My career journey

FeaturedMy career journey

I’m always fascinated by how people got into the wonderful world of leading and managing volunteers. No careers advisor suggests it and no child ever says they want to be a Volunteer Manager when they group up — well my youngest son did when he was little, but that’s because I’m his dad!

So, how do we get into this work? Here’s my story.

As a young child I wanted to be a pilot, specifically a fighter pilot. Growing up in the 1980s, I guess you can blame Top Gun for that one. All through senior school that was the plan — finish school, go to university and join the Royal Air Force. My late and much missed mum even decided that I’d have an advantage if I could ride a horse so signed me up for riding lessons — I’m still not sure if I understand that one.

My plan was on track until I got to university. I was studying physics and modern acoustics and, after a year or two, I decided it wasn’t for me. I’d focused on other things than academic work and my worldview had started to change, as it so often does at that age in that kind of environment.

My third year at university was supposed to be a placement year. Poor grades meant getting anything in physics was impossible, so I landed a job at the university, running a scheme placing students as classroom assistants in local schools. The purpose was to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged children towards higher education. The work was volunteer management, although I didn’t know it and nobody called it that.

I learnt more in six months than in the previous two years of my degree and enjoyed the experience significantly more. I dropped out of university and carried on with the Volunteer Manager role, contributing to work CSV (now Volunteering Matters) were doing on student tutoring and mentoring.

CSV's book, "Learning Together", on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter - my first published writing for our field.
CSV’s book, “Learning Together”, on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter – my first published writing for our field.

After that one-year contract finished I spent the summer of 1995 unemployed before getting a job at the student union working as an advisor in the student support service. Part of my role was to recruit and manage a team of volunteer student advisors — volunteer management again. That contract lasted nine months after which I moved to London.

By this time I knew I wanted to do more work with volunteers and applied for a few jobs, not getting any of them. So out of necessity I moved into recruitment with Hays Accountancy Personnel for a few weeks. I hated it. I had a long commute across London during a long hot summer of frequent tube strikes and my boss thought I was good at cold calling, the part of the job I hated the most.

One day, completely out of the blue, I got a call from Barnardo’s. I’d applied for a job with them, supporting volunteer engagement across children’s services in London and the South East, but hadn’t been successful. The call was to tell me the person who had been appointed had decided not to take up the post and would I like it after all? I jumped at it.

I spent two and a half wonderful and formative years at Barnardo’s and will always think fondly of them for the opportunity they gave me. Through that work I attended the first National Volunteering Conference at UMIST in Manchester, hosted by the National Centre for Volunteering. I joined the National Volunteering Forum, members of whom are friends of mine more than twenty years later.

Barnardo’s also paid for me to attend the first-ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management where I met the head of volunteering for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Cutting a long story short, six months later I was working for RNIB, supporting volunteer engagement across all external relations work (fundraising, communications, marketing etc.) throughout the UK.

I loved it at RNIB. I got to work with some brilliant people, made many friends and had some wonderful opportunities. Not only that, but I took part in projects around business process improvement and customer service management, attended some great in-house leadership training and got to ‘act up’ as Head of Fundraising Strategy for nine months. They even let me take my first steps into freelance work, running a side-gig delivering training for the Directory of Social Change.

After six years at RNIB I moved on, taking up a role managing a team of nine regional officers at Volunteering England (VE). Our team supported the local Volunteer Centre network across England, specifically around our development agenda, Building on Success, which became the main thrust of the Westminster government’s ChangeUp initiative to modernise the capacity of the third sector.

I’d been at VE a little over a year when I applied for and was appointed into the role of Director of Development and Innovation (as it was eventually called). I now had a place on the Senior Management Team, oversight of all our externally funded work (Sport England, Department of Health etc.), lead responsibility for our grant making work and a team of about eighteen staff. During this time I also led VE’s merger with Student Volunteering England, temporarily took charge of our policy & public affairs work and worked on a variety of interesting projects.

Sadly, the 2010 general election led to VE’s strategic funding from Westminster being cut. In 2011, I was made redundant. The organisation merged into NCVO two years later when the funding was scrapped altogether.

In 2011 work was hard to come by. The effects of the 2008 global financial crisis were still being felt and the coalition government in Whitehall was slashing funding for the charity sector. So, I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd. We opened for business in April 2011, and I have loved every minute of it.

