Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

FeaturedAdvocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Twenty years ago this month, Susan J Ellis published a Hot Topic article about advocating for volunteer involvement, focusing specifically on the role funders can play. It’s such a great read and still so relevant I am republishing it below as a ‘guest’ post.

Please read Susan’s thoughts and leave a comment to add to the discussion.


No matter how long I work in this field, I simply will never understand why so few of our attempts at educating decision-makers seem to stick. We are constantly repeating our advocacy efforts whenever new executives come on board — too often starting again at square one. I actually discussed this in 1999 in my August Hot Topic. This issue is once again “hot” because of a recent rash of inexplicable budget cuts, reorganising decisions, and other actions severely limiting or even eliminating volunteer program resources that — to those of us in the field — seemed to be successful and effective. In almost every case, the changes have been done rapidly and with no apparent thoughtfulness or sense of consequence.

There are a number of key misconceptions that continue to fuel ignorant decision-making. We have to find ways to emphasise the following:

Volunteer Involvement Is NOT:

  • Free
  • A second choice
  • An alternative to adequate paid staffing
  • Simply a part of fundraising or development
  • Exactly like paid personnel management, or completely separate from it
  • Basically a problem of recruitment, not of organisational competence
  • Dying, old-fashioned, or unattractive to skilled people
  • A low-level management function that anyone can do
  • Something the paid staff welcomes or is capable of supporting
  • A responsibility that can be done as an “add on” to the job of an already-overworked employee
  • Extremely hard to control, measure, or hold to high standards
  • Self-evidently good PR, no matter how volunteers are treated
  • Inherently risky
  • Synonymous with the “nonprofit” or “voluntary” sector (or NGOs)
  • Always labeled “volunteering”
  • “Uniquely American”

But It IS:

  • Universal and international
  • A specialty management area
  • As effective as the thought and effort put into it
  • Too often under-utilised and undervalued
  • A way to expand the talents and skills available to an organisation
  • Access to perspectives specifically different from those of paid staff
  • Intimately related to:
    • Fundraising
    • PR / Visibility
    • Outreach
    • Client development
  • Something Executive Directors and the Board need to consider
  • A part of the resource mix
  • A way to dream and experiment with new service ideas
  • A way to demonstrate an organisation matters to the community

Over time, I have come to believe that funders have an obligation to force executives to make better decisions about volunteers. If foundations, major donors, and government agencies insisted on appropriate integration of volunteers in service planning and delivery, I predict we’d see immediate attention to volunteer management issues.

Jane Leighty Justis is crusading on this very topic in the foundation world, as she explained in an interview in e-Volunteerism last year. I agree with her advocacy and propose that, collectively, we find ways to get funders to:

  1. REQUIRE all grant proposals to include a section on how volunteers will be involved in the new project.
  2. ENCOURAGE requests to fund the position of volunteer services manager.
  3. EXPECT reports on the degree of volunteer involvement achieved (quantity) and its impact (quality).
  4. REJECT proposals from organisations unwilling to consider how the right volunteers might expand the success of their programs.

It is my opinion that an organisation seeking gifts of cash while refusing donations of talent is not a good steward of resources. Since “money talks,” funders have a strong effect on the ways that agencies operate. If volunteer involvement becomes more integrated with organisational development, and is rewarded with more funds, then executives and other staff will seek education in how to do it the right way.

So the question this month is:

How might we reach funders and advocate for greater attention to volunteer involvement?


Susan’s original article can be found on the Energize website, along with all her monthly hot topics from 1997 to 2017. Energize was Susan’s business and is now a part of Adisa and led by the brilliant Betsy McFarland.

You can also access The Susan J Ellis archive, an online repository of Susan’s writing and resources she collected over her forty plus years working in volunteer engagement. The archive includes a list of free books available to download.

Subsequent to Susan’ writing this post, the Leighty Foundation did further work on funding volunteer involvement and published, “The Funder’s Guide To Investing In Volunteer Engagement”. You can find out more about this on their website.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

It is an issue that simply won’t go away. Whenever volunteering gets mentioned, it seems the issue of criminal record checks isn’t far away. For twenty-seven years they have been a part of my professional life, so I want to use this article to share some history and insights that, I hope, will help fellow leaders of volunteer engagement effectively screen volunteers who will be working with vulnerable people. Let’s dive in.

Whether they are DBS checks in England and Wales, PVG checks in Scotland, ANI checks in Northern Ireland or something else entirely depending on where in the world you are, criminal record checks (CRCs) will feature in discussions on volunteering at conference panel sessions; networking, learning, and development events for leaders of volunteer engagement; in the press; and on social media.

Yet, there was a time criminal record checks were almost impossible to do on volunteers here in the UK.

Back in the mid-1990s, I worked for Barnardo’s, supporting the involvement of volunteers who worked with vulnerable children and young people. We were one of the few organisations that could do CRCs, but the vast majority of volunteer involving organisations couldn’t. Instead, they applied several screening techniques to manage the risk to their clients from involving ‘unsuitable’ volunteers.

