Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

FeaturedFantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

As we approach the end of the year we’re getting into that period when (in normal times) we usually see a rise in the number of people interested in volunteering, individuals giving a little of their time during the holidays to support a good cause. But, when January rolls around, we may never see some of these people again. Normal life (whatever that is these days) resumes and seasonal good intentions wane, replaced with doomed gym memberships and the resumption of the daily grind. So, how can we reach out and find fantastic volunteers throughout the year, even in a pandemic affected world?

Here are five quick tips.


1 – Target

A common mistake people make when recruiting volunteers is suggesting that anyone is suitable for the vacant role. This approach is often driven by a fear that nobody will come forward. It’s a technique that can work for certain positions, typically those that require no specific skills or experience, just a warm body. For roles where some kind of existing competence is required, however, we should target, target, target.

Ask these questions:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? What exactly will it involve? What does the person need to know or be able to do before they start?
  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? What skills, experience, abilities etc. do they need? For example, if you want someone to code then say that. Get as a specific as possible.
  • Where are you likely to find them? Given what you need, where might you find those people in your community? Again, be specific and avoid generalisations.

2 – Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, go and ask them! Research consistently shows that people who don’t volunteer feel like they haven’t been asked to give time. Ask, ask, ask. Keeping asking. And when you’re done, ask some more.

3- Sell

More than just asking, however, you need to sell your volunteer opportunities like a business would sell its products – focus on the benefits of someone volunteering with you, not the features. When we buy something we don’t just look at what it can do but how it will help us. For example, all kettles boil water but some do it faster than others, some have built in water filters and some work with apps etc..

It’s the same with volunteering – show people how volunteering with you will meet their needs. Don’t just tell them what they will do or how desperate you are for help. Show them how you’ll boil water in a way that is better suited to their needs than the other kettles on the market.

4 – Respond

If you are going to ask for someone’s precious spare time then make sure you are ready to respond and provide great customer service to them when they get in touch.

Don’t imply an urgency to your need and then take weeks to respond. That happened to me earlier this year when I tried to volunteer in my community and it’s not only annoying but gives a poor impression of volunteering generally. Remember, we want people to volunteer, not put them off!

Make use of simple tools like out-of-office email and voicemail messages so people instantly know when they should expect to hear from you – then keep that promise!

5 – Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up to regular, long-term volunteering on day one are in the past. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment anymore. Would you commit to two days a week for the next five years right now?

We can, however, get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want, but we have to be patient and plan for it.

Offer a scale of engagement, with regular, committed, long-term volunteering at one end and shorter term, bite-sized, easy to access opportunities at the other. Figure out where someone will start on that scale and how they might move along it (in both directions!) as you get to know them. It may take time but some of the volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire, even if it involves taking some steps back at times.


Despite what some may think, volunteer recruitment isn’t easy. Volunteers don’t grow trees.

There isn’t a ready supply of them in cold storage waiting to be defrosted and deployed at a moments notice on the whims of your colleagues.

Effective recruitment takes time and effort.

I hope these five tips help.

What tips would you add? Share your wisdom and experience with a comment below.


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How much is morning tea worth?

How much is morning tea worth?

This unusual year has led many of us to question the norms we’ve lived under for so long. Before 2020 I often heard leaders of volunteer engagement say that their volunteers, especially the older ones, would never embrace technology. Then along comes Covid-19 and guess what?

It turns out that as we all rushed to change how we worked, volunteers of all ages were just as quick to adapt, embracing Zoom, Teams and a multitude of digital platforms. The old orthodoxy was well and truly challenged, which begged the question: perhaps the issue was never the reluctance of volunteers to use technology but some Volunteer Managers projecting their own resistance to new ways of working onto their volunteers? (feel free to debate this in the comments below).

It’s not just in volunteer management that these norms are being queried. I’ve heard variations on the following two questions being asked of trainers and event organisers over recent months:

  1. How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?
  2. Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online events and training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

Let’s look at both in a bit more detail.

How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?

The implication behind the question is often that online training should be a lower cost than in-person training. Charging by the hour, however, it costs the same to deliver content online as it does in-person – a two hour workshop in a meeting room still takes two hours to deliver over Zoom.

Actually, you could argue that preparation for online delivery takes longer, because of the need to consider alternative ways of engaging people in the content. Similarly the investment in a high quality delivery platform (like a pro-Zoom account) costs money that the trainer needs to re-coup. In which case the question is, why doesn’t online delivery cost more?

And that’s all just considering cost. The value the training delivers to a client may be even greater if the issues they face are more acute than ever. Speedy online delivery might help resolve the issues and so carry greater value to the client. Look at it that way and again the question is, why online delivery doesn’t cost more?

Finally, please remember that if this training would have been done face-to-face in ‘normal’ times, online delivery at the same price is delivering the client a saving. Why? Because they’re not having to pay for the trainer’s travel expenses, hotel accommodation etc..

Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

I’ll start by saying I have some sympathy with this question. Many organisations are facing rapidly shrinking budgets, spending freezes and potential staff cuts. Sadly, this often hits training and development budgets first and makes the cost attending an event harder to justify, a ridiculous argument if you consider training to be an investment in the skills and capabilities of an organisation’s most value asset (especially in challenging times), its people.

With that said, I think the driver behind this question is a belief that online training carries less value than getting a group of people into a room. Because online delivery is valued less it should, therefore, cost less. Take that argument to it’s logical conclusion and it would mean we place no value at all on free training, which is perhaps why (in my experience) about 50% of people who book onto free courses never turn up for them.

Despite months of new ways of working, are we still clinging to a belief that the old way of doing training is always better than the new, online approaches? Why is that? Are we once again confusing cost and value?

