A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

In this guest post from Laura White, you have a fantastic opportunity learn first had about volunteering in Berlin and gains ’em insights that you can apply in your own organisations wherever you are in the world.

Over to Laura…


It’s rare that someone gets to drop out of their normal life for twelve weeks, but thanks to Sustrans’ career break policy, that’s exactly what I was able to do between April and July this year. I put cover in place for my job for three months, packed my bags and travelled to Germany with literally zero plans, apart from to try to volunteer.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be – I can speak a bit of German, but I wondered if volunteering opportunities might be limited by the fact that I couldn’t commit long-term. In my job looking after volunteering on Scotland’s National Cycle Network, I’ve seen a huge growth of interest in episodic and short-term, flexible volunteering – would the same be true abroad?

To skip to the happy ending…YES, it was. Incredibly true. I was able to volunteer for many different projects in Berlin, for different lengths of time. It was easy, fun, fulfilling and, quite frankly, a real eye-opener.

Most of this was thanks to a volunteering platform called Vostel – after a simple registration I could search for opportunities based on my level of German language (“basic”) and my preference of activity (“hands-on”) and was immediately given nearly fifty opportunities in the Berlin area. For many, you simply read through the task outline and signed up for a shift, after which you receive exact details of where to be and who to ask for.

My first choice was to try to give time to a project supporting the huge number of Ukrainian people escaping the war and arriving into Berlin. I signed up for a three-hour shift with Berlin Caterers for Good at the main train station, where they distributed food and drink donated by local companies – I was welcomed, given a short briefing and put on the sweets and drinks stand, where I quickly learnt the Ukrainian words for juice and water, found out that people of all ages like a lollipop, and was reminded how much a smile can bridge a language barrier. I returned again a couple of weeks later.

Through the same shift sign-up process, I started volunteering with Bikeygees – a project supporting women from across the world to learn to cycle. For the twelve weeks I was in Berlin, I joined them nearly every week, and made new friends, helping women from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria progress from not being able to ride at all, to cycling solo around the park and repairing a puncture. Each week I simply registered for a shift and turned up. I had chosen to commit, but the admin was no greater.

With a slightly different start, I volunteered regularly for Berliner Stadt Mission at their Haus der Materialisierung – a collaborative zero-waste project based in an old multistorey carpark. They had advertised on Vostel for people to help upcycle old textiles into bags, and invited me along for an initial chat where I was shown the Haus and the task, and then we worked out what time commitment I could give and for how long – I chose four hours every Wednesday for ten weeks, and filled in their volunteer registration form (with a bit of translation help from Google Lens). They were the only project to ask me to report my hours and how much I had done, but also the project where I gained the most skills, thanks to one-on-one support from the project officer.

A commitment of a different kind came in June when I applied to be a volunteer with the Special Olympics National Games – a week-long competitive event for 4,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, supported by 2,000 volunteers. I had a role in Volunteer Management, which required training, a uniform and a commitment to a number of shifts that week, but which also gave me the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, practise my German, and dance at the Athletes Disco under the Brandenburg Gate.

Between these commitments, I also joined Clean River Project for a litterpick on the Landwehrkanal where I was put in a double kayak with a pharmacist named Nina, who gave me an informal tour of Berlin neighbourhoods as we paddled along and pulled bottles, plastic and an Oktoberfest Mickey Mouse from the water. (The latter won the Best Piece of Litter competition, judged by a volunteer clapometer…).

And I took on a stint volunteering to give out finish tokens at parkrun at Hasenheide Park. As I take part in the runs, I already knew the task and that these events rely on parkrunners volunteering themselves – a mutual-aid community.

What did I learn from all of this?

Taking part in every single one of these opportunities felt frictionless. There were no barriers. When I was asked to do more admin in order to volunteer, it was after I had a clear idea of what I would be doing and it was in return for support, skills-development or feeling part of a team; sometimes all three.

Almost every opportunity was based around the activity, rather than a volunteer role. In most cases I wasn’t asked to ‘become a volunteer’ for any organisation; I was supported and welcomed to undertake a task, at that moment, for the duration that I had committed to. I felt free to try new things and to step away from those that weren’t for me. But I could also commit to those that felt right. My time in Berlin was limited, and therefore precious. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on interviews, inductions, and getting started on something I didn’t know if I would enjoy and want to continue.

But this is always true for a lot of us. Time is a scarce resource for those of us who fit volunteering around other commitments and we need to maximise our use of it. Since I’ve been back in Edinburgh I’ve decided to step down from a voluntary Committee role I’ve been doing for thirteen years, and try some new voluntary activities, inspired by the things I did in Berlin. Many projects I contacted asked me to go through time-swallowing admin, including reference checking, lengthy handbooks and in-person inductions before I had a chance to try out the activity and decide if it’s something I want to do. It has taken ten weeks from starting to look, to be actively volunteering anywhere new – almost the length of my whole career break.

All of this is fuelling the fire of things I’ve been thinking about recently, as we’ve been implementing the Sustrans’ Five-Year Volunteering Strategy. How do we move to a more person-centred human approach for volunteering that removes friction and makes the most of people’s time? One that recognises a person’s unique strengths, interests and needs, and gives them choice and flexibility from the start? And how do we do that in a way that continues to take account of important volunteer processes, such as safeguarding and data collection, but that feels appropriate to an individual’s involvement?

I’ve been really pleased to see all of this referenced in the Systems map in the Scottish Government’s new Volunteering Action Plan – ‘fit’, ‘less bureaucracy’ and ‘accessible opportunities’ all feature in the system. Martin J Cowling talks about the same in his recent Engage article, suggesting we may need to “repackage elements of our volunteering to give people ‘taster’ experiences of volunteering in more supervised environments with fewer checks”. I’m excited to bring this all together in my own work with volunteers, and aim to give more people the same fulfilling volunteering experience that I had in Berlin.


Laura White is the Network Engagement Coordinator (Volunteering) for Sustrans, and has been volunteering since she was 18. Laura can be contacted through Twitter, through LinkedIn or via email.


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Developing your career beyond volunteering

Developing your career beyond volunteering

I am pleased to welcome Morven MacLean as guest writer of our latest blog post.

I have know Morven for many years and am very grateful for her taking the time to share her recent experience of moving into a senior role in the People / Organisational Development arena, along with some advice and tips if this is a career path you would interested in following.

So thank you Morven, over to you…


Are you pondering your next career move and considering taking on a senior leadership position? Maybe you’re thinking about a role in the People / Organisational Development arena? Perhaps you’re lacking confidence and feel your skills won’t be recognised next to candidates with an HR background? I’m here to challenge that thinking and encourage you to go for it!

That’s exactly what I did when I returned to work from maternity leave in January 2022. A year of away had given me the space to reflect on my career. I loved my job as Head of Volunteering at Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) but I was craving the stretch of a broader portfolio and the opportunity to influence more widely in the organisation.

When my maternity leave ended, I was delighted to see the role of Director of People and Strategy advertised. Excited by the scope of this role and the opportunities it presented, I applied, went through a rigorous selection process and I am happy to say, was offered the job, which I started in April 2022.

I was so pleased to see in the recruitment pack for the Director of People and Strategy role that CHAS was open to applications from candidates from a range of professional backgrounds. In my experience, most People Director roles stipulate an HR background. Another plus point was that it specifically mentioned volunteering development as an area of interest to the panel. CHAS is an organisation that values volunteering and understands the unique skills and contribution of staff in the volunteering function, so I was unsurprised to see this open-minded approach in the recruitment of the People and Strategy Director role.

How did I get here?