Within the context of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975) these included:

Application forms

When looking at a prospective volunteer, Volunteer Managers would pay close attention to the information supplied, looking for inconsistencies, gaps in employment records etc. and following these up with questions at interview (see below). They also checked the information supplied by the volunteer against other documents, such as…

References

Considerable care was taken to secure at least two good quality references. Usually, this involved one professional reference and one personal reference. The evidence from programmes like Big Brothers and Sisters in the USA indicates that personal referees are much more likely to reveal details of someone’s past that might prevent them from volunteering than previous employers fearful of litigation.

Canadian screening expert Linda Graff (now retired) often argued that references are a hugely under-used tool in screening, and her book “Beyond Police Checks” is still an essential read on volunteer screening and comes highly recommended.

Interviews

Ideally done by two people, interviews (whether you call them that or used softer language) were an essential screening tool. They provided the main opportunity to query information provided on application forms and in references, testing their validity and looking for anything that might flag up unsuitability to work with vulnerable people.

Supervision

Ongoing regular supervision to check on the volunteer, what they were doing, what they were struggling with, what support they needed etc. and to a formally or informally address issues that arose.

Formal reviews

Whether annually or more frequent, formal check points in addition to ongoing supervision were important to review the volunteers’ place and role within the organisation and to flag issues that might have arisen.

User and volunteer feedback

Looking for the views and opinions of service users and other volunteers, both on the whole scope of volunteer engagement and on the work of other volunteers. This was sometimes formally enshrined in whistle-blower policies.

Above all organisations — whether they had access to criminal record checks or not — employed a suite of tools to screen people wanting to volunteer with vulnerable people. They didn’t do one thing, they employed an ongoing process that continued when recruitment and onboarding finished. Critically, they spent time considering all these tools in the round to look for clues as to somebody not being a suitable volunteer.

To illustrate this point, I was once cross-checking the information provided in the criminal record check and volunteer application forms of a potential volunteer at Barnardo’s. All looked good at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that on one form the surname was Brown and on the other Browne. The dates of birth were also out by a day. We followed up with the person concerned and heard nothing more from them. Now, they might have been totally innocent and never responded because they’d changed their minds about volunteering. But, what if they had been deliberately trying to sneak through the system with misinformation, hoping nobody would spot it? Without that close attention to detail cross-referencing the two forms, we might never have spotted a potential risk to the vulnerable young people we served.

That’s how things used to be.

Then, in 1997, the Police Act came into force. Part five of the Act provided the legislative basis for wider access to criminal record checks via the Criminal Records Bureau (which later became the DBS in England and Wales). The CRB, followed by its successors across the UK, set out guidance and codes of practice on checking volunteers that explained who could be checked and at what level. These documents were seen as important to ensure that checking was only done where appropriate & necessary (keeping checks on volunteers free) and to set them within the proper context as just one tool within the wider screening systems organisations should use.

Yet despite this guidance, and almost twenty-five years since the CRC bodies we know and love (?) today came into existence in the UK, the advice and approach of some (many?) organisations is that all volunteers should undergo a criminal record check, regardless of the role they will be doing.

Aside from the fact that this isn’t allowed under CRC guidelines, these organisations behave as if a clearance from the DBS / PVG / ANI schemes is a guarantee that volunteers pose no risk to clients.

The old-school approach of employing a wide range of screening techniques, cross-referencing the information prospective volunteers supply to spot irregularities and possible causes for concern, has been replaced with too much faith being placed in CRCs. Today, the narrative and day-today practice around screening seems to be fixated with CRCs, almost always excluding any other screening method or combination thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, criminal record checks can be an important screening tool, and we should have access to them, but their value is only realised if they are used as part of a comprehensive screening process, not if they are the only screening process.

Of course, there are organisations out there doing great work screening volunteers well and effectively safeguarding vulnerable people with sensible use of all the screening tools they have, including CRCs. But too often I think some organisations remain reliant on CRCs, excluding everything else. Indeed, as I said in the first version of this article that I wrote back in 2012, I fear we’ve lost many of the skills and subtle understanding needed to properly safeguard vulnerable people because we’ve become too reliant on a single CRC that is out of date as soon as it is conducted.

So, in summary, the trouble with CRB checks is that: we have become worryingly reliant upon them; we gain a false sense of safety by conducting them; and consequently, we are less safe because of them.


What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

Have you got tips or stories to share on effective volunteer screening that goes beyond CRCs?

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experiences of criminal record checking, whether you agree with me or not.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

I’m thrilled to welcome Breauna Dorelus as guest blogger this week. Breauna has written a really insightful, thought-provoking and challenging article that I hope will get you reflecting on how you do what you do, and how our profession needs to change.

Over to Breauna.