I’d also point out the following about objections to there being a cost to online training and events:

  • If you would have attended the event in ‘normal’ times and been happy to pay, bear in mind that you would also have had to spend money on travel to and from the event, perhaps a hotel as well, and maybe even meals whilst you were away. So, even if you pay to attend the online version, you still save money on the other costs.
  • Bear in mind that the organisers still have to put effort and money into an online event. They may not have venue and catering costs to meet, but they will have to invest in an online delivery platform, a booking system, and spend time figuring out how to make things work for attendees so they still get a great experience etc.. The desire to save money by attending an online event has to be balanced against the organisers not only covering their costs but making a profit. With other funding becoming scare, events may be an important source of income that enables them to keep operating, helping all of us in the future. Do we really want our infrastructure organisations and professional associations to go bust at a time when we need them most?
  • Remember that the people who deliver training content and facilitate workshops are often freelancers. They pay their mortgages and feed their families from the income they earn. They don’t have a regular salary and often can’t access the government schemes that have supported employees during the pandemic. Charging for their work isn’t a choice, its a necessity for survival.

In writing this article I hope that the next time we see an online event or training we’ll all think twice about what’s going on behind it and why a fee might have to be charged to attend. I also hope it’ll spark some thinking that will help us all start to consider the best way to mix online and in-person events and training when the pandemic is behind us and we can all get back in a room together.

On which note, I’ll conclude with this thought.

If we’re happy to pay an event fee and travel costs to go to a conference in-person, but want online events to be free, then what is it about the in-person offering that we value so much we’re happy to pay for it? Assuming the content and value delivered is the same offline as online, there can only be one answer – the thing we value most is morning tea! That’s a lot of money we seem to be willing to spend for a cuppa and biscuit!


Disagree with me? Great! Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Changed your way of thinking as a result of what I’ve written? Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Want to ask a question? Guess what? Leave a comment below.


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Where next for volunteer rights?

Where next for volunteer rights?

Ten years ago I was working as a Director at Volunteering England and one of my responsibilities was to provide the secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Inquiry (VRI). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since this important and groundbreaking piece of work was done and I can’t help but wonder if much has actually changed in ten years?

I suspect not. Otherwise, why would the the UK government have felt it necessary last year to consult on changes to the Equality Act, putting volunteers on an equal footing with employees when it comes to sexual harassment? NCVO provided a briefing on the changes and engaged with the sector before producing their consultation response.

As was clear from the NCVO documents, volunteer rights remains an emotive issue and one that seemingly won’t go away. We may not have the high profile cases we had ten or so years ago, but I’m sure the problems still exist, whether it’s from poor management, serious abuse and harassment, or a whole range of other experiences in between.

Disappointingly the 3R Promise that resulted from the work of the VRI (see details below) seems to have been largely forgotten. The list of signatories is still there on the NCVO website but the momentum has been lost, as has the Call to Action progress group who were tasked with keeping this issue live.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for Volunteer Involving Organisations to get their houses in order. The Inquiry was clear that in the majority of cases it wasn’t Volunteer Managers who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers. It was other paid staff (often in management and senior leadership positions) and trustees (volunteers themselves!) who were at fault. Poor treatment of volunteers isn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management practice or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers.

I never tire of saying it – effective volunteer engagement is an issue everyone needs to take responsibility for in a Volunteer Involving Organisation, not just the Volunteer Manager.

There were plenty of voices during the VRI process calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That path wasn’t taken. Instead VIOs were given a chance to take responsibility and improve their practice against the principles of the 3R promise:

Ten years on, how does your organisation measure up? Do you do all of these things consistently? Was your organisation a signatory to the promise back in the day? If it was then it made a public commitment to do all these things, so feel free to use that leverage to get it back on the agenda with senior management!

Given the UK government’s stated approach to the Equality Act as a means of securing protection for volunteers against sexual discrimination, perhaps the 3R Promise, self-policing approach has had it’s day? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then, do we believe that legislation will stop the poor treatment of volunteers?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. With everything the UK government has on right now, would this time be found?

Thirdly, I believe legislation could be counter-productive. Legislative requirements will only make volunteer engagement more bureaucratic and employment-like. This is at odds with a more frictionless approach to volunteering during the pandemic and risks driving people away from volunteering.

Legislation would also increase risks and costs for Volunteer Involving Organisations as they have to comply with any new legal requirements – do we really want to be placing more of a burden on these organisations given the Covid-19 driven challenges the face today?

So, what is the way forward?

There is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body, as is the will for such an approach – self-regulation of fundraising only came about because government threatened statutory regulation if fundraisers didn’t get their house in order.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn, except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years. Furthermore, a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit. Finally, in my experience, the Commission’s knowledge of volunteering is pretty woeful.

How about NCVO (and its sister bodies across the UK), the Association of Volunteer Managers, or some other sector infrastructure body? Most sector infrastructure bodies represent organisations not volunteers, which puts them in a potentially difficult position: would they side with individual volunteers against their member organisations, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ their own members for poor practice? And, as noted with the Charity Commission, what about all the Volunteer Involving Organisations who aren’t in the voluntary sector, who polices their practice?

Do we need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry? Updating the report might give it some more contemporary clout but the core of the original Inquiry’s work is probably still valid. The priority must instead be what we do about the issues it raised, not rehashing the same old issues, especially given that the resulting 3R Promise has been largely forgotten.

A few years ago I wrote that what we need is somebody to step up and start a debate about how to proceed. Somebody who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than reply on a legislative sticking plaster imposed on us by others for when things go wrong. I don’t see a body with the will and credibility to provide such leadership today. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope so.

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with.


What do you think is the way forward? Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who might take the lead on this issue.


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Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

This article is a guest contribution from Rhiannon Wheeler, Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne, England. I found Rhiannon’s account of managing volunteers during the global pandemic insightful and inspiring – I hope you do too.


‘We couldn’t do it without you’ is a phrase you hear frequently in the third sector. At St Wilfrid’s Hospice Eastbourne, the past few months have proved more than ever that we really couldn’t have served our patients and community as we have done without our volunteers.

