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)


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

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Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

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.

Cost, value and funding cuts

Cost, value and funding cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The whys and hows of international connections in volunteer engagement leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four mistakes Unions sometimes make about volunteering

In my last article I discussed how Volunteer Managers need to be leading debate about job substitution issues as our organisations adapt to a world changed by Covid-19. When we get into these discussions we may encounter resistance from unions, resistance we need to counter. But how?

First, let’s remember that unions do an important role protecting their members: this isn’t an anti-union rant. As I said last time, however, old ways of thinking won’t cut it in our Covid-19 ‘new normal’ – that’s true of unions as music as the rest of us. Consequently, leaders of volunteer engagement may need to challenge unions more than we might have done in the past.

To that end, I want to highlight four mistakes unions often make when thinking about volunteering that may be useful when you need to challenge their position.

1 – Unions can confuse amateur (volunteer) with incompetent

Unions typically come at volunteering issues with the assumption that professional (paid) means competent. This is the same argument some in the voluntary sector use to argue for paid trustees – if we pay people, we get more professional behaviour and more competent practice.

Neither argument holds up in reality. What someone is paid is no indicator of their professionalism or competence. This is an area I’ve blogged on before so do take a look at a post on my old blog site for more of my thinking.

2 – Unions can assume we will deploy anyone as a volunteer

In my experience, unions sometimes think volunteers will be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. This is, of course, something no competent volunteer manager would ever do. Volunteers, when properly recruited, trained, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff (see point one above).

3 – Unions can get it wrong on commitment

This one is a little bizarre – unions sometime suggest volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid staff. Interesting. Filling a role for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed! Sure some volunteers may be a bit flaky but you know what, that can be true of paid staff too. Just as volunteers don’t have a monopoly on passion, whether someone is paid does not indicate their reliability or commitment.

4 – Unions typically say one thing and do another

Finally, and crucially, almost every union rep I have engaged with professionally has failed to recognise the the very movement and organisation they represent runs on volunteer labour. As one of the UK’s biggest unions state on their website:

UNISON employs around 1,200 people across the UK and has more than 1.3 million members. But we rely on volunteer activists for much of the support we offer. Without them UNISON would not be able to function.

Which begs the question – why are volunteers in other settings viewed as untrained, uncommitted, well-meaning amateurs, individuals who are out to take paid staff jobs, yet union volunteers aren’t? Is it one rule for them and another for everyone else?

Conclusion

Remember, this is not an anti-union rant. When plans were recently announced for Boots (the chemist) to recruit volunteers to work thirty-two hours a week as Covid-19 testers, it was the unions who had the most sensible objections.

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said: “Many people want to give their spare time to the NHS to help it through the Covid crisis, but this advert takes the notion of volunteering way too far.” She added that rather than “seeking to take advantage of people’s good nature, the government would be better placed utilising the experience of NHS staff returning from retirement, or the healthcare students in their final years, to help expand the UK’s testing capacity”.

In contrast, politicians argued it was physically demanding work and so should be paid. Which begs the question as to why they have no such qualms about volunteer gardeners, lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and countless other physically demanding volunteer roles?

Unions don’t always get it right though and as leaders & managers of volunteers we need to stand up to any ill-informed, prejudice driven perspectives anyone has about volunteering. We need to find a way to work with unions, and others, to ensure volunteer involvement in adds value without displacing people from paid work.

  • What have been your experiences of engaging with unions around volunteer engagement issues?
  • Have you found any success in working with them around volunteer engagement in times of change?
  • Are there other tips you might share with colleagues?

Please leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion.

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers

What follows is a slightly edited article that was originally written by Susan J. Ellis and published on the Energize Inc website as the Hot Topic for December 2009. The original version is also available as an audio file.

The context for Susan’s hot topic was the global financial crisis which was impacting nonprofits and communities around the world. In today’s Covid-19 affected society, her thoughts and advice are as relevant as ever. Times are tough and many predict that an unprecedented economic shock is just around the corner. Let Susan’s words from eleven years ago inform and inspire you to act on her timeless wisdom and insight so that volunteer engagement might come out of the current situation stronger, not weaker.


Can an organization turn to volunteers to fill gaps when budgets are cut and employees laid off?

This ancient question has been resurfacing quite a bit recently, for obvious economic reasons. For many paid staff, it is fearfully voiced as, “Will my organization do this?” Even in the best of times, employees are often wary of new volunteer projects because of questions of job security, so it’s hard to deny the threat when budgets are in real danger.

I suspect that most readers here, being immersed in the dogma of our volunteer management profession, have a visceral negative reaction to even a hint of the “replacement” question. My stomach tightens, too. But we have to let our brains keep working and find a way to respond with care and concern when our organizations are struggling for their lives. Economic crisis is a teachable moment and has the potential to educate everyone about smart, motivating engagement of volunteers.

I see three levels of action: prevention/preparation; responding to hard times; and emergency mode.

