Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

A couple of years ago I read Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals. In the book, Grant – a highly respected organisational psychologist – explores how non-conformists change the world, using a wide range of stories, research and insights to challenge accepted wisdom about creativity and originality. In an early chapter he argues that it is more effective to influence change by pointing out the flaws in an argument, not the strengths. This got me thinking.

Over the last few weeks on this blog I have been exploring how, in these changed times, leaders of volunteers are going to have to engage in some tricky conversations.

We are going to have to navigate objections related to paid staff job security and ensuring safe volunteer engagement practice is applied and followed by everyone.

We are going to have to educate colleagues and bosses about why we can’t just magic volunteers into existence to meet the needs of clients as incomes fall.

In short, we are going to have to step up our influencing and advocacy around volunteering.

So, what can we learn from Adam Grant’s idea to help us with this? What if we argued why involving volunteers might not be a great idea? What might such a proposition look like? Here’s my three-point take on how it might look:


1 – Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

Until someone invents the instant volunteer (just add water, microwave for two minutes and stir!), involving volunteers effectively takes time. You’ve got to develop the right roles, identify the target audience, create engaging recruitment materials, go out and find people, interview them, select them, induct them, train them and support them. And you won’t get them to make a regular, long-term commitment on day one. You’ll have to cultivate a relationship with them, deepening their commitment and giving them flexibility in how they volunteer. There is no quick fix to your problems to be found here.

The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll probably gain a supporter for life. But it’s going to take time.

2 – Volunteers may not give an immediate return on investment

For all the reasons listed above, it’s going to take a while before you see the benefits of volunteers getting involved in your work. Fundraising volunteers have to build relationships with others to bring the income in. Service delivery volunteers need time to settle into their roles to truly make a difference. You’ve got to be patient and committed to see the benefits that will come in time.

Done properly though, the return on involvement and return on investment can be huge.

3 – We will have to give up some power and control

Volunteers don’t want to be told what to do all the time. They don’t want to be micromanaged. They are intelligent, skilled and passionate people. They want to unleash their talents for the good of your mission, not work as mindless servants to the paid staff. So you’re going to have to relinquish some control, trusting the volunteers to do their best and not squeezing out their creativity and enthusiasm.

When you get this right, will you have some amazing new ideas and effective people working with you.


As we continue to come out of lockdown, organisations must look carefully at how they involve and deploy volunteers. Covid-19 has accelerated the changes in volunteering that we always knew were coming. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect the same results. We have to change. This was clearly laid out recently in an article from Civil Society magazine, “Coronavirus crisis shows charities need to change approach to volunteering, leaders say.

In my response to this article I said:

”What’s crucial is that this isn’t just dismissed as something for Volunteer Managers to act on. The points Karl, Paul and Tiger make are all important, but can only be addressed if everyone in an organisation is willing to take volunteer engagement seriously, including at a strategic level. This isn’t some quick fix a Volunteer Manager can address on their own. It takes a whole organisation to make this happen.”

The key to effective change around volunteer engagement is how we can help our colleagues embrace this change in mindset. Adam Grant’s idea of arguing against an idea might enable us to spot how we might better argue for that idea, increasing the chances we will successfully influence others.

What do you think?

How would you pitch why involving volunteers isn’t a good idea in your organisation? How might that help you make a better case for volunteer involvement?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Four mistakes Unions sometimes make about volunteering

Four mistakes Unions sometimes make about volunteering

In my last article I discussed how Volunteer Managers need to be leading debate about job substitution issues as our organisations adapt to a world changed by Covid-19. When we get into these discussions we may encounter resistance from unions, resistance we need to counter. But how?

First, let’s remember that unions do an important role protecting their members: this isn’t an anti-union rant. As I said last time, however, old ways of thinking won’t cut it in our Covid-19 ‘new normal’ – that’s true of unions as music as the rest of us. Consequently, leaders of volunteer engagement may need to challenge unions more than we might have done in the past.

To that end, I want to highlight four mistakes unions often make when thinking about volunteering that may be useful when you need to challenge their position.

1 – Unions can confuse amateur (volunteer) with incompetent

Unions typically come at volunteering issues with the assumption that professional (paid) means competent. This is the same argument some in the voluntary sector use to argue for paid trustees – if we pay people, we get more professional behaviour and more competent practice.

