Aiming for the wrong target

FeaturedAiming for the wrong target

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Reason one

It’s easy for me to do.

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

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

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

Reason two

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

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

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

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

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

Reason three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you

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

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

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

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


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

These two articles may also be of interest:


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Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


At the organisational level

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

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


At the volunteer program level

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

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

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

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


At the individual level

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

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

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


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

Find more information and download the full report here.

For further information contact DEI Program Manager Brittany Clausen.


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What is excellence?

What is excellence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s excellence in volunteer engagement right there.

Do you agree?


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Has it all been said?

Has it all been said?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s left for me to say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you.


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

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

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

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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


1 – Streaks

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

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

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

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

2 – Calm

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

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

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

3 – Waterminder

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

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

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

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

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

4 – Countdown

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

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

5 – Day One

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

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

6 – Apple Fitness+

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Photo by K Fraser on Unsplash

What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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My career journey

My 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.


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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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