Our time is now – seize the moment

Many volunteer managers I meet are frustrated. They see huge potential in the work of volunteers, potential that is held back because senior managers don’t support volunteering as enthusiastically as they do fundraising. That may be about to change!

Yesterday, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive at NCVO, issued a new year letter to the sector in which he called for fresh thinking about the role volunteering can play as we deal with the challenges British society faces.

I was heartened to read Sir Stuart’s letter as it echoed much of what I passionately believe. For example:

  • Volunteering is not a magic solution to all our ills but it can and does play a key role. This should be maximised rather than dismissed in the sector’s relentless pursuit of money as the only resource worth having.
  • Just because volunteers don’t get paid doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing meaningful, important and significant work. What we pay someone is not a measure of their competence.
  • The debates about job substitution need to move on. Society has and is changing and new ways of thinking and doing are needed.
  • We are underplaying the ways in which volunteering can benefit and enrich the lives of all of us, from innovating new solutions, to improving our nation’s health to creating the kind of society we want to live in.
  • None of this happens without investment in and support for effective leadership and management of volunteers and volunteering.

In all our diversity, Volunteer Managers need to be front and centre in responding to Sir Stuart’s call to be bold for volunteering. We need to make our voices heard and help shape the debate. If we don’t, it will be shaped for us, potentially by those who do not have the knowledge, skills and experience we do. Or worse, this moment will pass and nothing will change.

Everyone of us needs to take action. Here are just things you could do:

  • Share Sir Stuart’s letter widely within your organisation, especially amongst senior managers and your board.
  • Write a comment in response to Sir Stuart’s letter on the NCVO website. Say what you think about his ideas and make the case for Volunteer Managers to be heard and included.
  • Share the article with your volunteers and listen to what they think.
  • Contact your professional association of volunteer managers (e.g. AVM, AVSM, NAVSM, HVG etc.) and encourage them to respond to Sir Stuart’s call to action.
  • Bring up this issue at your local Volunteer Managers networking group. Don’t have one, start one! Share the results of the discussion with the likes of NCVO and your professional association.
  • Read up on the issues Sir Stuart raises so you can play an informed role in any discussions on the role of volunteers in public services and wider society. A list of my previous blog posts on relevant topics can be found at the end of this article.

You could do one, more or another action. But please do something.

We have a wonderful opportunity here to position volunteering as central to the success of our organisations, our sector and our society. Let’s make the most of it!


Previous articles I have written that might help you think through some of the issues Sir Stuart raises

Six ideas from online dating to help with volunteer recruitment

One of the things I’ve noticed in the last few of years is the increasing use of dating as an analogy when people talk about volunteer recruitment and retention. So, when in 2012 I found myself back in the single life once again, I thought that I might have an opportunity to use this change in circumstances to write my own blog on dating and volunteering.

After being with my ex-partner for nearly twenty years, getting back into the dating game was a daunting prospect, not least because one of the common ways to meet new people these days is through online dating sites. Not only did they not exist the last time I was single, the internet didn’t even exist, at least in a form accessible to the general public in the always-connected way it does now. So my take on dating and volunteering is to look at six things I think online dating sites can teach those of us recruiting, engaging and leading volunteers.


Sites get to know people first and then using processes to match up people

When you sign up for dating sites you are prompted to tell them all about yourself. For the bigger sites this includes quite extensive questioning about your interests, tastes, preferences in a partner and so on. For me there are three takeaways for volunteer management arising from this extensive questioning by the site:

  1. Dating sites use a process to help learn about the individual. They then use that knowledge to help match the person to others. Critically, the process supports the person, helping to learn about them and their motivations. Sadly, many people who are volunteering encounter bureaucratic, impersonal processes that seem to ignore the individual, partly because their purpose is to cover the organisations backside if things go wrong. How much more attractive volunteering would be if we focused on getting to know the potential volunteer and their reasons for giving their time more than whether they’ve filled our forms in correctly.
  2. People are not averse to filling in forms because they expect the payoff at the end of it will be worth it. Those who use dating sites have a bigger purpose and if we view the process as an inconvenience then they will put up with it because they hope the results of doing it will be worth the time spent. Is that the experience volunteers have of giving their time to your organisation, or do they just give up when faced with your processes and go off and do something less boring instead?
  3. The whole process can be done easily online. If you can’t finish the form on a dating site in one sitting — and some are rather long — you can save them and come back later. It is a seamless, joined up and easy process. It might almost be said that filling these forms in is a pleasure (see my last point about payoff) — would that this were true for volunteer applications!

