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.

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We need to talk about volunteer teams

We need to talk about volunteer teams

For the last few years, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd has offered an online introduction to volunteer management course. The feedback I get from those who take the course is that they find the section on effective volunteer teams really valuable. So, when the online course closed at the end of 2018 I started looking into how I might address this issue of volunteer teams in a different way. What I found surprised me and made me wonder if we might sometimes have the wrong approach to volunteer teams.

NCVO’s recent Time Well Spent report highlights that when people volunteer they rarely do so alone, frequently they meet and work with new people. Unsurprisingly, this can have a direct bearing on the volunteer’s experience – volunteer with people you get on with and all is well, volunteer with people you don’t get on with and dissatisfaction isn’t far away.

From a volunteer management perspective, whilst we always want people to have a great experience volunteering, we also need them to deliver for the organisation. This means that building teams of volunteers who can work together harmoniously and achieve great things is a balancing act and an important priority for any volunteer manager.

Often, our first step to forming a good volunteers team is recruiting the right people onto it, people with the experience you need to get the job done. Yet it seems this focus on the individuals who we form into a team may not be the best approach.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant

In a 2013 Huffington post article by Adam Grant, Wharton Business School professor and author of the excellent book, Originals, Grant makes the following observations:

”In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.”

”A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1 percent. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.”

“The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anaesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.”

Grant continues:

“In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past.”

“Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In ‘Leading Teams’, he argues that in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability — whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.”

Grant’s observations got me thinking about volunteer recruitment and retention, how they relate to teams and what we may need to do differently.

Recruitment

As noted earlier, many of us recruit talented and experience individuals and form them into a volunteer team to achieve a particular goal. They go through Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing – and hopefully stay together long enough to get the job done.

Yet, if Grant is correct and group experience is key, should we be reframing our volunteer recruitment efforts? Should we instead seeking out established teams of people, teams who would bring the right skills and collaborative talents to bear on the issue we want tackling? We might find them in businesses, the public sector or other civil society organisations. They could, for example, be a group of friends who have had success in running events for their community and could use that collective experience to help with your next event.

However we find them, Adam Grant’s observations seems to suggest that we should be making more of an effort to seek out existing teams and bring their collective experience to bear on our missions, rather than trying to form new teams from experienced but unconnected individuals.

Retention

In his Huffington post article, Grant remarks that:

“Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”

This presents a big challenge for us in volunteer management. We know people are giving less time and wanting to engage in shorter term, more project oriented roles (at least initially). The Time Well Spent report makes this case very well. So, how do we keep our teams driving the bus together for long enough to have real impact on our work?

I think the principles that would work are the same as those that would work for individual volunteers.

You’ll notice I said earlier that short term, project roles may be attractive ‘at least initially’. That’s because I don’t believe we can’t find volunteers who will give us a long-term commitment, I just think we’ll struggle to find people who will sign up to such a role on day one.

Instead, we have to find ways to keep people interested and engaged, delivering enjoyable volunteering experiences and allowing them the flexibility to come and go as suits them.

Give me such a role I’ll probably increase my commitment over time because I enjoy my volunteering with you and am not made to feel guilty if I need to take a break.

I’m convinced that just as this will work for individuals, so it’ll work for teams. To expand on Adam Grant’s analogy, we want to get the right group of people on the bus, have them drive to together for a while, not worry when they all get off for a bit, but welcome them all back on further down the road.

A red double-decker London bus
A red double-decker London bus

Of course of none of this will be easy. Shifting to group recruitment and retention strategies will present come challenges. We’ll have to try new approaches. Which means risk and the possibility of failure. Yet from such failure will come new ideas and approaches that will work better and better until we get it right.

So, over to you:

  • Have you tried recruiting existing teams to work on volunteer projects?
  • What worked well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Are group retention strategies something you’re currently trying?
  • Would you be willing to share any success or lessons learnt?