Once upon a time, my compassion demanded more of me. It cornered me into making a decision that was a personal one but would redefine the way I viewed my role as a volunteer engager and as a connected member of this world.

See, I had come at a crossroads with constantly deciding if I wanted to uphold my professional role as a volunteer manager, or advocate for the community I was serving that often looked like me.

I made the decision that I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, between bringing harmful corporate transactional groups in with their photo ops and matching t-shirts, just to feel empty later because the volunteer opportunity we set up for them stroked their ego more than served our community, and just saying no.

I didn’t want to have the number of volunteer hours and individual bodies recruited to be the litmus test of what success, impact, and growth looked like.

Between managing a volunteer program or creating a movement.

I decided that I didn’t want to do either or. I wanted to bring a holistic community-centered approach to my heart work. I wanted to see myself in this work. This meant that I had to be willing to stand alongside my community and hold nonprofits and volunteer programs accountable for the harm I experienced as a practitioner while also being a community member.

It pushed me to go on a personal journey of internalized oppression and root out those parts of me that white supremacy culture kept bound and motionless.

I had to conclude that volunteerism was worth cherishing. That my love for service compelled me to say enough is enough.

I decided to tell the truth.

I’ve thought a lot about the role of the volunteer engager and have pondered on the 2021 theme for International Volunteer Managers Day “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary.” My heart and the sheer well-being of my community is calling me to push the space we inhibit beyond the “best practices” and beyond “but it doesn’t make sense” to what must be.

As a Black woman, who’s now dedicated my life to uprooting oppression in volunteerism and keeping it community-centered, I am openly asking you to go beyond kind and go beyond your perceived limitations.

I’m asking you to stop just talking about justice and equity, but instead do the work and hone into stepping up and latching onto what the world tangibly needs from us. This requires risk and sacrifice. I am taking a deep breath and believing that if you’ve made it this far you believe that harm hurts our mission. If it hurts our mission, you want to recognize and stop the harm.

I also want you to believe my voice and that this stems from a place of conviction and love for humanity. A love for the connection we uniquely have to this work.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to our profession embracing as we continue towards the future of volunteerism:

The nonprofit sector should not operate like we have a monopoly on service and volunteer managers are the gatekeepers of help. We never have and we never will. Serving one another has always been around and it’s always belonged to the community. We embody the help and helper simultaneously but, unfortunately, our sector has formalized serving and put up barriers to keep the privileged in the position of the giver and the community the constant given to.

Oftentimes this type of formalization chokes out the very organic and sacred flow between one another. It’s a necessity to learn from and partner with the storytellers, the community historians, and grassroots movements that oftentimes don’t even have a formal status. We must be willing to co-partner and give up power instead of using the relationships to extract for our own best interest.

What would it look like to collaborate and construct volunteer opportunities that directly benefit the communities’ goals? To build a coalition of volunteer engagers who work to re-establish volunteer protocol around applications and orientations so that barriers are broken for communities looking to volunteer with your organization?

We must be okay with not knowing the answers but recognizing that they are out there even if they don’t look like the traditional forms of learning we’re used to or from the types of people we’ve deemed acceptable to learn from.

Our personal journey to justice will affect our professional one. We understand that most volunteer managers are white and don’t have the same lived experience as those they mostly serve. Their lives are more aligned with their volunteer base, so oftentimes, it’s easier to lean towards our default and ask “how would I like to experience volunteerism” and use that to construct the experience.

Dedicating yourself to justice is bringing in and considering multiple voices and seeing them as worthy and experienced enough to glean from. And that work will not be confined to your professional nine-to-five. This is a practice, a constant relearning. The volunteers you interact with should not be expected to think differently about service if you aren’t leading the way and implementing the awakening in yourself.

For most individuals, your volunteer program and their connection with you may be the only opportunity they have to rethink what it looks like to serve well. Are you open to being their accountability partner or are you more focused on their feelings and making sure every condition is nice, dainty, cuddly, and entertaining? Are you willing to be a student of the cause?

Embrace that the future of volunteerism may not be anything like you’ve ever seen before. And that’s okay. A while ago I wrote down a brief version of how I see the future of volunteerism, with justice and community at the center and I’d love to share it with you.

The future of volunteerism will not be dependent on four walls. It will not have loyalty to an organization but allegiance to a cause. It will call out paternalism and will center the community, not the white hero. The traditional role of the giver and recipient will blur, will be unrecognizable. People will serve because they want to see justice win, and not just because it feels good to give. This sector needs to be challenged to continue looking at all ALL aspects of volunteer engagement through the lens of belonging, anti-racism, and justice and should continue to move the needle against the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The motivation will come from a place of unrest, perseverance, and radical love. It won’t be posted for likes. It will be a long game, not a transactional action. It will be seized by those who are willing to suffer and sacrifice and give up their traditional harmful mindsets and physical comforts for the sake of growth, change, and impact. It will be a lifestyle.

It will be woven into daily life. It will be the tool used to revolt against power and supremacy. When people meet, it will be common to ask their name and the cause they’re connected to. It will turn into what it was always supposed to be. The future of volunteerism is risky, radical, and inconvenient. Because justice will be served.

My type of excellence implies risk. I hope this isn’t a moment you feel like bowing out but a moment you feel invigorated to start on or continue the important work of uprooting harm from the inside out.. It’s worth it for the people. For all of our liberation.


Breauna Dorelus is the Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause, a consultancy dedicated to dismantling harmful volunteer practices implemented by nonprofits and volunteers towards Black and brown communities. Breauna believes in community inclusion in all aspects of the volunteer process, and has dedicated her work to ensuring that service is centered around co-liberation and not harmful charity.She believes that best practices may not be the best for all and that we must look at service through the lens of community-centered support in order to create a more just future.

Connect with Breauna on LinkedIn and on Instagram.

Join the community of volunteer leaders, volunteers and community members dedicated to rooting out oppression in volunteerism and creating a more just future of service.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Aiming for the wrong target

Aiming for the wrong target

Back In July, Third Sector magazine ran an article with the title, “Turning Covid-19 volunteers in to long-term volunteers” (the article sits behind a paywall so may not be available to all). When I read that headline for the first time, I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands, summoning up the will to read on.

I passionately believe that the premise of the headline is the wrong approach to be taking.

Rather than seeking to bend these people to our will — our desire for regular, long-term volunteers, either because we genuinely need them or we just can’t our won’t change the volunteer model we’re comfortable with — shouldn’t our initial response be to learn from what has happened during the pandemic and consider what changes we might need to make as a result?

‘Covid-19 volunteers’ are people across the UK who helped out their friends, neighbourhoods, and communities as the economic drivers that dictate how we live our lives were stripped away through furlough, lockdown, and social distancing. With no employment and commuting to do, they stepped up to help when the world turned upside down because it was the right and responsible thing to do. They did so in a highly flexible, often informal ways, encountering little bureaucracy — no forms, risk assessments and ad nauseam paperwork. That’s a million miles away from what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘volunteer’. In fact, I’d bet that many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ would never even see themselves as volunteers.

If we believe the narrative, many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ hadn’t volunteered before. Which begs the question: if they didn’t want to engage with the stereotypical, formal concept of volunteering before Covid-19, why would they suddenly have a change of heart when their experience since March 2020 has been so radically different from what many Volunteer Involving Organisations offer?

If all many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ had to do to get involved was respond to a social media post or WhatsApp message, why would they choose to engage with the endless bureaucracy many Volunteer Involving Organisations require?

To me, it’s misguided to assume that because people have volunteered during the pandemic they will be automatically interested in doing so in future, especially on our terms and not theirs. Because the truth is, if we want to engage these people as volunteers in future, we have to change and in significant ways.

Thankfully, the leaders of volunteer engagement interviewed for the Third Sector article didn’t engage with the premise of the question either and focused on some of those changes that are needed.

Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants, nailed it when Third Sector quoted her as saying, “Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy.” If any organisation is entertaining the idea of embracing volunteering post-pandemic, then they need to start not with themselves, but with the people they seek to engage. Forget our desire for long-term volunteers — how do people want to serve our cause, what works for them, and how can we incorporate that into our plans for the future?

I’m sure Third Sector meant well with their headline, and some may think I am over-reacting to eight words at the top of their article. But, as I have written many times before, language is important. What language coveys matters. And there will be people — probably some board members and senior leadership colleagues — who saw that headline and are even now going to their Volunteer Managers and demanding something be done to convert ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ into long-term, regular givers of time, in total ignorance of the futility of such an approach.

The challenges of the last eighteen months have been immense. More are sure to come. But the opportunities we face in volunteer engagement are equally exciting and significant. If we are to seize them, organisations need to start from the right place, with a sound understanding of reality and a real desire to change, not as naive belief that the volunteers of 2020 are just waiting to do our bidding in future.

Perhaps a better headline would have been “Turning organisations into something Covid-19 volunteers want to get involved with”?


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Three reasons why I’ve gone to a four day week

Three reasons why I’ve gone to a four day week

The four day working week. It seems to the discussion topic of the moment for many organisations as they grapple with what working life will be as we learn to live with Covid-19. And Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is no exception. I’ve been experimenting with a four day week from the start of September 2021 and I want to share three reasons why with you.

Reason one

It’s easy for me to do.

When it boils down to it, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is just me, Rob (hello!). I own and run the business and am it’s sole employee. I can work when I want to work, that’s the upside of being my own boss.

Until last summer I worked a five day week, with weekends protected as much as possible for family. Of course sometimes weekend working is necessary, and when I used to do long overseas work trips, every day ended up being a work day to some extent, sometimes for up to nine weeks straight!

