Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

FeaturedToxicity 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?

Eighteen nuggets of wisdom for leaders of volunteer engagement

One of the people I follow online is Josh Spector. He has a great newsletter that I have subscribed to for a few years now. In January he published an article entitled, “My Advice For Creators In 30 Sentences (Give or Take)”. That got me thinking.

I love quotations. I collect them (sad I know). So why not share some of my favourites, themed around leadership and volunteer engagement?

My hope is that the eighteen quotations I’ve chosen will inspire and challenge you in your work. They may be of help with leadership, influencing, ethical issues and a whole lot more. Use them, share them and let them help you do whatever is a priority to give people a better volunteering experience.

1

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” – Bill Gates

2

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” – Gen. Eric Shinseki, US Army

3

“Part of leadership (a big part of it actually) is the ability to stick with the dream for a long time. Long enough that the critics realise that you’re going to get there one way or another…so they follow.” – Seth Godin

4

”To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers – especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay. What conditions would need to exist for your staff to want to enlist in your ‘volunteer’ organisation? Under volunteer conditions, what would you need to do if you wanted people to perform at high levels? What would you need to do if you wanted them to remain loyal to your organisation?” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book, “The Leadership Challenge”

5

“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar

6

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only little.” – Edmund Burke

7

” He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” – Benjamin Franklin

8

“Volunteering is a sign of a healthy nonprofit organisation, not the solution for a failing one.” – Greg Baldwin, President, VolunteerMatch

9

”I strenuously resist the idea that money is more important than people. I believe the not-for-profit sector has a unique opportunity to recruit volunteers to fill critical talent gaps in organisations, and pay them in non-financial ways: with meaning, with opportunities to learn, and with a feeling of connection to community.” – Coleen Kelly

10

“The number one resource for a great social sector organisation is having enough of the right people willing to commit themselves to the mission. The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can never attract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.” – Jim Collins in his monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors”

11

“Satisfied volunteers are not the purpose of our work, mission is.” – Susan Ellis

12

” I will never tire of saying this: Volunteer management is about respecting our volunteers sufficiently that we properly invest in them to maximise their engagement and participation, and ensure the very best outcomes for our beneficiaries.” – John Ramsey

13

“I want to volunteer where my presence is an asset but my absence is not a liability.” – Sharon Eidsness, Sharon’s Axiom

14

”Volunteering permits everyone to rise to the level of their abilities, not their resumes.” – Susan Ellis

15

“They are not your volunteers, you are their organisation.” – Karl Wilding, NCVO

16

“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good” – Ivan Scheier

17

“No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.” – Susan Ellis

18

“When you don’t know what the right answer is supposed to be you can get darned creative making up your own answer.” – Steve McCurley

What are some of your favourite quotations that could be applied to the work of leaders of volunteer engagement? Leave a comment below or post them on social media using the hashtag #LOVolQuotes

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

In 2007 I was involved in the publication of a free eBook, ‘Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet’ (NB. link opens a PDF file), a grassroots guide to getting and keeping volunteers. What makes it different from most books on volunteer engagement is that it’s not written by consultants or known experts (although some are in there) but by leaders of volunteer engagement across the globe who share their practical experiences and tips for success. The eBook inspired a training workshop I run and this article, in which I want to share with you my top ten tips for being attractive to volunteers.

1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering

People volunteer in their discretionary leisure time. With the unrelenting pressures people feel in modern life, they want to spend their precious spare time enjoying themselves.

Making volunteering enjoyable is critical if you want to attract and keep volunteers. You see you’re not competing with other volunteer involving organisations when recruiting volunteers. You’re competing with all the leisure activities that people could spend their spare time doing – going to the cinema, having a meal with friends, watching a sports event etc..

So, make your volunteering rewarding and enjoyable. Really understand what drives your volunteers, their passions and interests. Or, in the words of a famous kids TV show from my childhood, they’ll go and do something less boring instead.

2 – Give great customer service

Do you remember the days where if you bought something mail order you usually had to wait 28 days for delivery? In today’s internet enabled age we now expect next day delivery at a minimum. Expectations have changed.

Yet I still hear volunteers frustrated that they don’t get responses quickly (or at all!) from organisations they are trying to volunteer with. What makes it worse is that sometimes these organisations have said they urgently or desperately need volunteers!


To make our organisations attractive we have to acknowledge that people’s customer service expectations are high and have to meet them – being a charity or voluntary group is no excuse. As one of the authors in the Magnet eBook pointed out, magnets can repulse as well as attract.