I’ve worked across the UK with a wide range of interesting and amazing clients.

I’ve spoken and trained at countless events, conference, and workshops.

I’ve been across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA.

I’ve co-written three books and published over 200 articles on my blog.

I remain as passionate about the profession of leading volunteer engagement as I did in 1994 when I took that first job at University.

After all that looking back, I can’t wait to see what the future brings!


What’s your story in volunteer management? How did you find yourself in this amazing field? Please post a comment to join the conversation.


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

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We need leadership that values more than money

We need leadership that values more than money

Five years ago, I read an article about a report from the fundraising think tank, Rogare. The headline finding of the report was that fundraisers should be rewarded not for performance against short-term metrics (such as income targets) but longer-term measures (such as donor satisfaction).

As the report put it:

“If you can focus on donor satisfaction, the money will surely follow.”

The Rogare report also found that the majority of the fundraisers surveyed have “problematic relationships with senior colleagues” which often manifested as a short-term approach that demanded immediate returns on investment.

The message was clear – fundraisers don’t have the support, buy-in, or understanding of their colleagues and superiors: from trustees, chief executives and finance directors; and from the likes of communications staff and campaigners at a peer level to be able to implement practical relationship fundraising.

This will sound very familiar to many leaders of volunteer engagement. Their performance is often measured against the wrong metrics like how many volunteers they have, how many they recruit and how many hours they give. They know that if you give volunteers a great experience (volunteer satisfaction) they will probably want to give more time, and maybe even money, in future. They certainly experience very little buy-in or understanding from colleagues and superiors, the very same people highlighted by Rogare in regard to fundraisers.

This similarity suggests to me that some of those who hold key senior roles in nonprofit organisations don’t really understand the factors that make fundraising and people raising successful. Why else would fundraisers and volunteer managers have such similar experiences?

Of course this isn’t true of every CEO, senior management team or board. There are many out there who ‘get it’. But there still seems to be a significant number who don’t, and I wonder what steps are being taken to rectify this? Volunteering is still undervalued and hidden in many organisations.

This quote sums up part of the problem:

“Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients.”
– Professor Clayton Christensen. Harvard Business School

As we look to a post-pandemic world where we will have to see new models of doing things, we also need to be looking at new models of for-impact leadership that value people over cash. Leadership that will nurture and sustain relationships, rather than finding ways to maximise the value of the next transaction with a person.

Until such leadership emerges in those places where it is currently absent I fear we will fail to live up to our potential to change our society for the better, at the time we are perhaps most needed.


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Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

Finding truly meaningful things for people to do is one of the most important aspects of working with volunteers, yet is is something that we can spend too little time paying attention to. This is a problem.

Despite the fact that we know we pay with volunteers with meaning (not money), we sometimes skimp on the investment of time needed to craft really meaningful and motivating roles that will deliver a great volunteer experience. Instead, under pressure to get volunteers recruited and placed, we can cut corners, falling back on tired old approaches to constructing and structuring what we want them to do.

These tired old approaches just won’t cut it anymore. People want to fill their precious spare time with activities that are enjoyable and rewarding, so we need to create enjoyable and rewarding volunteer roles that are structured to fit the whatever spare time people are willing to give us. Oh, and we need to ensure those roles deliver for our organisations too!

Who said volunteer engagement was easy?!

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.”

– Rob Jackson, Mike Locke, Dr Eddy Hogg and Rick Lynch: The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2019)

This is why the training I run on ‘Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers’ continues to be popular. The course gives participants a chance to step back, explore volunteer roles design afresh and spend time creating a new role to help them in their work.

Here are three quick insights from my training that might help you improve your volunteer roles:

  1. When speaking with colleagues to identify new ways volunteers can help them in their work, do not ask, “What do you think volunteers can / could / should do to help?”. As soon as you ask this question people censor their responses based on their past experiences or prejudices about volunteers. So, if your colleague thinks volunteers will be unreliable, they will not suggest a role where reliability is important.

    Instead, work with colleagues to identify what their work actually involves – in as much detail as possible. Then work with them to suggest ways volunteers could contribute the skills, talents and experience they bring to your organisation to help get that work done.

  2. Games are fun activities people enjoy playing. People like spending time and effort playing and getting good at games. There are four elements present in all games that we should make sure are also present in our volunteer roles so that people will like spending their precious spare time doing the volunteer work.

