Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?
What is volunteer engagement?
My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword’ (subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):
“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”
How can we increase volunteer engagement?
My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:
“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:
- The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
- The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
- The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”
In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?
Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager
In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.
Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:
- Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
- Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
- Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).
Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?
Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.
Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership
In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:
- Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
- 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
- When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.
In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!
This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.
Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:
- We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
- We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.
Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work
Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.
This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:
- Three key steps to developing meaningful volunteer roles
- Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters
So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.
Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:
- Volunteer Engagement: Defining the Future of the Profession (part 1)
- Volunteer Engagement: Defining the Future of the Profession (part 2)
All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.
I am really pleased to give my latest blog post over to guest contributor, Carol Carbine. I’ve know Carol for many years and you are in for a real treat with her first ever article. Oh, and in case you were wondering, part two will be published here in late September.
Ok, before I start, there are hundreds of articles out there about the psychology of superheroes: what superheroes can teach us about marketing; what your kids can learn from superheroes; leadership lessons from superheroes; what superheroes can teach us about investment strategy; the list is endless.
So you may be asking yourself why I feel the need to talk about volunteer management and superheroes. Simple answer, why not? I mean let’s look at it from the perspective of the individuals we are trying to recruit into volunteering – who hasn’t wanted to feel like a superhero at some stage in their life (even if you were only 6 years old)?
There are some brilliant volunteer managers but many of us still worry about being too demanding, asking too much of our volunteers and managing too rigorously. After all, we’re not paying these people are we so we shouldn’t expect too much? Sadly this means that all too often the results of our recruitment efforts don’t meet our aspirations and we end up with volunteers that are OK, but not brilliant. More sidekick then superhero.
So let’s time travel back to 2012. If I’m honest like many, I didn’t know what to expect from the London Olympics volunteer programme. At the time we heard about teething troubles recruiting (and retaining) great volunteering specialists, the fact that McDonalds were being brought in to manage volunteer recruitment and induction, plus the tens of thousands of people who pre-registered their interest and didn’t get a reply – yes, I was one of them. And, if we are really honest, loads of us thought that Danny Boyle seemed a bit of an odd choice to direct the opening ceremony.
How wrong were we!
Universally when you talk to people who became ‘Games Makers’ (they never think of themselves as ‘only a volunteer’) the immense passion, pride and sense of having been part of something extra special shines through, even six years later.
A while ago I had the opportunity to talk in detail to some of the Pandemonium Drummers who featured at the 2012 opening ceremony about the rigorous recruitment process they went through. This process led to a genuine pride that they were the best of the best – the high expectations, absolute secrecy, attendance at an extremely high percentage of practise / rehearsals or you didn’t get to perform on the day, and so on.
Ok so back to superheroes, think of your favourite superhero what is it that makes them super? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- A high level of passion for the cause that inspires them to take action
- Great skills and talents
- A clear vision of what needs to be done
- A clear identity – who they are, what they stand for and usually a natty costume!
- A willingness to tackle challenges head on, learn from their mistakes and keep going till the job is done
Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want people like this as volunteers?
Before anyone starts complaining about my high standards radically reducing the pool of available people, being elitist or not being inclusive, remember that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes from Ant Man to Ego (who’s a living planet) and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds including an ex-convict, an orphaned college student and a millionaire philanthropist. They also include a green one, a blue one, a blind one, a deaf one, a couple of wheelchair users, one who appears to have been genetically imprinted by a cat and a living tree!
So next time you’re recruiting you might just want to raise the bar and consider what super talents your superheroes need to have. Or then again you might just want to do it the same way you have always done it and settle for sidekicks.
PS. According to the Oxford English dictionary in 1899 when the word ‘superhero’ first appeared it meant ‘an exceptionally skilful or successful person’.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you’d like to contact Carol direct, here are her details:
Diversity is one of those areas that many leaders of volunteers want to give more attention to but it is sometime hard to find practical advice on how to achieve real diversity amongst our volunteer teams. Helpfully, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) has a new resource to help.
MAVA’s Inclusive Volunteerism Task Force was set up to to explore barriers to volunteer engagement within diverse communities and identify successful strategies for overcoming these barriers. They published their report, “Engaging Volunteers from Diverse and Immigrant Communities: 8 Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Volunteer Program,” in March 2018. The executive summary is available for free to all whilst the full report costs USD$20 (but is free to MAVA members). Both documents can be accessed here .
