Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

FeaturedToxicity and six steps to tackle it

Guest writer Martin J Cowling muses on the problems with toxic volunteer behaviour and suggests some actions to prevent and resolve it.


Helen’s story

Upon retirement Helen (names have been changed) joined a hospital quilt making group to sew quilts for terminally ill children. Helen was looking forward to making some new friends in retirement and making a difference in the community. The group leader said “we are a small group but we work hard and we value loyalty”.

Those words echoed in Helen’s head as she struggled to cope when group members screamed at her for “poor stitching”. Where people sat at the quilting mornings was controlled and “loyal” volunteers got access to the better materials. Even what participants brought for the shared morning tea was scrutinised and belittled. One volunteer got banned for telling a joke that the leader did not approve of. Screeds of abuse between members filled the group’s Facebook wall. The hospital management could not be persuaded to see the issue, with one manager saying “What’s a couple of spats between friends in the ‘merry team of vollies’”.

Helen quit after six weeks, saying she saw turnover of fifteen people in that time. Fifteen people who may never volunteer again after such a horrific experience.

The toxicity problem

A few years ago, I audited several dozen volunteer committees across the country for a major charity, spending multiple hours learning how this organisation worked and where their strengths and weaknesses were. After my first week, I said to the client “I feel like I have been walking with saints. What I saw were volunteers generously giving their time, working together for the benefit of the community”. He grinned and said “Wait for next week.“

Sure enough, my next groups were dysfunctional horrors full of backbiting individuals.

The difference between the success of the positive groups and the failures of the toxic ones was stark. The groups with positive culture raised more funds, achieved more and found it easier to recruit and retain volunteers. The dysfunctional groups were barely holding it together, were far less successful and could not attract new members.

In our marketing and discussions, we focus on the positives of volunteering: How it changes lives, makes people happy and gives individuals and groups purpose. All of which can be true. What we talk less about, are the toxic volunteers, volunteer leaders or toxic groups which are not poster children for volunteering but which are more common than we realise. This toxicity can consume and burn out volunteers, destroy organisational reputations and drive donors, clients and community support away.

By toxic, we are seeing a simultaneous combination of three things: narcissism, bullying and incompetence. Alone each of these is worrisome but the situation is manageable. Combined and you have a horrible toxicity which saps an organisation and sadly, the introduction of such a toxic personality can have the effect of undermining that entire culture.

Barry’s story

Every Friday at 10am without fail, 82 year old Barry (names have been changed) would stride into the charity office ready for his shift helping to pack mailings. Barry had been involved in the charity from day one and had worked hard to advocate with the government and community to get funds, building and support. Inwardly, the staff would recoil when they saw him coming, guiltily hoping that he would not turn up that week.

Barry had an opinion on everything and everybody. He worked hard during his four hours as did his mouth with random tirades directed at everyone and anyone who passed by his desk (yes he had a reserved desk for his Friday shifts): clients, fellow volunteers, guests and employees. He belittled the women, mocked the men, muttered about foreigners, Asians and gays. His greatest vitriol was reserved for the CEO and management team who were never good enough.

The result was that the volunteers who had come in on a Friday, rarely returned and the ones that did were equally negative. The paid staff would do all they can to be scheduled out of the office or take their work to a local coffee shop. There were some Fridays when there would be no paid staff in the building! Barry was aware that no-one would go near him which made him even angrier about the “snobs in the organisation who didn’t value him”. The fear that Barry engendered made it impossible for anyone to successfully challenge his behaviour.

Tackling toxicity

As leaders of volunteers, here are six steps to tackle the Barry’s in our groups, teams or organisations. They rarely self-improve and despite their unhappiness and or anger, they often won’t leave of their accord.

1. Raise Up an Inspirational Culture
Too many NGOs pay lip service to their internal culture. Having and living out your mission and values must be core for your organisation. Leaders of volunteers need to ensure that the culture is safe, inspiring and rewarding. Volunteers who contribute positively to the culture need to be rewarded positively. Allowing poor behaviour sends a message that such behaviour is okay.

This can be tough. I was told one day by a senior volunteer that I was creating unrealistic expectations for the volunteers by setting standards. I was in a new role and this volunteer with three other colleagues ruled the roost. Those four ended up resigning simultaneously when I called out their bullying behaviour. The decision was cheered on by the remaining seventy but the process was not easy.

