Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

In the autumn of 1998 I travelled to the North London campus of the University of Westminster to attend an event that changed my professional life.

CSV (now Volunteering Matters) had organised the first ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (IAVM). A small group of Volunteer Managers (no more than fifty I think) met for three days to learn from international leaders in our field. Susan J Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Arlene Schindler were the faculty I can clearly remember being there for this revolutionary learning opportunity.

I can recall the first day’s schedule clearly. A three hour workshop with Arlene Schindler on ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’, then six hours (!) with Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch on advanced volunteer recruitment. Just think about that – nine hours of in-depth learning in small groups. Not your typical conference schedule – no keynotes, no one-hour sessions where you barely learn anything or get a chance to reflect with others on the application of what’s been shared to your work.

CSV went on to run many more IAVM events over the next few years. Eventually the format resembled that of a typical conference with more attendees and shorter sessions, I suspect because of the economics involved. The cost of bringing together an international faculty of respected trainers and providing a decent venue was unlikely to be met from the fees of a deliberately limited number of attendees.

Then, one year, IAVM didn’t happen. It’s never happened again since.

Other countries tried the concept. I was privileged to be on the faculty of two IAVM’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, USA in 2000 and 2001. Both great events put on by the local Volunteer Centre, but they never happened again.

Perhaps the most success that anyone had outside of IAVM was Australian colleagues Andy Fryar and Martin Cowling. They ran a number of advanced volunteer management retreats in Australia and New Zealand, one of which I was fortunate to be on the faculty for in 2009. Keeping close to the original concept, the retreats limited the number of participants, with people having to apply to attend as demand outstripped the places available. Eventually these retreats stopped too, in part due to the limiting economics.

As far as I am aware there has been no dedicated event aimed at advanced level of volunteer engagement professionals anywhere in the western world since 2013. This doesn’t mean what is still on offer for our profession isn’t good – I attend many events and conferences (well, I used to before Covid-19) and there are some wonderful learning and network opportunities available. But are we being held back as a profession because of the lack of focused, advanced learning opportunities?

I think we are. I may have been in this wonderful world of volunteer engagement for over 26 years but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything left to learn. I’m unlikely to find that learning at a conference or event geared towards people just starting out though. And I’m not alone.

The 2021 Volunteer Management Progress Report found that 29% of respondents had more than twenty years experience in volunteer engagement.

Whilst length of service is only one way to determine if someone is advanced in our field (a discussion worthy of an article in it’s own right perhaps?) this data gives a clear indication that there is a population of Volunteer Engagement Professionals who might not be being best served by current learning and development opportunities for our field.

Without such advanced learning opportunities, isn’t there a risk that practice stagnates and innovation opportunities are missed? Might we also be running a risk that some of our more experienced colleagues get bored with our profession, taking their insights and knowledge elsewhere? In short, is the lack of advanced learning opportunities holding the wider profession back?

As I say, I think so.

What, then, can we do about it?

As I suggested earlier, putting on an IAVM style conference or retreat is difficult financially in the best of times. With the restrictions on life from Covid-19 and the associated difficult economic climate, it may be almost impossible.

Might an online solution be a way forward? There would still be a cost but, without venue, catering and accommodation considerations it might be more viable. We’d need, however, to ensure the learning environment works online compared to intense, small group face-to-face learning of the kind IAVM provided.

Even with this option, would organisations fund their Volunteer Managers to engage in advanced learning? As budgets shrink, spending on training and development will likely be an early victim. Sadly, Volunteer Engagement Professionals rarely seem willing to invest personally in their own development, so without organisational funds even an online, reasonable cost option may not work out.

Where does this leave us? Well it’s not exactly a positive outlook is it? But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the issue. We need advanced learning opportunities for our field.

So I’m going to commit to finding a solution that will work and I want to hear from you in the hope that you’ll join me.

If you’re a trainer or consultant who wants to be involved then please get in touch.

If you’re somebody who would want to attend and participate please get in touch.

If you’re an infrastructure body who wants to be a part fo this then please get in touch.

Let’s make this happen together.