Looking back over the time between March and today, volunteers have played a key role in the COVID-19 response and I feel both proud and grateful to work for an organisation that has included them in our efforts every step of the way, and all for the better.

When the pandemic started

Back in the early days of the pandemic, a planning group was set up at St Wilfrid’s. Led by the Chief Executive and involving the leadership team and hospice managers, the Pandemic Planning Group (PPG) met daily at 9.30am to assess new guidance, review our provision and make fast decisions on next steps. Representatives from each department were involved to ensure clear communication of onward plans and that all risks and resources were considered. My inclusion in the PPG meant that I was able to contribute to decisions made about volunteering and work with key colleagues to action these quickly.

As the pandemic began to take hold, many volunteer roles were stood down as the hospice focussed on its core services. When volunteers over the age of seventy and those whose roles, at least temporarily, ceased to operate were sent home, there was a scene that I am sure feels familiar to many volunteer involving organisations: a mix of upset, some protest, and a degree of relief from those happy to have had the decision made for them.

Where possible, services were adapted so that volunteers could provide support over the telephone or video link. Albeit with depleted numbers, three volunteer roles continued to operate on the Inpatient Unit (IPU) in the hospice building: Hosts, Ward Clerks and Young Clinical Volunteers (YCVs). The question that was revisited in the PPG several times was: should we send these volunteers home?

Why we continued to work with volunteers in the hospice

Along with everybody else in the world, we were learning about a new disease and how it spreads. We were supporting very vulnerable patients, some with a positive COVID diagnosis and working tirelessly to ensure there was adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in place.

On the one hand, there was and remains to be, a potential risk associated with any face-to-face contact with others. Hosts provide meals, refreshments and companionship to patients on the IPU and welcome visitors. YCVs carry out all sorts of clinical support tasks where close contact with patients is part-and-parcel of the role. We knew that despite all our best efforts to protect people, we were exposing volunteers in both roles to risk (and the guidance wasn’t yet clear about whether volunteers in this context were considered key workers).

On the other hand, volunteers were telling us very clearly that they wanted to be there. They were aware of the risks and well informed about what had been put in place to protect and support people. Any volunteer that chose to step back from their role was supported to do so.

Standing down all volunteers would have had a knock-on effect on the IPU. The Nurses and Healthcare Assistants, already stretched, would have had to pick up the additional tasks that the volunteers usually do, and this would have impacted on the support provided to patients.

Ultimately, it felt right for us to continue to involve volunteers in the front-line pandemic response effort.

What we did

Careful language: It was important that we were inviting volunteers to make a decision that was right for them and not because they felt guilty or that they should be volunteering. All communication reiterated this.

Clear communication: The Chief Executive (CEO) sent weekly email and video updates to all volunteers throughout the pandemic period. One email very gently explained that if volunteers who had previously stepped back due to age or other factors wished to return, we would be willing to open a conversation with them about this. Voluntary Services hosted a virtual forum over Zoom so that volunteers could ask any questions they had about life at the hospice and what to expect.

Provide volunteers with all the facts: A thorough risk assessment for the hospice building was emailed to all employees and volunteers along with a Volunteering During Covid-19 information pack with FAQs.

Welcoming back the over 70s: We knew that many volunteers aged over seventy were itching to return once this was possible. We understood the additional risk factors but it felt overly paternalistic to have a blanket ban. Towards the end of May 2020 we began to discuss whether and how we could invite them to return and after a joint decision at the PPG, we quickly put a process in place to make this possible.

Create space for an open conversation about how people feel about volunteering: Acknowledging that each person’s risk factors are unique, an individual risk assessment checklist was devised. All new or returning volunteers are now required to complete an individual risk assessment over the phone with someone from Voluntary Services or their manager. Broad and honest conversations uncover how people feel about volunteering during this time based on their own context and balanced against current facts. The conversation also offers volunteers the opportunity to ask questions or share any concerns or anxieties they may have before reaching a decision about whether and how they will volunteer.

Continue to check in and support decisions to step back: All new or returning volunteers are met by their manager on their first shift and provided with an induction including training on PPE and infection control. Volunteers are always offered the chance to opt in or out of tasks and understand that they can step away at any point.

Working with COVID- 19 positive patients: Initially, only employed team members worked in the isolated rooms. However, the Hosts soon noticed that the Nurses and Healthcare Assistants were exhausted and wanted to help. Some suggested that they could support patients in isolated rooms and following conversations with the clinical director and at the PPG, this was agreed.

Host volunteer Gill was asked if it worries her working with patients in isolation:

“Not at all, it feels completely safe. Doing what we do is nothing like being a Nurse. As Hosts we work together in pairs, which helps as we are able to look after one another as well. There’s no time pressure; we have plenty of time to put PPE on and take it off without rushing and also have time with the patients when needed.”

Why it worked

Well established roles pre-pandemic: we have had volunteers operating on the IPU for many years now and embedded routines that were easy to adapt. The Hosts and YCVs were confident in their roles and well supported and valued by the clinical teams. It wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been working well already.

One team, one uniform: At the start of the pandemic, all employees and volunteers who entered the building were provided with scrubs and appropriate PPE. Volunteers and employees adapted to this together and feedback has been positive about the sense of comradery that this brought about.

Continuous review: Risk assessments and processes were continuously reviewed against the latest Government guidance and any changes communicated. We routinely questioned whether to introduce blanket polices about who can volunteer and how, but each time have returned to taking a flexible and personalised approach to this. Volunteering at its core, is about people choosing to contribute after all.

Strong leadership and communication: The PPG ensured that decisions were made as a team and different views about risk, process and policy were explored and discussed. From the top down, everybody was included in decisions and nothing was hidden from anyone.