The MAVA report provides approachable steps that all leaders of volunteers can take to make progress on engaging a volunteer team that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. While a small part of the report is focused on Minnesota, the majority of it can be applied in other settings and I found the content highly relevant for a UK setting.
I was especially struck by the first strategy, “Shift Your Language”. MAVA make the point that the term “volunteer” is not universally understood and many communities don’t label the time they give as volunteering. This is a point I have made on numerous occasions – just because people don’t volunteer with us doesn’t mean they don’t volunteer. See my article from 2016 for more of my thinking on this.
MAVA suggest a few of ideas for tackling the issue of terminology. Here are my two favourites:
- Consider using words beyond “volunteer.” “Help” is one good option, but other broader terms – like “support,” “benefit,” or “give,” are also possibilities. For example, say how people can volunteer, say how they can help – simple but potentially very effective.
- When recruiting volunteers from diverse communities, focus on how the volunteers can assist their community instead of how they will help your organisation. Talk about how a volunteer can help by giving their time to their community through your organisation, or how they can organise a clothing drive for their community. The organisation is implied – it’s a part of the process – but it’s not the focus.
Of course, as MAVA note, changing our language isn’t enough on it’s own to realise a more diverse volunteer team.
From the fundamental importance of building relationships with different communities, to the importance of organisational culture and an understanding of socio-economic barriers to volunteering, the MAVA report contains lots of useful advice and food for thought. I especially liked this point about offering volunteers flexibility:
“Let’s make it okay for volunteers to have other priorities.”
Yes, volunteering for you may not be the be all and end all of someone’s life. They have other things going on, potentially including volunteering with other organisations.
The report concludes with a helpful “Inclusive Volunteerism Action Plan” to help readers implement real change. They encourage a focus on a couple of specific actions for each strategy, recognising that leaders of volunteers are busy people and achievable action plans are more likely to be implemented.
“With each step you’ll make progress toward a more inclusive volunteer program. The important thing is to keep taking those steps.”
As you can tell, I am a fan of this report from MAVA. In fact, I am a fan of MAVA’s work in general. They are one of the more active volunteer management associations I have come across and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a couple of occasions now, including attending their conference earlier this month. So watch out for another article next month which will highlight some recent work from MAVA exploring the status of volunteer management in organisations in comparison with HR, fundraising and delivery roles.
Yes, you heard me right, all volunteer managers are liars.
OK, not all of them. But those who I hear saying that people don’t want to volunteer, they are liars. They perhaps don’t realise they are lying, but they are.
People today do want to volunteer. They just don’t want to volunteer to do the things we are offering them.
Look at the latest data from NCVO. It highlights two key things.
First, one of the most common reasons why people volunteer is because they had time (28% of respondents).
Second, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering is people having other things to do with their spare time (35% of former volunteers and 36% of those who have volunteered once a month).
Why this contradiction? Simple. Plenty of people do have time to give, they’d just rather spend their spare time doing anything other than volunteering1. They would rather spend their precious leisure hours with their family, seeing a movie, going on a city break, reading a book, going out for a meal, watching their favourite sports team – anything but volunteering.
Our job as leaders of volunteer engagement is to try and market volunteering to people in such a way that they want to spend some of their spare time volunteering with us.
Which brings us back to the idea of all volunteer managers being liars.
I don’t really think they are at all. It’s a headline that got your attention. And it isn’t original. I stole it from Seth Godin and his excellent book, “All Marketers Are Liars”. I’ll let Seth explain:
“I wasn’t being completely truthful with you when I named this book. Marketers aren’t liars. They are just storytellers. I was trying to go to the edges. No one would hate a book called All Marketers Are Storytellers. No one would disagree with it. No one would challenge me on it. No one would talk about it.”
Seth goes on to explain why stories are so powerful in marketing:
“All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better – and look cooler – than $20 no names. . . and believing it makes it true.”
In other words, as recruiters of volunteers, we need to get a lot better at telling compelling stories that make people believe that volunteering is great and make them want to give us some of their spare time. Over to Seth again:
“Marketing is about taking something people may or may not want and telling a story to turn that something into a thing people definitely want.”
Here are two things I think leaders and managers of volunteers can learn about volunteer recruitment from “All Marketers Are Liars”.
1 – Don’t try to change someone’s world-view
You do not have the time or resources to convince someone who firmly believes they don’t have time to volunteer that, in fact, they do. A much better approach is to identify a population with a certain worldview and frame your story in terms of that worldview.
