Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


At the organisational level

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

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


At the volunteer program level

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

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

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

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


At the individual level

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

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

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


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

Find more information and download the full report here.

For further information contact DEI Program Manager Brittany Clausen.


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

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

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

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

My top six apps for helping with wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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


1 – Streaks

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

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

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

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

2 – Calm

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

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

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

3 – Waterminder

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

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

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

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

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

4 – Countdown

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

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

5 – Day One

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

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

6 – Apple Fitness+

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

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

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

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

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


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


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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.


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Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Back in June 2019 I wrote and article on writing – “Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)”. Last year I planned to do a follow up with some practical tips but, well Covid-19 got in the way and there were more pressing issues to write about. So here, somewhat overdue, is an insight into my writing process with four tips to helping you get started, or do more, writing for our field.

Routine

Lots of books on writing will tell you a simple truth – the way to write more and to get better at what you write is to do more writing. If you’re struggling to get started then this advice may seem stupid, but it works. To produce content you have to make the time to sit down and write. Write something. Write anything. But write. You don’t have to set aside days or even hours at a time, a few minutes will do. Just do it regularly.

Don’t waste time looking for the perfect environment, the best lighting etc., simply set aside a bit of time and write.

Forget about agonising over the right pen, paper, electronic device for software to use, simply set aside a bit of time and write.

To make this really powerful I recommend establishing a routine. I write three days a week. I start the first draft of a new article every Tuesday. I then come back and edit that article on Wednesday and again on Thursday. After that it’s done. This approach keeps Mondays free for other work (using the fresh energy of the week) and Fridays clear to review the week and get ready for the next week. This routine has helped me write more than 80,000 words between May 2018 and February 2021, the equivalent word count for the average novel.

Find a routine that works for you – a good time, a good frequency and then commit to it. Simple but powerful.

NB. Paul J Silva’s book, “How To Write A Lot” has lots of advice about establishing a writing routine. There is a link to the book in the further reading section below.

The first draft

The worst part of writing is sitting in front of an empty page and figuring out how to start. If you write on an electronic device then get comfortable with the tyranny of the flashing cursor on a blank page – you’ll become good friends.

Author Anne Lamott (see link to her book, ‘Bird by Bird’ in the further reading section below) encourages writers to embrace the concept of the ‘Shi##y First Draft’. This concept is simple – whatever you write first time will not be what you publish and so can be truly terrible because nobody else (other than you) is going to see it. Don’t worry about perfection, punctuation, grammar. Just get your thoughts and ideas down in front of you and worry about editing them later (we’ll come to that in a minute).

Which brings us on to writer’s block. If this is something you experience (and you will at some point) then take this advice from Seth Godin. Seth argues that writer’s block isn’t an absence of ideas, it’s a fear of expressing yourself in writing. You might have an idea but struggle to see how you’ll put that on paper. The solution is to write a shi##y first draft then take it from there.

If you really have no idea what to write then Anne Lamott has a solution, write about how it feels to not be able to write and see where it takes you. I know, it sounds crazy. But if you have a regular writing routine and embrace the shi##y first draft then, in time, you’ll be amazed at the writing that flows out of you.

Writing is editing

William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well” (see link in the further reading section below) has been instrumental in my approach to writing. Aside from being one of the few writing books aimed at non-fiction writers, Zinsser give sound advice about the importance of editing.

“Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Rewrite by putting yourself in the reader’s place. Reading aloud can identify improvements.” – William Zinsser

In the past I would sit down, write something, check it for spelling and hit ‘publish now’ to put it out into the world. That stopped when I read “On Writing Well”. Following Zinsser’s advice I took an old blog post and tried to edit it. I made lots of changes. Lots. So many I was embarrassed that I’d ever published the original post. What I ended up with was so much better – it was clearer, more succinct and it flowed better too. Now, anything I write gets at least two edits before it’s either published or shared with anyone else.

If you write, whether blog posts, books, emails, reports, social media posts, embrace editing. Take your shi##y first draft and give it at least a couple of polishes. Your readers will be grateful and you’ll feel much more confident putting what you’ve written out into the world.

Putting it out there

So far, only half the battle is won. You’ve done your shi##ty first draft, refined and revised it and now have an article ready to go. Get ready for the biggest obstacle still – actually publishing your writing. I don’t mean deciding what blogging platform to use. I mean actually getting up the courage to publish.