I had a place at the table: All decisions had to be agreed and actioned quickly. As the Voluntary Services Development Manager, I was able to bring my knowledge and perspective to the discussion and I knew what was needed to progress plans.

Everybody had their eyes open: Our processes have been guided by the information available and what individual volunteers feel comfortable with for themselves and their situation. Clear, open and honest communication from the outset has helped to establish trust in the decisions made.

Making ourselves available: Volunteer managers and the Voluntary Services team are in regular contact with volunteers and invite open conversations at any point.

New models that can be replicated for different roles: Since introducing these processes for IPU volunteers, we have adapted the same process for inducting volunteers back into other roles and activities. Retail volunteers returned the same day shops in the UK were allowed to open and we have begun to re-initiate some volunteer community befriending visits as well as some other volunteer involving support functions.

Learning points

On the 18th June I received the phone call I had been dreading. Three volunteers who had been active in the hospice had tested positive for COVID-19; two hosts and one YCV.

Despite wearing appropriate PPE and following correct protocol, all three had spent some time with a patient who had a false-negative test result. A few days later, another volunteer who had been working in isolation rooms with patients who had a positive COVID diagnosis received a positive test result.

We couldn’t know for sure whether the volunteers caught the virus from the hospice or from elsewhere (two of them had returned to work around the same time) but of course we reported the incidents through the appropriate channels and reviewed our processes accordingly.

We knew that our processes were strong and for the three months up to this point we had managed to contain the spread. Until this point, no patient, volunteer or employee had caught the virus from the COVID-positive patients we had cared for.

This all happened in a very small window of time and coincided with the time that lockdown began easing and people started to go back to normal life. It led to a tightening up of visiting restrictions and some further work to cement a culture of strong adherence to physical distancing and infection control.

Regular contact was kept with the volunteers while they were recovering and all four wanted to return to their roles once they were well enough and had finished their period of self isolation.

On their return, there was a knock to confidence for these volunteers and some anxiety that they had done something wrong. Extra support and ongoing reassurance, regular breaks and shorter shifts soon got them back into the swing of things.

Dancing with doctors

Despite some ups and downs (I believe it’s called a corona-coaster!) and a mountain of work to keep things going, the whole experience of how we engaged with volunteers has been worthwhile and their contribution has been invaluable.

Feedback from the volunteers has been overwhelmingly positive. Managers helped to create a calm and supportive atmosphere and the small things made a big difference. The radio was always on and there was lots of singing and some occasional dancing with passing doctors. A previous feeling of ‘them and us’ has been replaced with a mutual respect for each other’s roles in one big team.

While acknowledging the insurmountable awfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have told us they look back on the past few months as a really positive time and feel that they were part of a unique and meaningful experience. The challenge now is to make sure we keep it going as we progress through this ‘new normal’.


Rhiannon Wheeler works as the Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne. Previously working in education and youth work, Rhiannon has been involved in volunteering for over 20 years, either as a volunteer herself or in roles where she has supported others into volunteering or social action. You can contact Rhiannon via email.

St Wilfrid’s Hospice serves a population of 235,000 people covering an area of around 300 square miles. Expert teams help people to live well until the end of their lives and provide support to their family and friends. Care is provided both in the hospice and increasingly in people’s own homes.

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Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

‘The new normal’. Everyone is saying it. Personally, I dislike the term. Every day is a new normal and always has been. But there is a new term I like, coined by Gethyn Williams on Twitter in late August 2020 – ‘the new formal’. What does it mean?

To me, ‘the new formal’ describes the changes needed to the pre-pandemic process-heavy, systems-oriented approach to volunteer engagement. One of the good changes Covid-19 brought about was to sweep away layers of bureaucracy so people could just get stuck in and help out. Old orthodoxies about form filling, risk avoidance and checking the criminal records of anyone with a pulse disappeared as communities mobilised in a matter of days and 700,000 applied in a week to be NHS Volunteer Responders. I was one of these eager volunteers and in under 24 hours was cleared to perform tasks that just a few days beforehand would have required Olympic standard hoop jumping to get involved in.

Like a piece of elastic that is stretched so hard and so fast it can never regain its original shape, so the formalities of volunteer engagement have changed forever thanks to Covid-19. This doesn’t mean abandoning safeguarding, never conducting a DBS / PVG check again, and putting the needs of volunteers before the safety of clients. But it does mean taking a long, hard look at what we do, when we do it and why, thinking afresh about our practice. Hence the ‘new formal’.

Here are three aspects of volunteer engagement that we could start thinking about:

1 – Application forms & interviews

Why exactly do we ask questions on an application form and then ask the same questions when we interview volunteers? Can we not ask the questions once, face-to-face and fill in the form as a record of the conversation? Not only would that save paperwork, it’d help open up volunteering to those who can’t write, have a sight loss, have poor literacy or don’t use English as their first language. Two birds with one stone – a step toward greater diversity and less bureaucracy.

2 – Safeguarding in stages

Instead of taking references, conducting criminal record checks and all the other screening steps as soon as someone starts volunteering, why not do it in stages? Rather than viewing anyone unpaid as risky (why else do we check absolutely everyone who isn’t paid but often subject paid staff to far less scrutiny?), why not bring in appropriate screening at different stages as people depend their involvement with us?

That means someone volunteering one-to-one with a vulnerable client gets the full suite of checks, but someone checking in event participants for a few hours just has to give us an emergency contact and enough information for Track and Trace to do their thing.

3 – In volunteers we trust

An absence of pay does not mean an absence of competence. Likewise, paying someone does not automatically make them better at what they do, more reliable, more trustworthy etc.. So, perhaps we need to ease up on the fear and worry about what volunteers might do wrong and instead trust them to do things right. After all, if you’ve done a good job recruiting, selecting and training the volunteer, aren’t you trusting in your own abilities as much as theirs? What message does it send if you don’t trust your own work?