I look forward to reading your comments.

Gaining buy-in for your volunteering programme by working with your CEO – The Myton Hospice story

Happy new year! To get us started for 2019 we have a guest post, the story of how a Volunteer Manager successfully influenced for more resource and support to be dedicated to volunteer engagement in their organisation. I hope this story encourages and inspires you as the new year commences and we look to how we can strengthen volunteering in our organisations over the coming months. Enjoy!


Charlotte Witteridge, Head of Volunteering Development & Ruth Freeman, CEO

The Myton Hospices are committed to the delivery of high quality palliative care and enabling those with life limiting illnesses to live well until the end of their life. Supporting us with this is a team of over 1,000 volunteers who work within all areas of Myton, from direct patient contact roles and those that help to support the smooth day-to-day running of our hospices, to roles based within retail and fundraising.

We have recently secured significant investment from our Board of Trustees to develop our volunteering team. This recognises the potential to expand our volunteer team to help strengthen and enhance the work that we do and enable us to reach out to and support more patients and families across Coventry & Warwickshire. This hasn’t always been the case within Myton, however, and this is my story of how I have worked with our new Chief Executive to secure this additional funding to develop our volunteering team.

My Story…

23rd December 2011… My first visit to the Warwick site of The Myton Hospices… I had been to visit Myton to discuss the Volunteering Development Officer job that I had seen advertised. Being shown around the hospice and having conversations about what this new role would involve, I instantly realised that the full potential of volunteering at Myton was yet to be realised. I drove home full of excitement knowing that I had to work my hardest and do everything possible to secure this role.

After submitting an application and going through the recruitment process, thankfully I was successful in securing the role.

I joined Myton in February 2012 and was full of enthusiasm about my new position, only to realise very quickly that I was responsible for all things “volunteering”, with no administration support, no database and no basic infrastructure to underpin the engagement of approximately 1,000 volunteers.

I love a challenge, and was able to realise the impact that my new role could have on Myton’s volunteering. Slowly, over time, I began to build up our volunteer programme and the policies and processes to underpin volunteering throughout our organisation.

The Reality

Although I did initially make progress, it was incredibly slow. Slightly more resource had been allocated to the team in the form of part time administration hours – this was making a difference, but we still weren’t in a position to move volunteering forward and still struggled to keep up with the day-to-day tasks. My role had also changed in title to Volunteering Development Manager, but I still didn’t have the authority to make organisation wide changes.

The lack of resources within the team was highlighted following a complaint directly to our Chief Executive Ruth Freeman; I had been so overwhelmed with work (and hadn’t asked for help), that I failed to respond in a timely manner to a gentleman who had enquired about giving his time as a volunteer. Being a conscientious individual, I was mortified at the mistake I had made and worried about the reputational repercussions that this may have (especially when a large part of my role is about protecting our reputation in the way in which I engage with our volunteers!).

Now, I’m not advocating making a mistake or letting things get to the stage that I did, far from it (my biggest learning is that I should have asked for help sooner…) but this did open up an opportunity for me, because Ruth recognised that help was needed and we worked together to carry out a review of our volunteering function. The outcome was the realisation that the volunteer department was severely under resourced. Ruth and I then embarked on building a case for investment in volunteering…

A word from Ruth:

”Charlotte is a great advocate for volunteering within our organisation but for a long time she was a lone voice. In working closely with her it became clear that she was quite understandably frustrated with the fact that Volunteering was the only cross–organisational function at Myton that didn’t have a voice at senior level. This meant that top-line decisions were made without consideration for the value that volunteers could add to every area of our work”.

Building a Business Case for Volunteering

Step 1: Identify how volunteering supports your organisation to meet its strategy

Myton’s vision is to ‘provide high quality, specialist care to people whose condition no longer responds to curative treatment, from diagnosis to death. We aim to meet their physical, psychological, spiritual and social needs and ensure their families are supported both through and after this difficult time. We are also committed to training, supporting and encouraging other care providers to practice good palliative care’.