Having been a Head of Volunteering for seven years in a fantastic Scottish charity the options for my next move if I were to stay in volunteering were limited. Another Head of Volunteering role elsewhere – few and far between in Scotland – or moving to London, an option that was not on the cards for me! I loved my role but for some time had been considering taking on a new challenge that would broaden my experience and allow me to use the skills I had honed in relationship management, motivation, people engagement and strategy development.

During the pandemic, before I went on maternity leave, I seized the opportunity to take on some new challenges, leading pieces of work that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do, such as the establishment of the UK’s first virtual children’s hospice service. This allowed me to test my skills beyond volunteering and develop my confidence leading programmes of work in areas that were new to me.

My advice to you

If you’re thinking of moving beyond volunteering to a wider People role, I’d really encourage you to look for internal opportunities to develop your experience. Change doesn’t have to be a big step. You can start to broaden your experience incrementally through initiating and leading new and different projects across your organisation. Volunteering to take on a project outside of your usual area of focus will help you to broaden your knowledge and experience, as will joining a Board of Trustees outside of work. The experience of being a trustee at two charities over the years enabled me to develop my experience of governance which has really helped me in my transition to a senior leadership role.

The move from functional leadership to systems leadership is without doubt a big one. However, the advantage of coming from a volunteering background, is that I was used to operating across the system, bringing together volunteers and staff to deliver results. There are so many skills that volunteering professionals can bring to the wider People agenda. Moreover, there is critical experience that can be obtained from working in volunteering that can’t be gained readily elsewhere. This is directly transferable to People/ Organisational Development Director roles.

As a volunteering professional you:

  • Need to have amazing relationship management skills to work with volunteers and manage emotional labour
  • Understand that volunteers are an integral delivery partner and you are experienced at influencing others to understand that
  • Are used to developing flexible opportunities that fit around peoples’ lives and still deliver results for the organisation. Most organisations work in a more agile way with volunteers than paid staff.
  • Are used to juggling a large workload and overseeing risk, health and safety, strategy development, L&D, the volunteer life cycle from planning and recruitment through to exit. This is something that is often shared by multiple teams when it comes to paid staff.
  • Are adept at influencing across, up and down the organisation.
  • Are innovative and creative, working efficiently (most volunteering teams don’t have vast budgets) to deliver results.

We know that talented people don’t work in our sector for the money. Connecting people with impact and building connection with the cause is what volunteering professionals do daily. This is as important for paid staff as it is for volunteers, especially in the charity sector where money is not generally the primary motivation.

At CHAS, we know from our last three engagement surveys that staff are hugely motivated by our mission – ensuring that no family in Scotland faces the death of their child alone. I’m keen to apply some volunteer engagement approaches to the employee experience in CHAS. Given that our staff are so motivated by our cause, it’s a no-brainer to ensure that a connection with the mission is explicit and embedded in all stages of the employee life cycle.

I would love to see more organisations being open-minded about the skills and backgrounds required for a People Director role. The volunteering development sector is full of innovative, inspiring, and creative people who could have a transformational impact on the people experience in so many organisations.

My top tips

In conclusion, having made the change of role recently, my top tips for anyone considering a step up from Head of Volunteering to People Director are:

  • You don’t need technical HR knowledge – you need to know how to lead and draw that out in others. The Head of HR has that technical expertise and a strong relationship between you and that person is key.
  • Grow your network – attend conferences, tap in to CIPD courses, events, and networking groups.
  • Find a mentor who has taken a similar path. I’m fortunate to have three people in my network who have moved from volunteering into broader People/Organisational Development roles and their experience and insight has been invaluable to me.
  • Surround yourself in specialist volunteers (the bread and butter of a volunteering professional!) to help develop your knowledge and skills in areas where you have less experience.
  • Seek opportunities in your organisation to lead projects outside of your team. Identify opportunities for secondments and demonstrate your skills beyond volunteering.
  • Join a Board and use your experience as a trustee to fill knowledge gaps and develop experience in areas you haven’t yet been exposed to.

If anyone is considering moving beyond volunteering to a broader role in People, Strategy and Organisational Development and would like some advice, I’d be happy to chat further. You can connect with me on Twitter — @MorvenMacLean — or LinkedIn.


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Why is mindfulness great for Volunteer Managers?

Why is mindfulness great for Volunteer Managers?

I am pleased to welcome Karen Janes as a gust author for the blog today. I have had the privilege of working with Karen over the years and and pleased she has chosen to share her thinking on the importance of mindfulness for those of us who lead volunteer engagement.

So, without further ado, over to Karen.


I’ve been a volunteer for many years and for many different organisations. For the most part of my career I worked in volunteering – I’ve been a Volunteer Coordinator, a Volunteer Manager and a Head Of Volunteering. The common theme for me, is that whichever part you play in it, the role of the volunteering team is very complex and demanding. How are we supposed to cope?

Unlike other teams, the volunteering team has to balance and meet the needs not just of the volunteers, but also the needs of the organisation, its employees and often its beneficiaries too. They need a wide understanding of how diverse departments across the organisation work, in order to understand how volunteers can fit in and contribute. And they have to influence paid teams both upwards, downwards and across the organisation

It’s not uncommon for the volunteering team to have to provide the full range of HR type services to their volunteers – marketing, recruitment, coordination, training, management, advice, motivation, communication, problem solving – as well as being responsible for strategies, policies, risk management and reporting. In my experience, there’s often whole teams and departments of people focussing on each of these things for the paid employee teams.

Rarely is this the case for volunteering.

The volunteering team has to juggle all of these needs and activities, often with limited people and limited time; whilst often working with very large teams of volunteers. In one organisation I worked for, a part-time Volunteer Coordinator working twenty-one hours a week could expect to have to coordinate a team of maybe 180 volunteers – giving their time across the whole working week, as well as during evenings and weekends. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

Whilst this is all going on, the role of the volunteering team is often misunderstood, undervalued or an unappreciated. They may not have the seniority, visibility, credibility, budget or support to do what they’d really like to do and achieve the transformative magic we all know is possible when you get a team of motivated and engaged volunteers, in the right roles, with the right training and support, behind a cause they are passionate about.

It’s unsurprising then that Volunteer Coordinators and Managers are always striving to meet everybody else’s needs without a moment to think about their own – overworked, working long and irregular hours, having to positively support everyone, resolving conflict and relationship difficulties between employees and volunteers, dealing with mountains of processes and admin. As well the simple task of engaging and inspiring people to give up their free time to join them!

At the end of my twenty years in the sector I was stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, exhausted and, quite frankly, I‘d just ran out of steam with it all. Unfortunately, I know my story isn’t unique. Many experienced volunteer managers are moving on to different roles, different sectors or, like me, different ways of making a living entirely. And many others are exhausted, on the brink of burning out or feeling overwhelmed, disengaged and losing their passion for the role. It’s such an important distinctive, inspiring, fun, engaging and rewarding role that we can’t let this continue to happen.

This is just one of the many reasons I launched my business, The KJ Way. I teach brain-based mindfulness tools and practices that Volunteer Coordinators and Managers, and other charity managers, can use when they really need them to help manage stress, avoid burnout and overwhelm; and build their own resilience, effectiveness and wellbeing.

Mindfulness, like volunteering, is something I am very passionate about, and that’s because, like volunteering, I’ve seen and felt its impact. Mindfulness has transformed my life: it’s helped me to overcome stress, anxiety and depression. It’s helped me to be more resilient, effective, and focussed and to remain calm and composed during a crisis. It’s taught me to respond intentionally rather than reacting emotionally to situations (for the most part!) and it’s helped me to experience more balance, equanimity and joy in my life.

So, what is mindfulness?

I like this definition from Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme. Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.