One suggestion is to have a team of volunteers whose role is to help respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers, even if it is just to give them a clear idea of how long a proper response will take. Another idea is to simply put an out-of-office message on your volunteer recruitment email account so that anyone enquiring gets told how long to expect to wait for a response, perhaps with links to videos they can watch or material they can read about your organisation whilst they await a response.

3 – Say thank you

Certificates, parties, awards, Volunteers’ Week events – they are all well and good, but nothing beats regularly and sincerely thanking people for their time and the contribution they make to your cause.

A word of warning: if volunteers tell you they don’t want to be thanked, try not doing it and see how attractive that makes you! What they are perhaps implying is that they want to be thanked personally, not in the generic way many organisations approach volunteer recognition.

A second word of warning: don’t do it so the organisation can tick the recognition box for another year – make sure the thank you is genuine.

4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful

Imagine for a moment that you’re heading off this evening for a meal out. You get to the restaurant and order, anticipating the satisfaction of good food. Then it arrives and, well let’s just say you are underwhelmed. You leave the restaurant poorer than when you went in, probably still hungry and very likely vowing never to go back.

Opportunities are to volunteering as food is to eating out. When people volunteer they want to do something that enables them to have the satisfaction of making a difference whilst not having their time wasted. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that offers them that satisfaction and sense of fulfilment.

So ask yourself, do the opportunities you have on offer make the most of people’s time (however much they have to give) and enable them to make (and see that they’ve made) a difference to your cause? Being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions is critical to being attractive to volunteers.

5 – Be flexible

According to both the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation and the Third Sector Research Centre, 31% of the UK’s adult population provide almost 90% of the volunteer hours given, with 8% providing over half the volunteer hours. In other words we are reliant on a small (and diminishing!) pool of volunteers who commit large amounts of time – the living embodiment of ‘ask a busy person’.

Yet, as anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers recently will tell you, few people thrill to this kind of commitment anymore – the old fashioned notion of long term, open ended volunteer commitments on which so many organisations still rely. If you can’t fit that kind of commitment into your life why should anyone else?

The key is flexibility, having a range of opportunities with varying commitments on offer. For example, can you provide taster sessions, allowing potential volunteers to ‘try before they buy’?

Remember too that people’s interests, motivations and availability will change over time and adapt accordingly.

I believe that attractive organisations will successfully keep volunteers if they’re prepared to let them go. If volunteers see our willingness to accommodate their changing priorities and take a break from volunteering, they will be more likely to come back to us in future when their circumstances change and they have time to give once more.

6 – Let’s talk about expenses

Providing out-of-pocket expenses to volunteers isn’t just an admin issue, it’s a key part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Without expense provision, only those who can afford to be out of pocket will volunteer.

As economic hardship in society continues to grow and deepen, more and more people need their expenses covered if they are to volunteer. We need to budget for volunteer expenses every year and explain to decision makes why these funds are important. If you don’t get the budget, ask for it again next year. Keep asking until you get it.

It’s also important to guard against a culture of volunteers not claiming expenses. Where that happens, those who need to claim are often frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome. Instead, make everyone claim. Then, if some really don’t want the money, ask them to donate it back to the organisation (ideally with gift aid added). That way everyone claims expenses, aiding DEI, and those who don’t want the funds get the warm glow of becoming a financial donor as well as a volunteer.

7 – Word and world of mouth

Surveys of volunteering consistently tell us that word of mouth is the most common form of volunteer recruitment. This shouldn’t surprise us, personal recommendation is marketing nirvana. Most businesses would love it if their customers would go and tell everyone how much they love the company’s products.

Yet we often shy away from word of mouth recruitment, almost as if we’re embarrassed about it. This is a mistake. It’s time to re-embrace word of mouth, especially given the potential of social media to develop new and exciting ways to reach our friends. As Erik Qualman once said, social media enables word of mouth to become world of mouth!

Look to maximise the potential of the power of personal recommendation to make your organisation more attractive. Do your volunteers know that you want them to help recruit others? Do you give them resources to do this such leaflets, flyers etc.? Simple things that can make a world of difference.

8 – Embrace groups

We live in a world where it’s easy for people to feel socially isolated. Loneliness is a growing problem.

Volunteering provides a way for people to connect with others – to volunteer with friends and family, to meet new people, or even make new business contacts.

According to the 2019 Time Well Spent report, 68% of all volunteers agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated. This was especially true for those aged 18-34.


Look at your organisation and opportunities. What could you do to provide a group or family with a chance to volunteer together? Give it a go and see who else you can attract.

9- Lead, don’t manage

Management guru Peter Drucker once said:

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.