2. Recruit to Keep Toxicity Out

More than half of the volunteer advertisements, I see something along the lines of “are you lonely?” or “Do you want to be happy or happier?” “Do you need to make friends?” and promote volunteering as a solution. Pause a second. While loneliness is a major issue in society, what sort of people will your volunteer program attract if you target lonely, friendless, unhappy individuals? If people are lonely and friendless, there may be a reason for that. Staff an entire organisation with them and…

When recruiting for volunteers, focus less on skills and more on values. Ask questions of volunteers in the recruitment process about their values and how they work with other people. I used to run group interviews to watch how people interacted with each other.

Ask questions of your volunteer’s references about the values, ability to work with others and reasons for leaving. Never over promise to a volunteer and don’t bait and switch, offering a more attractive role and then changing it for a less interesting one having recruited them!

3. Require Supervisor Training

Too often organisations place or “dump” volunteers with people who have never been trained to work with volunteers, whether they are paid staff or other volunteers. If the supervisor is great, no problems. If they are poor, this can have the effect of creating unhappy volunteers. It can also mean the supervisors do not understand what to do if faced with a “difficult” volunteer.

It’s amazing we train people in accounts systems, fire drills, but never tell them about how to work with volunteers.

Offer flexible proactive positive training to equip your staff to work effectively with volunteers. I was able to get the CEO to mandate such training on a couple of occasions.

4. Engage in proactive prevention

By nipping negativity in the bud, you can avoid an unhappy long-term volunteer. This is a step that few organisations engage in.

Check in with volunteers and their supervisors about the volunteer’s experiences, one month and three months after they have started, and then annually. I recruited a specialist team of volunteers with appropriate skills whose specific job was this follow up.

Find out if the experience is working for them and what issues may be emerging. This might be the time a volunteer may want to or need to move to another role or even leave the organisation. This is the time to tackle any difficult behavioural issues or get feedback from the volunteer about how things can be improved for them.

The team and I were able to implement changes to our marketing, recruitment, PDs and training as a result of this feedback which improved our culture and further raised volunteer satisfaction.

5. Reward appropriately.

I have lost count of the number of organisations that have rewarded their worst volunteers with a “volunteer of the month” or “a volunteer of the year” award! This is done with a hope that such a volunteer, having got a reward, may behave better!

Such rewards send a very poor message, fail to tackle the real issue and annoy the volunteers who do deserve such an award!

In one client organisation, they gave a toxic volunteer a very generous gift in a very public ceremony. They hoped that the volunteer would leave after being so well rewarded. Spoiler alert: she didn’t and in fact behaved worse now she felt vindicated by her awards. This was when I was called in to “fix the problem!”

Ensure your rewards have value by rewarding appropriately.

6. Remove the toxic person

Michael (names have been changed) was a highly qualified retiree who was volunteering in a telephone customer service. He handled the role with aplomb, charming clients calling in with enquiries and solving their issues quickly and well. He was well loved, well respected and highly trusted. Then one day he arrived drunk. The other volunteers watched appalled as he shouted of his achievements and why he was better than all of them. Then he abused clients and hung up on them. Not knowing what to do, the volunteers resolved to say nothing and hide the issue from the management. It was only on the third occasion of Michael drunkenly abusing others, that a supervisor found out.

If people consistently or regularly exhibit poor behaviour, then this means taking action. There must be documented paths for volunteers and employees to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour and see it dealt with.

The manager of volunteers must be prepared to have the difficult conversation with the volunteer. I have spoken to so many coordinators who declare that they have taken what seems to be an “easier” route. Many have said “I simply stop rostering the difficult people and then ignore all of their calls and emails”. This avoidance does not help anybody.

A series of conversations must be initiated with the volunteer. In some cases, the volunteer will work out there is an issue and resign. For others, there will be opportunities to work with them for change or improvement. In the case of Michael, he revealed a deep loneliness that had turned to alcoholism. Volunteering for him, he saw as one means of being less lonely. Unfortunately, his addiction was still hard to control. In this situation, the organisation was able to support him with counselling whilst suspending him for a period.