For me, mindfulness is about paying attention to the moment you’re living while you’re living it, bringing all of your mental energy and focus into the moment – not being distracted by ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. It’s also about being curious and open to what people and experiences and situations are really like, rather than judging them through the lens of your pre-conceived expectations. It’s the practice of paying attention to the moment you’re living, whilst you’re living it and a willingness to accept and be with what is. It’s a way of being, that allows you to experience much more of life’s wonders in every moment.

Why is it so good?

Mindfulness isn’t hard to do, and it doesn’t take long to do either. But it is a practice, it does require some commitment to using the techniques and bringing a more mindful approach into your day to day life. The benefits are impressive, I’ve felt them, I’ve seen them in others, and neuroscientists and researchers have proved them too (Mindful.org have a fab summary of some of this research). Over time, mindfulness has been proven to change the neural pathways and networks in our brains and improve our resilience, attention and focus, compassion and empathy and our awareness of our sense of self.

Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular and widespread with organisations around the world turning to it to support their people with a wide range of organisational, HR and Wellbeing challenges and priorities.

I’m committed to sharing these benefits of mindfulness in workplaces to help people to bring their true selves to work, with more energy and resilience, and to continue to feel passionate about what they’re doing with their working lives.

If any of this resonates with you, and you’d like to:

  • manage your stress and avoid burnout
  • learn how to respond rather than react to situations
  • maintain your focus in face of constant distractions
  • learn how to be aware of and manage your emotions and thoughts
  • improve your focus and effectiveness
  • have more energy at work
  • embrace change more easily and help others to adapt to change too
  • deal with difficult relationship issues

Mindfulness might be just what you need too!

How to do it

There are many ways to practise mindfulness and bring a more mindful approach to your life. There’s lots of formal foundational meditation practises like the awareness of breath, the body scan, and meditations for attention, and for cultivating compassion. These can take as little as five minutes to complete, but most people do something between 10-20 minutes several times a week.

With our busy workloads and stressful lives, it’s not always easy to fit in a full meditation, so for workplaces, I really love to share a range of micro practices. These literally just take a few moments to do and you can reach for them in any moments of need, pressure, stress and challenge throughout your day.

Why not give it a go!

“STOP” is one of my favourite micro practices that you can try on your own.

STOP is an acronym standing for Stop, Take, Observe and Proceed. You can use this simple and fast practice any time you need a moment of mindfulness. For example, when you are triggered by something stressful, you’re struggling with a change or difficult situation, or when someone has said something, and you think you’re about to respond in a way you might later regret!

STOP allows you to pause in the face of a stimulating event. It creates a space for observing your feelings and thoughts and allows you to access deeper resources within you before you respond from a place of wisdom, strength and presence. STOP helps you to learn how to respond rather than react to situations.

Each step just takes a few moments to complete, and the more you practise STOP when life is calm, the more accessible it is to you, and the more you can rely on it, when you really need it in those moments of challenge, change or stress. Once you know the practice, it can take just take a minute or so to go through it all.

So, let’s go through the steps:

Stop – literally stop or pause what you’re doing, give yourself a moment to come to rest and collect yourself.

Take – take a few slow, long, deep breaths. Try to notice the sensations of the breath in the body – you may feel a rise of your belly or chest with every inhale, and a fall back of your belly and chest on the exhale. Or maybe you feel the breath at the tip of your nostrils – cool air coming in, warm air going out.

Observe – observe your experience right now in this moment. Become aware of the position of your body, feeling the support of the floor under your feet, noticing any sensations that are here – is there tightness, stiffness, aches? Sensing any emotions that are here in this moment – is there anger, irritation, boredom or perhaps restlessness or joy? Noticing thoughts too – is your mind focused on this moment, or is it distracted by the past or the future? Is it calm or busy, cloudy or clear? Not judging what you find as good or bad, or right or wrong, just being aware of what’s here and letting it all be.

Proceed – as you start to calm down, break out of autopilot mode, and start to feel a sense of being grounded in the present moment – try to be open to the choices you have right in front of you. Ask yourself, what’s the best way to move forward from here? What’s most important to you right now? How would you like to show up in the next moment? Then proceed taking the next steps in your day from this place of greater wisdom, strength, presence and choice.

Come along to a free group session!

The STOP practice is just one of many practices that can help you to achieve more balance, calm and control in your day. If you’d like to try out some more, why not come along to one of my weekly group mindfulness sessions?

We meet over Zoom, on Friday lunchtimes at 12.30p.m. for half an hour. We explore one practice together and have chance to chat about it too. I’m opening these sessions up to guests, for free, every Friday in September 2022. Don’t worry if you can’t make every week – just come along when you can. Click here to register and receive the Zoom details.

If you’d like to find out more about how Mindfulness can help you and your colleagues, please do get in touch for an informal chat (email me or call me on 07919 561446) or check out my website. You can also register to receive regular tips, practices and invites straight into your inbox or find me on LinkedIn or Facebook.


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Bored? Join a Board!

Bored? Join a Board!

For this blog post I am pleased to welcome guest writer, Claire Haggarty. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claire for a few years and serve with her on the Executive Board of the Heritage Volunteering Group. Claire share her personal reflections as a volunteer engagement professional taking on a new role as a trustee. Enjoy.


After working in a range of volunteer management roles across many heritage sites, I wondered if my experience of working across teams with different specialisms and (sometimes) competing interests put me in a unique position to support an organisation as a trustee. I’m pleased to report it did, and here’s why.

How I came to Trusteeship

In 2020, my job was made redundant. My employer, a museum, and national visitor attraction, suffered huge financial losses from being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that would have been their peak visitor season. Unfortunately, they had to make the hard decision to re-structure to ensure long-term survival.

My personal circumstances, and impending motherhood, didn’t make it possible for me to return to the workplace immediately, but I wanted to do something valuable with my time (beyond being a mother) as many friends had advised me to retain something adult or professional for myself during that period at home. I already volunteered for our local Good Neighbour scheme, so wanted to find something that allowed a deeper level of engagement than ad hoc volunteering allowed. So, the idea of trusteeship, began to evolve.

I did some research by looking at role descriptions and responsibilities of a trustee, particularly thinking about the daily activities of a trustee. I wanted to know what it would look like if I chose to do it, the sorts of activities I might be involved in, and what to expect in terms of commitment. Likewise, I researched some activities and legal responsibilities involved with trusteeship (see links and resources at the end) and read up on experiences of those who had been trustees. Fortunately, I had some in my circle who were trustees, so I was able to reach out to them for a conversation. Soon enough, I saw an advertisement for a trustee at a small museum about forty minutes away from my home. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to lend my skills and knowledge to a growing organisation, so I applied, was interviewed, and accepted. I am now a proud trustee of Lowewood Museum in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

Surprises and Expectations

To my surprise, my experience of trusteeship hasn’t been that different to my experiences in the workplace. I work with Trustees who have different specialist skills sets and champion their professional skill area in the same way that I worked across varying teams in the organisation. I still use the same negotiating and influencing skills that I developed in my paid role to champion best practice volunteer management at a board level.

A museum of local history, Lowewood Museum recently had its application to National Lottery Heritage Fund for “Your Museum, Your Heritage” approved. The project will involve updating our museum interpretation with volunteers from under-represented communities in the parts of the borough experiencing inequality. Volunteering will be a large part of this project, and my involvement will likely increase as the projects unfolds. I am part of a working group planning our first Annual General Meeting, and I’m gaining experience with budgets and financial planning that I could have never hoped to gain in a junior or middle management role.

I was concerned by the financial responsibility of being a trustee before I started, but this has turned out to be less of a concern, partly because we have another highly skilled and excellent trustee on the board who knows his stuff, but not everyone can be so lucky. It is imperative that you read up on these responsibilities and understand the different business structures that exist and how they affect your individual financial commitment should something go wrong.