I’ve shared three thoughts on how we might adapt volunteer management to the ‘new formal’ but I know there are many more ways we could ease up the formality of volunteering without sacrificing the safety of volunteering.

What else would you add to the list? What have you done already or what are you planning to do. Share your thoughts in the comments or in response to wherever you found this article on social media.

Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

Guest writer Martin J Cowling muses on the problems with toxic volunteer behaviour and suggests some actions to prevent and resolve it.


Helen’s story

Upon retirement Helen (names have been changed) joined a hospital quilt making group to sew quilts for terminally ill children. Helen was looking forward to making some new friends in retirement and making a difference in the community. The group leader said “we are a small group but we work hard and we value loyalty”.

Those words echoed in Helen’s head as she struggled to cope when group members screamed at her for “poor stitching”. Where people sat at the quilting mornings was controlled and “loyal” volunteers got access to the better materials. Even what participants brought for the shared morning tea was scrutinised and belittled. One volunteer got banned for telling a joke that the leader did not approve of. Screeds of abuse between members filled the group’s Facebook wall. The hospital management could not be persuaded to see the issue, with one manager saying “What’s a couple of spats between friends in the ‘merry team of vollies’”.

Helen quit after six weeks, saying she saw turnover of fifteen people in that time. Fifteen people who may never volunteer again after such a horrific experience.

The toxicity problem

A few years ago, I audited several dozen volunteer committees across the country for a major charity, spending multiple hours learning how this organisation worked and where their strengths and weaknesses were. After my first week, I said to the client “I feel like I have been walking with saints. What I saw were volunteers generously giving their time, working together for the benefit of the community”. He grinned and said “Wait for next week.“

Sure enough, my next groups were dysfunctional horrors full of backbiting individuals.

The difference between the success of the positive groups and the failures of the toxic ones was stark. The groups with positive culture raised more funds, achieved more and found it easier to recruit and retain volunteers. The dysfunctional groups were barely holding it together, were far less successful and could not attract new members.

In our marketing and discussions, we focus on the positives of volunteering: How it changes lives, makes people happy and gives individuals and groups purpose. All of which can be true. What we talk less about, are the toxic volunteers, volunteer leaders or toxic groups which are not poster children for volunteering but which are more common than we realise. This toxicity can consume and burn out volunteers, destroy organisational reputations and drive donors, clients and community support away.

By toxic, we are seeing a simultaneous combination of three things: narcissism, bullying and incompetence. Alone each of these is worrisome but the situation is manageable. Combined and you have a horrible toxicity which saps an organisation and sadly, the introduction of such a toxic personality can have the effect of undermining that entire culture.

Barry’s story

Every Friday at 10am without fail, 82 year old Barry (names have been changed) would stride into the charity office ready for his shift helping to pack mailings. Barry had been involved in the charity from day one and had worked hard to advocate with the government and community to get funds, building and support. Inwardly, the staff would recoil when they saw him coming, guiltily hoping that he would not turn up that week.

Barry had an opinion on everything and everybody. He worked hard during his four hours as did his mouth with random tirades directed at everyone and anyone who passed by his desk (yes he had a reserved desk for his Friday shifts): clients, fellow volunteers, guests and employees. He belittled the women, mocked the men, muttered about foreigners, Asians and gays. His greatest vitriol was reserved for the CEO and management team who were never good enough.

The result was that the volunteers who had come in on a Friday, rarely returned and the ones that did were equally negative. The paid staff would do all they can to be scheduled out of the office or take their work to a local coffee shop. There were some Fridays when there would be no paid staff in the building! Barry was aware that no-one would go near him which made him even angrier about the “snobs in the organisation who didn’t value him”. The fear that Barry engendered made it impossible for anyone to successfully challenge his behaviour.

Tackling toxicity

As leaders of volunteers, here are six steps to tackle the Barry’s in our groups, teams or organisations. They rarely self-improve and despite their unhappiness and or anger, they often won’t leave of their accord.

1. Raise Up an Inspirational Culture
Too many NGOs pay lip service to their internal culture. Having and living out your mission and values must be core for your organisation. Leaders of volunteers need to ensure that the culture is safe, inspiring and rewarding. Volunteers who contribute positively to the culture need to be rewarded positively. Allowing poor behaviour sends a message that such behaviour is okay.

This can be tough. I was told one day by a senior volunteer that I was creating unrealistic expectations for the volunteers by setting standards. I was in a new role and this volunteer with three other colleagues ruled the roost. Those four ended up resigning simultaneously when I called out their bullying behaviour. The decision was cheered on by the remaining seventy but the process was not easy.

2. Recruit to Keep Toxicity Out

More than half of the volunteer advertisements, I see something along the lines of “are you lonely?” or “Do you want to be happy or happier?” “Do you need to make friends?” and promote volunteering as a solution. Pause a second. While loneliness is a major issue in society, what sort of people will your volunteer program attract if you target lonely, friendless, unhappy individuals? If people are lonely and friendless, there may be a reason for that. Staff an entire organisation with them and…

When recruiting for volunteers, focus less on skills and more on values. Ask questions of volunteers in the recruitment process about their values and how they work with other people. I used to run group interviews to watch how people interacted with each other.

Ask questions of your volunteer’s references about the values, ability to work with others and reasons for leaving. Never over promise to a volunteer and don’t bait and switch, offering a more attractive role and then changing it for a less interesting one having recruited them!

3. Require Supervisor Training

Too often organisations place or “dump” volunteers with people who have never been trained to work with volunteers, whether they are paid staff or other volunteers. If the supervisor is great, no problems. If they are poor, this can have the effect of creating unhappy volunteers. It can also mean the supervisors do not understand what to do if faced with a “difficult” volunteer.

It’s amazing we train people in accounts systems, fire drills, but never tell them about how to work with volunteers.