Finally, some volunteers must be suspended or removed. Engage in the process safely, respectfully and legally because such a volunteer will make life hell for you if you relieve them. You will be amazed, however, how many other volunteers will cheer your decision!

Ensuring a safe positive workplace takes time, investment, and work. The results are worth it. The risk of a poor culture is never worth it.


Martin J Cowling is a knowledgeable and popular international author, trainer and consultant from Australia. He possesses over 30 years of management experience with NGOs, government and corporates.

Martin works with organisations globally on volunteering, leadership, governance and change and has worked in partnership with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on projects in the UK and Australia.

Martin volunteers personally to tackle homelessness and poverty. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.

Recognising Racism in Volunteer Engagement

I recently read and shared an excellent article by Lisa Joyslin, Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). It was a challenging and thought provoking read on the systemic racism that is pervasive in so much accepted good volunteer engagement practice. I asked Lisa if I could share her work as a guest post on this blog and she agreed. So, here it is. Be prepared to be challenged, to feel uncomfortable and to be inspired to act.


In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, followed by protests and riots across the nation calling for racial justice, many people are experiencing discomfort. Discomfort at the unfairness and injustice experienced in the Black community. Discomfort in our own actions, or lack thereof. Discomfort regarding how to move forward.

Discomfort is a vital part of growth and change. Systems and structures across the nation – from law enforcement to education and everything in between – need to change. They need to be centered around equity.

But for nonprofit leaders and, in particular, volunteer engagement leaders, discomfort should not be something we only feel about other systems.

Volunteerism needs to change, too. Small tweaks to our already-existing structures are not enough. Big, overarching change is needed. Why? Because volunteerism is built on systemic racism.

That’s not comfortable. But it’s true.

How do we know that systemic racism is embedded in volunteerism? Because modern volunteerism – the formal structures and processes by which most organizations engage volunteers – is built upon multiple characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Consider the following characteristics, originally developed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in 2001 and outlined by Okun in her essay white supremacy culture, and how they are embedded in volunteer engagement:

Sense of urgency

Okun describes this characteristic as a “continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to be inclusive,” and a practice that “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Acting upon demands of organizational leaders or program directors who need ‘more volunteers now’, forcing quick recruitment instead of thoughtful outreach
  • Recruitment goals that call for an increase of volunteers over a course of months or one year when building authentic relationships with new communities takes much longer than that

Defensiveness

This characteristic appears when “the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Strict risk management practices centered on protecting the organization and its power/reputation, not on bringing out the best in each individual. Examples include rigid background check rules, requiring multiple references, paperwork not easily completed by a non-native English speaker, etc.

Worship of the written word

Okun describes this characteristic as “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist,” and “the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information is shared”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Insisting on a written application as the first step to volunteering
  • Heavy reliance on written rules and regulations, as outlined in volunteer handbooks, policies, performance reviews, etc.
  • Expecting written memorandums of understanding to define partnerships

Quantity over quality

This characteristic appears when “all resources of an organization are directed toward producing measurable goals,” and “little or no value is attached to process”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Individual and department goals are centered on measurable outcomes such as volunteer recruitment, retention and evaluation
  • Volunteers who ‘don’t work out’ are seen as a waste of time instead of a learning opportunity for both the volunteer and the organization
  • Building new relationships and growing trust are not recognized as successful until volunteer numbers increase

Only one right way

Okun describes this characteristic as “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • The volunteer engagement field is filled with ‘best practices’ that are held up as the one right way to do volunteerism
  • Most programs have one pathway to becoming a volunteer (perhaps with an abbreviated pathway for episodic volunteers that eliminates a few steps)

Paternalism

This characteristic is described as, “those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interest of those without power”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Nonprofit and volunteer engagement leaders make decisions about the volunteer program without consulting community members and those who receive services from the organization
  • Those with money are provided special treatment as volunteers; i.e. creating a customized volunteer opportunity for a funder’s employee group. For more examples see Sue Carter Kahl’s recent blog post Power, Privilege, and Volunteerism
  • Prioritizing the feelings or reactions of donors instead of the community when making decisions about programming, volunteer services and messaging.

