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A different way to think of volunteer diversity

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

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

Let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well-meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s not just people working in non-profits that believe this nonsense either.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. Whether in libraries, policing or other settings, volunteers as incompetent amateurs is a common position of unions and others.

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff – who are seen as essential – and the volunteers – who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking. Anytime we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

Here are three reasons why.

“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.” – GK Chesterton


The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional, on the other hand, suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

Over the last few years I have asked two questions when I train groups: how many of you have worked with incompetent volunteers?; how many of you have worked with incompetent paid staff? More hands go up in response to the second question. Every time. Everywhere I work in the world.

“When you love something so much that you’d do it without pay, you end up pretty good at it. So good that, at times, you can outclass the professionals.” – Charles Chu


Second, labelling volunteers as well-meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. Have any of the critics of volunteers in libraries ever considered that there might be very well trained, highly competent professional librarians who want to volunteer to help run these library services? Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practising librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and / or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, the assumption is that managers will take anyone they can find and throw them in at the deep end, untrained, to work in a library. If we did that then, of course, professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent leader of volunteers ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

“While professional has many reasons for doing something (money, prestige, power), an amateur has only one —the “genuine fire and reality” of pure, unbridled passion. You can always trust an amateur.” – Charles Chu


Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No nonprofit organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

“None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother — and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.” – GK Chesterton


We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well-meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead, we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful – and at worst negligent – behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on my old blog site back in February 2015. Quotations are from this article by Charles Chu.)

Who is our enemy?

Who is our enemy?

I often find writing hard. Sometimes the words flow freely and easily, sometimes there is a topic I want to address but I just can’t find the right way into it, and other times I just sit and stare at a blinking cursor wondering what I can say that will be helpful to others.

This is commonly called writer’s block. American author Anne Lamott has some helpful words of advice when we encounter it:

“Writer’s block isn’t a block. When your wife locks you out of the house you don’t have a problem with the door! The problem is acceptance. Accept you are empty.”

When I feel empty like that – empty of inspiration, empty of energy, empty of words – I read, often books and articles that have nothing to do with volunteering, like the Originals book I reviewed in my last posting.

Two of the places I go for inspiration are For The Interested by Josh Spector and the weekly newsletter from Charles Chu. In his recent article, “Feeling Lost? Maybe You Need An Enemy”, Charles explores how having an adversary to focus on can be a uniting force. That got me thinking. Who is our enemy, the nemesis of leaders and managers of volunteers?

  • Is it governments, who consistently fail to understand volunteering and what is needed to make it happen?
  • Is it fundraisers, who are so focused on getting in the cash they fail to see the potential of people?
  • Is it CEOs and senior managers, who consistently ignore us, cut our posts first when times get tough and take advantage of volunteers?

Whoever we may consider our enemy to be – and perhaps this is the first time you’ve even considered that person or institution to be an enemy – Charles Chu has a challenge for us in this quote from the late Umberto Eco:

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”

Charles continues:

“This enemy I am fighting  – the enemies we all fight  –  could they…simply be fake enemies that we’ve “invented” to satisfy our own needs? However scary it is, we should also pause and ask ourselves, “Does this enemy that I fight truly exist? And, if not, then what is it that I’ve been doing this all for?”

Are CEOs, fundraisers and governments really the enemy of leaders of volunteers? Have we invented them as adversaries so we have a common cause to unite behind? Are we rallying against a group, body or individual in order to demonstrate our own worth (as Umberto Eco put it)? Is this all just a convenient way for us to blame others for our frustrations rather than do something about them ourselves? What if we stopped viewing them as enemies? What if we stopped blaming others for our lack of progress, whether personally or as a profession, and started viewing them as potential allies?

Back to Charles Chu again:

“Those we make enemies out of are, in the end, still people. Deep down, they suffer from many of the same fears and worries. If we take the time to see the world as they do, it becomes a whole lot harder to hate them.”

Just spend a few moments reflecting on the following questions, either in regard to your personally and what you are trying to achieve as a manager of volunteers, or as our wider profession:

  • Who do we see as our enemy?
  • Why are they our enemy?
  • Have we invented that enemy or are they real?
  • How can I see the world as my enemy does and how might that help me achieve my goal?
  • What might I be avoiding doing because I’m blaming someone else for my challenges?
  • What action would help me take control of the situation and move forward instead of blaming someone else?

I hope that through tackling my writers block I’ve produced something that’s got you thinking. I also hope it inspires you write too, in the form of a response by leaving a comment below.

I’d love to know what you think.

Book review: Originals by Adam Grant

I haven’t written a book review for over thirty years, most likely since primary school. So what’s making me write one now? The simple answer is the excellent and valuable content of the fantastic book, “Originals” by Adam Grant.

I’d never heard of Originals until a friend on Facebook recommended it. I don’t know why, but I took a punt and added it to my list of business reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve not come across the book, Originals is described as, “A manifesto for originality and a guide to championing new ideas that challenge the status quo.” As the description on Amazon puts it:

“Adam Grant shows how to improve the world by championing novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battling conformity, and bucking outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Parents will learn how to nurture originality in children, and leaders will discover how to fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.”