When developing our business case for investment into the volunteering team, we were clearly able to demonstrate how volunteering supports our organisation to meet its strategic aims and fulfil our mission – this is a clear influencer when getting the Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team to buy into your business case. Some examples of this linked to areas of our strategy are as follows:

  • We want to touch the lives of more people who need us – we will be able to reach out and support more patients and families by recruiting more volunteers for the right roles that enable us to deliver our services to more people…
  • Strengthening our marketing and communications – volunteers are ambassadors for our organisation, and they have the potential to build awareness of what we do within their local communities. This support of Myton will help to support our fundraising efforts and market our organisation externally to reinforce our brand and to educate people about hospice care. This all contributes towards ensuring that we are a sustainable organisation for the future (another key area of our strategy).

Step 2: Demonstrate the future potential of volunteering within your organisation

For us, this included…

  • Identifying areas of our organisation where volunteers can really add value to the service that we provide to patients and families. This involved coming up with ideas about how we can make the best use of our current volunteer resource, but also committing to work with areas of our organisation who do not currently involve volunteers.
  • Understanding our current volunteer profile (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, length of service) and the correlation between this and the changing external volunteering environment (e.g. providing flexibility in how people can give their time, potential changes in volunteering motivations and an ageing population). Having the data on our current volunteers helped us to identify future areas of opportunity but also areas of concern that we will need to address to ensure that we remain relevant and sustainable in the future.

Step 3: Consider and challenge your own views of volunteering

In some organisations, volunteers can be quite protected… “Betty is giving her time to Myton, she is already giving us so much, and we couldn’t possibly ask her to fundraise for us too…” This is an attitude that I have come across during my career – we don’t want to ask volunteers to do more for fear of upsetting them.

When building our business case we flipped our thinking on this to consider the future potential of viewing our volunteers as ‘engaged supporters’ of our organisation. We focused on ensuring that volunteers are well managed, supported and have a great volunteering experience with us. By investing in our volunteering infrastructure, the longer term outcome of this will be that we are able to work with our volunteers to extend their support of our organisation (e.g. getting involved in different volunteering opportunities, being participants in our fundraising events, supporting our shops etc.).

A word from Ruth:

“Whilst volunteers don’t have the same contractual obligations as paid members of staff there are many examples where we have seen the commitment being no less than that of paid staff (and in some cases more). We should be looking for volunteer roles in most departments. We should be looking for specialists and be attracting volunteers to specific roles because of their skills and experience and ensuring they have the scope to use them.”

“Senior Leaders within the organisation need to take a serious approach to encouraging and rewarding their teams for achieving successful outcomes relating to working with volunteers. Each success should be celebrated and communicated across the organisation and training & support for managers and those designated to work with volunteers should be on-going.”

Step 4: Demonstrate the return on investment

With any business proposal, it is important that you are able to demonstrate the return on investment. In order to show this for our volunteering function, we used the Volunteer Investment to Value Audit (VIVA) tool which gave us a calculation of the value that volunteers add to our organisation, and the return on our investment into volunteering. For us, the figures were staggering… using this tool, the estimated total value added by volunteers to Myton is over £1.5million, and for every £1 that we invest in volunteering, there is a return of £10.

A word from Ruth:

“In presenting to the Board it was important to focus on the true added value of volunteers and volunteering. Just like many other charities, Myton waxed lyrical about the difference volunteers make to our work without really understanding what the true difference is or what the potential might be. There was (and still is) a reticence from managers to let unpaid staff undertake those specialist tasks traditionally saved for those that are paid. In the proposal we pointed out that this thinking must be challenged because significant opportunities were being lost. We also pointed out that a culture which treats volunteers as ‘nice to have’ must change, but that this could only be achieved with a great deal of hard work across the organisation supported by a team of volunteer development professionals.”