Offer flexible proactive positive training to equip your staff to work effectively with volunteers. I was able to get the CEO to mandate such training on a couple of occasions.

4. Engage in proactive prevention

By nipping negativity in the bud, you can avoid an unhappy long-term volunteer. This is a step that few organisations engage in.

Check in with volunteers and their supervisors about the volunteer’s experiences, one month and three months after they have started, and then annually. I recruited a specialist team of volunteers with appropriate skills whose specific job was this follow up.

Find out if the experience is working for them and what issues may be emerging. This might be the time a volunteer may want to or need to move to another role or even leave the organisation. This is the time to tackle any difficult behavioural issues or get feedback from the volunteer about how things can be improved for them.

The team and I were able to implement changes to our marketing, recruitment, PDs and training as a result of this feedback which improved our culture and further raised volunteer satisfaction.

5. Reward appropriately.

I have lost count of the number of organisations that have rewarded their worst volunteers with a “volunteer of the month” or “a volunteer of the year” award! This is done with a hope that such a volunteer, having got a reward, may behave better!

Such rewards send a very poor message, fail to tackle the real issue and annoy the volunteers who do deserve such an award!

In one client organisation, they gave a toxic volunteer a very generous gift in a very public ceremony. They hoped that the volunteer would leave after being so well rewarded. Spoiler alert: she didn’t and in fact behaved worse now she felt vindicated by her awards. This was when I was called in to “fix the problem!”

Ensure your rewards have value by rewarding appropriately.

6. Remove the toxic person

Michael (names have been changed) was a highly qualified retiree who was volunteering in a telephone customer service. He handled the role with aplomb, charming clients calling in with enquiries and solving their issues quickly and well. He was well loved, well respected and highly trusted. Then one day he arrived drunk. The other volunteers watched appalled as he shouted of his achievements and why he was better than all of them. Then he abused clients and hung up on them. Not knowing what to do, the volunteers resolved to say nothing and hide the issue from the management. It was only on the third occasion of Michael drunkenly abusing others, that a supervisor found out.

If people consistently or regularly exhibit poor behaviour, then this means taking action. There must be documented paths for volunteers and employees to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour and see it dealt with.

The manager of volunteers must be prepared to have the difficult conversation with the volunteer. I have spoken to so many coordinators who declare that they have taken what seems to be an “easier” route. Many have said “I simply stop rostering the difficult people and then ignore all of their calls and emails”. This avoidance does not help anybody.

A series of conversations must be initiated with the volunteer. In some cases, the volunteer will work out there is an issue and resign. For others, there will be opportunities to work with them for change or improvement. In the case of Michael, he revealed a deep loneliness that had turned to alcoholism. Volunteering for him, he saw as one means of being less lonely. Unfortunately, his addiction was still hard to control. In this situation, the organisation was able to support him with counselling whilst suspending him for a period.

Finally, some volunteers must be suspended or removed. Engage in the process safely, respectfully and legally because such a volunteer will make life hell for you if you relieve them. You will be amazed, however, how many other volunteers will cheer your decision!

Ensuring a safe positive workplace takes time, investment, and work. The results are worth it. The risk of a poor culture is never worth it.


Martin J Cowling is a knowledgeable and popular international author, trainer and consultant from Australia. He possesses over 30 years of management experience with NGOs, government and corporates.

Martin works with organisations globally on volunteering, leadership, governance and change and has worked in partnership with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on projects in the UK and Australia.

Martin volunteers personally to tackle homelessness and poverty. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.

Cost, value and funding cuts

Cost, value and funding cuts

In the future, when we look back on the year 2020, Covid-19 will inevitably come to mind. The weeks of lockdown, the seismic shifts in how we live our lives, driving thirty miles to check if your eyesight is good enough to drive – all will live long in the memory. Yet perhaps the biggest challenge of the year lies ahead, in what some think will be the worst economic downturn in living memory.

When the cost of the pandemic is finally calculated, many feel it is inevitable the the years of austerity that were only just coming to an end in the UK will return with even more devastating impact than we experienced over the last decade. Add to that the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit which would add to the economic woes and the future does not look bright (no need for shades!).

Post-pandemic we might well see cuts to public spending, significant challenges generating charitable income, cuts within civil society organisations and, if the past is to be repeated, reductions in funding for and investment in volunteer engagement. In such a climate it becomes more important than ever to focus on the value we get for the money we spend, rather than simply the cost.

Over the years I have sometimes heard individuals and organisations say that they can’t justify a training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost. So, a cheaper option is found with little or no regard for its efficacy. Rarely, it seems, is consideration given to the value different options would return.

A training course may be free or cost less than a more expensive option, but is it a better quality learning experience? Would spending more money enable improved performance, resulting in greater efficiencies, which in turn recoup that extra cost?

An effective volunteer management system might be a more costly option than a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it’s enhanced functionality and remote accessibility could deliver savings and returns in the longer term that continuing to struggle with a spreadsheet will fail to realise.

With many organisations facing a future with less money than before, there is even more of an imperative that resources get spent on things that will return real value.

Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality. I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting. A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value. By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering a much nicer wine.

More than ever we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too. We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost. This isn’t just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment etc.. It’s also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our organisations when the inevitable budget cuts come.

Sadly, it is all too often the case that when the belts get tightened one of the first things to go is the volunteer engagement function. That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs (because volunteers are free, right!) without any appreciation of the value of that function. How do we help our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if they cut the volunteer management function?

In 2009, 2011 and 2013 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment. The studies showed that organisations which cut the funding for their volunteer engagement work performed less well on a number of measures than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.

In the absence of such research in the UK, and with more cuts coming, volunteer managers need to provide even more evidence of their value and articulate this effectively to their organisation’s leadership. Evidence that demonstrates wider value of their role, as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering, especially when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.

My question to you is, are we up for this challenge in this Covid-19 affected world?