What Makes Volunteer Managers Ideal Trustees

In my experience of volunteer management, I have found the job “Volunteer Manager” is conceptualised differently across organisations. For a start, the job title differs. We are everything from volunteer co-ordinators to community engagement or duty managers, but there has been one commonality across all these professional experiences; my work has involved me working across departments supporting various teams with different specialisms. In my view, this is what makes us ideal candidates for trusteeship: there are very few people that have worked across an organisation the way we do. Critically, we already have a developed understanding of the way different parts of the business work and how these departments interact. Many of us have been involved in strategic or business planning and have some understanding of financial planning (which is a joint responsibility of all trustees, so not something you would have to do alone). We have written policy documents, volunteer handbooks and likely at some pint been involved in a problem resolution process. We are policymakers, peacemakers, strategists, negotiators, and accountants!

In short, as Volunteer Managers we are multi-skilled professionals with a high-level overview of the complex organisations we work for, and this makes us ideal candidates for a leadership role like trusteeship.

Why You Should Do It

So often volunteer management is not respected as a professional skill set in and of itself, but a part of a job, or an admin/recruitment role that sits within another department. Many of our colleagues fail to realise the broad range of skills a good volunteer manager can develop and the varied strands of work we are able to deliver. If, as volunteer managers, we want to be heard, and we want to not have to fight every time we need to achieve something strategic or something meaningful, then we need to have a seat at the table. This means more of us applying for trustee positions and gaining a voice at the board level. Without this, we will continue to struggle to influence change.


Resources

Directory for Social Change and OSCR (the Scottish Charity Regulator) have excellent video content on YouTube and are good places to start your research as they will give you references to other resources to look up or ways to structure your research. NB. If using OSCR, please be aware that of different laws and regulations in Scotland that mean not all the information will be relevant to charities elsewhere in the UK.

Charity trustee: what’s involved (CC3a) — Perhaps the most useful resource is the gov.uk website. Be sure to download and read The Essential Trustee and Being a Trustee documents.

Getting on Board have great information for aspiring Trustees and a community for young trustees or those from diverse backgrounds


About Claire

Taking time out from her career to raise a young family, Claire Haggarty is involved in several volunteer management projects, from being Membership Officer for the Heritage Volunteering Group, a specialist support network supporting volunteering in the UK, to being an active volunteer in her local community, often co-ordinating the local good neighbour scheme in her hometown.

In 2016 Claire received a highly commended in the London Volunteers in Museums Awards in the Supporting, Managing and Encouraging Others category for her work with volunteers on the award-winning Painted Hall Project at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

For Claire, volunteering was a way to build confidence back and return to the workplace after a long-term illness, giving her an understanding of the varied reasons why people get involved and choose to volunteer.


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Volunteer Management in Fundraising: Reflections on the ongoing journey from good practice to ‘excellence’

Volunteer Management in Fundraising: Reflections on the ongoing journey from good practice to ‘excellence’

In this article I welcome guest writer Jennifer Cathcart who shares the story of recent work she has been involved in to drive up excellence in volunteer engagement in a fundraising context. This is an area of working with volunteers that often gets little attention so I’m grateful to Jenn for penning this contribution to the profession.


I received a card in the post this week from a colleague thanking me for my support on a project. It was a lovely surprise, hidden amongst the visa bill and mail order dishwasher tablets, and it struck me yet again what a warm fuzzy feeling we get when we are re praised or thanked. In that one simple gesture, I knew that my time was valued and appreciated. We get this when it comes to volunteers but often forget it when we think about paid staff colleagues. Here at Marie Curie, we are changing that and I want to explain why and how.

Working as a Fundraiser or a Volunteer Manager in any setting can be really busy. Most days are spent in a blur of meetings, returning calls and trying to manage the to do list. After two years of rapidly changing Covid restrictions, personal stresses and collective uncertainty, taking time to make small gestures like sending a card can seem impossible. It feels like the thing that it is ok to push down the to do list as unimportant. Yet protecting time for those gestures with our volunteers is one of the most important aspects of our role. Our volunteers freely give their time and are vital in allowing us to provide our services, so our relationships with them deserve to be nurtured.

The demands on our time have only increased over the pandemic. From the very start, we had to quickly adjust plans to accommodate changes in restrictions and create plans for every eventuality. We needed to make sure we were always empathetic towards our volunteers’ fears around Covid-19, fears which we as paid staff often shared. Many teams were reduced due to furlough or self-isolation, and it would be easy for the quality of volunteer management to have slipped.

The Fundraising Volunteering Team at Marie Curie is responsible for the strategy, resources and processes of all things volunteering within fundraising, and to support our community fundraisers in rolling out new initiatives and supporting the volunteers in their area. Our priorities for 2021 were clear — re-engage with our volunteers, making sure they were kept up to date and on board for the future while we worked on creating new initiatives. This included launching online information sessions, holding engagement events, improving our newsletter and making sure our fundraisers had all the information they needed to connect with their volunteers. These were essential priorities for that time, but with 2022 approaching we had an ambition to grow our volunteering programme in new ways.

Ask our Community Fundraisers what they love about their job, and most will say it’s working with their volunteers. They tell us it is their volunteers’ enthusiasm, passion and creativity that fuels them on the tough days, that their observations about their community leads to new opportunities and that their networks allow us to be part of their community. Yet, we weren’t routinely celebrating their role and skills in volunteer management.

That changed in November when we chose to celebrate the 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day. We felt the day could be used as a springboard to celebrate the excellent volunteer stewardship we knew existed already — but what did the theme of “excellence” really mean? Had I been a volunteer, was it demonstrated in the card I received last week? Where is the line between what is good practice and what is truly excellent in volunteer management? If we can define it, what are our expectations in how often we do each? Is it possible to be excellent all the time by consistently ticking the good practice box, or is it by providing peak moments that can elevate our practice into excellence (much like those suggested by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “The Power of Moments”?

We brought our community fundraising team together on the day to try and find the answers to those questions. Through our first early breakfast (aimed to allow space for learning before the call of the inbox) and lunchtime meetings, we explored our own experiences and what they represented to us. Many of us were brought to tears as a fundraiser talked about calling a volunteer on Christmas Day as she knew he was not looking forward to spending it alone.

The day culminated in the launch of our new awards for Volunteer Managers in fundraising. The scheme will run all year, with fundraisers nominated by their peers when they’re seen to have shown excellence in their work with volunteers. The awards encompass the whole team, from those with more than twenty years’ experience to those in their first fundraising post. Those newer to the team bring fresh ideas we can all be inspired by, and those with long standing respect from their volunteers and peers can remind us of the importance of small actions over time. All can embed excellence in their work with such ease that they don’t always recognise it with the respect it deserves.

Although we’ve set up these awards to celebrate excellence across our fundraising team, we also feel a responsibility to help grow excellence across the sector too. The experience a volunteer has in any setting impacts their passion for continuing to volunteer, be that in their current role or in the future. It will also influence how they reflect on their volunteering, and the reflections they share with others who may consider volunteering. As leaders in volunteering, we all have a part to play in ensuring volunteering continues to grow, adapt and be celebrated.

With that goal in mind, we set up an informal network for fundraising volunteer managers. The network provides a space for those responsible for volunteer strategy within fundraising teams to come together, share good practice and ensure we learn from the wider volunteering sector as we strive to build consistently excellent volunteer management within fundraising.

I write this as we channel hop between the Six Nations Rugby and the 2022 Winter Olympics – watching people who have dedicated their lives to being the best. Striving for excellence in their field. I don’t think volunteer managers are any different — we need to learn and grow, and it’s important to have a space to celebrate and share successes. There are the skills we need to put into practice every day, but there is also a need to be continually striving to evolve beyond the basics. To be continually inquisitive in trying new things so we are not left behind (quite literally if you’re talking about an athlete and the latest technology in trainers, but equally if we’re volunteer managers who fail to embrace new digital opportunities).