Any given volunteer program may not be guilty of all the white supremacy culture characteristics listed above. But chances are good that you recognize at least a few that are prevalent in your organization and those you work with.

It has been said about other systems in our society, but it’s also true here: Volunteerism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it was designed. It works well for those with privilege. It pushes away those without.

So, what can we do about it?

Here’s what I think. Start with the idea that there is only one right way to do things. Throw it out the window. In Vu Le’s recent blog post on Nonprofit AF, he discusses how lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice in the nonprofit sector. You can’t imagine new possibilities if you believe you’ve found the one right way. And when it comes to volunteerism, there are so many ways.

Consider, for example:

  • Neighbors helping neighbors within a community. People don’t often call this volunteerism, but it has the same spirit of care and compassion.
  • Protestors. Those going to a protest probably didn’t say they were heading out to ‘volunteer’. Yet, they gave of their time for a cause they were passionate about.
  • Community organizing. Again, grassroots efforts aren’t often labeled as ‘volunteerism’. They are simply people coming together to make things better.

There are far more people of color engaged in the three activities above than there are in formal volunteerism with a nonprofit organization. Communities of color are volunteering. Communities experiencing poverty are volunteering. Immigrant communities are volunteering. They’re just not doing it with formal programs.

And the reason why should be pretty clear by the characteristics listed above. Formal volunteerism has built up countless barriers to keep people of color away.

So let’s learn from these other ways of supporting communities. Let’s learn from the people of color who are giving of themselves every day to make this world better. Let’s have hard conversations but, more importantly, let’s take action that we never thought possible.

I can’t tell you what that looks like. It’s going to look different for each organization and each community. No right way means more work. But it’s the only way volunteerism has a chance of becoming equitable. And if volunteerism – a field that prides itself on helping others and making the world better – isn’t about equity…then, honestly, THAT should be the source of our discomfort.


Lisa Joyslin is the Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). Her work is focused on learning how to address systemic inequities in volunteer engagement systems to better engage communities of color as volunteers at nonprofit and government organizations. Lisa has worked in the field of volunteer engagement for nearly fifteen years, including four years as the Volunteer Services Officer for the Red Cross Minnesota Region and positions at multiple volunteer centers. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lisa is a white woman. While MAVA’s work is done in partnership with communities of color, it is vital that you also read the viewpoints of those with lived experience as people of color. We recommend the following as a starting point:

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) connects, educates, strengthens and advocates for volunteer engagement leaders and their organizations to positively impact communities. Learn more about MAVA and our Inclusive Volunteerism Program here.

We’ll be exploring racial equity and volunteerism further at MAVA’s Virtual Conference this November on Re-Defining Volunteerism. Join us!

O Canada: Four Uniquely Canadian Things about Volunteerism and Volunteer Engagement during COVID-19

In this special bonus post, we welcome our Canadian colleague Jessica Pang-Parks who shares her insights into volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The whole world is on the same COVID-19 car ride right now, wondering, “are we there yet?” and waiting for restrictions to lift. 

In Canada, as in most of the Western world, COVID-19 has impacted volunteerism and volunteer engagement. On May 1, 2020, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada took a poll (during a Zoom call) of fifty leaders of volunteers from across the country. No surprise, none of us said that our volunteer programs were running “business as usual”. Forty-six percent of us said that volunteering at our organizations was “shut down until further notice”.

Screen shot of research findings mentioned in the article

Indeed, many of us have had hours reduced, been furloughed, or been laid off completely. Many of those who remain employed full-time at their organizations have had to take on new responsibilities, sometimes even stepping in to be on the front lines. 

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Imagine Canada, non-profits have been included in the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidyprogram, and organizations that serve the most vulnerable can access the $350 million Emergency Community Support Fund. As well, many paid leaders of volunteers who have been laid off or furloughed have access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

In his interview with the CBC, Imagine Canada’s CEO Bruce MacDonald said that charities in Canada are being “profoundly affected by drops in revenue, by a need to change and adapt their services, by not having access to volunteers – many of whom delivered those services.” As a volunteer engagement professional, I’m glad to see that the main advocacy body for non-profits in Canada recognizes the importance and power of volunteers.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also recognizes the importance and power of volunteers. He has a particular interest in youth development through volunteerism. His father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, created Katimavik (a national youth volunteer program) in the 1970s. The younger Trudeau was a Katimavik participant as a teen and served as the organization’s chair in the early 2000s. 