The book was a joy to read as Grant not only informed but entertained. What really hit home for me was how strikingly relevant and helpful some of his points were to leaders and managers of volunteers, especially in our essential work of influencing others – volunteers, colleagues, bosses, funders, policy makers etc..

One of Grant’s points from Originals inspired me to write my July 2017 piece for the UK’s Third Sector magazine. Described by infrastructure body NAVCA as the article they never thought I’d write, “Three reasons why involving volunteers might not be a good idea” takes Grant’s concept of selling an idea by emphasising it’s weaknesses and applies it to volunteer leadership management. Take a look and let me know what you think by leaving a comment on the Third sector site.

Some of Grant’s observations help shine a light on contradictions in our field. For example, studies of Volunteer Managers often illustrate that we are happy wth our roles yet frustrated at the (lack of) support we get. Grant notes the work of John Jost, commenting that “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject or change it”. He goes on to explain why, giving a useful thoughts as to why, despite the frustration many Volunteer Managers feel, they may not seek to change the status quo.

Other points from the book could be applied to: volunteer recognition (affirmation of character, p168); volunteer induction (entry interviews rather than exit interviews, p 204); motivating others; challenging groupthink; improving brainstorming & ideas generation; and both understanding and working with or against organisational culture. Helpfully, Grant provides a list of actions individuals and leaders can take to apply the principles to their lives and work.

I’ve always liked reading books outside of the usual volunteer management literature and seeking insights to apply back to our field. Adam Grant’s book Originals has been one of the richest sources of these in a long time and is a text I will keep referring back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Tilting at windmills again

Tilting at windmills again

Since setting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 I have been writing and speaking about the need for senior managers to take volunteering seriously as a strategic priority. Despite six years of effort it seems little has changed.

Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have recently published a new study, “Charities Taking Charge”. They surveyed 300 charity leaders, of whom only 51% thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!). 16% thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).

Furthermore, when asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”. By contrast, 31% chose funding and 23% public profile.

What it is going to take for those at the top of non-profits to pay proper attention to the strategic role of volunteering in delivering organisational missions? When will the focus on money as the only resource at their disposal change, opening minds to the full range and wealth of community resources available to change the world for the better?

Susan Ellis has been tilting at these same windmills since the 1970s. That’s why she wrote From The Top Down in the 1980s and why we adapted the book for the UK in 2015.

I’ve only been at it six years and I am not going to give up.

Now, where’s the nearest brick wall?

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Four highlights from NCVO’s general election manifesto

Campaigning is now well underway for the UK General Election on 8 June. NCVO have wasted no time in issuing their election manifesto, “Charities and volunteering make Britain great”, and I want to quickly look at four things I was pleased to see them highlight.

1/ An access to volunteering fund

Back when I worked for Volunteering England (2005-2011) we were funded by the Office of Civil Society to pilot an Access to Volunteering Scheme. This provided funding to help organisations meet the costs of opening up their volunteering opportunities to people with disabilities.

Sadly the change of government in 2010 killed off the short-lived pilot. Calls were made for it’s revival ahead of the 2015 general election but went unheeded. So I’m really please to see NCVO officially calling for Access to Volunteering to return.

“Providing a support fund to address barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities. This could make volunteering accessible to more people, helping with costs such as travel or adaptations to buildings or equipment.”

2/ Strengthening volunteer development and management

NCVO have really been upping their game on volunteering over the past few months, starting with Sir Stuart’s new year letter to the sector. These efforts have built upon the excellent work of the small volunteering team at NCVO over recent years, dedicated individuals who have worked hard to support volunteerism.

I am really pleased to see this work continue in the manifesto with a call to strengthen volunteer management. For too long, volunteer management and it’s role in enabling effective and rewarding volunteering experiences has been low profile in civil society’s calls for support from politicians. Putting it front and centre in the NCVO manifesto is a welcome step towards changing this.

“Strengthening volunteer development and management, to ensure volunteers have the right skills and support to make a bigger difference, and a rewarding experience.”

3/ Make it easier for charities and volunteers to support our public services

Volunteering in public services isn’t new. Neither are the controversial issues raised, such as job substitution, the role of the state and the responsibilities of individual citizens.

With public services changing, not least because of the tremendous affects of austerity, it is right that we have a grown up debate about the role of charities and volunteers in public service delivery.

Kudos then to NCVO for being brave enough to put this in their manifesto, emphasising the positive and constructive role volunteers can play in the NHS, social care, emergency services and other services.

My only note of caution comes with their suggestion that volunteer numbers could be increased in public services. More volunteers aren’t always the answer.

“(NCVO would like to ask) services such as the NHS to set targets for the management and development of volunteering. These would aim to increase volunteer numbers, involve volunteers in a wider range of roles, and improve the experience and impact of volunteers.”

4/ Immigration

Under the heading of “Give everybody a stake in post-Brexit Britain” NCVO rightly highlight the barriers to non-Brits who wish to volunteer whilst in our country.

