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.

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

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

14 thoughts on “My career journey

  1. Oh, but you left something out: joining CYBERVPM, the first online community for managers of volunteers. That group deserves to be mentioned in the histories of so many of us on this journey to working in volunteer management, because it’s how many of us found out we were in a profession – and, of course, how so many of us met each other (it’s how I met you!).

    I was a journalism major in the late 1980s who realized my junior year at university that my five years already working at newspapers had burned me out of being a reporter. With the guidance of a wonderful professor at my university, I did a paid internship at the local Performing Arts Center for my entire senior year of university, under the tutelage of an extraordinary marking and PR manager. I went on to work in public relations for nonprofits for the next six years, and LOVED it. And I still love it – it’s still my first love.

    But always, along the way, I was working with volunteers. At a large, professional theater where I worked after graduation, the paid staff was poo pooing the efforts of the theater’s volunteers, who were putting on a fundraising event for the organization, and the Executive Director really let us have it, telling us that those volunteers were there before we were and would be there when we’re gone, that this was, in so many ways, “their” theater, because they were they ones who had dutifully donated to it for more than a decade, and we could take our attitude right outside and leave it there. It stopped me in my tracks, and it was the first time I ever thought of volunteers having ownership of an initiative. It completely changed how I worked with volunteers and how I, myself, volunteer. I worked with a lot of volunteers, as a volunteer, in various political campaigns, usually to bring awareness to an issue I cared deeply about, and learned from some incredible volunteer leaders about task delegation, recognition, scheduling, etc.

    Then, at a nonprofit in California, where I was working as the internal communications manager in 1994, I was put in charge of creating a dozen web sites for more than a dozen initiatives we managed. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I decided to recruit a volunteer from the nearby university to do it. I ended up with TWO volunteers, both of whom said they would prefer to do the work from their dorm rooms, because our computers were so much slower than theirs. BOOM – I’m working with online volunteers and didn’t know it. I’m a volunteer manager and didn’t know it! My online activities there lead to me leading a workshop at the nearby nonprofit center about how managers of volunteers could use the internet to find resources and work with volunteers. Then the founders of ImpactOnline, now VolunteerMatch, recruited me to direct the Virtual Volunteering Project, which ended up at the University of Texas at Austin – and I made involving volunteers in the program, which was meant to research and promote virtual volunteering, a central part of the program. How can I promote something I’m not doing myself? Susan Ellis was an advisor of the program, and Sarah Jane Rehnborg was my boss – two pioneers regarding volunteer management. Nothing like learning from the best! And I kept volunteering as well, in various Austin-based initiatives, always learning more.

    While directing the VV Project, I found CYBERVPMs and jumped right into the discussions and debates, then you started UKVPMs, then Andy started OZVPM, and I started to realize just how massive the world of volunteer management is – and just how disconnected it has been for too, too long. Susan was so, so network savvy – she was running so fast on the Internet, I was running hard to keep up with her for that first year! I met other people – Mary Merrill, Steve McCurley, and on and on. The amount of knowledge out there was incredible then, and I wish more of it was preserved online.

    Then the United Nations saw me babbling endlessly on CYBERVPM, UKVPMs and OZVPM and hired me to “fix” NetAid and its online volunteering component, which became http://www.onlinevolunteering.org. I also started at UN VOlunteers right at the start of International Year of Volunteers 2001, and that opened up the world to me regarding volunteerism. After UNV and working for UNDP and finishing a master’s degree in (humanitarian and community) development management, I started working off and on doing online community management with TechSoup, and knowing how to work with volunteers was a HUGE asset. Then I wrote a book on virtual volunteering with Susan, while at the same time running off to work for UNDP and other aid agencies from time and time… And in all that time, even when my primary role wasn’t volunteer management, at every nonprofit I’ve worked at since the mid 1990s, I’ve kept volunteering, kept creating opportunities for volunteer engagement in my work if at all possible, and kept trying to learn how to be a better supporter of volunteerism.

    Being online has been absolutely essential to learning, meeting colleagues, and getting my expertise out there – it’s done far, far more than to establish my expertise in (and to continue to learn about) virtual volunteering.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. After failing to find a teaching job in NZ, I found myself teaching English in India and Korea. As much as I loved teaching, I realised when I got back to NZ how much I wanted to get into NGOs. You don’t teach in the slums of Mumbai or helping orphans in Korea without wanting to change the world more tangibly.

    I applied for the postgraduate diploma in peace and conflict studies and through the course of study, found myself supporting the Moriori and the Red Cross. Both have shaped my view on NZ, especially when I eventually got a job in Refugee Settlement at Red Cross, drawing on my skills in management, facilitation, Volunteer coordination as well as my (by then) extensive work supporting the vulnerable community.

    Working in refugee settlement was crazy hard and unfortunately, my personal life hit rock bottom too, with my marriage turning violent and I struggled to get out. When I managed to get out of the marriage (but not the difficulties), I chose to change my job, as my burnout capacity was sky high, I’d suffered a severe brain injury and I wanted to be able to do more than I was doing while exhausted. I had also not been allowed to volunteer while married, so I was keen to get back into that.