As part of Canada’s COVID-19 response, Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Student Service Grant on April 22, 2020. “Students helping in the fight against COVID-19 this summer will soon be eligible for $1,000 to $5,000” depending on their volunteer hours. What does that mean? I have so many questions!

While we grapple with these questions as Canadian volunteer engagement professionals, like in other countries, some jurisdictions are reopening faster than others. And now that you have some context, let’s look at four uniquely Canadian things that affect volunteerism and volunteer engagement during COVID-19.

#1: Rural Canadians and Internet Access

Virtual volunteering isn’t new, and we must be mindful of virtual volunteering as many people “don’t know how to effectively use these tools… [or] simply lack access.” In Canada, rural residents make up over 39% of our population, and over 40% of those people don’t have broadband internet access. 

Our large rural population is a uniquely Canadian quality. Only 19% of Americans29% of Aussies14% of Kiwis, and 17% of people in the UK live in rural communities. One-third of Canadians live in communities that have “weak or no link to population centres” including indigenous communities and northern fly-in communities. 

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared high-speed internet a basic service and aimed to provide “100 percent of Canadians access to reliable, world-class mobile and fixed Internet services”. This was reflected in Canada’s 2019 budget, which committed to universal high-speed internet for all Canadians, no matter their location, by 2030. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there is new pressure on the government to implement internet infrastructure more quickly.

Canadian charities have moved much of their programming online. While some see this as a temporary measure, others see value in making online programming permanent and plan to continue to expand online offerings. When universal high-speed internet comes to Canada, our sector should be ready to respond and leverage the resources. Volunteer engagement professionals will need to continue to innovate and keep our tech skills sharp. We are in a unique position to combine technical skills with soft skills to help our organizations move their missions forward. Keep learning, and as you learn, think about how to engage volunteers with new technology solutions that emerge. 

#2: Nova Scotia Strong

Canada’s deadliest mass shooting happened in mid-April, during the COVID-19 lockdown. It happened in Nova Scotia, one of our country’s least-populated provinces with very tight-knit communities. Very quickly, volunteers organized to fundraiseshow support, and provide space for people to grieve while being physically distant. 

Much of this was driven by grassroots community organizers, first through Facebook, and more recently, working through a local law firm to establish charitable status so they can establish permanent memorials and financial supports for affected families. Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy reminds me of We Love Willowdale, which was born in a similar manner, out of tragedy after the horrific van attack in April 2019

As these organizations professionalize, they will require volunteer engagement support. This is a great opportunity for leaders of volunteers to step up and support the grassroots. We want these organizations to make volunteer engagement a strategic priority in their infancies, so a culture of volunteer engagement is inherent to their operations. Full disclosure: I live in Willowdale and have provided the We Love Willowdale leaders volunteer engagement consulting on a voluntary basis. 

What these tragedies, and the circumstances of COVID-19 have done, is get more Canadians involved with informal and/or grassroots volunteering. As Rob Jackson says, “At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?” 

Moving forward, what can professionalized Canadian non-profits learn from the grassroots organizations formed rapidly from tragedy? Perhaps less paperwork and bureaucracy? Perhaps more urgency and emotion? My personal hope is that the learning goes both ways: that “professionalized” leaders of volunteers listen to ideas from leaders of volunteers who were, until a day ago, accountants or farm hands, and that the grassroots leaders of volunteers seek our advice, experiences, and learn from our mistakes. 

#3: America – It’s Right There

The United States is our neighbour. Approximately two-thirds of Canadians live within 100km of the US border, which also happens to be the world’s “longest undefended border”. 

Right now, the biggest factor influencing the future of volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada is COVID-19. While this border is closed except for essential goods and services until at least June 21, as of May 19,  US still has the world’s largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. A famous cross-border couple, Justin and Hailey Bieber, are spending the lockdown in Waterloo, Ontario. 