Prevention / Preparation

Here is what I always give as my best advice: Plan for volunteers when times are good if you want their help in times of crisis. Crisis is the worst time for an organization to begin to involve volunteers. This reinforces the notion that volunteers are a temporary band-aid and is sure to be met with staff resistance to volunteer help just when they themselves are coping with an increased workload. Further, it is hard to sound sincere to the public about welcoming their help when recruiting in desperation.

If an organization already has an established volunteer corps and a solid volunteer management process, it is legitimate to assess how this group of loyal supporters can best be deployed to respond to an economic emergency. Top management ought to know already that volunteers are cost-effective but are never a “free” resource.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual to see organizations lay off their director of volunteer involvement in the first round of staff cuts. The theory is that there are already volunteers in place and there will be few immediate consequences from this vacancy. Then, often without seeing the irony, the same organizations also announce that they are seeking more volunteers!

Clearly it is my position that the more critical volunteers are to an organization, the more important the position of the person who leads the volunteer program. Not only will such a manager work to expand the volunteer corps, but current volunteers can feel unsupported and taken for granted if they lose their staff liaison.

Responding to Hard Times

In general, it is next to impossible to fill a gap left by a full-time employee with a single, qualified and available volunteer. Instead it would require an intricate schedule of several volunteers, each giving a certain number of hours per week and each bringing the organization a different set of qualifications. Take all the concerns of “job sharing” and multiply them several fold!

The best way to handle the real problem of forced lay-offs is to reassess the job descriptions of the entire staff, both those who have left and those remaining. This means doing a task analysis of the way things really work in the organization, not just what was put on paper in the distant past. Scrutinize the various tasks that each employee is/was doing and identify the following sorts of things:

  • What is someone doing once a week or periodically, rather than daily or on an inflexible schedule?
  • What is someone doing that really does not require his or her specialized training? (For example, a caseworker may spend a lot of time away from clients finding referral information – telephone calls, Internet searches – or a librarian might be diverted from core work by changing the book displays and bulletin boards.)
  • What is someone doing that might be done more effectively by someone else with more specialized training in that skill?

Once you have identified such tasks, you are ready to rewrite all the staff job descriptions. First be sure these contain all the tasks that require daily attention, special training, etc., adding the similar critical responsibilities that had been assigned to the laid-off staff members. Next, remove the periodic or less technical responsibilities. You end up with the remaining employees now tasked primarily with the most vital, daily functions. The remaining activities then become the basis for legitimate volunteer position descriptions. You will be asking volunteers to handle important work that can be done on a once-a-week basis or that makes use of special talents for which the volunteers have been recruited.

Now turn to the current assignments that volunteers are filling and ask this major question: Are these the most essential things we need right now? Weigh the list of tasks you’ve just culled from the employees against what volunteers are doing and make choices. Of course include volunteers in this deliberation. You can assume that they want to be of the greatest help and will be proud to be seen as part of keeping the organization afloat.

This approach to the unfortunate need to trim the budget is therefore good management of both paid and volunteer staff. The organization is paying for the best utilization of its employees and will attract volunteers in its support. It is also more likely to avoid the mistake of recruiting volunteers mainly for clerical roles at a time when increasing numbers of people are seeking more challenging ways to serve the causes in which they believe. Not to mention giving unemployed people a way to keep their professional skills alive while doing something worthwhile for others. (Another finding in the MAVA study was that 52% of the respondents said they were interviewing new volunteers with stronger work skills and 54% said these applicants were more likely to be unemployed.)

Emergency Mode

For some organizations, the financial choices have come down to eliminating services (even closing the doors altogether) or turning to volunteer help as a stopgap measure. In that sort of crisis, your mission comes first. Volunteers as well as paid staff understand and respect that. It is legitimate to share information about the emergency situation with current and potential volunteers and to ask for their help. You are likely to get it.

Again, the first task is to reassess the job descriptions of the employees, being even more deliberate in making sure primary, daily services are assigned to paid staff. Then look at what, where, and how volunteers are doing now. Are they familiar enough with the work of a unit or area that they might take on additional responsibilities? Would they be willing to increase their volunteer time for, say, two months? Can they help you to recruit more emergency volunteers (with the skills you need most) and train them on-the-job? This is also a legitimate question to pose to board members, especially those with corporate ties.

Of course this is not a great situation! The key is honest and open communication about the plans to hold things together until new funding can be found. Solicit everyone’s ideas for how to operate in the crisis. Set a timeline for reassessing how things are going and, perhaps, for when to throw in the towel. Volunteers are a vital part of transitioning to a more effective, fully-funded organization but they cannot be expected to carry the load indefinitely.

Most important, always remember that volunteers are your most effective advocates for funding your work. Especially in a crisis, make sure you are asking volunteers to be spokespeople with legislators, donors, and other funders. Raising more money and having great volunteers are mutually compatible goals.

And, to repeat: The best way to gain expanded volunteer support in lean times is to have incorporated volunteers as a welcome resource in the first place.

  • Are you facing pressure to recruit more volunteers because funding has been cut? How are you responding?
  • How are you realigning volunteer position descriptions to be sure they are meeting the most pressing needs today?
  • What else are you experiencing about “paid vs. volunteer” thinking in your organization?