For me, my passion for volunteering was renewed when I was furloughed. With a sudden excess of time on my hands, it was volunteering I turned to and I found a welcoming home as a “furlonteer” at Blood Cancer UK. I had a great few weeks and was reminded how much volunteering can enrich your life. Not only did it give structure to my otherwise empty diary, but I was reminded of the sense of purpose you can find in using your time for good, and the chance it offers to learn new skills and make new friends.

Volunteering enriches lives and we, as volunteer managers, have a responsibility to ensure it continues to do so. We need to work together, always striving for excellence to ensure that volunteering continues to be appealing and rewarding to those who generously give us their time, skills and enthusiasm.

After all, where would we and our organisations be without our volunteers?

Closing note: If you are reading this as a Fundraising Volunteering Leader and would like to find out more about our new network, email us.


Jennifer Cathcart is Fundraising Volunteer Development Manager at Marie Curie and has been in the role for four years, having previously held other roles in the charity. Jenn can be contacted through LinkedIn or Twitter.


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Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Twenty years ago this month, Susan J Ellis published a Hot Topic article about advocating for volunteer involvement, focusing specifically on the role funders can play. It’s such a great read and still so relevant I am republishing it below as a ‘guest’ post.

Please read Susan’s thoughts and leave a comment to add to the discussion.


No matter how long I work in this field, I simply will never understand why so few of our attempts at educating decision-makers seem to stick. We are constantly repeating our advocacy efforts whenever new executives come on board — too often starting again at square one. I actually discussed this in 1999 in my August Hot Topic. This issue is once again “hot” because of a recent rash of inexplicable budget cuts, reorganising decisions, and other actions severely limiting or even eliminating volunteer program resources that — to those of us in the field — seemed to be successful and effective. In almost every case, the changes have been done rapidly and with no apparent thoughtfulness or sense of consequence.

There are a number of key misconceptions that continue to fuel ignorant decision-making. We have to find ways to emphasise the following:

Volunteer Involvement Is NOT:

  • Free
  • A second choice
  • An alternative to adequate paid staffing
  • Simply a part of fundraising or development
  • Exactly like paid personnel management, or completely separate from it
  • Basically a problem of recruitment, not of organisational competence
  • Dying, old-fashioned, or unattractive to skilled people
  • A low-level management function that anyone can do
  • Something the paid staff welcomes or is capable of supporting
  • A responsibility that can be done as an “add on” to the job of an already-overworked employee
  • Extremely hard to control, measure, or hold to high standards
  • Self-evidently good PR, no matter how volunteers are treated
  • Inherently risky
  • Synonymous with the “nonprofit” or “voluntary” sector (or NGOs)
  • Always labeled “volunteering”
  • “Uniquely American”

But It IS:

  • Universal and international
  • A specialty management area
  • As effective as the thought and effort put into it
  • Too often under-utilised and undervalued
  • A way to expand the talents and skills available to an organisation
  • Access to perspectives specifically different from those of paid staff
  • Intimately related to:
    • Fundraising
    • PR / Visibility
    • Outreach
    • Client development
  • Something Executive Directors and the Board need to consider
  • A part of the resource mix
  • A way to dream and experiment with new service ideas
  • A way to demonstrate an organisation matters to the community

Over time, I have come to believe that funders have an obligation to force executives to make better decisions about volunteers. If foundations, major donors, and government agencies insisted on appropriate integration of volunteers in service planning and delivery, I predict we’d see immediate attention to volunteer management issues.

Jane Leighty Justis is crusading on this very topic in the foundation world, as she explained in an interview in e-Volunteerism last year. I agree with her advocacy and propose that, collectively, we find ways to get funders to:

  1. REQUIRE all grant proposals to include a section on how volunteers will be involved in the new project.
  2. ENCOURAGE requests to fund the position of volunteer services manager.
  3. EXPECT reports on the degree of volunteer involvement achieved (quantity) and its impact (quality).
  4. REJECT proposals from organisations unwilling to consider how the right volunteers might expand the success of their programs.

It is my opinion that an organisation seeking gifts of cash while refusing donations of talent is not a good steward of resources. Since “money talks,” funders have a strong effect on the ways that agencies operate. If volunteer involvement becomes more integrated with organisational development, and is rewarded with more funds, then executives and other staff will seek education in how to do it the right way.

So the question this month is:

How might we reach funders and advocate for greater attention to volunteer involvement?


Susan’s original article can be found on the Energize website, along with all her monthly hot topics from 1997 to 2017. Energize was Susan’s business and is now a part of Adisa and led by the brilliant Betsy McFarland.

You can also access The Susan J Ellis archive, an online repository of Susan’s writing and resources she collected over her forty plus years working in volunteer engagement. The archive includes a list of free books available to download.

Subsequent to Susan’ writing this post, the Leighty Foundation did further work on funding volunteer involvement and published, “The Funder’s Guide To Investing In Volunteer Engagement”. You can find out more about this on their website.


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The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

I’m thrilled to welcome Breauna Dorelus as guest blogger this week. Breauna has written a really insightful, thought-provoking and challenging article that I hope will get you reflecting on how you do what you do, and how our profession needs to change.

Over to Breauna.


Once upon a time, my compassion demanded more of me. It cornered me into making a decision that was a personal one but would redefine the way I viewed my role as a volunteer engager and as a connected member of this world.

See, I had come at a crossroads with constantly deciding if I wanted to uphold my professional role as a volunteer manager, or advocate for the community I was serving that often looked like me.

I made the decision that I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, between bringing harmful corporate transactional groups in with their photo ops and matching t-shirts, just to feel empty later because the volunteer opportunity we set up for them stroked their ego more than served our community, and just saying no.

I didn’t want to have the number of volunteer hours and individual bodies recruited to be the litmus test of what success, impact, and growth looked like.

Between managing a volunteer program or creating a movement.

I decided that I didn’t want to do either or. I wanted to bring a holistic community-centered approach to my heart work. I wanted to see myself in this work. This meant that I had to be willing to stand alongside my community and hold nonprofits and volunteer programs accountable for the harm I experienced as a practitioner while also being a community member.

It pushed me to go on a personal journey of internalized oppression and root out those parts of me that white supremacy culture kept bound and motionless.

I had to conclude that volunteerism was worth cherishing. That my love for service compelled me to say enough is enough.

I decided to tell the truth.

I’ve thought a lot about the role of the volunteer engager and have pondered on the 2021 theme for International Volunteer Managers Day “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary.” My heart and the sheer well-being of my community is calling me to push the space we inhibit beyond the “best practices” and beyond “but it doesn’t make sense” to what must be.

As a Black woman, who’s now dedicated my life to uprooting oppression in volunteerism and keeping it community-centered, I am openly asking you to go beyond kind and go beyond your perceived limitations.

I’m asking you to stop just talking about justice and equity, but instead do the work and hone into stepping up and latching onto what the world tangibly needs from us. This requires risk and sacrifice. I am taking a deep breath and believing that if you’ve made it this far you believe that harm hurts our mission. If it hurts our mission, you want to recognize and stop the harm.

I also want you to believe my voice and that this stems from a place of conviction and love for humanity. A love for the connection we uniquely have to this work.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to our profession embracing as we continue towards the future of volunteerism:

The nonprofit sector should not operate like we have a monopoly on service and volunteer managers are the gatekeepers of help. We never have and we never will. Serving one another has always been around and it’s always belonged to the community. We embody the help and helper simultaneously but, unfortunately, our sector has formalized serving and put up barriers to keep the privileged in the position of the giver and the community the constant given to.