So, if there is a second, or third, or fourth spike in the Canadian curve because Americans start travelling to Canada, we may be in lockdown for longer than we thought we’d be. Volunteers who were hoping to return to giving their time in-person may need to wait longer. There may be an even greater demand for volunteer engagement professionals to step into front-line healthcare duties. Whatever happens, we can’t ignore the US, because it is right there

#4: Are you Bilingual? 

As non-profit programming moves online, organizations will struggle with being truly bilingual. Canada has two official languages: English and French. National organizations, as well as organizations serving the National Capital Region or other jurisdictions where both official languages are frequently used (e.g. New BrunswickSaint Boniface in Manitoba) will require even more volunteers and employees with bilingualism than usual.

For predominantly Anglophone organizations, excluding Francophones from programming means losing out on approximately 22% of the Canadian population. Organizations with bilingual resources were either already prepared to engage in either or both official languages, or, can easily pivot to do so. 

Volunteers who are bilingual will be in even higher demand, and bilingual volunteer engagement professionals will be much more employable. This means that Canadian leaders of volunteers should brush up on their French, collect better data on language preferences and capabilities, and be mindful of the benefits and limitations of translation technology

Franco-Canadiens are proud (so proud that there is still a strong separatist movement). We Anglophones may feel it is cute when benevoles mis-conjugate a verb. But to some Franco-Canadiens, mispronunciation can feel like a personal insult. As leaders of volunteers, we are in the business of stewarding relationships, and if we can’t literally speak the same language as volunteers and other supporters, then we can’t do our work effectively. 


Are you a Canadian leader of volunteers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted us uniquely. Are you a leader of volunteers from outside Canada who has noticed similar trends? What actions are you, your colleagues, and your government taking to support volunteerisim and volunteer engagement under these circumstances?

Reach out to me through my blog: www.learnwithjpp.com

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers

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

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


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

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

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

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

Prevention / Preparation

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

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

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

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

Responding to Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

No Qualifications Required?

In the first of a two-part series, guest writer Sue Jones shares her thoughts the current state of learning and development for volunteer managers and reflects on how we got here


Did you know that 2019 will be the last year Volunteer Managers in the UK can access volunteer management qualifications through the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM)? In the past this would have made me exasperated at yet another example of how the role of Volunteer Management and Leadership is overlooked and unappreciated. Today, however, I am wondering whether this is actually a good thing.

How did we get here?

I remember being part of the working group to consult on the creation of National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Managing Volunteers, feeling proud to represent Volunteer Managers in my capacity as a Training Manager from a local Volunteer Centre. It seemed to me that we were developing an important tool, something to give credence to this work and highlight the value of the role to those who didn’t really understand it – which at that time, basically meant ‘everyone’. I knew of people who used the NOS when going through a pay review to demonstrate the extent of their responsibilities – showing how complex it could be in comparison to managing paid staff. And, others who saw it as a helpful approach to creating meaningful job descriptions when writing funding bids for volunteer management positions.

Next came the development of Excellence in Volunteer Management (EVM) – a dedicated programme designed specifically for leaders and managers of volunteers, informed by a consultation exercise and linked to a National Training Strategy. The programme comprised four modules; Managing Yourself, Managing People, Managing Resources and Managing in the Community. The content really did justice to the depth and breadth of the role of volunteer management, reflecting the wide ranging skill sets and knowledge required to deliver ‘excellence’. Themes included time management, interview techniques, coaching skills, leadership, budget planning and event organising, to name just a few. It felt as though managers of volunteers were, at last, being taken seriously and their professional development needs were being acknowledged and catered for.

Unfortunately, a flawed business model and various other factors meant it couldn’t continue as a sustainable option for the long term. The lack of qualification status certainly had some bearing on this, although the opportunity to gain an Endorsed Certificate through ILM was available. Qualifications were becoming increasingly important across the wider Voluntary and Community Sector workforce as discussions about professionalism and certification highlighted an emerging need to be able to demonstrate skills and ability in an increasingly competitive job market.

However, having been involved in it’s development, I felt strongly that there was something in EVM that was worth salvaging and through Volunteer Centre Warrington1, took on the branding and the materials, including the Moodle e-learning platform. Then, with some reimagining, we delivered it with success for a few more years as a viable learning option alongside other accredited programmes, available to volunteer managers at that time through various awarding bodies such as LANTRA and the Open College Network (OCN).