    First, ownership – does the volunteer feel they own their role and the work within it?

    Second, responsibility for results – is the volunteer held responsible for actually achieving something in the course of their volunteering (remember, people want to make a difference, not just a contribution)?

    Third, authority to think – is the volunteer controlled and micro-managed, or are they trusted and empowered to use their own brains to figure out the best way to get the role done, perhaps bringing new ideas and insights to the work?

    Fourth, keeping score – does the volunteer know how they are doing and whether they are making progress towards that difference they (and you) want to make?

  3. Don’t use the typical task-oriented paid staff job description format for volunteer roles. Why? When did you last pull out your job description, look at it and get really excited by what it contain, so much so that you can’t wait to get to work tomorrow?

    If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t looked at your job description since you were recruited or had your last annual appraisal. Why then do we think that format will inspire volunteers, people who we need to remain passionate about our work so we can re-recruit them everyday whilst meeting their motivational paycheque?

    Instead, think about constructing volunteer role descriptions around the results you want volunteers to achieve, giving space for people to develop their own ideas about how to do things rather than just doing a list of uninspiring tasks.

If you’d like to know more and have me run training for you and / or your team on developing meaningful roles for volunteers then simplydrop me a line with an outline of your needs and I’ll get in touch.

What are your top tips for developing meaningful volunteer roles? Please leave a comment below and share your insights with us and with your colleagues in the field.


You can find out more about developing meaningful roles for volunteers in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

Front cover of the 2019 edition of the Complete Volunteer Management Handbook
Front cover of the 2019 edition of the Complete Volunteer Management Handbook

This post first appeared in a slightly different form in August 2016 on the old Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog site.


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“Can I speak to your manager please?”

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

Could the job titles we give those who manage volunteers be hampering their ability to recruit volunteers?

I’d been on the phone for ages and was getting nowhere. All I wanted was to update my policy. The customer service assistant I was speaking to couldn’t cope with any deviation from their script. It was a“Computer says no” experience. There was only one course of action left.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”.

I’m sure we’ve all had a situation like that. We’ve had to go over somebody’s head to speak to a person with the authority to get things done. Which got me thinking…

Back in 2016 I wrote an article about where leadership of volunteering should sit in an organisation structure. But I didn’t explore at what level responsibility for volunteering should sit. How much authority should the leader of volunteers have?

In my experience, most jobs responsible for volunteers include the words “assistant”, “officer”, “co-ordinator”, or “administrator” in their titles. These often suggest a low pay grade and little authority. It is unusual for me to come across a “Director of Volunteers”, or a “Senior Volunteering Executive”. In fact, the most senior title I usually encounter is that of “Manager” of volunteers / volunteering / volunteer engagement

This could be a problem, as my American friend and colleague Barry Altland remarked on LinkedIn some time ago:

What has also baffled me is the careless use of lexicon to describe the role. Even “manager” denotes a certain function within a typical corporate-equivalent structure, and the term “co-ordinator” carries even less juice. These two titles mean, to many volunteers who bring any corporate exposure, that the person in whose care they reside is just another cog in the machine, not a major player. All this has an impact on the ability of the leader of volunteers to fully equip, guide, support and inspire the volunteers who choose to serve.

Volunteers increasingly come with a lifetime of skills and abilities that they want to use to help good causes. Sadly, their experience isn’t always a positive one. Those working with volunteers often have low status in an organisation and can’t do much to change things for the better. As a result, volunteers may get angry and frustrated at having to deal with someone so junior. The next step is perhaps inevitable.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

That’s not what we want talented potential volunteers to say. That doesn’t give people confidence that we will make the most of their time, that we will value them.

It’s long overdue that organisations give those who lead volunteering the authority to effect real change and a job title that conveys this.

To quote a frustrated volunteer who wrote about their experience for The Guardian some time ago:

“It’s a charity’s job to ensure that both potential and existing volunteers feel valued, recognised and useful. In a climate where charities need all the help they can get, finding and keeping enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers should be a priority.”


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

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Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

A year ago I wrote an article called “Eighteen nuggets of wisdom for leaders of volunteer engagement” which shared quotations to inspire and challenge us in our work. As I explained at the time, I collect quotations and I’ve gained some new favourites in the last twelve months, so I’m returning to the concept of last year’s article to share a further twelve nuggets of wisdom for your enjoyment and inspiration.