    I was incredibly lucky to become the next manager of Volunteering Otago, as I realised that volunteers were my real passion. I knew I could make a real difference to volunteers in the community, so I jumped at the chance. Since then, I’ve guided Volunteering Otago through a merger and extensive visibility campaign while changing our name to Volunteer South. I supported the region during lockdown where we coordinated over 1500 volunteers with a 3 person team. We did so well, we were finalists at the Business Awards for our region, an unheard of success for an organisation that was virtually unknown less than a year earlier. Now, we are well known for our education support and our resources, some of which have gone global. It’s a career shift I never had imagined I could have made such an impact.

    So, while I’d always wanted to be a teacher, I found a way to become an educator while also fulfilling me in my humanitarian aims. Couldn’t ask to be anywhere else to be honest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never planned to go into Volunteer Management. When I was growing up I wanted to be a doctor. My parents were in St John Ambulance as volunteers and I was inspired by them. They would come home in their uniform and I would hear stories about them doing first aid at public events.
    When I was old enough I joined as a cadet (youth section of St John Ambulance) and volunteered at many weekends at public events in Liverpool. I did leadership courses and became as assistant leader at my local unit mentoring other cadets. I volunteered with St John Ambulance for 20 years but it got too much at university and I decided I needed a change.
    As I didn’t get the A levels to study medicine, I studies radiotherapy for 2 years but then left near the end of the second year. Radiotherapy wasn’t for me as you had to be precise matching lasers to small tattoos on a person’s body and then treating that person with radiation to destroy the cancer. I failed the practical assessment and left. I then went on to study Pharmacology at university. The subject was fascinating about how drugs worked in the body but lab work wasn’t really for me as I was a people person.

    I got depression at university and really struggled after graduating with my mental health. I received support from a charity called Making Space going to confidence building sessions, going to badminton group and learn to play the guitar. At the time I was isolating myself and was frightened going out the door (never mind travelling the country which I do now as part of my job).
    A support worker job came up at Making Space supporting people with mental health conditions and social inclusion. The tutor doing my confidence course mentioned about the job and that I was good helping people. I was helping other people on the confidence building course at the time as I was on the mend from my mental health illness. I applied for job and got it.
    I worked as a support and recovery worker for 2 years, running support groups, facilitating activities and doing one to one work supporting people in the community. I loved the job but wanted more of a challenge. I applied to work at their head office as an involvement coordinator. I could travel more as I now had the money to get a car and get insurance. I did that job for 3 years then went on secondment for 6 months supporting people with computerised CBT. When I came back from secondment, the new manager asked if I would take the lead with volunteering but also some involvement work as I has experience being a volunteer and supporting them. I was nervous at first as I hadn’t done any specific training managing volunteers as such. I found some training courses with my local volunteer centre and hit the ground running. That was 4 years ago and I love working in volunteer management.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had relocated from the Midlands to Cornwall with my family when one of my children was involved in an incident that required being airlifted by the Cornwall Air Ambulance. Luckily she made a full recovery but as a family we supported the charity and I began working on a part-time basis. Over 12 years later I am still working for CAAT after many versions of my job, but all involved with volunteers and either as coordinator or now Manager.
    Nothing quite like representing and knowing over 300 people plus all those no longer with us.
    I’ve gone from being a primary school teacher in my earlier life to working with people predominantly at the other end of the age spectrum.
    Not changing career anytime soon.
    Jackie Eastwood


  5. Oh wow Rob! I really enjoyed reading this story of your career journey in volunteer management. What an incredible impact you have had in your career to date, with plenty more to come I’m sure!

    Here is my volunteer management story…

    As a child, my incredible Nanny would talk to me about her volunteering. She was a committed British Red Cross shop volunteer for many years. I saw first hand how important her volunteering was to her; from the friendships she formed, to the purpose it gave to her life in retirement.

    My first real personal experience of volunteering was throughout my teenage years, spending every weekend of the winter months supporting my parents to run their ice hockey team in Solihull. At the time, I never thought of myself as a volunteer, but I gave up my weekends for years to support with the smooth running of match nights because it was something I was hugely passionate about.

    Having these experiences inspired my interest in pursuing a career in volunteer management. Having returned from some time travelling after completing my degree, I saw an advert in the newspaper for a ‘Voluntary Services Co-ordinator’ at my local hospice (I’m sure I cut the advert out and I’ve still got the copy!). I read it and knew it was the job for me! I was successful in securing the role and had my first day in post at the start of Volunteers’ Week back in 2009. What a special week to start my journey in formal volunteer management. In this role I was lucky enough to have a fabulous manager who supported and developed me and gave me a fantastic introduction to volunteering.