Eventually, ILM set things in motion to develop dedicated, nationally recognised qualifications, firstly at Level 3, aimed at the ‘first line manager’ or team leader. This was perfect for anyone responsible for co-ordinating, organising and managing volunteers in a hands-on role on a day to day basis. Later, the Level 5 Certificate in the Management of Volunteers became available, aimed at aspiring ‘heads of volunteering’ and anyone working in a more strategic role, perhaps leading on developing volunteering within an organisation, and / or supporting and leading others with day to day responsibilities for volunteers.

All these qualifications were built around the National Occupational Standards, with participants having the opportunity to complete a series of work-based assignments focusing on core volunteer management themes like supervision and support, volunteer agreements and managing risk; with the option to add-in more generic leadership and management units where relevant. Indeed, this was something I was keen to offer, particularly through the Level 5 Certificate. As well as promoting volunteering (internally and externally) and developing structures & systems to support volunteering, participants also completed the leadership unit. Although challenging, it was a fantastic opportunity to do some personal reflection and really dig into what makes for an effective leader of volunteers.

Volunteer Management had arrived at last!

Along with the continued emergence of the Association of Volunteer Managers, it felt as though finally volunteer management was recognised as being an integral part of volunteer involvement and engagement, acknowledged as a profession. Volunteer Managers seeking a qualification could now specialise in their field, rather than having to settle for certificates that didn’t quite fit or even reflect their expertise. Training providers no longer had to create work-arounds through endorsements and accreditations. Organisations were able to up-skill their volunteer management teams and demonstrate their value, investing in their volunteer managers’ professional development and supporting them to receive a qualification, benefiting everyone. And, in cases where organisations were unable to provide that financial investment, sometimes funding could be accessed, or volunteer managers themselves were keen to make that investment, highlighting the significance of such qualifications being readily available.

Success was short-lived

In the last couple of years, the ILM – Institute of Leadership and Management have decided not to renew the qualifications previously available in the Management of Volunteers. Due to lack of demand, these qualifications are being phased out at Level 3 and Level 5, with registrations only now open until the end of 2019 for the remaining Level 3 Award in Management of Volunteers. It’s not all doom and gloom however, there are other awarding bodies still offering qualifications for the time being, such as CERTA and LANTRA. It’s just that for me, as a training provider, there was something special about volunteer management being part of ILM. It felt grown-up, like we were finally sitting at the main table, rather than being on the sidelines, sitting at the camping table with the kids.

So, where are we now? Volunteer Managers seeking a specialist qualification with ILM have until the end of the year to sign up for the Level 3 Award, with various training providers still offering programmes. This is a great opportunity for anyone wanting a certificate to add to their portfolio, as well as providing a chance to network with other managers of volunteers and reflect on their work.

But what about those seeking a more in-depth learning experience? What if your work is more strategic, more about the education and promotion of volunteering internally? What if you are leading and managing others who manage volunteers? Or if you are an aspiring leader in this field? Previously, ILM’s Level 5 Certificate would have met this criteria, but what now? What qualifications do you feel you need? Or is it more about seeking out a range of individual learning opportunities, tailored to suit your specific needs, such as working with a mentor or participating in an informal networking group?

Have we actually reached a point where qualifications in volunteer management are no longer required, we simply need to demonstrate our abilities by developing our skill sets and strengths, not constrained by role definitions?

Is it simply a case of our training and learning needs being different in the new world of volunteer management? In Part Two I will be exploring this in more detail, focusing on what volunteer managers really need from Continuous Professional Development (CPD), training and learning.

For now, I’d love to know what you think?

Are qualifications really so important?

What have you gained from completing qualifications in Volunteer Management?

Please share your comments and experiences below.


Contact Sue to find out more about the next ILM Level 3 Award programme beginning March 29th or how you can arrange for this course to be delivered in-house.

  1. The Excellence in Volunteer Management brand is now part of Warrington Voluntary Action.

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!

Superhero Volunteer Management Part Two: Is it time to put on the cape?

Once again we have a post from guest contributor, Carol Carbine. This time Carol follows up her article on superhero volunteer management from last month. I’m sure you’ll find it helpful. Enjoy!