1

“Crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends.” – Ruchir Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 2020.

2

”If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” – Beth Steinhorn

3

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” – Elizabeth Warren, USA Senator

4

“Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.” – Seth Godin

5

GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Senator Robert F Kennedy, 1968

6

“In a world that is continually changing, every right idea is eventually a wrong one.” – Roger Van Oech

7

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali

8

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.” – Greek proverb

9

“If we have made the world that we experience, then we should not be asking ourselves how to find our proper place within it. We should be asking whether we have structured it well.” – Prof. Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh

10

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” – Maya Angelou

11

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

12

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.” – Abraham Lincoln


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The story of our logo

The story of our logo

It was ten years ago this week that I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd. During that time I have often been asked, “What’s the story behind your logo?”. I normally answer this at the end of a workshop or presentation but, after a decade, it’s time to give a more public answer.

Early on in the process of setting up the business I honed in on a one-sentence description of what I wanted to achieve with my work, “Engaging and inspiring people to bring about change”. So, when my friend Mike Marshall of EastSleepThink offered to design my logo for me, that’s the brief I gave him – try and reflect that goal visually.

Mike and his team went away and riffed on the theme of change and came up with a number of designs. One memorable option was an egg. Mike explained he saw eggs as representing new starts (I had left the comfort of employment for new life working for myself) as well as a process of change. However, his key inspiration was that apparently my bald head reminded him of an egg!

Rob's head
Rob’s head
An egg
An egg

Of all the designs that Mike and the team came up with, the one that I liked most was the blue chameleon. Why?

  • Blue is my favourite colour.
  • The chameleon represents dynamic change, adapting to its environment.
  • I thought it looked cool.
  • My children – then ten and twelve years old – applied their childhood alliterative skills to name it Colin the Chameleon.

The decision was made.

Colin the Chameleon - Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd logo
Colin the Chameleon – Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd logo

Since that day in early 2011, Colin has appeared on slidedecks and handouts front of thousands of workshop participants, conference attendees and event audiences as well as featuring on my website, social media, print, shirts and other marketing materials.

So that’s the story of our logo. Colin the chameleon signifies change. The inspiration for you to make that change is down to me.

If you’d like to know more about how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help you engage and inspire people to bring about change the drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.


I am forever grateful to Mike and his colleagues for their support getting my business up and running almost a decade ago. If you need brand and design work doing, please do consider EastSleepThink.


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

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One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“I look back in pride at our profession. At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Back in June 2019 I wrote and article on writing – “Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)”. Last year I planned to do a follow up with some practical tips but, well Covid-19 got in the way and there were more pressing issues to write about. So here, somewhat overdue, is an insight into my writing process with four tips to helping you get started, or do more, writing for our field.

Routine

Lots of books on writing will tell you a simple truth – the way to write more and to get better at what you write is to do more writing. If you’re struggling to get started then this advice may seem stupid, but it works. To produce content you have to make the time to sit down and write. Write something. Write anything. But write. You don’t have to set aside days or even hours at a time, a few minutes will do. Just do it regularly.

Don’t waste time looking for the perfect environment, the best lighting etc., simply set aside a bit of time and write.

Forget about agonising over the right pen, paper, electronic device for software to use, simply set aside a bit of time and write.

To make this really powerful I recommend establishing a routine. I write three days a week. I start the first draft of a new article every Tuesday. I then come back and edit that article on Wednesday and again on Thursday. After that it’s done. This approach keeps Mondays free for other work (using the fresh energy of the week) and Fridays clear to review the week and get ready for the next week. This routine has helped me write more than 80,000 words between May 2018 and February 2021, the equivalent word count for the average novel.

Find a routine that works for you – a good time, a good frequency and then commit to it. Simple but powerful.

NB. Paul J Silva’s book, “How To Write A Lot” has lots of advice about establishing a writing routine. There is a link to the book in the further reading section below.

The first draft

The worst part of writing is sitting in front of an empty page and figuring out how to start. If you write on an electronic device then get comfortable with the tyranny of the flashing cursor on a blank page – you’ll become good friends.

Author Anne Lamott (see link to her book, ‘Bird by Bird’ in the further reading section below) encourages writers to embrace the concept of the ‘Shi##y First Draft’. This concept is simple – whatever you write first time will not be what you publish and so can be truly terrible because nobody else (other than you) is going to see it. Don’t worry about perfection, punctuation, grammar. Just get your thoughts and ideas down in front of you and worry about editing them later (we’ll come to that in a minute).

