Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

FeaturedThree 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!

Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of 'Change The Tune' alongside the radio
Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of ‘Change The Tune’ alongside the radio

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

Pieces on a chessboard
Pieces on a chessboard

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

A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

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

Four cartoon hands with text below them saying "it takes a village to raise a child"
Four cartoon hands with text below them saying “it takes a 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.

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You can go your own way

You can go your own way

As a professional speaker and trainer I get asked lots of questions. One of the most popular is :

“Which organisations are doing really great work on adapting their volunteering offer to meet the realities of the modern world?”

I always struggle to answering this question. Not because I don’t think anyone is doing such great work but because:

  1. Despite my 25 years experience, I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what every Volunteer Involving Organisation on the planet is doing.
  2. When I engage in consultancy work with clients it’s professional to maintain confidentiality about that work, not blathering what those organisations are doing to the rest of the world.

There are, however, some more fundamental issues I have with that question:

  • Why are we leaders of volunteer engagement always looking to someone else to pave the way?
  • Why are we focusing our effort on borrowing what someone else is doing?
  • Why would what someone in a different organisation is doing work in our setting and context?
  • Why aren’t we coming up with our own innovations and solutions to the problems we face?

”The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because we – and the non-profit sector more broadly – are so risk averse? Risk is seen as a bad thing, something we must avoid at all costs. It isn’t. Risk is an inherent part of life. It’s how we manage risk that is important.

Read more of my thinking on this in my March 2018 article.

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because so many workplace cultures create a fear of failure? Not achieving your target, not hitting a key performance indicator (KPI), not reaching a goal – they are all seen as failures, poor performance. But failure is how we learn, it’d fundamental to learning, improving and innovating.

Susan J Ellis and I addressed this subject in a 2017 article in e-volunteerism.com. The article is available for free and I encourage you to read it here.

”There is no losing in jiujitsu. You either win or you learn.”
Carlos Gracie Jr.”

Carlos Gracie Jr.
Carlos Gracie Jr.

Whether it is anxiety about risk, or a fear of failure, or something else holding us back, I want to encourage us to stop looking for solutions elsewhere and start to find them ourselves.

You have unique insights and experience that are well placed to solve the problems you face in a way nobody else can. Without your pioneering solutions to your volunteer engagement challenges we will be stuck in an endless cycle of casting around for someone else’s ideas to apply to our – often very different – situations.

Your solutions can inspire others to do the same and start a snowball of innovation in our field.

Go and make it happen!

“The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” – John McAfee

John McAfee
John McAfee

Because I know the title of this blog will have triggered an earworm for some of you, here is a link to the classic Fleetwood Mac track of the same title – You Can Go Your Own Way.

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

September has turned into guest post month here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog. Last time Andy Fryar’s shared his tips for Volunteer Managers looking for a new job. Now, Chris Reed from the British Red Cross explores whether it’s always a good idea to consult with volunteers when seeking to improve your volunteer engagement work.

Enjoy!


Back in June Rob wrote about leaders of volunteer engagement needing to put pen to paper or alternatively, as I’ve done, finger to keyboard and ‘share our views, opinions and insights on anything and everything’. I responded on Twitter violently agreeing, as I do with so much of what Rob says, and now here I am!

I must confess, Rob and I have history! Our paths have crossed on many occasions, we’ve both been Trustees of our respective charities over the years – Rob on my Board when I ran a Volunteer Centre and I on his when he was at Volunteering England. Since then I’ve spent a bit of time (understatement alert) dabbling in volunteering at a few household name charities.

With all this under my belt and a commitment to craft a blog what was I going to write, where do I start, what will strike a chord, what will be of interest?

Early days of volunteer management

When I started out in the world of volunteering there was no Association of Volunteer Managers, there was no Volunteer Centre network (we weren’t even called Volunteer Centres back then) and networking opportunities were quite rare. What did exist was UKVPMs (an email group for UK Volunteer Programme Managers) set up in 1997 by, you guessed it, Rob! It was realistically one of my only sources of help and inspiration in my early career in volunteer management.

UKVPMs gave me chance to see what others were thinking in the sector, to read opinions, views and gain insights from folk I thought far more knowledgeable than myself. Over time my connections and networks grew, I moved on from the volunteer centre and began working for household name charities. As a Head of Volunteering I had my own volunteers and wasn’t just advising other organisations on how best to look after theirs. These volunteers were the lifeblood of the organisation, without them we couldn’t deliver our mission.