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Working from home: how I do it

Working from home: how I do it

This year’s global pandemic has caused more of us to work from home than ever before. Some have loved it, some have tolerated it and some long for a return to the office. As someone who has worked from home for most of the last ten years I thought some of you might find it interesting to learn about my set up – the tools and techniques that make working along at home a pleasant and productive experience.

Desk

I refitted the office with new furniture last year and invested in a new sit-stand desk, an electric model from Ikea. The sit-stand facility is not only potentially good for my health but provides work benefits too. For example, when delivering online training I find it much better to stand to deliver content rather than sitting. At an in-person event I’d be standing at the from of the room so being upright is a more natural posture for me when working with a group.

Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk
Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk

If you’re investing in a sit-stand desk I recommend a floor mat as well (I don’t endorse the product in this link, it’s just a helpful article). A mat provides some cushioning against a hard floor, educes the stress on your ankles from too much stationary standing and (so some claim) helps fight fatigue. With a hard wooden floor in my office I certainly find a mat beneficial.

When not standing at the desk I have a good office chair to help with posture as well as a sit / stand stool which helps with posture and alertness – when using it I can’t put my feet on the desk and recline into a more laid back and relaxed position!

Technology

Good technology is essential these days for any productive workplace. Here is what I use almost every day:

13inch MacBook Pro 2020

My main computer. It’s light and small enough to be portable (should those days of travelling ever return!) and compact enough to store away at the end of the day (see below for why that’s important). It’s also powerful enough to cope with the demands of delivering content over the likes of Zoom. I’ve used a MacBook since 2012 and this latest version was an upgrade worth making in light of the changes the pandemic brought, forcing me to do more online delivery.

iPhone

The only office / business phone I own. It does all it needs to do, including keeping me connected to the office when I’m away – these days if I have to pop out and walk the dog or get essential groceries. The seamless integration between Apple products is a big benefit to me, second only to the privacy Apple provide, which is essential for keeping business data secure.

iPad

Key to working from home is saving paper – you don’t need loads of it taking up space and posing a fire risk. That’s where the iPad comes in. I use it for all my speaker notes when presenting as well as lot of my reading, saving a forest or two of printing a year.

reMarkable

Which leads nicely into this handy piece of kit. reMarkable is a device about the same size as an iPad but with an e-ink display similar to that on a Kindle that can be written on, replacing the need for a notebook. It has plenty of capacity to store thousands of pages which can be formatted according to a range of pre-set templates (lined, blank, dotted, organiser layouts etc.). Notes can be filed into folders, synced with my other devices and emailed to other people and apps as PDF documents. I have the first version (a second version came out in July 2020) and I love it.

Dropbox, Evernote and Things 3

I’ve talked hardware so far but these three pieces of software deserve a mention.

Dropbox keeps all my files synchronised between my devices. If I need a file whilst I’m walking the dog I can access it on my phone just as easily as I can on my computer in the office. It also gives me the security that if any of my devices get lost, damaged or stolen, the files are all still there and can be accessed as soon as I get a replacement or login via another machine.

Evernote is where I keep all my reference material: clients notes, business receipts, content for my newsletter, interesting articles I read online, resources for preparing new training, ideas for things to write about. Whether it’s a webpage, a typed note, a photo or an audio file, it all goes into Evernote. Like Dropbox, I can access all of this on any device as the material is stored in the cloud.

Things 3 is the app I use to keep track of all my projects, actions and to-do lists. Like the other software I’ve mentioned it’s always in sync on every device and keeps me on top of everything I need to do. Adding new actions is effortless and can even be done simply and accurately using Siri. I’d be lost without Things 3.

Space

One of the hardest things for people new to working from home is having the space to be productive. Many people have had to find a workspace in kitchens, on crowded dining tables, in spare rooms or in living rooms whilst the kids watch TV. It’s been a real issue this year for those who have home-schooled children, or live in smaller properties (or both!) especially as the switch to home working happened overnight for many, leaving no time to prepare.