In my experience there are three common obstacles that cause people to keep their writing to themselves instead of sharing it with the world:

1/ People won’t want to read what I have written

If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing something then there is only one way to find out if people want to read it and that’s to give them the chance. If you never publish, you’ll never know.

2/ I don’t want to face the criticism I might get for sharing my thoughts

Since my first blog post back in April 2011 I have (at the time of writing this) published 199 articles and had 378 comments on my blog sites. That sounds like a lot but it’s a little under two comments per post (on average) and fewer than one comment per week over the last decade. Most articles get no comments at all.

This may sound harsh but, at least initially, the chances are that not many people will read what you have written and even fewer will bother to comment. Of those that that do they might actually leave a positive comment. And if they say something negative, see what you can learn from it to become a better writer.

Put your anxiety about what people think about your writing into perspective and hit the ‘publish now’ button. Then let me know you’ve done it and I’ll read it and give you some feedback – I promise.

3/ What I have written isn’t good enough to publish

What exactly defines something being ‘good enough’ to publish? Seriously, I’d like to know what the accepted standard is because I’ve read some great books and some real stinkers, terrible wastes of time that some publisher thought derived a wider audience.

Same with blog posts. Chances are some people probably think I’ve written some of the stinkers! Oh, and I’ll let you into a secret – some of the articles that I thought were the worst things I’ve ever written are some the articles I’ve had the most positive feedback about. Go figure!

The truth is, you’ll never know if what you’ve written is good enough to publish until you do it. Unless you put your writing out there you’ll never get any feedback, information that’s vital to help you improve. Josh Spector wrote a short blog post with some very wise words to get us all over that feeling what what we’ve written isn’t good enough to share with an audience. Read Josh’s article, “You Have to Be Ok with Being Ok to Become Great”, and then publish what you’ve written.

Further reading

If you’re interested in writing or want to do some more reading about writing from writers vastly superior to me, please check out the following list of one article and five books. The book links all go to Amazon but feel free to get a copy from your library or any other retailer:

“40 One-Sentence Writing Tips” by Josh Spector

“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

“On Writing” by Stephen King

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

“How to Write a Lot” by Paul J Silvia

“The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield

And finally, remember…

”Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet!” (Original source unclear)


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Seven things to consider when looking for volunteer engagement software

Seven things to consider when looking for volunteer engagement software

I am sometimes asked for my views on volunteer management software. Which products are best? What should the software do? What are important features and benefits? In this article I want to give you my perspective on seven important things to consider when looking for software to help you in your volunteer engagement work.


1 – Get your data in order first

Remember that with any software the rule of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies. It doesn’t matter what the product is and what it can do, if you input rubbish data and / or fail to keep the data up-to-date, you will not realise the benefits of investing a new system.

Before you part with money for a shiny new volunteer system, get your house in order first. Make sure the data you already hold is accurate and that processes and practices are in place for – and followed by – everyone working with volunteers to keep the data in tip-top condition.

2 – Data storage vs relationship management

Do you want to simply store volunteer data so you know who your volunteers are, their contact details etc.? In some organisations an Excel spreadsheet might do this perfectly well. In others, a featured product with a few more features (data sharing between teams, for example) might do the trick, either as stand-alone volunteer system or a module in a product used by another team e.g. fundraising / development, membership, HR etc..

On the other hand, you may be looking for something that goes beyond simple data storage. You might want: reporting functions; the ability to communicate with volunteers by email, SMS, WhatsApp, social media etc.; document storage and sharing; logging volunteer hours; fuller integration with other organisational systems etc.. If this is you then look to systems that provide a more fully featured suite of customer relationship management (CRM) tools for volunteers.

3 – Know what’s essential and what’s optional

Before you start contacting software vendors, be really clear on what any new system must do and what it’d be nice for it to do. Not every product on the market will do everything you need, so be clear on what’s non-negotiable. This will help you short-list potential options and focus the discussion with the relevant vendors.

If you start with a long, inflexible list where everything is an essential requirement then be prepared to be disappointed. You will either have a severely limited choice available to you or you’ll discover that you need to spend more money for someone to develop a bespoke product for you.

4 – Put volunteers in control

As individuals we want control over our lives and our information. We want to do things on our terms, not someone else’s. Look at how we’ve adapted to doing so much more online during the pandemic.