Sadly that is sometimes true of volunteer management, especially as things have become more formalised, risk averse and process driven.

People who volunteer want to make a difference and don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to use their skills and expertise to help you but they don’t want to be mired in processes and paperwork. As John Seeley Brown wisely commented:

“Processes don’t work, people do”.

To be attractive we need more leaders of volunteer engagement not more volunteer managers. Leaders simplify, they empower, they inspire and they keep us focused on where we want to go. In short, leaders attract and we need more of them in volunteering.

10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers

One contributor to the Magnet eBook asked, “are you excited about the opportunities you are offering to volunteers and the difference they will make?” What a great question! If you’re not excited about what you want people to do for you, chances are they aren’t going to be that excited either.

Be passionate about the work of volunteers in your organisation and that enthusiasm will attract people to you.


What would your top tips be?

Would you add anything to my top ten?

Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.


If you’d like help making applying these ten top tips to your organisation then please get in touch. I’d love to help you engage and inspire more people to bring about change.


You can find out more about the breadth and depth of volunteer management practice in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me, this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

Late last year I wrote my final article for Third Sector magazine online. I think the issues I talked about are so important for leaders of volunteer engagement that I want to give the article a wider audience here on my blog.

For those that don’t know, Third Sector is one of the main nonprofit magazines in the UK. I have written for them every month since 2011 – until December 2019.

Sadly, following their recent review and restructure of the publication, regular opinion pieces are being scaled back, including mine. I may still do occasional pieces for them, but the regular opportunity I had to speak to the wider sector about volunteering issues – what was once dubbed (not by me!) ‘the voice of volunteering’ – is no more.

Whilst I always shared my Third Sector articles via my website and social media channels, in recent years the online magazine moved behind a paywall so not everyone could access the content. This was a problem when I had something to say that I think people – especially those outside the volunteer management community – really needed to hear. My last article in December 2019 was one of those, so here it is in full (slightly edited to make it better!) and freely available to all who care to read it.


The 2019 word of the year was “climate strike”. I know, it’s two words! Don’t blame me, blame Collins Dictionary. If they wanted one word though, perhaps it should have been “volunteer”.

Quite rightly, climate change issues dominated headlines in 2019. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) cropped up everywhere throughout the last twelve months.

And the great thing is that Greta and the XR activists are all volunteers.

Great Thunberg, the original climate striker
Great Thunberg, the original climate striker

Of course, that’s not how the media have reported it. It’s not the language the government have used. It’s not how society sees them. XR volunteer activists are disrupting, creating change, challenging the status quo. To most people, that’s not what volunteers do. Volunteers make tea. Volunteers staff charity shops. Volunteers don’t rock the boat. Volunteers don’t cause trouble. Volunteers don’t march down streets waving placards.

And we are perhaps no better. Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations, safe in our nice cosy sector bubble, are largely ignoring this explosion of volunteer effort and impact. We don’t talk about XR as volunteers. We don’t reach out to learn from them. We don’t celebrate their volunteering and it’s impact. We’re too busy worrying about: recruitment and retention rates; how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteers roles; planning next year’s Volunteers’ Week events; and whether anyone will come to the volunteer Christmas party.

The world is changing around us – and fast. In the modern world people don’t need our organisations and precious sector institutions if they want to tackle the issues they are passionate about. Social media, the internet and mobile technology are enabling people to self-organise and have a real impact on the things that matter to them. They don’t need long winded application forms, two references, health and safety training, risk assessments and regular supervision meetings. They don’t need paid staff to manage them or strategy away days to direct them. They just get on with making change happen, seeking to address the root causes of society’s problems rather than tinkering with the symptoms.

These individuals and their new movements are moving faster than the traditional voluntary and community sector is. They are catching the public’s attention better than we are. And volunteers are at the core of that.

Extinction rebellion protest in London
Extinction rebellion protest in London

Are volunteers truly at the core of your organisation? In many cases, if we’re honest, the answer to that question is no. They may be more numerous than paid staff but they aren’t at the heart of fulfilling your mission. They do nice but non-essential things, leaving the real work to paid staff.

As 2019 draws to a close we in our sector bubble are perhaps falling further behind. The way we think about, talk about and organise volunteering risks becoming more and more irrelevant to people.

Will 2020 be another year we become even more out of touch and irrelevant? I hope not, but much needs to change if we are to find ourselves in a better place in a year’s time.

It’s time for action.


If you would like help thinking through the implications of this article for your volunteer engagement practice then please get in touch. Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is all about engaging and inspiring people to bring about change – we’d love to help.

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Next Tuesday is the 20th annual International Volunteer Managers Day. To mark the occasion, this article is the second of two posts on the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.