Our Outcomes

Ruth presented our business case to the Board of Trustees and was successful in securing the investment – we doubled the paid resource within our Volunteering Development Team, including the addition of a significantly more senior role!:

  • Head of Volunteering post – this was a newly created role (that replaced the previous Volunteering Development Manager post within our establishment) that we felt was vital for us to establish volunteering as a strategic priority to support the sustainability of our organisation moving forward. Volunteering now has representation around the decision making table, which is a huge step forward for us
  • Volunteering Development Officers (two new posts) – these roles will focus on ensuring that all departments across the organisation have support with developing their volunteering.

Other Top Tips

To help with the development of our business case and to secure support from the wider Senior Leadership Team, we found the following things useful:

Develop an action plan for volunteering

This was the starting point for building our business case, as it provided a clear plan of work that needing carrying out and the potential resourcing implications that delivering on this action plan would have. This action plan has also helped other members of the Senior Leadership Team to understand the volunteering function in more detail.

Get your Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team (SLT) involved with volunteering

Don’t forget that your Board of Trustees are volunteers themselves. We have found it really useful to ensure that members of our Board and SLT are present at all of our volunteering events. This has helped to demonstrate the importance of volunteering and the impact that volunteers have across the whole organisation.

Listening to feedback from volunteers

Volunteers come to us from a variety of different backgrounds and with many different skills and experiences. Once you have worked your way through some of the grumbles, there can be some really useful and ideas and feedback brought to you by volunteers.

A word from Ruth:

“My top tip would be to focus on opportunity, potential and the significant return on any investment in volunteering, which can range from cost savings to significantly increased organisational resilience and sustainability.”

The Future

Our new Volunteering Development Department structure was implemented in June 2018, timed perfectly to coincide with the start of Volunteers’ Week, and we are still in the process of building our team. I think it is fair to say that we are at the start of our new journey in relation to volunteering, but the investment that we have made into volunteering will help to support the future sustainability of our hospice and to ensure that we are able to respond to the external influences that will affect volunteering in the future.

My Story Continued…

On the 18th May 2018 I was delighted to have been successful in securing the Head of Volunteering role within our new structure. It has taken me years to get to this point, however, I would encourage you to continue to have belief in your vision for volunteering. These things can take time, patience and tenacity. You have control over the way in which you present information to influence others to demonstrate the true value that volunteering can add to your organisation. Working with Ruth gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my leadership skills, and in doing so, my passion for volunteering shone through.

A word from Ruth:

“Charlotte is totally committed to her vision about raising the profile of volunteering at Myton, she is testament to the saying ‘never give up’ because she never did and that tenacity has paid off for her and our organisation.”

Having been through this journey, it is an honour to have been appointed to lead our volunteering team and I can’t wait to make our plans for volunteering a reality!

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

One of the enduring issues in volunteer management (at least in the UK) is the avoidance of volunteers working under a contract of employment. In fear of this, many organisations follow restrictive practices, increased bureaucracy, reduced scope for providing attractive benefits to potential volunteers, and allow wrong-headed thinking on the issue to predominate. In my view, it is time for this to stop.

Someone signing a contract
Someone signing a contract

Most conferences on volunteer management will feature a lawyer or other legal expert speaking on the issue. Whilst there are some good ones out there, most use the platform they are given to scare volunteer managers into submission. Whether ensuring nobody gets any possible benefit from giving time, or pontificating on what volunteers can and can’t do, Volunteer Managers are encouraged to put legal considerations before all else, rather than take a more considered and common sense approach, a situation not helped when boards and senior managers listen more to legal advisers than their own volunteer management experts.

A bit of background

The issue of whether a volunteer has a contract or not gained attention in the 1990s with a small number of high profile cases where volunteers successfully claimed they actually worked under a contract of employment. This entitled them to the same rights as any employee, enabling them to bring discrimination cases against the volunteer involving organisation.