People are the same when it comes to volunteering. They want to keep their own data up-to-date. They want to be in control of logging their hours. They want to be in control of when they give you their time. They want to see their own personalised reporting data. And they are largely comfortable with using technology

They don’t want to have to reply on speaking to you or a colleague every time they need to change their availability, update their email address, or see the current number of hours they have given this year.

Look for a system that puts volunteers in control. Can they update their profile and availability? Can they apply online? Can they do all this easily from a smartphone (app or web browser)?

Volunteers who can will likely be happier and more engaged. And you’ll be able to shift your attention from updating their data for them, focusing instead on more strategic and developmental work.

5 – Put colleagues in control

Do you have colleagues (paid or unpaid) who do the day-to-day work of volunteer engagement across your organisation? If you do, then look for a system that devolves management of the relevant data down to these colleagues, rather than centralising it all with you.

Aside from the operational efficiencies that can be gained by colleagues being able to do things quickly and easily themselves, there are benefits to you too. If their data is current and accurate then the reports you generate centrally will be too. That means no more chasing for things like monthly recruitment figures, hours logged etc. – bliss!

6 – Make access a priority

You, your colleagues and the volunteers all need to be able to access the system at different times and on different schedules. If whatever system you choose can only be accessed when in the office then how are those needing access off-site going to use it? Let’s face it – that’s all of us now!

Furthermore, can the vendors on your shortlist tell you how often their servers have been down, for how long, and how often? Crucially, was this downtime planned or unexpected?

Volunteers may need access at odd hours and get frustrated if the system is always down when they need it. Similarly, depending on where your software supplier is based, their system downtime may coincide with your working hours. For example, if a vendor on the west cost of the USA takes their system off-line at 1am local time, then a UK client loses access at 9am, just as the working day is starting.

7 – Ensure the vendor knows and gets volunteer engagement

There are lots of companies providing software to help with volunteer engagement. Some know little or nothing about what we do, they’ve just noticed a potential market to sell to. Others ‘get’ the work of leading volunteer engagement. They don’t just exhibit at conferences (remember them?), they attend trainings and seminars to develop their knowledge. They may even run workshops on volunteer engagement, focused on topics that aren’t about selling their product.

The more your chosen vendor understands the reality of your work, the better working relationship you’ll have and the more closely aligned to your needs their software will likely be.


My final observation is this. As much as you can, resist being forced to use a piece of software that wasn’t specifically designed for volunteer engagement. You need a specialist tool for a specialist job. HR have one. Fund-raising have one. Membership have one. You need one too. Not a bolt on to something else that half does the job. Volunteer engagement is too important to compromise on the quality of the software used to support and facilitate it.


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Working from home: how I do it

Working from home: how I do it

This year’s global pandemic has caused more of us to work from home than ever before. Some have loved it, some have tolerated it and some long for a return to the office. As someone who has worked from home for most of the last ten years I thought some of you might find it interesting to learn about my set up – the tools and techniques that make working along at home a pleasant and productive experience.

Desk

I refitted the office with new furniture last year and invested in a new sit-stand desk, an electric model from Ikea. The sit-stand facility is not only potentially good for my health but provides work benefits too. For example, when delivering online training I find it much better to stand to deliver content rather than sitting. At an in-person event I’d be standing at the from of the room so being upright is a more natural posture for me when working with a group.

Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk
Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk

If you’re investing in a sit-stand desk I recommend a floor mat as well (I don’t endorse the product in this link, it’s just a helpful article). A mat provides some cushioning against a hard floor, educes the stress on your ankles from too much stationary standing and (so some claim) helps fight fatigue. With a hard wooden floor in my office I certainly find a mat beneficial.

When not standing at the desk I have a good office chair to help with posture as well as a sit / stand stool which helps with posture and alertness – when using it I can’t put my feet on the desk and recline into a more laid back and relaxed position!