Consider this example. A divorced father sees his children for a weekend every two weeks. He thinks he doesn’t have time to volunteer because of the demands of his job and his desire to spend his spare time with his children. This dad also wants to do interesting and exciting things with his kids when he has them.
The smart volunteer recruiter tells the dad a (true) story about how their organisation’s family volunteering scheme is a great way to have fun and spend time with your children doing something meaningful. This message will likely resonate more with the father – increasing the chances of him signing up to volunteer with his children – than a message asking him to spare a few hours he doesn’t think he has.
2 – Make the most of influencers
“You have no chance of successfully converting large numbers of people to your point of view if you try to do it directly. But if you rely on the nearly universal worldview that people like being in sync with their peers, you are likely to find those who believe your story will share…with their peers. If your story is easy to spread, and if those you converted believe it’s worth spreading, it will.”
This observation from Seth Godin is really important. It’s a validation, at least in part, of the power of word of mouth advertising, one of the most effective forms of volunteer recruitment. It suggests a belief that I have long held about how to influence people to volunteer: instead of encouraging people to volunteer through stories about and images of people in the public eye – typically celebrities – we need to show potential volunteers that people just like them volunteer.
Let’s go back to our divorced dad. A message from a celebrity dad in a similar situation isn’t likely to win him over to volunteering. But if we can show the dad someone like him, someone he can identify with, someone who probably faces the same pressures he does, someone who despite all that still manages to find time to volunteer and has a good time doing so, then that might go some way to convincing our dad to think about volunteering.
Instead of turning to people in the public eye, let’s turn to our existing volunteers. Let’s get them to share their volunteering stories with their friends and families. Maybe see if some of them are willing to be featured in your organisations bigger marketing efforts? It can’t hurt to try and chances are it’ll be more effective than another poster campaign saying, “Help! We need volunteers”.
So all volunteer managers aren’t liars. But we are wrong if we think people today don’t want to volunteer. To get them involved we need to create opportunities that match people’s interests and availabilities. We need to provide a great volunteer experience. We need to tell stories about those great experiences we have available in a way that resonates with the people we want to recruit.
All of this can be a big challenge for us but it is also an amazing opportunity.
Let’s get started.
- In fact, the top barrier to volunteering is work commitments (59% and 61% respectively) which is another way of saying people have other things to do with their spare time. ↩
Developing good role descriptions is a lost art
The demands to constantly find new volunteers leave Volunteer Managers little time to think clearly and carefully, before recruitment starts, about the actual work those volunteers will be doing.
“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.” – McCurley, Lynch and Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)
New research might help
I was interested to read an article from Stanford Business School in the USA, “Beware of Workplace Policies That Kill Motivation”. It draws on recent research that highlights how subtle changes in the language of employment contracts can have a powerful psychological effect and influence on a range of ways employees behave. Significantly, to quote the article:
“The research found that designing a contract to specifically curb an employee’s counterproductive behaviors can, ultimately, exacerbate counterproductive behaviors”.
Although the article focuses on paid staff and the language of contracts, the lessons are equally applicable to volunteer management.
What’s wrong with volunteer role descriptions?
Role descriptions for volunteers are typically controlling documents, instructing volunteers what to do and not do, giving little scope for the volunteer to bring their own skills, talents, experience and ideas to the work. As one volunteer once said to me, “The problem with volunteer management is that it has become all about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.
Such a controlling approach to volunteer management is often driven by misconceptions of volunteers being well meaning but unreliable amateurs, people who need controlling if we are to avoid problem behaviour and poor performance. Yet, the research highlighted by Stanford suggests approaching volunteer roles like this this actually risks making problem behaviour and poor performance more likely.
Three ways forward
How then, can we construct and articulate roles for volunteers that address anxieties about the competence and reliability of volunteers but also empowering them to be creative, autonomous and successful?
To answer that question I have copied three key quotes from the article and outlined my thoughts about the application of these to volunteer management.
1 – Mindset shift
“From management’s perspective, contracts are too often used merely as a way to exercise control over the workforce. But management could also use contracts to motivate employees. Our research explains how employers can achieve both ends with the same tool.”
My thoughts: A mindset shift is needed. We need to challenge the belief we and others may hold about volunteer competence and risk. Competence does not relate to how much someone gets paid. Volunteers, properly recruited and trained, present no more of a risk that paid staff and so do not need to be controlled more than anyone else. In fact, as motivation is such a key part of volunteer management, we must find ways to make our volunteer roles more meaningful and motivating, and that means being less controlling.