I’m lucky that I have a dedicated space in my home for my office, as the pictures below show. Sure, my work stuff has to share with some of my CD collection and personal filing but its a place where I can close the door and tune out the rest of the household when I need to, a task made easier with a good pair of headphones! In fact, the only downside with my office is the window is next to the front door, so delivery people and the postie can always see someone is in, even if I can’t answer the door because I’m delivering online training or taking a call.

My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
Wide shot of the office
Wide shot of the office
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Office books and filing share space with my CDs
Office books and filing share space with my CDs

Routine

A good routine is one of the most important aspects of effective home working. Having a good space for working helps immensely, but it’s only part of the story – you still need the discipline to get the work done in the face of the other distractions of being at home.

Having followed Graham Allcott’s advice in his book, “How To Be A Productivity Ninja”, my typical work-at-hone day is scheduled around my energy and attention levels. I know I work best in the morning, so I crack on and get all the important stuff that requires my brain at its best between about 8am and 1230pm. I limit my lunch break by tying it to the lunchtime news – as soon as that finishes I’m back to my desk. The afternoon is usually set aside for reading and working on less demanding things like email handling. When I get the post lunch lull around 230pm I take the dog for a walk and return, raring to go until the day ends.

Finally on routine, it’s important when the work is done to pack it away for the day, especially if the work space is also family space (hence my earlier point about a compute small enough to pack away). Doing this gives a clear signal between work and home life. With some bosses expecting work into the evenings now their staff aren’t commuting as much and, for someone like me, meetings taking place outside of ‘normal’ work hours due to the working time of overseas clients, having a clear signal that the day is done is important.

So that’s it, a bit of an insight into the means and method of how I work from home. I hope it’s been of interest and potentially some help too, perhaps inspiring you to make some changes for the new year?

I’d love to hear your working from home tips and tricks as well as any feedback you’d like to give – please leave a comment below or on the social media platform where you found this article.

PS – this is my last blog post for 2020. The next article will go live on 8 January 2021.


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Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

As we approach the end of the year we’re getting into that period when (in normal times) we usually see a rise in the number of people interested in volunteering, individuals giving a little of their time during the holidays to support a good cause. But, when January rolls around, we may never see some of these people again. Normal life (whatever that is these days) resumes and seasonal good intentions wane, replaced with doomed gym memberships and the resumption of the daily grind. So, how can we reach out and find fantastic volunteers throughout the year, even in a pandemic affected world?

Here are five quick tips.


1 – Target

A common mistake people make when recruiting volunteers is suggesting that anyone is suitable for the vacant role. This approach is often driven by a fear that nobody will come forward. It’s a technique that can work for certain positions, typically those that require no specific skills or experience, just a warm body. For roles where some kind of existing competence is required, however, we should target, target, target.

Ask these questions:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? What exactly will it involve? What does the person need to know or be able to do before they start?
  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? What skills, experience, abilities etc. do they need? For example, if you want someone to code then say that. Get as a specific as possible.
  • Where are you likely to find them? Given what you need, where might you find those people in your community? Again, be specific and avoid generalisations.

2 – Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, go and ask them! Research consistently shows that people who don’t volunteer feel like they haven’t been asked to give time. Ask, ask, ask. Keeping asking. And when you’re done, ask some more.

3- Sell

More than just asking, however, you need to sell your volunteer opportunities like a business would sell its products – focus on the benefits of someone volunteering with you, not the features. When we buy something we don’t just look at what it can do but how it will help us. For example, all kettles boil water but some do it faster than others, some have built in water filters and some work with apps etc..

It’s the same with volunteering – show people how volunteering with you will meet their needs. Don’t just tell them what they will do or how desperate you are for help. Show them how you’ll boil water in a way that is better suited to their needs than the other kettles on the market.

4 – Respond

If you are going to ask for someone’s precious spare time then make sure you are ready to respond and provide great customer service to them when they get in touch.

Don’t imply an urgency to your need and then take weeks to respond. That happened to me earlier this year when I tried to volunteer in my community and it’s not only annoying but gives a poor impression of volunteering generally. Remember, we want people to volunteer, not put them off!

Make use of simple tools like out-of-office email and voicemail messages so people instantly know when they should expect to hear from you – then keep that promise!