Technology

Good technology is essential these days for any productive workplace. Here is what I use almost every day:

13inch MacBook Pro 2020

My main computer. It’s light and small enough to be portable (should those days of travelling ever return!) and compact enough to store away at the end of the day (see below for why that’s important). It’s also powerful enough to cope with the demands of delivering content over the likes of Zoom. I’ve used a MacBook since 2012 and this latest version was an upgrade worth making in light of the changes the pandemic brought, forcing me to do more online delivery.

iPhone

The only office / business phone I own. It does all it needs to do, including keeping me connected to the office when I’m away – these days if I have to pop out and walk the dog or get essential groceries. The seamless integration between Apple products is a big benefit to me, second only to the privacy Apple provide, which is essential for keeping business data secure.

iPad

Key to working from home is saving paper – you don’t need loads of it taking up space and posing a fire risk. That’s where the iPad comes in. I use it for all my speaker notes when presenting as well as lot of my reading, saving a forest or two of printing a year.

reMarkable

Which leads nicely into this handy piece of kit. reMarkable is a device about the same size as an iPad but with an e-ink display similar to that on a Kindle that can be written on, replacing the need for a notebook. It has plenty of capacity to store thousands of pages which can be formatted according to a range of pre-set templates (lined, blank, dotted, organiser layouts etc.). Notes can be filed into folders, synced with my other devices and emailed to other people and apps as PDF documents. I have the first version (a second version came out in July 2020) and I love it.

Dropbox, Evernote and Things 3

I’ve talked hardware so far but these three pieces of software deserve a mention.

Dropbox keeps all my files synchronised between my devices. If I need a file whilst I’m walking the dog I can access it on my phone just as easily as I can on my computer in the office. It also gives me the security that if any of my devices get lost, damaged or stolen, the files are all still there and can be accessed as soon as I get a replacement or login via another machine.

Evernote is where I keep all my reference material: clients notes, business receipts, content for my newsletter, interesting articles I read online, resources for preparing new training, ideas for things to write about. Whether it’s a webpage, a typed note, a photo or an audio file, it all goes into Evernote. Like Dropbox, I can access all of this on any device as the material is stored in the cloud.

Things 3 is the app I use to keep track of all my projects, actions and to-do lists. Like the other software I’ve mentioned it’s always in sync on every device and keeps me on top of everything I need to do. Adding new actions is effortless and can even be done simply and accurately using Siri. I’d be lost without Things 3.

Space

One of the hardest things for people new to working from home is having the space to be productive. Many people have had to find a workspace in kitchens, on crowded dining tables, in spare rooms or in living rooms whilst the kids watch TV. It’s been a real issue this year for those who have home-schooled children, or live in smaller properties (or both!) especially as the switch to home working happened overnight for many, leaving no time to prepare.

I’m lucky that I have a dedicated space in my home for my office, as the pictures below show. Sure, my work stuff has to share with some of my CD collection and personal filing but its a place where I can close the door and tune out the rest of the household when I need to, a task made easier with a good pair of headphones! In fact, the only downside with my office is the window is next to the front door, so delivery people and the postie can always see someone is in, even if I can’t answer the door because I’m delivering online training or taking a call.

My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
Wide shot of the office
Wide shot of the office
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Office books and filing share space with my CDs
Office books and filing share space with my CDs

Routine

A good routine is one of the most important aspects of effective home working. Having a good space for working helps immensely, but it’s only part of the story – you still need the discipline to get the work done in the face of the other distractions of being at home.

Having followed Graham Allcott’s advice in his book, “How To Be A Productivity Ninja”, my typical work-at-hone day is scheduled around my energy and attention levels. I know I work best in the morning, so I crack on and get all the important stuff that requires my brain at its best between about 8am and 1230pm. I limit my lunch break by tying it to the lunchtime news – as soon as that finishes I’m back to my desk. The afternoon is usually set aside for reading and working on less demanding things like email handling. When I get the post lunch lull around 230pm I take the dog for a walk and return, raring to go until the day ends.

Finally on routine, it’s important when the work is done to pack it away for the day, especially if the work space is also family space (hence my earlier point about a compute small enough to pack away). Doing this gives a clear signal between work and home life. With some bosses expecting work into the evenings now their staff aren’t commuting as much and, for someone like me, meetings taking place outside of ‘normal’ work hours due to the working time of overseas clients, having a clear signal that the day is done is important.

So that’s it, a bit of an insight into the means and method of how I work from home. I hope it’s been of interest and potentially some help too, perhaps inspiring you to make some changes for the new year?

I’d love to hear your working from home tips and tricks as well as any feedback you’d like to give – please leave a comment below or on the social media platform where you found this article.

PS – this is my last blog post for 2020. The next article will go live on 8 January 2021.


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

Fantastic 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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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.