Last time we looked at three such mistakes. If you haven’t read that article please do so now because in this piece we’re going to look at solutions to those three mistakes.

Ready?

Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

The actions that can be taken to resolve – or better still, avoid – this mistake are pretty simple. So simple, I wonder why more organisations don’t embrace them. For example:

  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to regularly present to and discuss with the board and / or senior leadership team on strategic issues regarding volunteer involvement.
  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to strategic planning away days when new plans are starting to be formulated or existing plans reviewed and revised.
  • Allocating lead responsibility for volunteer engagement at a strategic level to a board member and recruiting that person for their specialist knowledge, as well as their competence in governance. For a while now I’ve advocated that Volunteer Managers should volunteer to join the boards of other Volunteer Involving Organisations to provide volunteer engagement expertise at a governance level. Maybe you could partner with a colleague locally to do this for each other?
  • Including meaningful measures on senior management team KPI / scorecard or other performance monitoring dashboards. When I say meaningful I do not mean how many volunteers the organisation has, how many hours they give, or recruitment rates stated in isolation. I mean measures that link back to outcomes and / or impact achieved e.g. recruitment rates tied to a specific outcome that needs to be achieved, such as recruiting ten new volunteer mentors because ten new clients have joined the programme .

Turning to a more research informed perspective, take a look at this article I wrote last year, “Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers.” It drew on on work that explored how Chief Executive’s (CEOs) recruit, support, and resource four key positions in USA based non-profit and public sector organisations, including Volunteer Managers. Two key points are worth quoting: the first about getting more senior leaders to understand the strategic importance and value of volunteering; and the second about how we Volunteer Managers can scupper our own efforts to be taken more seriously.

“(There is) a need to include volunteer leadership and management in the curriculum of university non-profit management courses…how can we educate people to lead civil society organisations effectively if we say nothing about the strategic value and importance of volunteer engagement?”

“By describing what they do as a volunteer programme, leaders of volunteers reinforce the view that volunteer engagement is a tactical and not a strategic aspect of an organisations work. This limits the way they are viewed as a strategic asset to the organisation’s work and suggests why Volunteer Managers are often left out of strategic planning discussions.”

Finally, I did say last time that I am increasingly coming to think that where the lead post for volunteer engagement is located within an organisation is secondary to the inclusion of that person in strategic planning and decision making. That doesn’t mean their place on the organisational chart isn’t important though, which is why I addressed this in a 2016 article, “Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?”.

Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

It’s easy for most of us to reach into our pockets and give a couple of quid to a good cause. It’s far harder for us to find a couple of spare hours to help that good cause through volunteering, especially if that commitment is needed regularly.

However, engaging me as a volunteer is truly that, engagement. It’s more than a transaction. We form a relationship, hopefully a positive one where we both benefit. A relationship where I will most likely become strongly affiliated with your mission.

Too many organisations prioritise the shallow, transactional “£3 a month” donors over other, deeper forms of public support, missing out so much potential.

What we need is an approach in organisations that seeks to find friends, allies and supporters and then creates a way for those people to engage with us in whatever way is appropriate to them at whatever stage of their life they are in. In the jargon, a truly integrated support focused journey.

This means we have to adapt as our supporters’ motivations, interests and availabilities change. This means we should have systems, processes and supporter relationship management tools in place to make this happen, not simply using a tool that works best for one kind of supporter (shout out to all of you Volunteer Managers forced to use Raisers Edge as your volunteer database because that’s what fundraising use, not because it’s the right tool for you).

Ultimately, this means different departments don’t see people as ‘our’ volunteers or ‘our’ donors anymore, but a wider, well-stewarded pool of friends supporting our work – friendraising.

NB. You may be interested in Meridian Swift’s article “Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate” which explores a similar theme.

Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

As I said last time:

”Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.”

The solutions here aren’t difficult. For example:

  • Every staff member should have engaging with volunteers in their job description. Everyone. That means the CEO and Senior Management (and not just saying they should work with the board!). How engaged these senior roles are with volunteers in their own work is a good indicator of how strong a volunteering culture an organisation truly has at a senior level.
  • Every new employee recruited should be selected in part for their willingness to engage with volunteers in the work of the post they are applying for. Ideally, they should have some experience of working well with volunteers. They should at least be asked at interview how they’d manage someone who is a volunteer and how this might differ from managing paid staff. This applies to the CEO and senior managers too!
  • Every new paid staff hire should have something meaningful about working with volunteers as part of their induction course so they understand that volunteers are an integral and important part of the team.
  • Every person working with volunteers should be required to attend training on leading and managing volunteers, just as they would usually be required to attend training on managing paid staff if they were in a management role. In fact, this could make all managers better managers, as working well with volunteers enhances someone’s ability to work with paid staff (the opposite isn’t always true!).
  • Effectiveness in working with volunteers should be evaluated as part of every employee’s annual appraisal and regular performance reviews.