5 – Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up to regular, long-term volunteering on day one are in the past. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment anymore. Would you commit to two days a week for the next five years right now?

We can, however, get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want, but we have to be patient and plan for it.

Offer a scale of engagement, with regular, committed, long-term volunteering at one end and shorter term, bite-sized, easy to access opportunities at the other. Figure out where someone will start on that scale and how they might move along it (in both directions!) as you get to know them. It may take time but some of the volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire, even if it involves taking some steps back at times.


Despite what some may think, volunteer recruitment isn’t easy. Volunteers don’t grow trees.

There isn’t a ready supply of them in cold storage waiting to be defrosted and deployed at a moments notice on the whims of your colleagues.

Effective recruitment takes time and effort.

I hope these five tips help.

What tips would you add? Share your wisdom and experience with a comment below.


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Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

‘The new normal’. Everyone is saying it. Personally, I dislike the term. Every day is a new normal and always has been. But there is a new term I like, coined by Gethyn Williams on Twitter in late August 2020 – ‘the new formal’. What does it mean?

To me, ‘the new formal’ describes the changes needed to the pre-pandemic process-heavy, systems-oriented approach to volunteer engagement. One of the good changes Covid-19 brought about was to sweep away layers of bureaucracy so people could just get stuck in and help out. Old orthodoxies about form filling, risk avoidance and checking the criminal records of anyone with a pulse disappeared as communities mobilised in a matter of days and 700,000 applied in a week to be NHS Volunteer Responders. I was one of these eager volunteers and in under 24 hours was cleared to perform tasks that just a few days beforehand would have required Olympic standard hoop jumping to get involved in.

Like a piece of elastic that is stretched so hard and so fast it can never regain its original shape, so the formalities of volunteer engagement have changed forever thanks to Covid-19. This doesn’t mean abandoning safeguarding, never conducting a DBS / PVG check again, and putting the needs of volunteers before the safety of clients. But it does mean taking a long, hard look at what we do, when we do it and why, thinking afresh about our practice. Hence the ‘new formal’.

Here are three aspects of volunteer engagement that we could start thinking about:

1 – Application forms & interviews

Why exactly do we ask questions on an application form and then ask the same questions when we interview volunteers? Can we not ask the questions once, face-to-face and fill in the form as a record of the conversation? Not only would that save paperwork, it’d help open up volunteering to those who can’t write, have a sight loss, have poor literacy or don’t use English as their first language. Two birds with one stone – a step toward greater diversity and less bureaucracy.

2 – Safeguarding in stages

Instead of taking references, conducting criminal record checks and all the other screening steps as soon as someone starts volunteering, why not do it in stages? Rather than viewing anyone unpaid as risky (why else do we check absolutely everyone who isn’t paid but often subject paid staff to far less scrutiny?), why not bring in appropriate screening at different stages as people depend their involvement with us?

That means someone volunteering one-to-one with a vulnerable client gets the full suite of checks, but someone checking in event participants for a few hours just has to give us an emergency contact and enough information for Track and Trace to do their thing.

3 – In volunteers we trust

An absence of pay does not mean an absence of competence. Likewise, paying someone does not automatically make them better at what they do, more reliable, more trustworthy etc.. So, perhaps we need to ease up on the fear and worry about what volunteers might do wrong and instead trust them to do things right. After all, if you’ve done a good job recruiting, selecting and training the volunteer, aren’t you trusting in your own abilities as much as theirs? What message does it send if you don’t trust your own work?

I’ve shared three thoughts on how we might adapt volunteer management to the ‘new formal’ but I know there are many more ways we could ease up the formality of volunteering without sacrificing the safety of volunteering.

What else would you add to the list? What have you done already or what are you planning to do. Share your thoughts in the comments or in response to wherever you found this article on social media.

The whys and hows of international connections in volunteer engagement leadership

Last year I wrote an article giving a behind the scenes glimpse into my trip to the USA’s 2019 Points of Light conference. My intention was to share the ups and downs of international business travel: bacon topped, maple glazed doughnuts included notes. But why are international connections important in our profession and how can we make more of them?