Understanding this context is important because the creation of a contract of employment with volunteers is actually a risk issue. To my knowledge, in those 1990s cases, the volunteers who claimed employment rights were actually discriminated against by the organisations they volunteered for. Having no means of addressing this via their volunteer status, the individuals concerned had to claim under employment law as the legislation doesn’t cover volunteers. Yet if the organisations had treated these volunteers properly in the first place the contractual status of the volunteers would never have been an issue.

It’s all about risk

Rather than fixating on whether there is a possibility our volunteers might be entitled to contractual status as an employee, perhaps we should be focusing first on managing the risk that a volunteer feels so aggrieved with us that they want to claim employee status in the first place? In short, perhaps we need to practice risk management not risk avoidance!

Risk management involves four simple steps:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?

Risk avoidance takes the more nuclear option of not doing something just because a bad thing may happen (by the way, not all risk is bad). It is as naive as it is misguided – risk is an inherent part of life. If we wanted to avoid all risk we’d just shut up shop and stay in bed all day.

Someone lying in bed
Someone lying in bed

How then would risk management look when it comes to the issue of volunteers and employment contracts? Let’s consider those four steps again:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
    Twenty-three million people volunteer every year. There have been perhaps half a dozen cases of volunteers successfully claiming employment rights in the last thirty years. The implication therefore is that the risk is very low. So low it isn’t really worth considering.However, if your organisation; fails to invest properly in volunteer management; allows volunteers to be treated poorly by paid staff and other volunteers (including trustees); doesn’t have sensible policies in place around volunteer engagement; actively discriminates against volunteers etc.; then your risk is higher. But a volunteer still has to feel so aggrieved they want to seek legal recourse rather than just walk away.Either way you look at it the risk is still pretty low. Sadly, few organisations seem to look at this step in the risk management process, jumping first to the next step…
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
    The worst case scenario is that a volunteer takes you to an employment tribunal claiming employment rights, wins, then returns to tribunal with a discrimination case, and wins again. Aside from the resulting fines and sanctions possible under employment law, there is the potential for reputational risk and associated impacts on fundraising, future volunteer recruitment and negative media coverage. This is why many people rightly think the risk is pretty severe.Unfortunately, this is where the risk management process not only starts but also stops for many people. The risk is severe so they do everything they can to avoid it. But that fails to acknowledge the next step…
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
    Considering the statistics alone, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk. Assuming six successful claims for employment rights happened in one year (and 23 million people volunteered that year) the percentage chance of you facing such a successful claim would be 0.00000026%! The only way to reduce that risk further would be to stop volunteer involvement altogether, a drastic solution to a minuscule problem.Instead, let’s focus on the other issues we raised in step one.Your organisation can minimise the risk of a volunteer claiming employment rights by; investing properly in volunteer management, perhaps employing someone who takes a sensible approach to these issues and has experience in the field; not allowing volunteers to be poorly treated, disciplining staff who do, and educating everyone about how to work well with volunteers; establish clear and well thought through policies around volunteer engagement that are regularly reviewed and consistently implemented; never discriminate against a volunteer.

    With the exception of the last point there will be a cost associated with all of these actions. That cost is an investment to manage risk, enabling volunteers to make a transformative difference to your work whilst reducing the potential of the serious liability identified at step two.

  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?
    The formula for working this out is pretty simple: we know the worst case scenario is bad; we also know the likelihood of the risk happening is very low; and we’ve identified sensible and implementable steps to reduce that likelihood further. I’d see the retained risk as low to medium as a result, although you may view it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and your personal and organisational attitude to risk.So we have a low to medium retained risk. With that in mind, how sensible does it seem to avoid involving volunteers in some roles (or altogether)? Or limiting access to things that might help with volunteer recruitment (such as access to training and skills development not directly related to their role) just because there is a vague chance it might cause a problem down the road? Pretty silly really isn’t it?