Oftentimes this type of formalization chokes out the very organic and sacred flow between one another. It’s a necessity to learn from and partner with the storytellers, the community historians, and grassroots movements that oftentimes don’t even have a formal status. We must be willing to co-partner and give up power instead of using the relationships to extract for our own best interest.

What would it look like to collaborate and construct volunteer opportunities that directly benefit the communities’ goals? To build a coalition of volunteer engagers who work to re-establish volunteer protocol around applications and orientations so that barriers are broken for communities looking to volunteer with your organization?

We must be okay with not knowing the answers but recognizing that they are out there even if they don’t look like the traditional forms of learning we’re used to or from the types of people we’ve deemed acceptable to learn from.

Our personal journey to justice will affect our professional one. We understand that most volunteer managers are white and don’t have the same lived experience as those they mostly serve. Their lives are more aligned with their volunteer base, so oftentimes, it’s easier to lean towards our default and ask “how would I like to experience volunteerism” and use that to construct the experience.

Dedicating yourself to justice is bringing in and considering multiple voices and seeing them as worthy and experienced enough to glean from. And that work will not be confined to your professional nine-to-five. This is a practice, a constant relearning. The volunteers you interact with should not be expected to think differently about service if you aren’t leading the way and implementing the awakening in yourself.

For most individuals, your volunteer program and their connection with you may be the only opportunity they have to rethink what it looks like to serve well. Are you open to being their accountability partner or are you more focused on their feelings and making sure every condition is nice, dainty, cuddly, and entertaining? Are you willing to be a student of the cause?

Embrace that the future of volunteerism may not be anything like you’ve ever seen before. And that’s okay. A while ago I wrote down a brief version of how I see the future of volunteerism, with justice and community at the center and I’d love to share it with you.

The future of volunteerism will not be dependent on four walls. It will not have loyalty to an organization but allegiance to a cause. It will call out paternalism and will center the community, not the white hero. The traditional role of the giver and recipient will blur, will be unrecognizable. People will serve because they want to see justice win, and not just because it feels good to give. This sector needs to be challenged to continue looking at all ALL aspects of volunteer engagement through the lens of belonging, anti-racism, and justice and should continue to move the needle against the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The motivation will come from a place of unrest, perseverance, and radical love. It won’t be posted for likes. It will be a long game, not a transactional action. It will be seized by those who are willing to suffer and sacrifice and give up their traditional harmful mindsets and physical comforts for the sake of growth, change, and impact. It will be a lifestyle.

It will be woven into daily life. It will be the tool used to revolt against power and supremacy. When people meet, it will be common to ask their name and the cause they’re connected to. It will turn into what it was always supposed to be. The future of volunteerism is risky, radical, and inconvenient. Because justice will be served.

My type of excellence implies risk. I hope this isn’t a moment you feel like bowing out but a moment you feel invigorated to start on or continue the important work of uprooting harm from the inside out.. It’s worth it for the people. For all of our liberation.


Breauna Dorelus is the Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause, a consultancy dedicated to dismantling harmful volunteer practices implemented by nonprofits and volunteers towards Black and brown communities. Breauna believes in community inclusion in all aspects of the volunteer process, and has dedicated her work to ensuring that service is centered around co-liberation and not harmful charity.She believes that best practices may not be the best for all and that we must look at service through the lens of community-centered support in order to create a more just future.

Connect with Breauna on LinkedIn and on Instagram.

Join the community of volunteer leaders, volunteers and community members dedicated to rooting out oppression in volunteerism and creating a more just future of service.


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Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Our friends at the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) have recently published the latest report from their inclusive volunteering project. Whilst the report has it’s origin in the ongoing racial tensions in the USA, the findings have lessons for all of us engaging volunteers, and so we are pleased to share the following update from MAVA on our blog.


The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) has been conducting research and education on race equity in volunteerism for the past five years. Through our research we’ve learned that making small tweaks to problematic systems will not solve the issue of structural racism in volunteerism; instead we need to work with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities to co-create new systems that are rooted in equity.

MAVA was able to convene the necessary voices – community members and volunteers who identify as BIPOC – to learn more about systemic inequities in volunteer engagement and imagine new systems of volunteerism. We asked listening session participants about the barriers they perceived or experienced with regard to formal volunteer opportunities. Below are the barriers most frequently discussed throughout the listening sessions:

  • Formal systems, including forms, logging hours, background checks, and lengthy processes.
  • Time commitment and schedule.
  • A lack of compensation and incentives.
  • An unwelcoming environment.
  • Lack of trust in the organisation.
  • Not being invited to participate.
  • Prioritising the organisation over people.

MAVA was fortunate in that listening session participants not only shared with us their experiences, but also their ideas for advancing equity in volunteerism. Here is what we heard:

  • Create different ways of volunteering, which may include different pathways for different people, removing barriers, and/or compensating volunteers.
  • Prioritise leadership of people of colour at organisations engaging volunteers.
  • Build trust between nonprofit organisations and communities of colour.
  • Foster a welcoming environment and culture within the organisation and volunteer program.
  • Value people over organisation – put the community’s needs first.
  • Understand systemic barriers – tear down and re-build when necessary.

MAVA analysed the information provided through these listening sessions, reflected on our racial equity work in volunteerism over the past five years, and developed ideas for next steps to help you take action on the ideas communicated through these listening sessions.


At the organisational level

Advocate for equitable hiring practices at your organisation: Inform leadership of the importance of representation at both the staff and volunteer levels.

Promote an inclusive organisational culture by making equity, diversity and inclusion education a priority for you and your volunteers; speak up when you encounter biased or racist practices.


At the volunteer program level

Listen to voices from people of colour: Convene listening sessions of people of colour volunteers at your organisation and potential volunteers within new communities you would like to engage; compensate participants and let them know how you use the information they provide.

Review policies and systems with an equity lens, including your volunteer application, handbook, background check policies, onboarding system, training practices, and recognition.

Educate volunteers on race equity topics. Build antiracism into your new volunteer orientation and present additional trainings on a variety of race equity topics.

Build relationships in communities of colour: Reach out to culturally-led organisations in your area, be present at community and cultural events, and do the long-term work to build authentic partnerships based on mutual trust.


At the individual level

Prioritise your own equity education: If you have a budget for professional development, devote a significant portion to equity; spend time educating yourself through articles, books, movies, podcasts, and other resources.

Network with others doing work on race equity in volunteerism. Reach out to volunteer engagement colleagues at other organisations to help and support one another. Influence other groups or organisations you’re involved with.

Consider equity when encountering any volunteer systems, whether as a staff, volunteer, or community member, and challenge groups to prioritise equity in volunteerism.


These potential action steps are not designed to be prescriptive, but rather to offer volunteer engagement leaders ideas for how to use the information in this report to begin making change toward racial equity in volunteerism.

Find more information and download the full report here.

For further information contact DEI Program Manager Brittany Clausen.


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Getting it right! Nine areas Managers of Volunteers sometimes get wrong

Getting it right! Nine areas Managers of Volunteers sometimes get wrong

Guest writer Martin J Cowling is back, this time to discuss nine behaviours he dislikes from leaders of volunteer engagement.


I love seeing people engaged in supporting and making volunteering happen effectively, safely and positively. Over many years, I have learnt much from committed, hardworking and amazing leaders and managers of volunteers. But…

…there are nine behaviours that I see too often. These behaviours cause me to inwardly groan because these oft repeated bad behaviours are robbing the organisation’s chances of success and volunteers of the best possible experience.