In August 2020 I faced four months of intensive work with no time for a break until Christmas. So I switched to having one working day off every two weeks. That worked well and kept me refreshed and energised so I continued doing it into 2021. In light of that, making a move to a four day work week is not a huge shift in the number of days I already sit at my desk.

Reason two

I’ve gone to a four day week because it matches my workload.

I use an app called Tyme to record the hours I work. It doesn’t capture everything but all client work goes in there as well as most of the effort that goes into running, marketing and maintaining a small business. By analysing the data from Tyme on how many hours I work against the maximum number of hours I set myself to work each week, I can look back over the data for last five years and see that my average productivity is around 80%.

How did I work this out? Well, I set my work week to be five days of seven hours each, so a total of 35 hours a week. Over the last five years since I started using Tyme I have on average worked 28 hours a week. This accounts for some weeks which are much longer (for example when I was travelling overseas) and some where I had less client work booked in or was on holiday (vacation time can now be recorded in Tyme but this feature was only introduced last year).

What does this mean? Simply put, for every five day week I am — on average — getting enough work done to fill four working days. This explains why dropping one work day every ten hasn’t affected the business over the last year or had any negative impact on the quality of my work. (I can provide quotes from numerous happy clients to back that assertion up. If you’d like some, just ask me).

So, I’m going to experiment with dropping every week to a four day working week, matching my productivity with my working hours, and see how it goes.

Reason three

Life is about more than work. As the Four Day Week Campaign puts it on their website:

“We invented the weekend a century ago and it’s time for an update. Since the 1980s working hours have barely reduced at all, despite rising automation and new technology. We’re long overdue a four-day working week which would benefit our society, our economy, our environment and our democracy.”

My mum died in 2019 and I want to spend more time with my Dad. An extra day not at my desk each week can help me do that.

I don’t get the personal and professional development time I might have in a ‘normal job’ because my focus on delivering for clients takes priority. An extra day not at my desk each week can help me do that.

I want to make the most of those things we’ve been deprived of for the last eighteen months during the pandemic, going places and seeing people I love. An extra day not at my desk each week can help me do that.

I want reduce my carbon footprint. One less day a week of business travelling (when that starts to happen again), one less day a week with my computer on, one less day a week doing video calls, all of this will add up to a big change (I hope). An extra day not at my desk each week can help me do that.

I’d quite like more time to do some volunteering. An extra day not at my desk each week can help me do that.

Over to you

So there you have it, three reasons why I have moved to a four day working week. I’m not doing compressed hours but a proper four day week. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

Have you moved to a four day week? What benefits did it bring?

Is a four day week a topic of conversation in your organisation? Why?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.


You can find out more about the campaign for a four day week here.

These two articles may also be of interest:


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Our friends at the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) have recently published the latest report from their inclusive volunteering project. Whilst the report has it’s origin in the ongoing racial tensions in the USA, the findings have lessons for all of us engaging volunteers, and so we are pleased to share the following update from MAVA on our blog.


The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) has been conducting research and education on race equity in volunteerism for the past five years. Through our research we’ve learned that making small tweaks to problematic systems will not solve the issue of structural racism in volunteerism; instead we need to work with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities to co-create new systems that are rooted in equity.

MAVA was able to convene the necessary voices – community members and volunteers who identify as BIPOC – to learn more about systemic inequities in volunteer engagement and imagine new systems of volunteerism. We asked listening session participants about the barriers they perceived or experienced with regard to formal volunteer opportunities. Below are the barriers most frequently discussed throughout the listening sessions:

  • Formal systems, including forms, logging hours, background checks, and lengthy processes.
  • Time commitment and schedule.
  • A lack of compensation and incentives.
  • An unwelcoming environment.
  • Lack of trust in the organisation.
  • Not being invited to participate.
  • Prioritising the organisation over people.

MAVA was fortunate in that listening session participants not only shared with us their experiences, but also their ideas for advancing equity in volunteerism. Here is what we heard:

  • Create different ways of volunteering, which may include different pathways for different people, removing barriers, and/or compensating volunteers.
  • Prioritise leadership of people of colour at organisations engaging volunteers.
  • Build trust between nonprofit organisations and communities of colour.
  • Foster a welcoming environment and culture within the organisation and volunteer program.
  • Value people over organisation – put the community’s needs first.
  • Understand systemic barriers – tear down and re-build when necessary.

MAVA analysed the information provided through these listening sessions, reflected on our racial equity work in volunteerism over the past five years, and developed ideas for next steps to help you take action on the ideas communicated through these listening sessions.


At the organisational level

Advocate for equitable hiring practices at your organisation: Inform leadership of the importance of representation at both the staff and volunteer levels.

Promote an inclusive organisational culture by making equity, diversity and inclusion education a priority for you and your volunteers; speak up when you encounter biased or racist practices.


At the volunteer program level

Listen to voices from people of colour: Convene listening sessions of people of colour volunteers at your organisation and potential volunteers within new communities you would like to engage; compensate participants and let them know how you use the information they provide.