Which brings us on to writer’s block. If this is something you experience (and you will at some point) then take this advice from Seth Godin. Seth argues that writer’s block isn’t an absence of ideas, it’s a fear of expressing yourself in writing. You might have an idea but struggle to see how you’ll put that on paper. The solution is to write a shi##y first draft then take it from there.

If you really have no idea what to write then Anne Lamott has a solution, write about how it feels to not be able to write and see where it takes you. I know, it sounds crazy. But if you have a regular writing routine and embrace the shi##y first draft then, in time, you’ll be amazed at the writing that flows out of you.

Writing is editing

William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well” (see link in the further reading section below) has been instrumental in my approach to writing. Aside from being one of the few writing books aimed at non-fiction writers, Zinsser give sound advice about the importance of editing.

“Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Rewrite by putting yourself in the reader’s place. Reading aloud can identify improvements.” – William Zinsser

In the past I would sit down, write something, check it for spelling and hit ‘publish now’ to put it out into the world. That stopped when I read “On Writing Well”. Following Zinsser’s advice I took an old blog post and tried to edit it. I made lots of changes. Lots. So many I was embarrassed that I’d ever published the original post. What I ended up with was so much better – it was clearer, more succinct and it flowed better too. Now, anything I write gets at least two edits before it’s either published or shared with anyone else.

If you write, whether blog posts, books, emails, reports, social media posts, embrace editing. Take your shi##y first draft and give it at least a couple of polishes. Your readers will be grateful and you’ll feel much more confident putting what you’ve written out into the world.

Putting it out there

So far, only half the battle is won. You’ve done your shi##ty first draft, refined and revised it and now have an article ready to go. Get ready for the biggest obstacle still – actually publishing your writing. I don’t mean deciding what blogging platform to use. I mean actually getting up the courage to publish.

In my experience there are three common obstacles that cause people to keep their writing to themselves instead of sharing it with the world:

1/ People won’t want to read what I have written

If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing something then there is only one way to find out if people want to read it and that’s to give them the chance. If you never publish, you’ll never know.

2/ I don’t want to face the criticism I might get for sharing my thoughts

Since my first blog post back in April 2011 I have (at the time of writing this) published 199 articles and had 378 comments on my blog sites. That sounds like a lot but it’s a little under two comments per post (on average) and fewer than one comment per week over the last decade. Most articles get no comments at all.

This may sound harsh but, at least initially, the chances are that not many people will read what you have written and even fewer will bother to comment. Of those that that do they might actually leave a positive comment. And if they say something negative, see what you can learn from it to become a better writer.

Put your anxiety about what people think about your writing into perspective and hit the ‘publish now’ button. Then let me know you’ve done it and I’ll read it and give you some feedback – I promise.

3/ What I have written isn’t good enough to publish

What exactly defines something being ‘good enough’ to publish? Seriously, I’d like to know what the accepted standard is because I’ve read some great books and some real stinkers, terrible wastes of time that some publisher thought derived a wider audience.

Same with blog posts. Chances are some people probably think I’ve written some of the stinkers! Oh, and I’ll let you into a secret – some of the articles that I thought were the worst things I’ve ever written are some the articles I’ve had the most positive feedback about. Go figure!

The truth is, you’ll never know if what you’ve written is good enough to publish until you do it. Unless you put your writing out there you’ll never get any feedback, information that’s vital to help you improve. Josh Spector wrote a short blog post with some very wise words to get us all over that feeling what what we’ve written isn’t good enough to share with an audience. Read Josh’s article, “You Have to Be Ok with Being Ok to Become Great”, and then publish what you’ve written.

Further reading

If you’re interested in writing or want to do some more reading about writing from writers vastly superior to me, please check out the following list of one article and five books. The book links all go to Amazon but feel free to get a copy from your library or any other retailer:

“40 One-Sentence Writing Tips” by Josh Spector

“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

“On Writing” by Stephen King

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

“How to Write a Lot” by Paul J Silvia

“The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield

And finally, remember…

”Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet!” (Original source unclear)


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Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

In the autumn of 1998 I travelled to the North London campus of the University of Westminster to attend an event that changed my professional life.