This is where for some of you I may start to get controversial.

Every volunteer manager, whether new to the role or long in the tooth will know of a time where your organisation hasn’t had enough volunteers. Either the recruitment process is taking too long (if you’re able to measure it) or you’re losing too many people (if you can measure that). So we diagnose a recruitment and retention problem and, having identified the problem, say ‘right, in order to fix this we’re going to set up a working group of volunteers to find a solution’. This has the added benefit of allowing us as leaders of volunteers to demonstrate a real commitment to volunteer involvement, showing the rest of the organisation how it’s really done.

But wait! Remember the title of this article – beware your existing volunteers. In the situation I describe you absolutely don’t want to be engaging with your traditional consultative group of longstanding volunteers, for three very good reasons:

  1. If recruitment is your problem, what does a volunteer you recruited twenty years ago know about what it’s like to go through your recruitment system today?
  2. Your longer standing volunteers might be the ones who are the ‘go to people’ for consultations but you should be thinking about those that have only just joined you, ideally those who started the process, but gave up (non-volunteers).
  3. If retention is your problem, what are you doing talking to your existing volunteers, they are the ones who have stuck around. Get to those who left! They will be the ones who have the stories to tell about whether you’re actually offering a good quality experience or not.

The benefits of thinking differently

As far as retention is concerned, doing some digging with those who have left you may well reveal that you have delivered such a great volunteering experience people have used it to go on and get a paid job. On paper that’s a retention problem, but in actual fact by talking to people who are no longer your volunteers you’ll find out whether there is really a problem with retention or that you’re success at getting people into work means you’ll just have to live with always refilling a bath with the plug out. You can then focus on how to turn the tap on more and bring more people in at the front end. (Very oversimplified I know, but you get what I mean.)

You can be more nuanced in how you benchmark good and bad. After all, a good volunteer recruitment process for your volunteer with twenty years service may not be the same as a good experience for today’s tech savvy social media user who, if you’re too bureaucratic, will simply get a load of their online friends / followers together and set up their own social movement (#activism).

You’ll get the benefits of an external perspective – do you have marketing experts in your organisation and, more importantly, have you ever talked to them? If not can you get some pro-bono volunteer support in this area? Ask them to help you find out what the outside world, your non-volunteers, think about your volunteering proposition.

At some point though, despite the title of this article, you should engage with your volunteers. They are the ones who know what it’s like today. They know what works and what doesn’t (and have probably found workarounds for the latter completely unbeknown to you!). For this their experience is invaluable, but be cautious, use their skills, knowledge and experience in conjunction with and not at the expense of other equally valuable sources of insight.

To conclude

Take a step back and think hard about who are the right audiences to engage in the right things and at the right time. What’s the exam question you’re trying to answer as you transform your volunteer programme to make it fit for purpose, or indeed just keep it on track and up to date? And, for goodness sake, talk to others in the sector. At best someone will have done what you’re doing before, at worst, someone else will be tackling exactly the same problems as you and you can share the pain. So don’t just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, be curious and read as well, network, engage and share, and good luck!

PS Thanks Rob for the challenge of writing this, its been a pleasure (for me at least but hopefully for the reader too).


Chris Reed is Director of Volunteer Mobilisation at the British Red Cross, one of over 190 Red Cross/ Red Crescent Societies across the globe. Chris’ previous experience includes Head of Volunteering positions at Barnardo’s and St John Ambulance and Chris was Chief Executive of Volunteer Centre Westminster.

His voluntary roles include Trustee of Horsmonden Social Club and Committee member for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups.

Chris has been a Trustee/ Board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), Volunteering England and Greater London Volunteering.

All the views expressed in this blog are Chris’ and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organisations Chris has worked or volunteered for.

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Getting a new job can be exciting. You get that initial thrill of excitement at the opportunity to make your mark in a new organisation. For many leaders of volunteer engagement, that feeling often disappears when we realise volunteer management has low status and we have little or no influence to make change happen. How do we avoid getting into jobs like this?