So picture the scene, there you are on the streets of Gotham and all hell breaks loose, the crowd starts to panic, the bad guys are about to unleash some deadly evil. But wait, in the distance you see a figure with that iconic mask, his black cape flying behind him and you know it’s all going to be OK.

Let’s re-play that…there you are on the streets of Gotham all hell breaks loose the crowd starts to panic, the bad guys are about to unleash some deadly evil. But wait, in the distance you see a bloke in jeans and a t-shirt. At which point you probably don’t give him a second thought because you are too busy wondering how on earth you are going to get out of the mayhem that’s happening around you.

How is it we know who the good guys are and that they are here to save the day? The costume is key – we see it, we instantly recognise it, we know what it stands for, what to expect and who we want to give our allegiance to.

So what’s the relevance of this to us as volunteering professionals?

If you look at things from the perspective of colleagues in other disciplines it can be difficult to understand who we are and what we do for a number of reasons. For example:

  • They don’t see a regular crop of university graduates in volunteer management coming into the sector, which is the norm in many other disciplines – indeed many of us started out as something else entirely before we found volunteer management and decided we wanted to pursue it.
  • We tend to move around a lot – because there isn’t a clear career path we tend to move organisations or even sectors. This may mean that we know lots about our discipline but we don’t necessarily have a depth of knowledge about the sector we are about to join.
  • What we do and what we are called is a bit of a minefield – I’ve met people with the same job title that do different jobs; people with different titles that do the same thing; organisations that are worried about using the word ‘manager’ so come up with creative job titles; volunteer co-ordinators (some of whom are paid) and volunteer managers (some of whom aren’t). And what’s the difference between a Volunteering Development Manager and a Volunteering Development Consultant (either internal or external)?
  • You may not even consider yourself a Volunteer Manager if it’s something you do in addition to your ‘proper job’, and that’s assuming it’s even in your job description!

Why does any of this matter?

Consider some of the common challenges we face (these are generalisations but you’re probably familiar with a few of them):

  • Always last to get an invite to the party – so the project started some time ago and nobody thought to mention it to you but at the eleventh hour you get a call to find 50 volunteers for the launch three weeks from now.
  • You have a tough time securing funding for your work/team, particularly for new initiatives, even though everybody wants more volunteers and wants them to do more.
  • There’s a formula for working out the monetary value of the contribution your volunteers make for the annual report but it doesn’t mention all of the other benefits that volunteers bring to your organisation.
  • Volunteers are free, therefore it follows that managing volunteers is easy – some senior managers hold the view that it’s easy, anyone can do it and therefore it doesn’t require as much resource (people) or expertise (funding) as other disciplines.
  • You’re called in to fix problems when things have reached melting point more often than to explore new ways of engaging people in volunteering for your organisation.

Could these be the result of our unclear identity? Does everyone in your organisation have the same clear understanding of your role and the value you bring to your organisation? Only last week a long time colleague that I hadn’t see for a while asked me if I was ‘still doing my volunteering stuff’; after more than two decades working in the field I’ll admit to being more than a little disappointed.

So where do we go from here, how can we support each other in forging a clear identity and raising awareness of our Superhero selves? Here are a few thoughts from me to get the ball rolling:

  • Join a professional body such as the Association of Volunteer Managers, to be a part of the growing network of national and international volunteering professionals.
  • Join the Thoughtful Thursday discussions on Twitter to contribute to the discussion on the latest thinking and developments.
  • Support one of your external volunteering colleagues by offering to talk to their organisation about what’s happening in our field and invite them to do the same for you.
  • Talk about what you are up to and the impact it has on your organisation internally, externally and online and help raise the profile of the work that we do.
  • Mentor a colleague and support their development
  • Share your thoughts/ideas/pictures on how you are creating a stronger sense of identity within your organisation on Twitter #SuperheroVM

– I’ll look forward to hearing your ideas; meantime I will be dusting off my sewing machine, so if you are looking for me I’ll be the one in the distance with the pink hair and the nifty purple cape…to infinity and beyond!

What do you think?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to contact Carol direct, here are her details:

Website: http://www.carolcarbine.consulting
Email: carolcarbine@icloud.com
Twitter: @carolcarbine