I’ve looked at just three mistakes. There are, of course, many more that organisations can and do make. That’s why I wrote “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis. It make a great Christmas present for your CEO and is available now from Amazon (link is to UK store only – check your local Amazon store for availability if you’re outside the UK) and the Directory of Social Change in both print and electronic formats.

What mistakes (and solutions to them) would you add? Leave comment below with your thoughts.

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

It’s a little over two weeks until International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) 2019. Aside from the surprise that another year has passed and the day has come around again so fast, I am also astounded to realise that this year mark’s the twentieth anniversary of the very first IVMDay!

Since its inception, IVMDay has been about education through celebration. Whilst Volunteer Managers are welcome to mark the day in whatever way they wish, the core purpose is about educating others about the essential role we have to play in effective volunteer engagement.

This year’s IVMDay theme is “Change The Tune”. As colleague DJ Cronin said when he proposed the idea:

“Time to be proactive instead of reactive & discover our power & harness it for good. Time to teach HR the dynamic science of leadership found in volunteer management. And time to stop whinging about our lot!”

Here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog I’m doing my bit for IVMDay 2019 with a two part mini-series of articles.

In this first part, I briefly look at three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. I’m taking a step back from volunteer management to look at the wider organisational context in which volunteering takes place and three ways that organisation leaders can get things wrong, impeding the work of Volunteer Managers and limiting the potential of volunteer engagement.

In the second part (due out on 1 November) I will look at three solutions to the mistakes outlined below, giving ideas for how organisational leaders can create a more friendly volunteer culture.

So, here we go with part one – three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.


Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

This might be a bit controversial but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the question where volunteer management should sit in an organisation’s structure is to miss an important point. The location of a Volunteer Manager in a structure chart isn’t entirely irrelevant, but more important is whether they are involved at a strategic level in organisational leadership, management and planning.

Consider this from the 2014 “New Alchemy” report by nfpSynergy:

“It is no coincidence that charities doing particularly interesting work with volunteering also tend to boast meaningful senior roles in the field, where those leading volunteer development sit on a level with peers in Fundraising, Membership or Communications and are therefore better situated to champion their agenda and argue for joined-up strategy across these departments.”

Yes it’s talking a bit about hierarchy but the key point is a bigger one about strategic thinking. That’s why the first mistake I am highlighting here is the failure to think strategically:

  • failing to learn from the insights volunteers can provide as well as the talents and skills they bring to the organisation
  • forgetting to think about the role volunteers can play in fulfilling the mission until the last minute when all the other planning is done
  • not involving the volunteer management function in strategic planning

Which leads us to our second point.


Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

In the same report quoted above, the next paragraph says:

“Such organisations have been able to discern the benefits of a more integrated understanding of engagement across donor, member and volunteer co-ordination functions and may also have significant functions around external engagement more broadly; rightly seeing community volunteer engagement as knitted in with voluntary income, partnership-building and marketing objectives.”

Money is important, I get it. But it isn’t the only resource non-profits have at their disposal. If it were we’d be no different from for-profit organisations. Furthermore, an organisation’s current money donors aren’t the only source of individual donations. Volunteers can be some of the most generous donors, if asked – and asked in the right way!

NB. Donors could also be a great source of volunteers, if they were allowed the opportunity to give a bit of time.

Keeping donors, volunteers, members and others in separate silos fails to maximise the potential of all an organisation’s supporters, however they show that support or might wish to show it in future. This is a potentially serious mistake, limiting the resources an organisation has to achieve its aims.


Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

It doesn’t matter how great your volunteer manager is, they can’t realise the full potential of effective volunteer engagement on their own. As the late great volunteer management expert Susan J Ellis used to say:

“Even the most effective Volunteer Manager cannot engage volunteers alone, it takes everyone’s attention”.

Expecting the volunteer manager to do it all on their own is akin to expecting the HR manager to be the sole person responsible for effective staff engagement, from recruitment to retention, discipline to reward, induction to performance management and everything else.

Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.


So there are three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. Stay tuned for our next article on 1 November 2019 which will explore three solutions to these mistakes.

If you can’t wait that long, why not take a look at “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, the book Susan J Ellis and I wrote for senior leaders to help them understand the key role they play in creating a positive organisational context for effective volunteer engagement.