Helpfully, my friend and colleague Andy Fryar wrote an article in 2015 to address this very question. I was reminded of it recently whilst talking with a colleague and, having read it again, I reached out to Andy to see if he’d be willing for me to share it as a guest post on this blog. Happily he said yes, so here it is!


As leaders of volunteers one of our specialty areas is (or at least should be) the ability to properly interview someone:

  • To ask the right question.
  • To draw out that extra layer of information.
  • To determine a candidate’s suitability.
  • To safeguard our programs.
  • To get the very best out of each candidate.

Over the years I’ve interviewed thousands of people and if I might say so myself, I am damned good at it!

Recently, however, I have been thinking a lot more about interviews from a completely different angle. This different line of thought has been spurred on by a number of independent discussions I have had with volunteer managers who have taken on new positions, only to find that the job that was advertised – that was promised – was not the job that was delivered!

Of course, by the time many learn this cold hard fact, it’s far too late to turn back. They have already given their notice and embarked on a whole new journey – and sadly for many, the new job that promised so much, is often actually a role made up of lacking resources, little support, cultural clashes and working in isolation.

The typical scenario that ensues over the months that follow gaining a new (but unsatisfactory) position often reads something like this:

  • Happiness and excitement
  • Oh really, that’s not what I was led to believe?
  • Hmmm – OK, well I can still fix this!
  • Wait – WTF!
  • You gotta be kidding me!
  • OK – I am outta here

Which brings me to my point about interviewing.

I think that for far too many of us, the opportunity to work in a new agency, for a new cause and with new people often sweeps away our usual common sense. It takes us to a point where somehow we morph into simple starry-eyed applicants, champing at the bit just to get started, not asking clarifying questions and, all too often, resulting in us letting our guard down.

The most important part of any interview, for me at least, is that point in the process where our potential new employer asks that critical question, “So do you have any questions of us?”

Here’s where we need to force ourselves to think beyond simply clarifying what our new pay packet will look like and blurting our details about pre-planned holidays we have booked!

For it’s at this point that we get to do some of the interviewing – and remember, we are good at this!

So to this end, I have prepared ten questions that I believe we should all be asking of our potential employers during the interview process, to ensure the environment we are walking into is worthy of the skills that we bring to the table.

So, here goes (in no particular order):

Question One – What is your agency’s philosophy surrounding the utilisation of volunteers?

This is a pretty broad question, but what you are looking for here is a response that gives you some assurance that the agency you are about to throw yourself into has a well thought through position on how volunteers add to the delivery of services and the value of the organisation. You want to know that volunteers are not some sort of ‘add on’ – but a properly planned human resource within the organisation.

Question Two – How does having the support of volunteers impact the mission of this organisation?

Taking it one step further – and if the previous answer does not draw this out – you’ll want them to be clear about how the involvement of volunteers helps to achieve the organisation’s mission. If they can’t clearly demonstrate that, then perhaps volunteers are more of added ‘extra’ rather than a core part of the agency and its drive.

Question Three – How do you measure the successful engagement of volunteers in this agency?

This is an important one. If they talk only about growing volunteer number and hours for the simple sake of growing number and hours then run! Their response should ideally demonstrate that the engagement of volunteers is measured alongside the organisations mission – these two factors are inseparable!

Question Four – Do you have clear goals about where you would like to see the volunteer program head / grow?

You would hope this response is able to be clearly articulated, especially as they are heading through an interview process. However, that may not be the case! Be sure they are not simply working through a ‘replacement’ process but rather that they have clear ideas about the future of the program.

Question Five – What resources have you committed to this growth?

Possibly, the most critical of all these questions. This is also a direct flow on from the previous response they would have given to you. If they are serious about program growth and development they will not only know where they want to head but what resources they have to throw at achieving it! If you are going to accept an offer from this group, then be as sure as you can be that adequate resources (financial, physical and emotional) are available to you

Question Six – Does this agency value the input and feedback of volunteers and the volunteer department in its planning and review processes? Please explain.

It’s one thing to involve volunteers – another to seek their input. Ask them to articulate!

Question Seven – Who will I be answerable to and what are their direct views of volunteer engagement?

It’s critical to understand that your direct line manager is on the same page as you. If they are not at the interview be alarmed! And if they are, don’t be afraid to eye ball them and ask. This person will be your first line of both defence and support. It’s such a critical relationship you need to make sure it is a good one.

