training modules, four of which are two-day weekend sessions. This hardly implies an unskilled role.

Two special constables
Two special constables

My second concern

My second concern is the thinking that developed this idea in the first place. This idea smacks of a ‘volunteers are free / cheap’ mindset.

I’m all for volunteers being involved in significant roles in society. The extent of volunteer involvement in public services in the UK is always vastly underestimated and without volunteer effort many aspects of daily life in the country – such as education, health and social care, coastguard and criminal justice – simply wouldn’t operate in the same way.

Volunteers don’t always complement and supplement paid staff, they can do things paid staff cannot. But I see no evidence of this in the Home Office’s thinking, at least as far as the story about the UK Border Force has been reported. I see no evidence of anyone exploring why volunteers would be the best way to meet the need identified in the July assessment by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

Here are just two questions I’d like an answer to:

  1. What is it that volunteers would bring to these roles that paid staff can’t?
  2. If the money was there, would paid staff be hired rather than volunteers?


What this story illustrates is a likely lack of intelligent thought behind why volunteers should be involved in roles such as the proposed Border Force teams. Perhaps the Home Office should engage some expert support on volunteering to help them think this through? I wonder who might be able to help 😉

The story also highlights the ignorance of an elected official who most likely spouts platitudes about volunteering in his constituency and his parliamentary work but reveals his apparent ignorance in his remarks on this matter. I suggest Mr Elphicke spends some time with volunteers in his constituency to further his education about the importance of their work to this country.

Three things I said to look for in 2017 and what happened

Three things I said to look for in 2017 and what happened

In January last year I wrote a blog post sharing my thoughts on three things to look for in UK volunteering in 2017. They were:

  1. The review of the flagship National Citizens Service (NCS) scheme
  2. A predicted boom in online volunteering
  3. The Westminster government review into full-time social action (aka volunteering)

So, what happened?

NCS review

The review, conducted by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), reported in March 2017 and did not make comfortable reading. As Civil Society reported:

“An influential committee of MPs has published a highly critical report into the National Citizen Service, and its chair has called on government to carry out a fundamental review before spending any money on the programme.”

The full PAC report can be accessed here. Whilst they acknowledge progress since NCS started in 2011, the committee found that:

  • Work is required if National Citizen Service is to become a sustainable investment in young people.
  • The programme “may no longer be justifiable” if it is unable to meet its targets for increasing the number of participants, or achieve its long-term societal aims – both at a cheaper cost per head – noting that the NCS Trust and DCMS cannot justify the “seemingly high” cost per participant.
  • The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), which has overall responsibility for NCS, lacks the data to measure long-term outcomes of the programme or understand what works.
  • The NCS Trust paid providers some £10 million in 2016 for places that were not filled and expresses disappointment at the Trust’s “relaxed attitude about the non-recovery of these funds”.
  • There were concerns about the transparency and governance of the Trust, and finds it is “unclear” whether the Trust has the skills and experience necessary to oversee growth of the NCS programme.

Michael Lynas, Chief Executive of the NCS Trust was reported in Civil Society as saying:

“We are considering all the recommendations in this report carefully and will work closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and our other partners to deliver them and make NCS a normal part of growing up for young people in our country.”

Despite all this NCS continues apace and received Royal Charter status during the year. I wonder if any other body receiving over £1billion of public money would get away as lightly as NCS seems to have done last year?

(NB – in the interests of fairness it should be noted that coverage of a recent report into the value for money of NCS has suggested the scheme is moving in a positive direction).


A boom in online volunteering?

Towards the end for 2016, Vicki Sellick, Director of Nesta’s innovation lab, wrote:

”My prediction is that 2017 might just be the year of micro-volunteering and data donation, with cheap technologies allowing everyone to volunteer from home for short and sweet periods of time, no matter how much time they have to give.”

Well, I have seen no evidence that online and microvolunteering has boomed this year. Personally, I’ve come across just as many volunteer managers in 2017 who face significant challenges in developing their volunteering offers to fit microvolunteering models or embrace online technologies.

As long as organisations continue to underinvest in volunteer engagement this will continue. Leaders of volunteers are largely enthusiastic about utilising technology to innovate and develop the work of volunteers. The problem is they consistently come up against boards and senior managers who don’t understand the modern realities of volunteering and fail to resource this essential work adequately. That, coupled with many organisations practising risk avoidance as they live in fear of technologies they don’t understand, is causing much frustration amongst leaders of volunteers.

All that said, I’d be happy to stand corrected if independent data can be produced to show that online volunteering has boomed in 2017. I think I’ll be waiting for a while though as our most reliable volunteer data, The Community Life Survey, changed methodology recently and so is no longer trackable with data produced since 2001. That and it never asked specifically about online volunteering anyway!

Review into full-time social action

This review, much touted at the start of 2017, finally got underway in September after delays resulting from the Prime Minister calling June’s snap general election.

The call for evidence closed on 13 October and the review panel are analysing the feedback they received. I would anticipate a final report sometime in early 2018.

Until then, I commend to you NCVO’s thoughtful responseto the review’s call for evidence. This sums up many of my own thoughts about the review and I wait with interest to see what recommendations will result from the panels work.

So, there you have it. Three interesting issues during 2017 and what actually happened (or didn’t). What were your volunteering highlights of 2017 and what are you looking forward to in 2018? Share your thoughts below.

Two reasons why another pledge to volunteer won’t transform volunteering

Two reasons why another pledge to volunteer won’t transform volunteering

2018 was just two days old when the almost inevitable pledge to volunteer was issued. This time, the International Voluntary Service (IVS) launched a volunteer pledge, calling on the public to say they will volunteer this year. As Civil Society Media reported:

“IVS is running the campaign, with a budget of £20,000. The campaign aims to combat the decline in volunteering after figures published last year by the Office for National Statistics that show that volunteering levels have declined by 15 percent over a decade.”

A number of high profile charities are supporting the pledge, including Oxfam, Royal Voluntary Service, PDSA, Leonard Cheshire, Volunteer Scotland and Sense Scotland. Knowing these organisations, I am sure the pledge is well intentioned – they would not support it otherwise. But it isn’t what we need if we want to see a transformation of volunteering in 2018.

Here are just two reasons why.

  1. Pledges do not necessarily result in action. The great British public are ever generous with their time and money, but both of those resources are harder and harder to spare. So, when asked to consider volunteering, many people say yes and then struggle to turn their good intentions into action.In the coming weeks we will no doubt hear how many people have responded to this pledge and, on one level, that will be a good thing. But past experience teaches that the number of those who actually go on and give their time will be far lower.

Which brings me to my second point…

  1. Asking people to give time isn’t the answer. Many already do, we are a generous nation with volunteering written into the fabric of our society, however invisible that may be on a day-to-day basis. What we need is a shift in the attitude and approach of Volunteer Involving Organisations.A shift that doesn’t blame the public for not volunteering, recognising instead that people don’t want to give some of their precious time to do what so many organisations are offering.A shift which recognises the experience people have and what they achieve is more important than how many people volunteer and how many hours are given.

    A shift that sees volunteer involving organisations creating new, different roles that meet the availabilities, interests, skills and passions of today’s volunteers.

    A shift that sees proper investment in volunteer engagement, not merely platitudes and lip-service from sector leaders, politicians and funders.

In conclusion, I commend IVS and their partners for giving volunteering some attention as 2018 gets underway, but call on everyone in the sector to use this year to recognise that change will not come from campaigns like this.

If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation change to meet the demands of 21st Century volunteers then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.