If you are interested in reading more about how how strategic volunteer engagement can help an organisation navigate the challenges of a recession then check out this article from USA-based colleague, Tobi Johnson: “How to Survive the 2020 Nonprofit Recession”.

You can access details on the right free photograph accompanying this post here.

Technology and the changing role of volunteers

Technology and the changing role of volunteers

Last year I wrote the articles “Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date” and “Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future”. Since then we’ve had a global pandemic which has got us all embracing new ways of using technology, both personally and professionally. But has technology transformed the act of volunteering during 2020?

In some ways, the answer is yes. More attention has been given to virtual volunteering than at any time since this way of giving time first developed some thirty five years ago. Perhaps more people have used an online platform to facilitate their in-person volunteering, for example signing up as one of the UK’s NHS Volunteer Responders using the GoodSam app? And I’m certain more volunteers than ever have done some form of video calling via a platform like Zoom, either to do their volunteering and / or to attend support meetings, volunteer social events etc..

I’d argue, however, that whilst these tech driven changes to volunteering are important, they are not really reflective of the scale of change that could happen. Take, for example, the decision by Microsoft earlier this year to replace human journalists with AI content curation. That’s a pretty fundamental shift in the role of paid staff, way beyond those people communicating remotely whilst working from home or applying for their job online.

It’s also a shift that could be coming to volunteering. Yes, that’s right, technology replacing volunteers! This is something I touched on last year when I discussed autonomous vehicles and volunteer drivers, but since then other examples have appeared.

Consider the announcement in February 2020 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed an ‘text generating system’ that can accurately and effectively update content on Wikipedia. The AI even ensures the grammar and style of the text it adds matches what was there before. It’s not a stretch to think that before long thousands of volunteer Wikipedia editors will no longer being needed.

It’s also worth reflecting on the UK government’s investment in technology to transform the care system. Reporting on this in 2019, CNBC stated:

“The scheme, backed by funding of £33.9 million across five years, could result in the development of sophisticated “care robots” which would be deployed to assist the elderly. Actions that could potentially be taken by such robots include helping people up after a fall, making sure medication is taken, and delivering meals.” – CNBC, October 2019

In a world more aware than ever of the risks of disease transmission from human contact and where people in care have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not difficult to see volunteers in the care system being replaced by so called ‘care robots’.

If all that seems a little far fetched, just think about the growing use of drones for household deliveries. This could be used right now to replace the work of volunteers who delivered food and medicine to vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown earlier in the year.

“The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April” – Slate.com, April 2020

Given how important and high profile such volunteer roles have been this year, the introduction of current drone technology could be transformative in the development of post-pandemic volunteering.

You may now be thinking something like, “OK, I get it, but our organisations need volunteers, they are fundamental to our work, we can’t just replace them with technology”. I agree, but consider:

  1. Organisations generally don’t exist to give people an opportunity to volunteer. They exist to fulfil a mission. If they can do that in a different and potentially more effective (and cheaper?) way then why not embrace technology?
  2. During lockdown, some organisations that previously proclaimed they couldn’t do their work without volunteers stopped all volunteering. That’s right, volunteers were so integral to the work that they could all stop whilst the organisation kept on going! In that context why wouldn’t a different way of doing things be considered?

Put it all together and I have to ask, if we faced another global pandemic in ten years time, would volunteers be as needed as they were in 2020, or would technology have replaced them? Will it even be ten years and need a global crisis – is technology coming for our volunteers sooner than we think?

The changing role of Volunteer Engagement Professionals

Back in January (which feels like at least a year ago now!) my Canadian friend and colleague Erin Spink published “Top 20 Ideas in Volunteer Engagement for 2020”. This free eBook featured short essays from a global mix of Volunteer Engagement Professionals (VEPs) and thought-leaders (myself included). Contributors explore trends, the evolution of our practice and the need to reframe our role and I highly recommend reading the eBook, if you haven’t already.

For me, one of the recurring themes is a questioning of the role of VEPs. Specifically, a need to move from the comfort of doing the day-to-day, process driven, ‘cat-herding’ of volunteer management administration, to a more strategic and aspirational leadership role.

Here are two examples from the book to illustrate this:

”For years I’ve been asking volunteer leaders to define what they understand their core role to be – and without doubt, the same set of responses follow; recruitment, selection, screening, training, retention and a few essential management functions. I’ve constantly argued that this both over simplifies and limits the role of volunteer management, and while this viewpoint may have once been an accurate reflection of volunteer leadership, the undertaking of these tasks does nothing more than keep the Volunteer Manager incredibly busy and nowhere near as productive as they might otherwise be…In short, I believe that the ‘core’ role of the volunteer leader has changed forever and it’s time to re-define our core function and understand our roles in a different light!” (Andy Fryar, page 6).

“We all know that volunteer engagement professionals wear many hats, yet that doesn’t mean we alone should be responsible for volunteer engagement. 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, page 21)

This shift to a more strategic approach by VEPs is something that’s been talked about for a few years now, so it is encouraging to see that focus being sharpened in Erin’s eBook. It’s a theme that has particular resonance in our Covid-19 affected world, something none of Erin’s contributing authors could have foreseen when they were writing their essays in late 2019.

As I recently argued on this very blog, organisations are going to need VEPs like never before in the world after the pandemic. Setting aside the clarity of hindsight, there are lessons to learnt as to why we weren’t as ready as we could have been when Covid-19 struck. Looking forward, the situation is unclear – the post-pandemic context will be for volunteering and VEPs is still being revealed.

There will be administrative issues to tackle. Thousands of people who quickly mobilised as volunteers with few bureaucratic obstacles in their path will not thrill to our reams of recruitment and selection paperwork. Online systems and quick, seamless communications tools will be expected where before we may have gotten away with offline systems that were slower and clunkier. We will need to re-frame our risk management systems to accommodate new concerns about the virus, ensuring volunteers are kept safe and able to supply robust contact tracing information where required.