Question Eight – What is the agency view of the position / role of the VM in an organisational context?

We are moving away from the role of volunteers now and focusing on the volunteer management role more specifically. Listen out for clues that give you an assurance that the Volunteer Manager is seen as a lynchpin in an organisational context. Is the Volunteer Manager part of the decision making team? Is the role valued and critical to the agency?. Do they consider your role to be that of a volunteer management ‘specialist’ and do they expect you’ll jump up and down and challenge stupid decisions they might be considering? Do they see your role as the one that just does the ‘busy work’ of volunteer recruitment or do they consider it to be more strategic?

Question Nine – What mechanisms are in place for me to be able to undertake professional development?

Make sure you can subscribe to journals, attend conferences and participate in network meetings. Ensure that the agency understand that this is a critical part of the role and that professional development is central to growth.

Question Ten – Ask for a referee!

By now they’ll either be sick of you or caught up in your zeal for the role! So why not hit them with one more whammy?! If they can ask you for a referee, there’s no rule to say you can’t ask for one back! Ask for the name of some employees or department heads – or even volunteers – to see if the rhetoric they are spinning you matches reality! If nothing else you’ll gain their attention and they’ll know you are serious about the role.

As Volunteer Managers I don’t need to remind you that an interview process should always be a two way process and by asking a series of the right questions there is a much higher possibility that you are going to find a suitable match for the skills that you bring to the table.

Try it – I’d love to hear the outcome.

I’d love to hear your feedback too!


This post originally appeared on OzVPM on the 17th November 2015.

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why should leaders of volunteer engagement put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and share their views, opinions, insights and thoughts on anything and everything volunteering?

One of my aims when I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011 was to write more and, since then, I have lost count of how many articles I’ve written. It must be coming close to 170 for my own blog, where I now publish one piece every two weeks. There is also a monthly column I write for Third Sector online which has been running since the early days of my freelance career. And, of course, the quarterly Points Of View feature I have co-authored since 2013 for e-volunteerism.com, first with the late Susan J Ellis and more recently with the wonderful Erin Spink.

On top of all that are guest posts for others, commissioned writing for clients and two books: “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis; and “The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook” for the Directory of Social Change, both the third edition and the forthcoming fourth edition with Dr Eddy Hogg, Mike Locke and Rick Lynch.

But why do I write and, more importantly, why should you?

Four reasons why I write

  1. To contribute to and build up the field. The vast majority of what I write is done voluntarily – I don’t earn a penny for 99% of my written work. Why? Because I am passionate about volunteering and the essential work of those who lead and manage volunteers. When I started in the field I benefited from the freely available writing of leaders like Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Jayne Cravens, Ivan Scheier and Linda Graff. Now I can share the insights and experience I have developed during my twenty-five years of experience and contribute to the field myself. “Pay it forward” in action.
  2. From personal experience, I know how busy the day-to-day life of a volunteer manager can be. It can feel like an isolating role, with demands mounting up daily from volunteers, colleagues, managers, prospective volunteers and organisational leaders. Consequently, it can be hard to carve out thinking time during the day – time to reflect on some of the big issues facing volunteerism. And if we do manage to carve out the time, what are the big issues? Through my writing I hope to provide food for thought for colleagues, musing on issues relevant to you in your busy professional lives. My aim is that what I say leads to actions that help volunteers to have a more rewarding experience whilst they make important contributions to organisations’ missions and society’s needs.
  3. Whilst things have improved more recently, I think we have a shortage of independent people in the UK who speak out when issues come up that affect volunteering and volunteer management. Volunteer Managers have traditionally relied on our peak bodies (NCVO, Volunteer Now, WCVA and Volunteer Scotland) and professional associations (AVM, Heritage Volunteering Group, AVSM, NAVSM etc.) to speak for us. And they do, but they can’t always take the line that’s needed or speak out on every issue. As an independent writer, I believe I have a voice that is free from the potential constraints of political influence, funding or inter-agency politics.
  4. Whilst my main motivation for writing is to give back to and build up our field, I also do it because it is great marketing for me and my work. I hope those of you who read what I write like it, feel challenged or inspired by it and so might consider hiring me to work with you as a consultant, a trainer or a speaker. Of course, what I write will continue to be freely available, even if you do’t hire me, but some have, and for that I am grateful.If you’d be interesting in getting in touch about how I can help you in your work then just drop me an email.