Selling yourself online

One of the most difficult things about online dating is writing a pithy personal advert. Aside from the fact that we Brits are not the best at speaking about or promoting ourselves, many people really seem to struggle with this task. In fact, cast your eyes over many such personal adverts on dating sites and you’ll notice that many follow the same format, make the same kinds of points and don’t really stand out.

One that caught my eye back in 2012 — out of professional rather than personal interest! — started, as many of these statements do, by saying that the lady concerned had no idea what to write about herself. Her solution? She gave it to a friend to write instead! A brave move but an inspired one.

Sadly, many volunteer recruitment adverts — both online and offline — resort to the the same formula, making them hard to stand out to prospective volunteers. What’s more, they invariably advertise the volunteer opportunity by stating what the organisation seeks to gain from someone volunteering, not what the volunteer might gain. Imagine that on a dating site — how going out with someone would make their life better but no regard given to your experience, feelings or interests. Or going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves. Both those scenarios sound like a shortcut to lifelong solitude.

So, how can we write more engaging and distinctive personal adverts for our organisations and our volunteering opportunities? How can we come across as engaging, interesting and worthy of someone’s precious time? Would you be brave enough to hand this task over to someone else — an existing volunteer perhaps — and see what they write about you?


The power of pictures

When I was single I never responded to an online dating profile that contained no pictures. It’s not that looks were everything to me in a potential date — they’re not — but they are a crucial element of the wider ‘sell’ of someone’s profile. If I couldn’t see the person then all the words in the world won’t make a difference because I felt like I was missing a key element of the wider picture, of who they are.

Pinterest and Instagram show the value in volunteer recruitment of visual storytelling. By uploading images of happy volunteers enjoying their work, organisations are seeing interest from others who ‘want some of what they’re having’.

So when we recruit volunteers, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the imagery we use. Do we show engaging images, images that show that real people volunteer here and have a great time doing so? Or do we rely on lots of text or, heaven forbid, job descriptions to try and hook people in? Even worse, do we use attractive images to hook people in that bear no relation to the reality they actually experience volunteering with us?


Levels of engagement

One thing dating websites understand is that you don’t want to rush into a date with a total stranger without having built some rapport first. Making first contact with someone and instantly asking them out for a meal risks coming across online as desperate or making people run in fear that you may be some complete nutter.

Dating sites get round this by providing different ways to engage with people. You can simply ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ a profile to signify your interest. Or you give a digital ‘wink’, although personally I found this a bit creepy — would you wink at a stranger in a bar as your first contact? Then you can email and/or instant message with someone, developing that rapport to the point that you both might feel comfortable to meet face-to-face for a date.

There’s a definite parallel with volunteer recruitment here. Often our recruitment efforts come across like asking someone to marry us the first time we meet. We ask for a long term intensive commitment from day one. Then we wonder why people run for the hills! Instead, could we provide a scale of engagement, giving people easy, no/low commitment ways to try us out, see if they like us, build rapport and perhaps move to a point in the future where they feel comfortable making a longer term commitment? It may take longer to get people to make the commitment we want, but investing that time early in the relationship with our volunteers will yield dividends later on.


Not knowing where you stand if people don’t reply

One of the most frustrating experiences I had with dating sites was finding someone you really like the look and sound of, plucking up the courage to drop them a line a say hello, and then never hearing back from them. Did they get my message? Did they not like my profile?

The same applies to volunteering. Someone plucks up the courage to get in touch and enquire about volunteering with you. And they hear nothing back. Did you get their email or voicemail? Were they not suitable? Why not? What could they have done that might have caught your attention?

Too many organisations seem to think that it is totally acceptable to respond to people within a few days or weeks — or even never — after their enquiry. Yet we live in an immediate world. People expect a reply, even just a holding reply, within a few hours at most. 28 days delivery might have met consumer expectations twenty years ago but next day delivery is the benchmark now.

How can you ensure you respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers? Can you use email ‘out of office’ messages to provide instant holding replies? Perhaps you could involve volunteers to help you manage the prospective volunteer enquiries?


Advice on how to get the most of the experience

One thing I liked after being on a certain dating site for a couple of weeks was that they sent me an email giving me suggestions for how to get the most from my membership. OK, it was a template, impersonal email but the advice was really good and helped me to find my feet in this new online world I had entered.