In summary

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence it’d be this: Instead of focusing first on contracts and what creates them, let’s concentrate on treating volunteers well in the first place. Do that and the contract issues become less of a priority, not something to be ignored but certainly not something to be obsessed about. The result? Our work will be more enjoyable, and we will create a more impactful and fulfilling experience for our volunteers.

Useful resources

For some useful resources on risk management for leaders and managers of volunteers, take a look at a recent issue of Energize Inc’s Book Buzz newsletter.


Please note that I and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd are not legal experts. We are sharing our experience of over twenty-four years in volunteer management and, as usual, challenging accepted wisdom. Please do take legal advice if you are in anyway unsure about the legal position in your organisation.

Make volunteer management great

Make volunteer management great

In June this year I was lucky enough to visit Australia to attend their National Volunteering Conference. As anyone who has made the journey ‘down under’ will know, the flight is the epitome of long haul.

Exhausted, having cleared immigration and customs, I relaxed into my taxi – the first comfortable seat I’d sat in for almost 24 hours – but rather than having a snooze I was shocked to see this giant billboard which loomed into view as we left the airport.

Clive Palmer political post - Make Australia Great
Clive Palmer political post – Make Australia Great

The poster – featuring Clive Palmer, leader of the nationalistic United Australia party – also included some wording my jet lag addled brain has since forgotten. Something along the lines of, “Keep Australia for Australians”. It was all clearly positioned so every international visitor to Sydney would see it as they left the airport. Welcome to Australia!

Of course, such nationalism is growing around the world and it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the Australian poster came from.

Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election - Make America Great Again
Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election – Make America Great Again

The problem with both these slogans is that they imply Australia and America aren’t great and need to be made so. I’ve been to both countries on many occasions and, in my view, both are already great. I’ve always been impressed, amazed and inspired by the people I’ve met, the landscapes I’ve seen, and the cultures created by bring diverse people together as both countries have.

What has all this got to do with volunteer engagement leadership?

Well, as I reflected on the Make Australia Great billboard over the following days I started thinking about our quest for volunteer management to be a profession. It’s a topic that comes up at conferences, trainings and events around the world – when will volunteer management truly become a profession? When will Volunteer Managers be professionals just like our fundraising, Human Resources, Programme Management and other non-profit colleagues.?

Back in 2014 I wrote an article called, “Is our destination clear?” which suggested that we may not be entirely sure about what we mean when we talk about volunteer management being a profession. I stand by the points I made in that article (please do give it a read) but the Australian poster got me wondering if our mindset doesn’t play a big role in the professional standing of our field.

Australia doesn’t need to be made great, it already is.

America doesn’t need to be made great again, it already is.

Volunteer management doesn’t need to be made into a profession, it already is. Why? Because volunteer managers are professionals.

If we go around indicating we aren’t a profession then by extension aren’t we also going around implying we aren’t professionals? If that’s the case then no wonder our job equity with other non-profit professions suffers.

How can we take a more confident attitude towards our status as a profession? How we can advocate for the professional status of our field and for us individually?

Well International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) is a little over a week away (5th November) and provides a perfect opportunity. This year’s theme is Time For Change. Perhaps one the big changes we can all make is to stop being so nice. I don’t mean we all become mean, rude and grumpy, but that we should use IVMDay to take a stand for our work as volunteer engagement professionals. We should commit to asserting our professional status every day, rather than unintentionally undermining it by asking when we will be seen as a profession. That way we will become the change we want to see.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?

What is volunteer engagement?

My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword(subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):

“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”

How can we increase volunteer engagement?

My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:

“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:

  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
  • The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”

In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?

Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager

In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.

Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:

  1. Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
  2. Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
  3. Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).

Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?

Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.

Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership

In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:

  • Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
  • 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
  • When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.

In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!

This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.

Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:

  1. We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
  2. We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.

Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work

Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.

This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:

So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.


Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:

All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.