Four reasons why you should write

  1. Writing things down makes you think about what you want to say. Whether it is sharing an insight you have, a response to a news story, or something you feel passionate about, the process of getting what’s in your brain down into written form forces you to have an opinion. Not enough people working in volunteer leadership and management roles share their opinions about the strategic and operational issues we all face.I am not urging you to go write a book – although perhaps you might! But what about replying a blog post (like this one – hint hint) or to an article in an online magazine, or making a social media post?
  2. Which leads me to my second reason more people in the volunteerism field (you!) should write. Once you have an opinion and you share, it gives an opportunity for others to engage in debate over your views. Such debate forces us all to think, to sharpen our understanding, challenge our perspectives and advance the theory of volunteer leadership and management (and ultimately the practice, for there is nothing as practical as a good theory). My own views on working with volunteers have developed significantly (and continue to do so) from reading and discussing the thoughts and insights of others. I haven’t always agreed with them but I have always learnt something. What could you help others learn and think about today?
  3. And so to my third reason why you should write – I want to know what you think. So do others. It isn’t just the ‘leaders’ in volunteerism from whom we can learn. All of us have something to share. That’s why I started UKVPMs over twenty years ago: as a forum for people in the trenches of volunteer management to ask questions, share tips and ideas and advance our collective knowledge. That’s why I got involved in co-editing the free Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet eBook (link opens a PDF download), in which forty people from across the field of volunteer management around the globe (contributions come from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and the USA) share what they have learned about making your organisation attractive to volunteers. You have fabulous treasures of knowledge others could benefit from, so please share.
  4. My final reason for encouraging you to write is that it has never been easier to share your ideas and insights. Blogging, social media and new technologies have revolutionised the provision of – and access to – information on volunteerism. It’s no longer necessary to write a book or dissertation to get your voice heard, so there is no longer an excuse for not having the time to comment.

Susan J Ellis wrote that the internet means no volunteer manager should ever feel isolated again. This is true, but the more people write and contribute to the ever-growing library of knowledge online, the richer we all become.


This article is an edited and updated version of one that originally appeared on my old blog site on 25 July 2011. You can access all the articles I published before switching to WordPress in November 2016 here on the old blog site.

If you have an idea for an article on volunteering matters and you’d like to suggest is as a guest post on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog then I’d love to hear from you. Just get in touch here.

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in 2016 I wrote an article recommending some productivity tools and resources. My intention was to help Volunteer Management professionals with the daily challenge of getting stuff done. Now, almost three years on, I’m revisiting the theme with the same aim, this time sharing five top tips to help you get more productive at work.

Tip #1 – Headphones

Volunteer Managers are always getting interrupted when they are at work.

Interrupted by paid staff colleagues asking for twenty volunteers for that event tomorrow. You know, the one that’s been in planning for the last year but only now do they remember they need volunteers!

Interrupted by volunteers who want a chat, or their expenses signed off, or have a complaint about another volunteer.

Interrupted by senior management who need someone to collect the lunch order for the SMT meeting and, well, you can get a volunteer to do that, right?

You get the idea.

Any interruption draws your attention away from your work, attention that takes time to regain.

Here’s my tip (and it works really well in open plan offices).

Buy the biggest pair of over-ear headphones you can find. They don’t have to be flashy noise cancellers, they don’t event have to be expensive. They just have to be big. Put them on when you don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t have to play music or anything, just put them on.

Why? People will be reluctant to walk up and remove your headphones whilst you’re wearing them, reducing the interruptions you experience.

Simple and effective.

A pair of large, over-ear headphones
A pair of large, over-ear headphones

Tip #2 – Walk this way

Steve Jobs used to hold his meetings walking around the Apple campus in California. He was mobile most of the time he was at work, rarely sat at a desk.

We don’t have to be sedentary all the time either. Perhaps you can’t hold your meetings walking around the local park (although have you ever suggested it?) but you can get up and go for a brief stroll when you need to reset your attention, refocus you energy or just reset your brain.

Every afternoon that I work from home I take an hour to walk my dog. I try not to listen to podcasts or music. I just walk. The clear headspace it gives me recharges my energy and often helps me solve problems I’ve been mulling over. On one walk I even wrote the first draft of a blog post, dictating it into my iPhone after inspiration struck.