    My next move was to a larger group of hospices as a Volunteering Development Officer. It was here that I spent the bulk of my career (over 7 years), developing their approach to volunteering and building their volunteering team before leaving as Head of Volunteering Development in 2019. I have many happy memories of my time in this organisation.

    In my current role, I am fortunate to work at Sense as their Head of Volunteering. It has been a learning curve working for a national charity, but an experience that I have relished and made the most of. There is lots of excitement and ambition around the involvement of volunteers, and I am super proud to lead this work and be part of this fabulous organisation.

    In recent months, I’ve had the privilege of being appointed as a Trustee for Bliss – an organisation that is very special to me. This is giving me a whole new experience of volunteering, with lots to learn and a big contribution to make. This is a new and exciting development in my career.

    I love my job, and I feel very lucky to have found such a rewarding career in volunteer management!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Rob,
    It is fascinating to read your story, having been following you since I first got more seriously involved in volunteer leadership in the mid 2000s.

    Like many, I imagine I ended up in the field more or less by accident but love it! I wanted to be a teacher originally but changed my mind after spending my year abroad at university teaching in a German school. After graduating I planned to go into translation and interpretation (I studied German and History) but couldn’r secure funding to do the required MA course so found myself unemployed looking for anything I could transfer skills to. I ended up with an enterprise support organisation working with volunteers from the business community who mentored young entrepreneurs and business start ups then moved into working for Young Entreprise doing something pretty similar in schools.

    Having picked up a fair bit of practical skills by that point I moved into a role with Sunderland Youth Offending Service, recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to take on the role of mentor for children and young people at risk of social exclusion – quite an emotionally draining job as you can probably imagine. Once I had children myself I found the emotional stress too much and so looked around for a change – turning to the heritage sector and beginning a 10 year stint with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums first as Volunteer Coordinator and then developing the role into Volunteer Programmes Manager. This is really where I think I began to flourish in the field and certainly where I began to consider myself a “leader of volunteers” or “volunteer management professional”. I loved combining my studies with my profession at last, set up a regional museum volunteer recognition and peer nominated award programme, and was heavily involved in the museum volunteer national forum which is what I think eventually morphed into HVG.

    In 2014 I left the sector (and employment) to explore a call to ordained ministry with the United Reformed Church but 4 years later, having decided that wasn’t my calling, I jumped back in to a role with the National Trust at a local property before landing my “dream job” at Newcastle Cathedral where I am now.

    I absolutely love working with and supporting volunteers and am passionate about inclusion – seeking to develop and expand our opportunities to reflect the type of radical welcome we strive to offer to everyone who comes through the Cathedral doors. It isn’t the most lucrative profession to be in but it is an immense priviledge and although my time out of the loop for those 4 years has meant I have needed to catch up with developments in the sector it is great to re-connect and to see people like yourself continuing to lead the field.

    I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my story – but you did ask!

    Take Care,



    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Rob,
    I find your blog posts really useful – thanks so much for sharing.
    I also loved the Yahoo group which has now disbanded. I think this moved to a different platform but am afraid I didn’t keep up with this. Could you let me know how to access it please?
    A bit cheeky, but in case you have time – the question I was going to ask is whether anyone knows of volunteering opportunities for people living outside the UK. I have had an application for our Helpline (a home based role) from someone living in Cameroon. I would like to give him an alternative.
    Many thanks

    Clare Havard | Age UK Bristol | Active Together and Volunteer Coordinator |

    | direct dial: 0117 440 4303 | Helpline: 0117 929 7537 | e: clarehavard@ageukbristol.org.uk | http://www.ageukbristol.org.uk |
    Working days: Tuesday to Friday 10:00-17:00

    At Age UK Bristol we help make sure that everyone in Bristol can love later life. We do this by supporting and empowering older people, helping other organisations to work together, and championing the interests of older people in the city

    Help us mark 25 years of Age UK Bristol by donating to our 25 years Campaign. Give £25 for our 25 years. Find our Campaign page here.
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    Liked by 1 person

    1. “whether anyone knows of volunteering opportunities for people living outside the UK. I have had an application for our Helpline (a home based role) from someone living in Cameroon”

      The first place he should look is with NGOs in Cameroon. Global Giving is NOT a volunteer site, and you would need to stress that to him, but it is a good avenue to look for vetted NGOs in Cameroon and then, he can find the contact information for any NGOs that are near him and look interesting to him and let such know what skills he has that he would like to provide to the NGO as a volunteer. He needs to stress that he is looking for an unpaid role, what kind of role or task he feels qualified to do or is interested in, and how long he can make a commitment (for a month? For six months? 10 hours a week? Less? More?).

      Another place where he could find NGOs working in Cameroon is https://www.wango.org/codeofethics.aspx?page=13&country=Cameroon

      For online volunteering with organizations anywhere, he can try the UN’s online volunteering service, http://www.onlinevolunteering.org, but just like every online matching service, they have far, far, far more people signing up to volunteer than they have assignments for volunteers to do.

      Liked by 1 person

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