CSV (now Volunteering Matters) had organised the first ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (IAVM). A small group of Volunteer Managers (no more than fifty I think) met for three days to learn from international leaders in our field. Susan J Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Arlene Schindler were the faculty I can clearly remember being there for this revolutionary learning opportunity.

I can recall the first day’s schedule clearly. A three hour workshop with Arlene Schindler on ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’, then six hours (!) with Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch on advanced volunteer recruitment. Just think about that – nine hours of in-depth learning in small groups. Not your typical conference schedule – no keynotes, no one-hour sessions where you barely learn anything or get a chance to reflect with others on the application of what’s been shared to your work.

CSV went on to run many more IAVM events over the next few years. Eventually the format resembled that of a typical conference with more attendees and shorter sessions, I suspect because of the economics involved. The cost of bringing together an international faculty of respected trainers and providing a decent venue was unlikely to be met from the fees of a deliberately limited number of attendees.

Then, one year, IAVM didn’t happen. It’s never happened again since.

Other countries tried the concept. I was privileged to be on the faculty of two IAVM’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, USA in 2000 and 2001. Both great events put on by the local Volunteer Centre, but they never happened again.

Perhaps the most success that anyone had outside of IAVM was Australian colleagues Andy Fryar and Martin Cowling. They ran a number of advanced volunteer management retreats in Australia and New Zealand, one of which I was fortunate to be on the faculty for in 2009. Keeping close to the original concept, the retreats limited the number of participants, with people having to apply to attend as demand outstripped the places available. Eventually these retreats stopped too, in part due to the limiting economics.

As far as I am aware there has been no dedicated event aimed at advanced level of volunteer engagement professionals anywhere in the western world since 2013. This doesn’t mean what is still on offer for our profession isn’t good – I attend many events and conferences (well, I used to before Covid-19) and there are some wonderful learning and network opportunities available. But are we being held back as a profession because of the lack of focused, advanced learning opportunities?

I think we are. I may have been in this wonderful world of volunteer engagement for over 26 years but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything left to learn. I’m unlikely to find that learning at a conference or event geared towards people just starting out though. And I’m not alone.

The 2021 Volunteer Management Progress Report found that 29% of respondents had more than twenty years experience in volunteer engagement.

Whilst length of service is only one way to determine if someone is advanced in our field (a discussion worthy of an article in it’s own right perhaps?) this data gives a clear indication that there is a population of Volunteer Engagement Professionals who might not be being best served by current learning and development opportunities for our field.

Without such advanced learning opportunities, isn’t there a risk that practice stagnates and innovation opportunities are missed? Might we also be running a risk that some of our more experienced colleagues get bored with our profession, taking their insights and knowledge elsewhere? In short, is the lack of advanced learning opportunities holding the wider profession back?

As I say, I think so.

What, then, can we do about it?

As I suggested earlier, putting on an IAVM style conference or retreat is difficult financially in the best of times. With the restrictions on life from Covid-19 and the associated difficult economic climate, it may be almost impossible.

Might an online solution be a way forward? There would still be a cost but, without venue, catering and accommodation considerations it might be more viable. We’d need, however, to ensure the learning environment works online compared to intense, small group face-to-face learning of the kind IAVM provided.

Even with this option, would organisations fund their Volunteer Managers to engage in advanced learning? As budgets shrink, spending on training and development will likely be an early victim. Sadly, Volunteer Engagement Professionals rarely seem willing to invest personally in their own development, so without organisational funds even an online, reasonable cost option may not work out.

Where does this leave us? Well it’s not exactly a positive outlook is it? But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the issue. We need advanced learning opportunities for our field.

So I’m going to commit to finding a solution that will work and I want to hear from you in the hope that you’ll join me.

If you’re a trainer or consultant who wants to be involved then please get in touch.

If you’re somebody who would want to attend and participate please get in touch.

If you’re an infrastructure body who wants to be a part fo this then please get in touch.

Let’s make this happen together.


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Seven things to consider when looking for volunteer engagement software

Seven things to consider when looking for volunteer engagement software

I am sometimes asked for my views on volunteer management software. Which products are best? What should the software do? What are important features and benefits? In this article I want to give you my perspective on seven important things to consider when looking for software to help you in your volunteer engagement work.