Review policies and systems with an equity lens, including your volunteer application, handbook, background check policies, onboarding system, training practices, and recognition.

Educate volunteers on race equity topics. Build antiracism into your new volunteer orientation and present additional trainings on a variety of race equity topics.

Build relationships in communities of colour: Reach out to culturally-led organisations in your area, be present at community and cultural events, and do the long-term work to build authentic partnerships based on mutual trust.


At the individual level

Prioritise your own equity education: If you have a budget for professional development, devote a significant portion to equity; spend time educating yourself through articles, books, movies, podcasts, and other resources.

Network with others doing work on race equity in volunteerism. Reach out to volunteer engagement colleagues at other organisations to help and support one another. Influence other groups or organisations you’re involved with.

Consider equity when encountering any volunteer systems, whether as a staff, volunteer, or community member, and challenge groups to prioritise equity in volunteerism.


These potential action steps are not designed to be prescriptive, but rather to offer volunteer engagement leaders ideas for how to use the information in this report to begin making change toward racial equity in volunteerism.

Find more information and download the full report here.

For further information contact DEI Program Manager Brittany Clausen.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

What is excellence?

What is excellence?

The 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day theme is, “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary”. This is a great question for our profession to engage with and one that’s long overdue for attention. Here’s why.

Volunteer management as a paid professional role has been around for about fifty years. For more than half of those I have occasionally asked fellow leaders of volunteer engagement to define what makes someone a good leader of volunteers. For example:

  • Is it our ability to engage with and relate to people as individuals?
  • Is it our ability set policies and procedure that support and safeguard volunteers?
  • Is it our advocacy for volunteering within our organisations?

Rarely do I get a clear answer and even rarer still do I hear any consensus from those I ask.

This means that five decades in, our profession still struggles to define and agree on what constitutes ‘good’ in our work. Given that excellence is, “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”, it would seem that we don’t actually have a benchmark of good against which excellent can be defined.

This is why an article Seth Godin wrote for the Tom Peters blog in 2010 resonated with me when I looked at this question of, “What is excellence?”.

Here’s what Seth says, along with my brief reflections on his observations:

“Excellence means that you’re indispensable. At least right now, in this moment, there’s no one else I would choose but you. You, the excellent one, are so surprising, so delightful, so over-the-top and, yes, so human that there really isn’t anyone else I’d rather dance with.”

Are you and your organisation indispensable in the sense that you are the first choice for volunteers? The experience you offer and the relationship you have with your volunteers is so delightfully human that you are their preference.

In our for-impact space that may sit a little uncomfortably with some as it might be construed as setting us above other organisations. I think that misses the point. This isn’t about competition — winning isn’t the point — it’s the taking part, the striving to be excellent so that we connect with people that matters.

“Excellence isn’t about meeting the spec, it’s about setting the spec. It defines what the consumer sees as quality right this minute, and tomorrow, if you’re good, you’ll reset that expectation again.”

Excellence in volunteer management isn’t about meeting someone else’s spec. It’s not about meeting some external standard, helpful as they may be (e.g., Investing in Volunteers or CCVA). Excellence is defining the spec — setting the standard — based on your knowledge of and relationship with volunteers and the community you serve. It’s about striving for excellence in your interactions with volunteers, meeting that every day, and pushing the standard ever higher in future.

“The surefire way to achieve excellence, then, is not to create a written spec and match it. The surefire way is to be human. To be artistic: to make a connection with the customer and to somehow change them for the better.”

Excellence in volunteer management is not about policies, procedures, forms, volunteer agreements and the like. Excellence is about connection, human connection that brings someone into a relationship with our organisation such that they can change the world, and themselves, for the better.

“To be excellent means you must be an artist. The art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. Artists do things that have never been done before. They dig deep to create passion. They connect by changing things for the better.”

I honestly can’t think of a better way of answering the question, ‘What is excellence?’, than by saying, “We connect by changing things for the better”.

It’s a powerful way of describing that leaders of volunteer engagement strive to do every day so that those we serve can change the world with their passion.

To sum up then, what is excellence in volunteer engagement? It means we must be an artist. We practice daily the art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. We do things that have never been done before. We dig deep to create passion. We connect by changing things for the better.

That’s excellence in volunteer engagement right there.

Do you agree?


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Has it all been said?

Has it all been said?

I’ve been regularly writing articles on volunteer engagement for over ten years now and I’ve started to wonder, has it all been said now?

Here’s some context. Since starting Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011:

  • I’ve written over 200 articles on my blog
  • For eight years I wrote a monthly column for Third Sector magazine
  • I’ve written quarterly Points of View articles for Engage with Susan Ellis and then Erin Spink, also for eight years.
  • I’ve written articles for people’s newsletters, journals and blogs at various points during the decade
  • I’ve co-written three books – two versions of ‘The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook’ and the UK edition of ‘From The Top Down’
  • I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve written on news articles, blog posts and the like

Looking back at all of that writing there are almost no volunteer management topics I haven’t touched on. This is unsurprising when two of the books I’ve been involved in have the word ‘complete’ in their titles!