1. Not knowing what our real job is

To be fair, no one in the world decided “when I grow up I want to be a volunteer leader”. Very few of us end up in this role deliberately. Many of us have had volunteer leadership tacked onto an already overflowing not-for-profit role or ended up in a full-time role by a serendipitous route. Equally of concern, on average, managers of volunteers only stay a very short time in their role. As a result, too many never really understand their role.

If I was to ask you “what is your job as a manager of volunteers”, what would be your answer?” A good answer would be “I mobilise the community to solve the issues or concerns of the community”. What many default to is: ”I recruit volunteers” or “I train volunteers” or “I support volunteers”. The difference is profound, and I want to challenge how you see your role. By focusing on one aspect of your job and thinking that is your entire job you’re missing out on the true power of your powerful mobilising role.

2. Lacking Passion

How passionate are you about your work? Too many employees are so hum or negative about the roles. In contrast, a leader of volunteers must be a cheerleader for volunteering. You cannot mobilise people effectively if you’re not passionate about them and their work.

We need to be deeply excited about our work. That passion is contagious and will potentially create a volunteer culture that is positive and successfully.

There are many things that you can do to maintain that passion and excitement. Have a peer or group of peers that inspire you. Take time to look at your successes. Indulge in some dreaming. Enrol in training. But whatever you do, avoid a lack of passion.

3. Not communicating the power of volunteering

The reality is that there is usually only one voice for volunteering in an organisation: the volunteer manager’s voice. Few people understand volunteering and few people advocate for it. The manager of volunteers must, therefore, see it as a priority to educate the organisation and seek out and invest in allies for volunteer engagement across the organisation. If you speak up for volunteering, people will expect it. If support for evaluating comes from the finance director or the operating officer, then people will take notice.

After a seminar, a woman in the USA told me how she gained an ally in her CEO. One of her volunteers gave her a $1000 donation to the organisation. Normally she would send the donation to the accounts department to process. On this occasion she sent it directly to the CEO with a note saying “another example of how our volunteers contribute”. That single move triggered a change for the CEO who called a meeting with the volunteer manager to understand what was going on. Within 30 minutes, the CEO had a completely new vision for volunteering and became the volunteer manager’s greatest advocate.

4. There is no strategy

It is astounding how many organisations in the 21st century have no strategic direction for volunteer engagement. Can your board and management team articulate the connection between volunteering and the direction of the organisation? Or is volunteering relegated to a one-line ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statement in the Annual Report?

Managers of volunteers need to be clear about what the direction of volunteer engagement is, ensure that their organisation understands it and that this relationship to the wider organisation’s mission is included in all formal strategic documents.

5. Measuring the wrong things

There are three measures of volunteers which get bandied around by managers and organisations. The first is how many volunteers we have. The second is how many hours a week/month/year they give. The third is the dollar value of our volunteers’ time. They are meaningless statistics. No one really cares except for other volunteer managers

There are three things that are better measures:

  1. What is the impact of volunteering on your volunteers? Ask them and quantify their responses.
  2. What is the impact of volunteering on your organisation? Are you ensuring that?
  3. What is the impact of volunteering in your community?

That is what we should be hearing volunteer managers declare about their work.

6. Paid staff alienated

This will seem heretical but there is such a thing as too much passion about volunteering!

The relationship between volunteers and paid staff can be fraught. It is rare that you will find harmony. All too common, we can instead see mutual suspicion or even all-out war!

The manager of volunteers must overcome being seen as an automatic apologist for every volunteer and their behaviours and be seen as a cheerleader for the whole organisation. Not bridging this will see your role isolated in the minds of most of the paid staff.

7. The too busy Volunteer Manager

If you are too busy to cover all the aspects of your job (and you will be), the obvious solution is to recruit a team of volunteers to work with you to take some of the load away from you. Yet, I find the greatest resistance to doing this comes from volunteer managers themselves. Such resistance is not acceptable.

You need to be modelling the engagement of volunteers in your own work. In one organisation, I stopped doing any of the initial volunteer interviews after 15 months because I had a team of volunteers who conducted all of them. Likewise with induction. One of my volunteers who was the chief librarian of a university library. He audited all of the physical and electronic records paperwork. He was happy and I was happy and our paperwork was ship-shape!

8. We make it hard to volunteer

Mary retired from her advertising executive job and offered to volunteer for one day a week for a national youth sports organisation. The group told her that the only job available was to cut up fruit at sporting events because “volunteers don’t work in the office”. Can you imagine the profile that such a woman could have brought to the organisation? What their materials and publicity could have looked like. Or what could have brought to fundraising?

Organisations lock people out of volunteering because we don’t see some jobs as being available for volunteers or we create unrealistic hours or place unnecessary training burdens. For example, I found an organisation that required all volunteers to undertake a 40 hour literacy course before they could teach English to refugees. As most of the volunteers were current or recently retired literacy teachers, they could not see the necessity of such a course and would choose to volunteer somewhere else. Onerous paperwork should not sit on volunteer’s shoulders in order to do work.

If it’s legal, moral, ethical and practical, let’s find every means possible way for volunteers to contribute to our mission.

9. Sloppiness Rules

I have a concern with managers of volunteers when I witness or experience poor practice. In one organisation, when I took over, one of the volunteers asked if I had looked in the second drawer yet. In that drawer were 780 applications from volunteers that the organisation had never processed. It is not professional to keep somebody who wants to volunteer for an organisation waiting for months for a response. It is not professional if you’re not organising for volunteers when they arrive. It is not okay to cancel things continually or fail to say thank you to them.

Work hard to be as professional as possible. Always be looking for ways to improve. It amazes me when I step into an organisation and find they are operating the same way as they have always done! One charity I visited, was still using the brochure I designed 15 years before. Highly flattering but not a sign of progress and innovation.

Ask your your volunteers how you can improve, all the time. “Mystery shop” your own organisation by getting someone to test your recruitment processes. Check how quickly your agency responds to an initial enquiry. Check how the volunteer applicant feels. Then make changes.

Whatever you do, do not allow volunteer engagement to be known for sloppiness.


How did you do? Of the nine, how many have you witnessed or engaged in?

And conversely how many are you not guilty of?

What do you need to change first?


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.


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Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

This article is a guest contribution from Rhiannon Wheeler, Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne, England. I found Rhiannon’s account of managing volunteers during the global pandemic insightful and inspiring – I hope you do too.


‘We couldn’t do it without you’ is a phrase you hear frequently in the third sector. At St Wilfrid’s Hospice Eastbourne, the past few months have proved more than ever that we really couldn’t have served our patients and community as we have done without our volunteers.

Looking back over the time between March and today, volunteers have played a key role in the COVID-19 response and I feel both proud and grateful to work for an organisation that has included them in our efforts every step of the way, and all for the better.

When the pandemic started

Back in the early days of the pandemic, a planning group was set up at St Wilfrid’s. Led by the Chief Executive and involving the leadership team and hospice managers, the Pandemic Planning Group (PPG) met daily at 9.30am to assess new guidance, review our provision and make fast decisions on next steps. Representatives from each department were involved to ensure clear communication of onward plans and that all risks and resources were considered. My inclusion in the PPG meant that I was able to contribute to decisions made about volunteering and work with key colleagues to action these quickly.

As the pandemic began to take hold, many volunteer roles were stood down as the hospice focussed on its core services. When volunteers over the age of seventy and those whose roles, at least temporarily, ceased to operate were sent home, there was a scene that I am sure feels familiar to many volunteer involving organisations: a mix of upset, some protest, and a degree of relief from those happy to have had the decision made for them.

Where possible, services were adapted so that volunteers could provide support over the telephone or video link. Albeit with depleted numbers, three volunteer roles continued to operate on the Inpatient Unit (IPU) in the hospice building: Hosts, Ward Clerks and Young Clinical Volunteers (YCVs). The question that was revisited in the PPG several times was: should we send these volunteers home?