For those from outside the EU this requires specific permission to volunteer within their visa’s and poorly phrased limitations on those holding student visas. For EU citizens no restrictions exist, but this will surely change after Brexit in March 2019.

NCVO’s call for simple and effective visa requirements, or a visa waiver programme, are to be applauded, as is their request for the next government to quickly resolve the right to stay of EU citizens.

People from the EU have enriched our culture, society and economy. Along with their families, they work and volunteer in our public services, including for charities. We think it right that they should continue to have a stake in the future of country.

So there you have it, my four highlights from NCVO’s 2017 general election manifesto. What do you think? Do you agree with me? Do you think NCVO missed anything? Do you disagree with their manifesto requests? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Participation branding – three takeaways for leaders of volunteers

89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered. Of those who do notice advertising, more and more people then take steps to actively block it. In other words, most of those adverts for volunteers you’re putting out are being ignored by people.

When you think about the amount of advertising organisations do for volunteers, and how much that costs, it’s shocking to think how little impact you’re apparently having in getting people to want to volunteer.

So, when I read this article from nfpSynergy, ”Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z”, the term ‘participation branding’ caught my eye. That lead me to this article, ”Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”.

Here’s what I took away from these two articles and the little bit of additional research I did online.


Creative innovation network Iris believe that the most potent and efficient brands in the world today are being built with people, not for them. A new breed of brand is not just surviving, but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are getting their market to do their marketing. These are what Iris calls Participation Brands.

These brands are thriving by activating the power of people to build their brand and creating content and conversations that people want to actively participate in.

Ben Essen, executive planning director at Iris, says:

“Brands no longer influence people. People do. With the Participation Brand Index we wanted to understand more deeply why people are choosing to get involved with certain brands and what the secret is for those brands who manage to get their market to do their marketing.”

“It’s become ever easier for consumers to shortcut the media-driven decision making process and access beliefs, behaviours and new ideas directly from other people. Communities can now live on their own terms and agendas without the need for organisations telling them what to do and what to buy. Participation Brands are those who have responded to this change by designing content and experiences that positively disrupt the networked lives we now live.”

The brands who top the Iris The Participation Brand Index study are those seen to not just have a positioning, but a passionate purpose at their heart. They are the ones felt not to just respond to culture but actively shape it. They are the brands creating content, conversations and experiences that people want to get involved in.

For example, the number one brand globally was Apple, who excelled against all these aspects. The number one brand amongst a millennial audience was Netflix, for whom there is a stronger sense of anticipation in ‘what the brand is going to do next’ than any other brand in the study.

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).


I’m a big fan of taking ideas from outside our field and applying them to our work. For example, see my article about how organisations can adapt their approach to volunteer recruitment in light of what’s called influencer marketing.

So what does participation branding mean for those of us leading, managing and recruiting volunteers? Here are my topthree thoughts.

Get your market to do your marketing

Word of mouth has always been an effective way of recruiting volunteers. I am more likely to support a cause if someone I know and trust asks me than if I see a poster or leaflet saying I should get involved.

Remember the quote from earlier, “Brands no longer influence people. People do”? Put simply, participation branding is just a fancy new term for word of mouth. It recognises that a personal ask is more powerful than an impersonal advert.

How can we get more of our volunteers to talk to people they know about volunteering with us? Here are two simple tips to get started:

  • Ask your volunteers to ask their friends and family if they consider volunteering. You’d be surprised how few organisations actually do this.
  • Help volunteers to ask others. For example, tell them what your current recruitment needs are, give them some information about that, and perhaps create a hashtag they can use on social media when talking about volunteering.

Be passionate about your purpose

According to Iris, the brands who top theThe Participation Brand Index are those that have a passionate purpose at their heart. That may be hard for some corporates to find but it shouldn’t be an issue for non-profits who, by their very nature, are driven by a passionate purpose.

Yet so many volunteer recruitment messages don’t really address they purpose. They talk in a dry way about what the organisation wants people to do, but not why.

Review your recruitment messages. Do they sell the cause before they sell the organisation or role? Do they inspire people to action by showing how they can change the world with you?

Measure return on involvement

I love the phrase Iris use, “The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).”But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most helpful definition I found online was from this article:

”Return on investment to me is something lucrative that you put into a company with the purpose of getting more value back, than the money you put in.”

”Return on involvement is some engagement that you put into a company and you get more value back, because you engaged in the company.”

In volunteering we’ve traditionally tried to measure the return on investment for volunteering in a purely financial sense. Whilst this can be helpful when arguing for more financial resources to support volunteer engagement, speaking about volunteers in financial terms can cause problems.

With return on involvement we could start to look at how building relationships with volunteers brings a return for us in ways that benefit our organisation. For example, if we invest time in our volunteers, do they have a better experience and so are more predisposed to talking to others about our organisation, making recruitment easier and cheaper?

Return on involvement is a new concept to me and one I want to look into further so I can develop my thinking on this. I’d love to hear your ideas and any suggestions you might have for how it could apply to our work as leaders of volunteers.


Over to you. What do you think about participation branding and how it might apply to volunteering. Share your thoughts below.