I’ve written practical articles with tips and tricks for getting better at working with volunteers.

I’ve shared my opinions on issues and topics related to volunteering.

I’ve passed comment on government initiates, many of which have faded almost as fast as they appeared, to be replaced by something else which I also commented on.

I’ve (hopefully) challenged, rebuked, inspired, advised and informed.

So have others. Slowly but surely more people are writing about volunteer engagement, adding their perspectives and insights to our growing library of professional knowledge.

We also have a wealth of material available to us. Twenty years of articles on Engage. The numerous books, articles and hot topics from the late, great Susan J Ellis. The blogs of Jayne Cravens. And countless more if we choose to look for them.

So what’s left for me to say?

Can I spend the next decade writing with the same frequency, producing content that adds value to the profession?

Given the comparative lack of innovation in volunteer engagement practice of the last decade (or longer if you want to be really cynical), is there anything to be said that has a realistic chance of stirring some creativity and new practice?

Am I just having an existential wobble as a writer in the world of volunteer engagement, or is this really it, the end of having anything worth committing to the page and putting out into the world on a regular basis?

These aren’t just empty questions to be cast into the world and whose echo is left to resound with no reply. I’m asking them of myself, but also of you.

I want to know what you think, not as a way to stroke this writer’s wavering ego, but as a way to hopefully inspire to me to commit afresh to my role as one of many voices seeing to move our profession forward.

What issues do you think need covering that aren’t being addressed?

What insights, advice and challenge do you think we all need?

What issues are important that leaders of volunteer engagement are being silent on?

In short, what should I write and what would you want to read?

Over to you.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

On the 4th July this year I racked up 27 years working in volunteer engagement. Whilst I love being a part of this wonderful profession I dislike still having to answer the question we all dread, the one that comes when you meet someone for the first time, and they ask…

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

If you take the direct approach and respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” (or any of the other multitude of titles you could have) you might get one or more of the following responses (all of which I’ve experienced!):

  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “Do you get paid to do that?” A particular doozy when I was applying for my first mortgage application!
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer.”
  • “Oh, I was once a volunteer…,” usually followed by a long story about their volunteering. I once had someone blether on about how they volunteered once a few years ago as if that one experience made them an expert in a subject I’ve dedicated my whole professional life to!
  • A blank stare.
  • The person asking looks at you quizzically and then moves on to someone who they suspect might do that they might actually understand.

The other approach to answering the dreaded question is to fudge it and just say, “I’m in HR”. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called (read that article and reflect on why it’s still so relevant 15 years later!) then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone outside the profession?

A few years ago I read a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain it to others. What struck me was this line:

“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”

I like this approach. Instead of trying to get someone to grasp what we do by sharing our vague and confusing job titles or explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question instead, “Have you ever volunteered?”.

The chances are good that they have been a volunteer at some point and it’s very possible that they were engaged and supported by a Volunteer Manager. This gives us an excellent opportunity to relate what we do to that unknown peer who helped this person give time to a good cause.

Of course, you could be the Volunteer Manager who supported the person asking another Volunteer Manager what they do for a living. This highlights one reason behind our collective responsibility to give everyone a great volunteering experience — helping volunteers understand the importance of what our profession does to enable people to change the world for the better. Remember, you never know who your volunteers are talking to.

So, next time someone asks you what you do for a living, give this approach a try. Then come back here and let me know how it went.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

Regular readers of my blog will know that I occasionally stray from volunteer engagement and write about another interest of mine, productivity. For example, take a look at “My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement” and “Working from home: how I do it”. I have, however, only once written about an equally important topic, wellbeing. And that’s surprising.

Because, for the last few years I have worked with my good friend Adrain Murtagh of Just Smart Thinking. You may recall a solitary article I wrote back in 2018 in the early stages of this work. Well, since then, Adrian and I have delivered five courses on wellbeing for leaders of volunteer engagement to colleagues in England, Scotland, N Ireland and Éire ( and we’d love to do more so please get in touch if you are interested). All have been well-attended and received, highlighting the importance of those working with volunteers to look after themselves in order to be effective in their work looking after others.

In this article, I want to get personal and share with you how I manage my own wellbeing.

I love my technology, so I find apps a helpful tool in how I look after myself. I’m also an avowed Apple fan, fully immersed in their world, so the following list consists of tools I know exist for fellow Apple users, but I am less sure about whether they work on other mobile operating systems.

It’s my hope that this insight into my approach will help to inspire you to take more control of your wellbeing.


1 – Streaks

Streaks is designed to help you build good habits. It’s one of several apps with this goal but the best one I’ve come across so far.