Your walk doesn’t have to be an hour. It could just be a stroll to the sandwich shop at lunch, or five minutes round the block between meetings. Whatever you can manage, give it a go and see if it helps you.

Someone walking
Someone walking

Tip #3 – Stop

Every now and again, just stop. Pause for a minute between the phone call that just ended and turning to your email. Take a few deep breaths between the last meeting and the next one. Give your brain time and space to catch up and reset, ready for the next task.

Go home at a sensible time every night. Nobody has ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at work” when lying on their deathbed. You get paid the same whether you do your contracted hours or you work extra hours a week. I know you’re a Volunteer Manager and dedicated to your volunteers, but you won’t help them if you don’t look after yourself. There is more to life that volunteer management – there, I said it!

Oh, and make sure you take all of your annual leave / holiday allowance. However you want to spend that time away from work is fine, but make sure you spend it away from work. Email off, voicemail on. No sneaking a peek at your messages. They can wait. Life won’t.

A pause button
A pause button

Tip #4 – Know yourself

One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done to be more productive was monitoring my attention over a given day. I know I’m a morning person and am especially productive in the morning. I know I’m not productive after lunch. I know my afternoon dog walk will give me an energy boost, enough to get another hour of good work out of me late in the day. So I schedule my work around these attention rhythms.

I’m lucky of course. I work for myself, often at home. But you can structure your day in an office environment too. When I commuted to London, I’d start work on the train at 715am. By 9am I’d got 90mins of work done. I left at 4pm. Colleagues perhaps wondered why I was leaving early, but they didn’t see that solid block of work time on my morning train, done whilst many of them were just waking up.

Don’t let other people dictate when you are most productive. Know what works for you and try to structure your day accordingly.

Socrates
Socrates

Tip#5 – Notification

My last tip usually results in gasps of astonishment when I say it in productivity training for leaders of volunteer engagement. It’s easy to say, but hard for many to do.

Turn off notifications on your computer, smartphone and tablet!

Shocking right?

You don’t need these machines pinging at you every time someone tweets, emails, texts or otherwise interacts with you. Don’t let the device manage your attention, take control and manage the device. You’ll be amazed how much more focus you have and how much more you get done.

Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone
Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone

So there you have it, my top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement.

What would you add to the list?

Leave a comment below to add your tips.


I want to acknowledge Josh Spector’s article, “How To Free Up Two Hours Of Your Day” as the inspiration for this blog post. Josh curates an excellent weekly newsletter called For The Interested and I highly recommend subscribing for free, which you can do right here.

How to take control of your learning

How to take control of your learning

In the second of a two-part series, guest writer Sue Jones shares her thoughts on what’s really needed in terms of learning and development for people in volunteer management.

You can read part one, “No Qualifications Required” here.

Sue Jones, this article's author
Sue Jones, this article’s author

Although I’ve always viewed qualifications as an important part of Volunteer Managers gaining recognition for themselves and their work, I’m also a huge advocate of all types of learning experiences: from topic based training courses to networking events; conferences and mentoring programmes; working one-to-one with a coach; subscribing to an e-journal or magazine; and simply taking some time out to read a book. After all, we live in a world where information, resources and learning opportunities are available anytime and anywhere – even for a field as niche as Volunteer Leadership & Management! And, our focus needn’t be exclusive to volunteer management – there is a lot to be gained from looking beyond our immediate field.

The brilliant thing about embracing less formal approaches to learning is that it puts you in the driving seat.Yet this is something that perhaps we don’t fully appreciate when we are considering our options for learning and professional development. In my experience of working with volunteer managers, there is a tendency to look at what learning options are available to them, rather than being aware of the fact that we are always learning and that there are so many ways we can approach this, both formally and informally. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that it’s your learning and professional development – so, where you need to start is to ask yourself, what is it that you are seeking?

Susan Ellis once said:

“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.”

If you are seeking recognition for your competence within a role, then qualifications may provide this. Even in-house training programmes and acknowledgement from your employer via the organisation’s appraisal process may be an indicator of your personal growth in terms of knowledge and skills.