Neither argument holds up in reality. What someone is paid is no indicator of their professionalism or competence. This is an area I’ve blogged on before so do take a look at a post on my old blog site for more of my thinking.

2 – Unions can assume we will deploy anyone as a volunteer

In my experience, unions sometimes think volunteers will be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. This is, of course, something no competent volunteer manager would ever do. Volunteers, when properly recruited, trained, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff (see point one above).

3 – Unions can get it wrong on commitment

This one is a little bizarre – unions sometime suggest volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid staff. Interesting. Filling a role for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed! Sure some volunteers may be a bit flaky but you know what, that can be true of paid staff too. Just as volunteers don’t have a monopoly on passion, whether someone is paid does not indicate their reliability or commitment.

4 – Unions typically say one thing and do another

Finally, and crucially, almost every union rep I have engaged with professionally has failed to recognise the the very movement and organisation they represent runs on volunteer labour. As one of the UK’s biggest unions state on their website:

UNISON employs around 1,200 people across the UK and has more than 1.3 million members. But we rely on volunteer activists for much of the support we offer. Without them UNISON would not be able to function.

Which begs the question – why are volunteers in other settings viewed as untrained, uncommitted, well-meaning amateurs, individuals who are out to take paid staff jobs, yet union volunteers aren’t? Is it one rule for them and another for everyone else?

Conclusion

Remember, this is not an anti-union rant. When plans were recently announced for Boots (the chemist) to recruit volunteers to work thirty-two hours a week as Covid-19 testers, it was the unions who had the most sensible objections.

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said: “Many people want to give their spare time to the NHS to help it through the Covid crisis, but this advert takes the notion of volunteering way too far.” She added that rather than “seeking to take advantage of people’s good nature, the government would be better placed utilising the experience of NHS staff returning from retirement, or the healthcare students in their final years, to help expand the UK’s testing capacity”.

In contrast, politicians argued it was physically demanding work and so should be paid. Which begs the question as to why they have no such qualms about volunteer gardeners, lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and countless other physically demanding volunteer roles?

Unions don’t always get it right though and as leaders & managers of volunteers we need to stand up to any ill-informed, prejudice driven perspectives anyone has about volunteering. We need to find a way to work with unions, and others, to ensure volunteer involvement in adds value without displacing people from paid work.

  • What have been your experiences of engaging with unions around volunteer engagement issues?
  • Have you found any success in working with them around volunteer engagement in times of change?
  • Are there other tips you might share with colleagues?

Please leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion.

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!

More change will come as lockdown life slowly, cautiously, comes to an end. We face an unprecedented economic downturn following the government bailouts, employment protection schemes and the ongoing costs of protecting people from Covid-19. For some, life may well get harder before it gets better. Some commentators even think the loss of GDP in the UK could result in more deaths than those caused by the virus.

Looking back to the global financial crisis a little over ten years ago, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) looked at the impacts on nonprofits and volunteer managers and there are some useful lessons for us to learn:

  • Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
  • Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
  • Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
  • There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources

As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?

What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.

1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something

It is wonderful to see reports of a million people coming forward to volunteer during the pandemic but we must not equate an interest in volunteering with actual volunteering.

On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.

Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.

In both cases, my interest in volunteering has not resulted in me actually volunteering. Instead, it is has caused frustration and annoyance. I’m not alone either. Recently a UK tabloid newspaper called the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme a shambles,not exactly the kind of press that encourages people to volunteer.

As Jayne Cravens once said:

”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”

Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed

To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.

Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.

We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!

If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?

Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back

For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.

As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.

We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.


Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

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

1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering

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

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

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

2 – Give great customer service

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

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


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


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

3 – Say thank you

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

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

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

4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful

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

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

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

5 – Be flexible

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

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

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

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

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

6 – Let’s talk about expenses

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

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

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

7 – Word and world of mouth

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

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

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

8 – Embrace groups

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

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

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


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

9- Lead, don’t manage

Management guru Peter Drucker once said:

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

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

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

“Processes don’t work, people do”.

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

10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers

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

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


What would your top tips be?

Would you add anything to my top ten?

Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.


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


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

You can go your own way

You can go your own way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

Carlos Gracie Jr.
Carlos Gracie Jr.

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

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

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

Go and make it happen!

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

John McAfee
John McAfee


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

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my point about interviewing.

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

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

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

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

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

So, here goes (in no particular order):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question Ten – Ask for a referee!

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

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

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

I’d love to hear your feedback too!


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

When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

Volunteer recognition is important, but is it negatively impacting our ability to attract new volunteers?

Volunteer recognition season is drawing to an end. Whilst New Zealand’s National Volunteer Week kicks off on Sunday (16th June 2019), we’ve already had similar weeks in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the UK (to name just a few).

Volunteers have been showered in praise and thanked for their work. Awards have been handed out as parties, lunches and receptions have been held. New pin badges are being worn and new certificates displayed with pride.

Such recognition efforts are to be encouraged, but are they working against us when it comes to other aspects of volunteer management, especially recruitment?

A few years ago my good friend Martin J Cowling told me that he had a habit of reading the local newspapers in places he visited around the world. If those newspapers featured any stories about volunteers they were usually recognition of deeply committed, often older people, selflessly giving huge amounts of time over a considerable number of years to good causes in their community.

Today I see Martin’s experience reflected in the daily Google Alerts I receive. These highlight mentions of the words volunteering, volunteer and volunteerism in the news. Here are just three examples:

All of these people have done wonderful volunteering and are rightly being celebrated. But just think for a minute about the message such stories may send to people outside of the volunteering bubble, including those who have never volunteered before:

  • Volunteering is mostly something done in retirement
  • Volunteering requires a long-term time commitment (20 years plus)
  • Volunteering requires me to give lots of time on a regular basis
  • People with a disability can’t volunteer (the Southend Hospital volunteer stopped because of sight loss)
  • Volunteer work isn’t very exciting (putting labels on files and running errands for paid staff)
  • Volunteers are mainly old people

Would these news stories attract young people? Or people who feel the pressure of time on their busy lives? Or those balancing work with family commitments or caring responsibilities?

What about people with disabilities? Or those for whom volunteering is seen as a route into work? Or students who need to fit volunteering around studies?

My fear is that in acknowledging and celebrating the super-volunteers1 we are turning off the very diversity of people we want – no need – if volunteer engagement is going to be sustainable when the likes of those people mentioned in these stories stop their volunteering.

What we need to do is balance the stories of long-term, deeply committed volunteers with more public recognition of volunteers who give a short amount of time, perhaps a one off commitment, and make a difference as a consequence.

As hypothetical example, let’s show how Finn, aged 16, used his social media skills on a short term project that developed a new recruitment campaign which has subsequently helped us engage twelve new young people from BAME backgrounds in our advocacy work.

If you have such stories already then put them forward to your communications teams and / or local media. Explain why the traditional stories don’t always help and give some new material for the media people to use.

If you don’t have these stories (perhaps because you don’t have those roles) then my advice is to start developing them! Jayne Cravens has some excellent examples and advice on these three pages of her website (which should be an essential resource for all Volunteer Managers!):

Perhaps if we get the message out that volunteering doesn’t require the next thirty years of your life, that it’s flexible, inclusive, impactful, fulfilling, tech-loving and doesn’t require you to sign away all your free time…perhaps if we do that, we’ll start to transform volunteer engagement for the better?

Maybe we can all commit to this changed approach for the volunteer recognition season 2020 – are you on board?

  1. See Einolf, Christopher J & Yung, Cheryl (2018). Super-volunteers: Who Are They and How Do We Get One? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47(4), 789-812

No Volunteers Week

No Volunteers Week

I’ve been reflecting recently on why so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management. I haven’t come up with a simple solution (sorry!) but I do think I’ve decided on an important cause.