Since 2011 I’ve been fortunate enough to travel overseas on twenty-nine occasions. I’ve made ten trips to the USA, four to Canada, five to Australia, two to New Zealand and eight trips to other countries in Europe. Obviously that’s all on hold right now.

Whilst the vast majority of my time is spent working with clients here in the UK, these overseas trips have been incredibly important to me. Here’s why:

  • Whilst (in my experience) volunteer management practice doesn’t change much around the world, the regulatory, legal and (most importantly) cultural context in which volunteering takes place does vary. Seeing issues we tackle here in the UK being approached from a different perspective informs my continuing professional development and gives me insights into how we might work differently back home.
  • I get to share the excellent work of leaders of volunteer engagement across the UK with our peers in other countries. They gain from hearing about what we do and I get the privilege of being the conduit for that.
  • I love meeting new people and finding a way to connect them to each other for mutual benefit. Through my travels I have helped individual Volunteer Managers network across borders and, in early 2020, was able to bring together face-to-face and for the first time the two chairs of the professional associations for volunteer management in the USA and UK.
  • Volunteer engagement professionals are lovely people and who wouldn’t want to travel and meet great people whilst learning about a subject they are passionate about?!
The President of Al!ve and Chair of AVM meet for the first time in London in January 2020
The President of Al!ve and Chair of AVM meet for the first time in London in January 2020

I am very aware how blessed I have been to do this travelling and meet these people. Overseas trips aren’t the glamorous excursions people often imagine. There is a lot of boredom, tiredness and loneliness that comes with the territory. The great news, however, is that you can make these connections overseas as well, without all the travel downsides.

Today’s technology, from email, to instant messaging, to social media real-time video calling have shrunk the world significantly. The means of connecting with colleagues across the globe are quite literally in our hands thanks to our smartphones and computers. Thanks to the global pandemic we are more aware of this than ever before. So, here are some ideas about how you can take advantage and connect around the globe:

  • Most conferences and events have some form of social media presence, commonly a conference hashtag on Twitter. With a bit of basic research you can find volunteer engagement related events happening in other countries and follow their hashtags to see what’d being discussed. You can even join the conversation. Years ago I can remember contributing to a workshop discussion in Atlanta, USA, whilst sat in an office in London because I was following a discussion on Twitter. It was easy, free and gave a great insight into what a room of peers a few thousand miles away was discussing.
  • Online training via webinars is more popular than ever. Keep your eyes peeled for events happening outside your country and see if you can register to take part. Be mindful of the time difference before you book but don’t let a late night or an early start stand in the way of a good international learning opportunity.
  • Twenty years ago there were three main online platforms for leaders of volunteer engagement to connect – the CyberVPM, UKVPMs and OzVPM email groups. Today there are many more groups on social media that allow you to connect with colleagues overseas. LinkedIn, for example, has groups affiliated with the UK’s Association of Volunteer Mangers, the USA’s equivalent, Al!ve, and VMPC in Canada have their own page. They are all easy to find with a simple search and provide a means for you to connect with others online at your own convenience.
  • Connect with colleagues working in the same setting as you (e.g. hospice care, retail etc.) who live and work in countries that are further ahead than yours when it comes to recovery from Covid-19. What have they done that you can learn from? What tips and ideas can you take and apply to your work?
  • Look for opportunities to mentor others in the profession or, if you prefer, to be mentored by others. Use our professional associations and the different social media groups for leaders of volunteer engagement to try and find a mentor from another country. Perhaps someone doing a similar role in a similar context can help you see things differently because of the different cultural understanding of volunteering?

Whatever you decide to do I encourage you to take the plunge and reach out to colleagues around the world. We all have so much to learn and so much to insight to give to others, especially right now, so let’s all make an effort to connect globally to help each other in our work.

Are you looking for an international connection in the volunteer engagement profession? Leave a comment below and let’s see if we can get some people connected!

Alternatively, share your wisdom – Have you made global connections in the profession online? How did they benefit you? How did they benefit others? What advice would you give?

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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


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.