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

FeaturedThe 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.


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

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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.


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

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We need leadership that values more than money

We need leadership that values more than money

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

As the report put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This quote sums up part of the problem:

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

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

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


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Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

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

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

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

Who said volunteer engagement was easy?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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.

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“Can I speak to your manager please?”

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

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

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

“Can I speak to your manager please?”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

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

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

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

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


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Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

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

1

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

2

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

3

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

4

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

5

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

6

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

7

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

8

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

9

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

10

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

11

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

12

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


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

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The story of our logo

The story of our logo

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

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

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

Rob's head
Rob’s head
An egg
An egg

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

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

The decision was made.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

1 – Does the data help us?

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

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

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

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

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

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

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

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

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

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

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

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

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

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

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

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

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

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

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

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

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


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

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

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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

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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash