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.

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2 thoughts on “The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

  1. Hi Rob,

    Great reading!

    Totally understand this too! My job is recruiting, training and supporting local parents to deliver evidenced based parenting programmes in Manchester, UK – peer led programmes.

    I’ve worked with volunteers for around 18 years now in a variety of roles.

    I’m often asked what I do and my response (more recently I might add!) is to say ‘I work and support a group of amazing people who give up their time to help others, would you be interested in something like that yourself?’

    That response has helped to increase volunteer engagement too, WIN, WIN!

    Liked by 1 person

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