1 – Get your data in order first

Remember that with any software the rule of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies. It doesn’t matter what the product is and what it can do, if you input rubbish data and / or fail to keep the data up-to-date, you will not realise the benefits of investing a new system.

Before you part with money for a shiny new volunteer system, get your house in order first. Make sure the data you already hold is accurate and that processes and practices are in place for – and followed by – everyone working with volunteers to keep the data in tip-top condition.

2 – Data storage vs relationship management

Do you want to simply store volunteer data so you know who your volunteers are, their contact details etc.? In some organisations an Excel spreadsheet might do this perfectly well. In others, a featured product with a few more features (data sharing between teams, for example) might do the trick, either as stand-alone volunteer system or a module in a product used by another team e.g. fundraising / development, membership, HR etc..

On the other hand, you may be looking for something that goes beyond simple data storage. You might want: reporting functions; the ability to communicate with volunteers by email, SMS, WhatsApp, social media etc.; document storage and sharing; logging volunteer hours; fuller integration with other organisational systems etc.. If this is you then look to systems that provide a more fully featured suite of customer relationship management (CRM) tools for volunteers.

3 – Know what’s essential and what’s optional

Before you start contacting software vendors, be really clear on what any new system must do and what it’d be nice for it to do. Not every product on the market will do everything you need, so be clear on what’s non-negotiable. This will help you short-list potential options and focus the discussion with the relevant vendors.

If you start with a long, inflexible list where everything is an essential requirement then be prepared to be disappointed. You will either have a severely limited choice available to you or you’ll discover that you need to spend more money for someone to develop a bespoke product for you.

4 – Put volunteers in control

As individuals we want control over our lives and our information. We want to do things on our terms, not someone else’s. Look at how we’ve adapted to doing so much more online during the pandemic.

People are the same when it comes to volunteering. They want to keep their own data up-to-date. They want to be in control of logging their hours. They want to be in control of when they give you their time. They want to see their own personalised reporting data. And they are largely comfortable with using technology

They don’t want to have to reply on speaking to you or a colleague every time they need to change their availability, update their email address, or see the current number of hours they have given this year.

Look for a system that puts volunteers in control. Can they update their profile and availability? Can they apply online? Can they do all this easily from a smartphone (app or web browser)?

Volunteers who can will likely be happier and more engaged. And you’ll be able to shift your attention from updating their data for them, focusing instead on more strategic and developmental work.

5 – Put colleagues in control

Do you have colleagues (paid or unpaid) who do the day-to-day work of volunteer engagement across your organisation? If you do, then look for a system that devolves management of the relevant data down to these colleagues, rather than centralising it all with you.

Aside from the operational efficiencies that can be gained by colleagues being able to do things quickly and easily themselves, there are benefits to you too. If their data is current and accurate then the reports you generate centrally will be too. That means no more chasing for things like monthly recruitment figures, hours logged etc. – bliss!

6 – Make access a priority

You, your colleagues and the volunteers all need to be able to access the system at different times and on different schedules. If whatever system you choose can only be accessed when in the office then how are those needing access off-site going to use it? Let’s face it – that’s all of us now!

Furthermore, can the vendors on your shortlist tell you how often their servers have been down, for how long, and how often? Crucially, was this downtime planned or unexpected?

Volunteers may need access at odd hours and get frustrated if the system is always down when they need it. Similarly, depending on where your software supplier is based, their system downtime may coincide with your working hours. For example, if a vendor on the west cost of the USA takes their system off-line at 1am local time, then a UK client loses access at 9am, just as the working day is starting.

7 – Ensure the vendor knows and gets volunteer engagement

There are lots of companies providing software to help with volunteer engagement. Some know little or nothing about what we do, they’ve just noticed a potential market to sell to. Others ‘get’ the work of leading volunteer engagement. They don’t just exhibit at conferences (remember them?), they attend trainings and seminars to develop their knowledge. They may even run workshops on volunteer engagement, focused on topics that aren’t about selling their product.

The more your chosen vendor understands the reality of your work, the better working relationship you’ll have and the more closely aligned to your needs their software will likely be.


My final observation is this. As much as you can, resist being forced to use a piece of software that wasn’t specifically designed for volunteer engagement. You need a specialist tool for a specialist job. HR have one. Fund-raising have one. Membership have one. You need one too. Not a bolt on to something else that half does the job. Volunteer engagement is too important to compromise on the quality of the software used to support and facilitate it.


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