A problem of influence

But first, what do I mean when I say so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management? Here are some examples of situations many of us might struggle to change:

  • Volunteering isn’t given strategic consideration in the same way as other resourcing issues are at a senior level. Fundraising strategy, people strategy, risk strategy – all get top management attention. Volunteering typically gets delegated down to the Volunteer Manager.
  • Volunteers are seen as nice-to-have but non-essential in the fulfilment of the organisation’s vision and mission. They are viewed this way by board members, senior management, managers, paid staff…and sometimes even the volunteers themselves!
  • The budget for volunteer engagement is one of the first to be cut because: volunteers are free and; well, volunteers are easy to recruit and manage aren’t they, so we don’t need volunteer managers do we? – anyone can do it!
  • Volunteer management roles are graded lower than other comparable roles, often as co-ordinators or administrators and not as management, at least not senior management.
  • Volunteers are viewed as second-class citizens, not invited to team meetings, not trusted with certain roles or access to information etc..

So what may be a significant cause of all this? What I want to focus on here is a lack of understanding, appreciation and awareness of the essential role volunteers play in our society1.

The problem

Volunteering is woven into the fabric of life in the UK yet is largely invisible day-to-day. It’s something we seem embarrassed to talk about with each other. When was the last time someone you know waxed lyrical at a party about the volunteering they do?

Volunteering seems to have a cultural stigma of Victorian noblesse-oblige, the well-off doing charity to the less well off. It’s still seen as older ladies doing good for others. That’s very 19th Century and not in keeping with our 21st century modern world, so we brush it under the carpet.

With the exception of those few post-Olympic weeks in late 2012, volunteering doesn’t get much public attention or celebration. Even the honours system introduced a lower-status gong for volunteers (the British Empire Medal), placing volunteers below the level of others who get the more well-known MBEs, OBEs etc..

When volunteers do get coverage in the media they are mostly talked about in the context of austerity and public funding cuts. The undertone of these stories is that volunteers are well-meaning but incompetent amateurs who councils, hospitals and others involve as a way to save money and put people out of jobs.

In light of all this, it’s no surprise that Volunteer Managers struggle to influence and effect change in our organisations. Instead of being formally taught about working with volunteers, most of the people employed in the voluntary sector know little about volunteering. Worse, their perceptions of volunteers are the same as those held by wider society which, as we have seen, are not exactly positive. And that’s true if you work on volunteer engagement in the public or private sector too.

A solution?

What is needed is nothing short of a change in the way volunteers are regarded in UK society. Perhaps if volunteers were seen as essential to so much of what we take for granted, then their status may go up. Consequently, we might find ourselves pushing against doors that are at least unlocked rather than slammed in our faces.

Of course, such a change isn’t going to be quick or easy. It’s going to take focus and effort, so here’s a suggestion of how we might start. I want to breathe new life into an old idea we used to discuss at Volunteering England. With UK Volunteers’ Week around the corner (1-7 June) I’d like to suggest a thought experiment – National No Volunteers Week.

Call to action

It’s a really simple concept. I’d like you to leave a comment on this blog post, or on social media, about how society would be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped volunteering. For example, without volunteers there would be:

  • No magistrates, so the criminal justice system grinds to a halt.
  • No Samaritans, no ear to turn to in desperate times, so depression, isolation and suicide rates increase.
  • No meals-on-wheels, so older people become more socially isolated and may even die alone and hungry.
  • No sports groups or teams, so the health of the nation suffers.
  • No first aiders, so major sporting and social events are cancelled.
  • No lifeboats, so people at trouble off our coasts die.
  • The closure of libraries, museums and other cultural institutions.

The list could go on and on, which is why I want you to build it with me.

Let’s get started now – how would society be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped giving time? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and / or on social media with the hashtag #novolunteersweek

Together, let’s paint a picture of how essential volunteers are to daily life and take a first step to changing the culture of volunteering in our country and our organisations.

  1. When I say ‘our’ here I am talking about the UK, although readers from outside the UK may see these same issues reflected in your own country.

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

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

Tip #1 – Headphones

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

Simple and effective.

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

Tip #2 – Walk this way

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

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

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

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

Someone walking
Someone walking

Tip #3 – Stop

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

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

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

A pause button
A pause button

Tip #4 – Know yourself

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

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

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

Socrates
Socrates

Tip#5 – Notification

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

Turn off notifications on your computer, smartphone and tablet!

Shocking right?

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

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

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

What would you add to the list?

Leave a comment below to add your tips.


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

How to take control of your learning

How to take control of your learning

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

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

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


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

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

Susan Ellis once said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please do share your thoughts below.