Do we, should we, or could we do something similar for volunteers? Do we help people new to our organisations to find their feet, settle in and feel at home? Or do we just drop them in at the deep end, let them get on with it and then get frustrated when they don’t do what we want them to?


So there you have it, my thoughts on what volunteer managers can learn from dating websites. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts, preferably about what leaders of volunteers can learn, how have you dealt with these issues, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’m not single anymore and no, I didn’t find my now wife online.

Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?

One of the most common questions people ask me is where the volunteer management function should be located within an organisational structure. It’s a great question to ask, but giving a simple and concise answer isn’t easy – it’s a complex issue.

It is a question that Susan J Ellis and I seek to answer directly in our book, “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, which is aimed at Chief Executives and senior managers to help them think through how they create an effective strategy and culture of volunteer involvement.

Here’s how we address the question in chapter five.


Organisational Placement

Whatever management option you choose, to whom will the person in charge of volunteers report? This decision has an impact on your entire ‘chain of command’ and sends a message to all employees and volunteers. In a later chapter, we will consider more fully the question of supervising the leader of volunteers, but for now, recognise that where you place the head of this initiative implies and affects where – even whether – volunteers themselves are integrated into the organisation.

There is no ‘correct’ place for the volunteer manager on the organisational chart. Each setting is different, and parameters such as staff size and the job functions of other staff members will affect your decision. However, be aware that whoever supervises the volunteer manager must truly understand what makes that position unique1.

For example, if you place the volunteer programme under the public relations department, will the director of public relations be able to assist the volunteer manager in his or her responsibilities related to the agency’s daily service delivery? Generally, a public relations department does not contribute to in-house operations or activities. Conversely, if the volunteer manager is placed under, for example, the casework supervisor, will that person be supportive of volunteer-related public outreach efforts? Again, the casework supervisor would normally have few or no responsibilities requiring external work in the community, such as public speaking.

It is useful to consider the connection between the volunteer manager and the agency’s head of human resources or personnel (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). There are both similarities and differences between these two functions. Structurally, as already noted, both recruit workers and place them into your organisation. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify the expectations for paid and volunteer personnel. But think carefully if you are leaning towards placing the volunteer office within the human resources department. Here are some cautions:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers will always be given lower priority than employees—perhaps little attention at all.
  • Human resources staff take job descriptions designed by others in the organisation and try to fill those slots with the best people, who are then completely delegated to each department or team. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactively suggesting ways volunteers can support the work to be done, be much more creative in finding people with expertise or the potential to become experts, and find placements for people who unexpectedly offer useful talents (the human resources folks can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary).
  • The volunteer manager may also be much more involved in a range of day-to-day organisational activities and supervise some volunteers directly.

Some organisations place the volunteer office under the supporter-development or fundraising department. Again, there is overlap (especially if the department involves special events or fundraising volunteers), but fundraising staff commonly have no direct service or programme responsibilities, so who can support the volunteer manager in recruiting and placing volunteers for service-delivery roles? Also, putting volunteer resources into fundraising may imply an agenda to ask for money as well as time, with an emphasis on the former.

In reality, the volunteer manager is a separate, independent department head, in that she or he has responsibilities substantially different from, though linked to, all other departments and is responsible for a large cadre of workers, albeit volunteers. Ideally, the volunteer manager should answer directly to you or another senior manager. This also sends a message to the volunteers. It says that they have a direct line to the top decision makers. It conveys a similar message to all employees: volunteers are a subject of daily interest to senior management, much as paid staff are in most organisations with employees. When you consider that the volunteer component is the organisation’s non-salaried personnel department and that you, as chief executive, are responsible for the deployment of all human resources, the decision to place the volunteer manager directly under you is more than justifiable.

If you are the executive of a very large organisation, the volunteer manager may have to report to you through a deputy chief executive or some other senior manager. Again, recognise the messages you send to everyone through your choice of where to place the volunteer programme. Consider the other departments answering to the same senior manager and assess whether there is an evident rationale for placing the volunteer programme alongside these other teams—or whether the placement implies that volunteers are a ‘miscellaneous’ organisation function.


If you’d like to read more about how to embed a culture and structure to support effective volunteer engagement then you can buy a copy of From The Top Down – UK Edition from Amazon. It makes a perfect Christmas present for your CEO, Director, board chair or line manager!

  1. Something we cover in chapter four of the book.