There are, however, more significant changes that will be needed to underpin all this. As the quote from Beth Steinhorn stated earlier said, “the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone”.

According to the 2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report, before the pandemic, only 25% of VEPs were 100% focused on volunteer management. Those roles need protecting from job and budget cuts so organisations have the skills, knowledge and resources at their disposal to help everyone adapt – VEP’s influencing skills may be called on as never before!

The other 75% of Volunteer Managers who were unable, pre-pandemic, to dedicate so much of their time to effective volunteer engagement, will need supporting and resourcing to dedicate put more into their VEP duties. Making this case to organisations as budgets shrink and fundraising effort struggle will be a challenge we need to rise to.

All VEPs will need to give significant attention to supporting colleagues across their organisations to embrace working with volunteers, delegating the nuts-and-bolts workload required to get people recruited and deployed effectively. VEPs will also need to analyse and adapt to the shifting organisational requirements of post-pandemic society, reflecting on how those match or conflict with shifts in how, when and why people may want to volunteer. This strategic juggling act will be a key priority for VEPs if organisations are to truly harness the potential of volunteering.

In recent months I have found myself repeatedly quoting Albert Einstein who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. Just as these words effectively summarised for me the themes of Erin’s eBook before I’d ever heard of Covid-19, so they clarify the even greater challenge now facing volunteer engagement professionals in our brave new world.

I know we are up for that challenge and I look forward to seeing how we will, together, rise to meet and overcome it.

The whys and hows of international connections in volunteer engagement leadership

Last year I wrote an article giving a behind the scenes glimpse into my trip to the USA’s 2019 Points of Light conference. My intention was to share the ups and downs of international business travel: bacon topped, maple glazed doughnuts included notes. But why are international connections important in our profession and how can we make more of them?

Since 2011 I’ve been fortunate enough to travel overseas on twenty-nine occasions. I’ve made ten trips to the USA, four to Canada, five to Australia, two to New Zealand and eight trips to other countries in Europe. Obviously that’s all on hold right now.

Whilst the vast majority of my time is spent working with clients here in the UK, these overseas trips have been incredibly important to me. Here’s why:

  • Whilst (in my experience) volunteer management practice doesn’t change much around the world, the regulatory, legal and (most importantly) cultural context in which volunteering takes place does vary. Seeing issues we tackle here in the UK being approached from a different perspective informs my continuing professional development and gives me insights into how we might work differently back home.
  • I get to share the excellent work of leaders of volunteer engagement across the UK with our peers in other countries. They gain from hearing about what we do and I get the privilege of being the conduit for that.
  • I love meeting new people and finding a way to connect them to each other for mutual benefit. Through my travels I have helped individual Volunteer Managers network across borders and, in early 2020, was able to bring together face-to-face and for the first time the two chairs of the professional associations for volunteer management in the USA and UK.
  • Volunteer engagement professionals are lovely people and who wouldn’t want to travel and meet great people whilst learning about a subject they are passionate about?!
The President of Al!ve and Chair of AVM meet for the first time in London in January 2020
The President of Al!ve and Chair of AVM meet for the first time in London in January 2020

I am very aware how blessed I have been to do this travelling and meet these people. Overseas trips aren’t the glamorous excursions people often imagine. There is a lot of boredom, tiredness and loneliness that comes with the territory. The great news, however, is that you can make these connections overseas as well, without all the travel downsides.

Today’s technology, from email, to instant messaging, to social media real-time video calling have shrunk the world significantly. The means of connecting with colleagues across the globe are quite literally in our hands thanks to our smartphones and computers. Thanks to the global pandemic we are more aware of this than ever before. So, here are some ideas about how you can take advantage and connect around the globe:

  • Most conferences and events have some form of social media presence, commonly a conference hashtag on Twitter. With a bit of basic research you can find volunteer engagement related events happening in other countries and follow their hashtags to see what’d being discussed. You can even join the conversation. Years ago I can remember contributing to a workshop discussion in Atlanta, USA, whilst sat in an office in London because I was following a discussion on Twitter. It was easy, free and gave a great insight into what a room of peers a few thousand miles away was discussing.
  • Online training via webinars is more popular than ever. Keep your eyes peeled for events happening outside your country and see if you can register to take part. Be mindful of the time difference before you book but don’t let a late night or an early start stand in the way of a good international learning opportunity.
  • Twenty years ago there were three main online platforms for leaders of volunteer engagement to connect – the CyberVPM, UKVPMs and OzVPM email groups. Today there are many more groups on social media that allow you to connect with colleagues overseas. LinkedIn, for example, has groups affiliated with the UK’s Association of Volunteer Mangers, the USA’s equivalent, Al!ve, and VMPC in Canada have their own page. They are all easy to find with a simple search and provide a means for you to connect with others online at your own convenience.
  • Connect with colleagues working in the same setting as you (e.g. hospice care, retail etc.) who live and work in countries that are further ahead than yours when it comes to recovery from Covid-19. What have they done that you can learn from? What tips and ideas can you take and apply to your work?
  • Look for opportunities to mentor others in the profession or, if you prefer, to be mentored by others. Use our professional associations and the different social media groups for leaders of volunteer engagement to try and find a mentor from another country. Perhaps someone doing a similar role in a similar context can help you see things differently because of the different cultural understanding of volunteering?

Whatever you decide to do I encourage you to take the plunge and reach out to colleagues around the world. We all have so much to learn and so much to insight to give to others, especially right now, so let’s all make an effort to connect globally to help each other in our work.

Are you looking for an international connection in the volunteer engagement profession? Leave a comment below and let’s see if we can get some people connected!

Alternatively, share your wisdom – Have you made global connections in the profession online? How did they benefit you? How did they benefit others? What advice would you give?