Yet, if you are seeking professional status, as Susan suggests, this is something different – something you need to work on for yourself individually and collectively as a wider professional group. While studying for a qualification can certainly support you with this and maybe kick start your interest and passion for learning, expanding your knowledge and building your expertise; I believe it’s what you do next that really matters. How you use your learning to continue to build that professional status, for you and for others.

Now, you might be thinking, this is all well and good, but what time do I have to dedicate to my own CPD? My job is already so full. You might also feel its more your employer’s responsibility to bear any costs, whether that be financial outlay or time. Perhaps you even hold the view that there’s not much point to ongoing studying and learning if there’s no certificate from an awarding body to ‘prove’ your achievement at the end of it. These are all valid points, and they do need consideration; yet I would (gently) challenge each of these positions as being potentially detrimental to your own personal growth.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that:

“Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is a combination of approaches, ideas and techniques that will help you manage your own learning and growth. Perhaps the most important message is that one size doesn’t fit all. Wherever you are in your career now and whatever you want to achieve, your CPD should be exactly that: yours.”

For me, there’s something useful we can extract here about shifting our expectation of what learning should look like and maybe even letting go of the often discussed notion of there needing to be a clear career pathway for leaders and managers of volunteers.

As the workplace evolves it is becoming more evident that one of the key skills we need to develop and apply to our work is adaptability – and this also applies to how we approach our professional development. After all, learning isn’t something that just happens to us, we have to show up to it, to participate in it and most importantly, we need to get to know ourselves better so we can really get what we need from it.

So, how do you do this?

You could begin with a reflective exercise, just to see what comes up when you start to ask some questions, such as;

  • What do I enjoy within my work?
  • What am I good at?
  • What would I like to learn more about?
  • How does/will this support me in my existing role?
  • What would I like to do more of?
  • Going forward, what sort of role would enable me to work to my strengths?

Self-reflection isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do – it comes more naturally to some people than to others. Yet, in my experience it can have a very positive impact on people as they start to articulate what’s happening for them, what they are learning and how they can use that information to drive things forward. In fact, regular self-reflective practice, even for those who may initially approach it with scepticism, can lead you to discovering all sorts of useful stuff about yourself, which can be applied to various aspects of your life and work, including supporting you to seek out relevant CPD opportunities.

An exercise I often do with coaching clients is to set up a weekly reflective activity using questions we design together, which can prompt their thinking and encourages them to capture their thoughts as a way of tracking their learning and progression, either generally within their work, or as part of something specific they are working on in their life. And this is actually something we can all do for ourselves. All it takes is knowing what questions you want to ask and then setting up a mechanism for capturing your responses, for example in a journal or an app, or even by sending an email to yourself once a week.

Creating a system for noting your learning is also something you can apply to your CPD in general. Again, this needs to be something that you create and you drive, so ask yourself, ‘what am I already doing that contributes to my CPD and what additional activities do I want to intentionally seek out, in order to help me develop further?’

Here’s an example of the prompts I use within my own quarterly CPD tracker. It’s really basic, yet it enables me to keep a note and to reflect back on activities and learning that I may possible overlook or even forget about.

Sue's quarterly CPD tracker
Sue’s quarterly CPD tracker

There are so many opportunities to learn and to develop, you just need to decide whether it is something you want to make time for and to choose.

You could get involved with AVM’s speaker events or Thoughtful Thursdays on Twitter.

Sometimes sharing our expertise and knowledge is a great way of further expanding our skills and helps us to connect with others, so perhaps being a mentor or volunteering as a board member might suit you?

Why not set up a local or virtual volunteer managers’ network or reading group, where you can support yourself and others to share learning and experiences and build up your knowledge and expertise?

We can even learn from the process of blogging as writing can help us to think our thoughts through to a conclusion – or even better, helps us ask better and more insightful questions of ourselves and our work.

Finally, here are a couple of resources you may find interesting if you are looking for a starting point with getting to know yourself better.

  • The 16 Personalities questionnaire is a free tool which provides some insight into you – what makes you tick, where you gather your energy from and how you relate to others.
  • Or, if you are in need of something more structured then The Clore Social Leadership Discover Programme is an on-line course designed to help you gain insight into who you are as a leader and how to develop, for just £50.

I’d love to hear from you about the types of CPD activities you are involved in and any suggestions you have for how volunteer managers can support one-another with this.

Please do share your thoughts below.