Why we continued to work with volunteers in the hospice

Along with everybody else in the world, we were learning about a new disease and how it spreads. We were supporting very vulnerable patients, some with a positive COVID diagnosis and working tirelessly to ensure there was adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in place.

On the one hand, there was and remains to be, a potential risk associated with any face-to-face contact with others. Hosts provide meals, refreshments and companionship to patients on the IPU and welcome visitors. YCVs carry out all sorts of clinical support tasks where close contact with patients is part-and-parcel of the role. We knew that despite all our best efforts to protect people, we were exposing volunteers in both roles to risk (and the guidance wasn’t yet clear about whether volunteers in this context were considered key workers).

On the other hand, volunteers were telling us very clearly that they wanted to be there. They were aware of the risks and well informed about what had been put in place to protect and support people. Any volunteer that chose to step back from their role was supported to do so.

Standing down all volunteers would have had a knock-on effect on the IPU. The Nurses and Healthcare Assistants, already stretched, would have had to pick up the additional tasks that the volunteers usually do, and this would have impacted on the support provided to patients.

Ultimately, it felt right for us to continue to involve volunteers in the front-line pandemic response effort.

What we did

Careful language: It was important that we were inviting volunteers to make a decision that was right for them and not because they felt guilty or that they should be volunteering. All communication reiterated this.

Clear communication: The Chief Executive (CEO) sent weekly email and video updates to all volunteers throughout the pandemic period. One email very gently explained that if volunteers who had previously stepped back due to age or other factors wished to return, we would be willing to open a conversation with them about this. Voluntary Services hosted a virtual forum over Zoom so that volunteers could ask any questions they had about life at the hospice and what to expect.

Provide volunteers with all the facts: A thorough risk assessment for the hospice building was emailed to all employees and volunteers along with a Volunteering During Covid-19 information pack with FAQs.

Welcoming back the over 70s: We knew that many volunteers aged over seventy were itching to return once this was possible. We understood the additional risk factors but it felt overly paternalistic to have a blanket ban. Towards the end of May 2020 we began to discuss whether and how we could invite them to return and after a joint decision at the PPG, we quickly put a process in place to make this possible.

Create space for an open conversation about how people feel about volunteering: Acknowledging that each person’s risk factors are unique, an individual risk assessment checklist was devised. All new or returning volunteers are now required to complete an individual risk assessment over the phone with someone from Voluntary Services or their manager. Broad and honest conversations uncover how people feel about volunteering during this time based on their own context and balanced against current facts. The conversation also offers volunteers the opportunity to ask questions or share any concerns or anxieties they may have before reaching a decision about whether and how they will volunteer.

Continue to check in and support decisions to step back: All new or returning volunteers are met by their manager on their first shift and provided with an induction including training on PPE and infection control. Volunteers are always offered the chance to opt in or out of tasks and understand that they can step away at any point.

Working with COVID- 19 positive patients: Initially, only employed team members worked in the isolated rooms. However, the Hosts soon noticed that the Nurses and Healthcare Assistants were exhausted and wanted to help. Some suggested that they could support patients in isolated rooms and following conversations with the clinical director and at the PPG, this was agreed.

Host volunteer Gill was asked if it worries her working with patients in isolation:

“Not at all, it feels completely safe. Doing what we do is nothing like being a Nurse. As Hosts we work together in pairs, which helps as we are able to look after one another as well. There’s no time pressure; we have plenty of time to put PPE on and take it off without rushing and also have time with the patients when needed.”

Why it worked

Well established roles pre-pandemic: we have had volunteers operating on the IPU for many years now and embedded routines that were easy to adapt. The Hosts and YCVs were confident in their roles and well supported and valued by the clinical teams. It wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been working well already.

One team, one uniform: At the start of the pandemic, all employees and volunteers who entered the building were provided with scrubs and appropriate PPE. Volunteers and employees adapted to this together and feedback has been positive about the sense of comradery that this brought about.

Continuous review: Risk assessments and processes were continuously reviewed against the latest Government guidance and any changes communicated. We routinely questioned whether to introduce blanket polices about who can volunteer and how, but each time have returned to taking a flexible and personalised approach to this. Volunteering at its core, is about people choosing to contribute after all.

Strong leadership and communication: The PPG ensured that decisions were made as a team and different views about risk, process and policy were explored and discussed. From the top down, everybody was included in decisions and nothing was hidden from anyone.

I had a place at the table: All decisions had to be agreed and actioned quickly. As the Voluntary Services Development Manager, I was able to bring my knowledge and perspective to the discussion and I knew what was needed to progress plans.

Everybody had their eyes open: Our processes have been guided by the information available and what individual volunteers feel comfortable with for themselves and their situation. Clear, open and honest communication from the outset has helped to establish trust in the decisions made.

Making ourselves available: Volunteer managers and the Voluntary Services team are in regular contact with volunteers and invite open conversations at any point.

New models that can be replicated for different roles: Since introducing these processes for IPU volunteers, we have adapted the same process for inducting volunteers back into other roles and activities. Retail volunteers returned the same day shops in the UK were allowed to open and we have begun to re-initiate some volunteer community befriending visits as well as some other volunteer involving support functions.

Learning points

On the 18th June I received the phone call I had been dreading. Three volunteers who had been active in the hospice had tested positive for COVID-19; two hosts and one YCV.

Despite wearing appropriate PPE and following correct protocol, all three had spent some time with a patient who had a false-negative test result. A few days later, another volunteer who had been working in isolation rooms with patients who had a positive COVID diagnosis received a positive test result.

We couldn’t know for sure whether the volunteers caught the virus from the hospice or from elsewhere (two of them had returned to work around the same time) but of course we reported the incidents through the appropriate channels and reviewed our processes accordingly.

We knew that our processes were strong and for the three months up to this point we had managed to contain the spread. Until this point, no patient, volunteer or employee had caught the virus from the COVID-positive patients we had cared for.

This all happened in a very small window of time and coincided with the time that lockdown began easing and people started to go back to normal life. It led to a tightening up of visiting restrictions and some further work to cement a culture of strong adherence to physical distancing and infection control.

Regular contact was kept with the volunteers while they were recovering and all four wanted to return to their roles once they were well enough and had finished their period of self isolation.

On their return, there was a knock to confidence for these volunteers and some anxiety that they had done something wrong. Extra support and ongoing reassurance, regular breaks and shorter shifts soon got them back into the swing of things.

Dancing with doctors

Despite some ups and downs (I believe it’s called a corona-coaster!) and a mountain of work to keep things going, the whole experience of how we engaged with volunteers has been worthwhile and their contribution has been invaluable.

Feedback from the volunteers has been overwhelmingly positive. Managers helped to create a calm and supportive atmosphere and the small things made a big difference. The radio was always on and there was lots of singing and some occasional dancing with passing doctors. A previous feeling of ‘them and us’ has been replaced with a mutual respect for each other’s roles in one big team.

While acknowledging the insurmountable awfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have told us they look back on the past few months as a really positive time and feel that they were part of a unique and meaningful experience. The challenge now is to make sure we keep it going as we progress through this ‘new normal’.


Rhiannon Wheeler works as the Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne. Previously working in education and youth work, Rhiannon has been involved in volunteering for over 20 years, either as a volunteer herself or in roles where she has supported others into volunteering or social action. You can contact Rhiannon via email.

St Wilfrid’s Hospice serves a population of 235,000 people covering an area of around 300 square miles. Expert teams help people to live well until the end of their lives and provide support to their family and friends. Care is provided both in the hospice and increasingly in people’s own homes.

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