Set up is easy. You can choose up to six habits you want to build and track. The app contains some templates to get you started, or you can customise your own. Whether it’s a habit you want to build or one you want to break, you choose the frequency for the habit (daily, weekly, x times a week etc.) and off you go.

Streaks syncs across my Watch, iPhone, iPad, and Mac and pings me reminders at the times I typically do a habit based on previous days. It also allows me to skip days or even pause habits, for example during holidays, and lets me look back at my history with a calendar as well as giving insights into past statistics like completion rate.

Currently, Streaks helps me ensure that I work out regularly, take time to meditate, limit eating food that isn’t good for me and walk the dog. Which gives me an excuse for a picture of Ruby.

2 – Calm

Along with Headspace, Calm is one of the most popular apps for meditating. I’ve tried both and prefer Calm for its variety of content, the daily ten-minute meditations and extra content like music to help you focus or relax. For those who struggle to sleep, Calm also offers sleep stories designed to help you nod off to the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry, Matthew McConaughey and others.

Calm also provides a facility to do a daily check in on how you’re feeling and to do deeper reflection through small-scale journalling. All of which can be looked back on. And if you are regularly on the move (which hopefully we will be agains soon) you can download meditations, music and sleep stories to access offline too.

Calm offers an initial free trial before its subscription rates kick in so is well worth a try if you want to give meditation a go.

3 – Waterminder

I’ve been using Waterminder for four years now. It’s a simple app that does just one thing well — monitoring your liquid intake to ensure you remain properly hydrated during the day.

When you first install the app, you’re asked for your weight, gender, and activity level. Waterminder then calculates what your daily recommended intake is. For me, it’s 2,277ml. Then, every time you have a drink, you add it to the app.

Drinks can be customised into presets. So, I know my coffee cups at home are 350ml and my water bottle holds 550ml. My favourite beer comes in 330ml bottles and a typical glass of orange juice for me is about 200ml. That takes seconds to set up and then as soon as I have a drink I enter it to the app. I can, of course, go beyond the presets and add whatever I want across a range of drink categories.

Waterminder lets you look back at your history too, daily and on a rolling week, month and annual basis. As I write I can tell you that in the last week, I’ve drunk 8.52 litres of water and 4.08 litres of coffee.

Given that consuming enough liquid to keep your body hydrated is vital for general health and a productive focus, I find this app valuable to keep me on track as well as provide useful insights to check how much I am consuming of different drinks.

4 – Countdown

There are loads of countdown apps available on different app stores, and they all do the same thing — countdown to an event / date, or count up from an event / date in the past. Simple.

I find these helpful for my wellbeing. For example, when I’ve done long work trips in the past (nine weeks in Australia and New Zealand is the record) having a daily countdown to when I will be back with my family has helped me through low points, like weekends alone in hotels in small towns thousands of miles from home.

5 – Day One

This is a journalling app, probably the pre-eminent one on Apple’s app stores. It has lots of bells and whistles, many of which I don’t use. For example, it can be linked to social media accounts, showing a daily record of your Instagram posts. You can upload photos you take each day, so you have a visual record of your life. If those things are what you want then great.

Day One’s main function for me, however, is to keep a ‘What I’ve Done’ list. This is just like a to-do list, except that it record everything I have done at work each day. At the end of each week I look back over the entries in Day One, and it gives a great sense of fulfilment to see what I’ve achieved in the last few days, geeing me up for the next week at work and helping me stay positive.

6 – Apple Fitness+

I am not a fitness fanatic. I had the stereotypical gym membership a few years ago that lapsed almost as quickly as it began. I used to run two miles a few times a week, but that was twenty years ago. I’m a forty-something man, slightly overweight and — thanks to the pandemic — I’ve spent more time sat a desk in the last eighteen months than I have for a decade.

So, in December 2020 I started doing yoga. To my total surprise, I loved it. Then Apple launched their Fitness+ service to Apple Watch users, so I gave it a go. I’m still working out with it five times a week, six months later.

There is a wide range of workouts across different styles (strength, core, high-impact intervals training, yoga, rowing, running, dance etc.) which vary in length from ten to forty-five minutes. Some need a specific piece of kit (a rowing machine or treadmill, for example) but many can be done without any equipment at all.

I do a strength workout three times a week (using an inexpensive home dumbbell kit) and yoga twice a week. Add this to my daily two-mile dog walks, and it means I stay active. When travel becomes possible again workouts can be downloaded to my iPad or iPhone to do in hotels without having to sue the gym.

For a few quid every month, Apple Fitness+ is cheaper than a gym membership, significantly cheaper than something like Peloton, suitable for our homebound times, and flexible enough to work around my routine.


So, there you have it, six of my favourite apps for helping with my personal wellbeing. What apps do you use to help manage your wellbeing? Share your thoughts, ideas, and inspirations in the comments below.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Photo by K Fraser on Unsplash