2 – Be more vague (sometimes)
“Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”
My thoughts: If we want to retain volunteers, if we want them to achieve more, generate new ideas, be more motivated and work well with others, then we need to use more general language in our role descriptions. This could mean suggesting tasks they could do rather than telling them exactly what to do. It could also mean focusing more on the results we want them to achieve and less on the specific tasks we want them to perform.
3 – When to not be so vague
“Typically, contracts contain both “control” and “coordination” clauses. Control clauses tell you what you can and can’t do at work, while coordination clauses help you align expectations. In other words, coordination clauses let workers know what employers want, while control clauses tell them how to do it and, quite often, what not to do.
“An example of a control clause run amok can be found in a 2003 Department of Defense employment contract for pastry bakers. The 26-page document specifies the number of chocolate chips each cookie should contain, but nowhere does it mention that the cookies should taste good.”
“The key is to remember that greater specificity can be helpful in coordination clauses by making sure both sides are on the same page, but it can backfire in control clauses by dampening an employee’s feelings of autonomy.”
My thoughts: If we are going to use more general language, then we should do so with control clauses. Being too prescriptive when telling people what we want them to do reduces autonomy and motivation. On the other hand, being specific in the language we use in co-ordination clauses can enhance motivation & clarify agreement between the volunteer and their manager about what the volunteer is expected to achieve.
In other words, making the results we want volunteers to achieve really tangible and being less prescriptive when explaining the tasks we want volunteers to perform would both be good steps to take.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear your reflections on this point and the article that inspired it. Please leave a comment below.
Can we help?
If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation develop meaningful and motivating roles for your volunteers then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.
I’ve been working in volunteer leadership and management for almost 24 years. That’s more than half of my life spent in the service of volunteers and those who organise them. It’s not just a series of jobs but a career, a vocation.
Over the last few months I’ve been working with Adrian Murtagh of Just Smart Thinking, a fellow traveller – himself an experienced volunteering professional of over 20 years, a qualified nurse, counsellor and life coach – exploring how we can work together to develop new opportunities and ideas.
We both love seeing the light bulbs go on as people gain new insights into how to involve volunteers to change the world, one donated minute at a time.
We both love seeing lives changed, the lives of volunteers and those they serve.
Volunteering is good for you
Studies abound on the benefits volunteers get from helping others. Just a quick Google search will reveal that volunteering will help you get a job, fight loneliness, make you live longer, make you happier, improve physical and mental health, stave off depression, fight the effects of dementia, and even give you a better sex life!
Is volunteer management good for you?
What you won’t find are studies about the health and wellbeing benefits people get from managing volunteers. You won’t find studies around the benefits strong self-resilience can bring to you in the management role – improving your quality of life inside and outside of the work environment. Adrian often talks of the powerful me, we and us concept, but what happens when the “me” is not being supported, guided or ignored?
You see, leading and managing volunteers is great. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, we don’t talk about it. We’re often so focused on our volunteers that we don’t take the time to focus on ourselves. You won’t find many (any?) conference workshops dedicated to helping Volunteer Managers look after themselves. Nor will you easily discover hints and tips to resiliently deal with the challenges that arise in the human-focused systems and environments in which we work and live.
All our literature, all our training courses, all our conferences: they all focus on how we can support others. Very few tackle the subject of looking after ourselves.
Looking after number one is a bit selfish though, isn’t it?
Adrian and I don’t believe so. We work in a sector, a profession, that is about altruism, service, putting others first, helping people. All the more reason to make sure we are OK because our work matters. It really matters. If we’re not on our A-game that can have serious consequences for others. If we don’t look after number one, how can we effectively look after everyone else?
Through our wealth of knowledge and years of experience, Adrian and I believe it’s time this changed.
Help us to help you
We are exploring how we can help leaders and manager of volunteers – you! – to look after number one, how to take care of your own wellbeing so you can better support your volunteers.
To help us in this process we want to get your input. We’ve designed a short wellbeing survey that you can complete online. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete and your participation will help Adrian and I to develop some tools and resources that will really help you and others working in volunteer management.
Free prize inside
As an incentive to take part were giving away five copies of my book, co-written with Susan J Ellis, From The Top Down. Simply fill in your name and contact details at the end of the survey (this is optional) and we’ll enter you into the draw (UK respondents only).
Thank you in advance for your support.