Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

I am really pleased to give my latest blog post over to guest contributor, Carol Carbine. I’ve know Carol for many years and you are in for a real treat with her first ever article. Oh, and in case you were wondering, part two will be published here in late September.


Ok, before I start, there are hundreds of articles out there about the psychology of superheroes: what superheroes can teach us about marketing; what your kids can learn from superheroes; leadership lessons from superheroes; what superheroes can teach us about investment strategy; the list is endless.

So you may be asking yourself why I feel the need to talk about volunteer management and superheroes. Simple answer, why not? I mean let’s look at it from the perspective of the individuals we are trying to recruit into volunteering – who hasn’t wanted to feel like a superhero at some stage in their life (even if you were only 6 years old)?

There are some brilliant volunteer managers but many of us still worry about being too demanding, asking too much of our volunteers and managing too rigorously. After all, we’re not paying these people are we so we shouldn’t expect too much? Sadly this means that all too often the results of our recruitment efforts don’t meet our aspirations and we end up with volunteers that are OK, but not brilliant. More sidekick then superhero.

So let’s time travel back to 2012. If I’m honest like many, I didn’t know what to expect from the London Olympics volunteer programme. At the time we heard about teething troubles recruiting (and retaining) great volunteering specialists, the fact that McDonalds were being brought in to manage volunteer recruitment and induction, plus the tens of thousands of people who pre-registered their interest and didn’t get a reply – yes, I was one of them. And, if we are really honest, loads of us thought that Danny Boyle seemed a bit of an odd choice to direct the opening ceremony.

How wrong were we!

Universally when you talk to people who became ‘Games Makers’ (they never think of themselves as ‘only a volunteer’) the immense passion, pride and sense of having been part of something extra special shines through, even six years later.

A while ago I had the opportunity to talk in detail to some of the Pandemonium Drummers who featured at the 2012 opening ceremony about the rigorous recruitment process they went through. This process led to a genuine pride that they were the best of the best – the high expectations, absolute secrecy, attendance at an extremely high percentage of practise / rehearsals or you didn’t get to perform on the day, and so on.

Ok so back to superheroes, think of your favourite superhero what is it that makes them super? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • A high level of passion for the cause that inspires them to take action
  • Great skills and talents
  • A clear vision of what needs to be done
  • A clear identity – who they are, what they stand for and usually a natty costume!
  • A willingness to tackle challenges head on, learn from their mistakes and keep going till the job is done

Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want people like this as volunteers?

Before anyone starts complaining about my high standards radically reducing the pool of available people, being elitist or not being inclusive, remember that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes from Ant Man to Ego (who’s a living planet) and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds including an ex-convict, an orphaned college student and a millionaire philanthropist. They also include a green one, a blue one, a blind one, a deaf one, a couple of wheelchair users, one who appears to have been genetically imprinted by a cat and a living tree!

So next time you’re recruiting you might just want to raise the bar and consider what super talents your superheroes need to have. Or then again you might just want to do it the same way you have always done it and settle for sidekicks.

PS. According to the Oxford English dictionary in 1899 when the word ‘superhero’ first appeared it meant ‘an exceptionally skilful or successful person’.


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

Website: www.carolcarbine.consulting

Email: carolcarbine@icloud.com

Twitter: @carolcarbine

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Participation branding – three takeaways for leaders of volunteers

89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered. Of those who do notice advertising, more and more people then take steps to actively block it. In other words, most of those adverts for volunteers you’re putting out are being ignored by people.

When you think about the amount of advertising organisations do for volunteers, and how much that costs, it’s shocking to think how little impact you’re apparently having in getting people to want to volunteer.

So, when I read this article from nfpSynergy, ”Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z”, the term ‘participation branding’ caught my eye. That lead me to this article, ”Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”.

Here’s what I took away from these two articles and the little bit of additional research I did online.


Creative innovation network Iris believe that the most potent and efficient brands in the world today are being built with people, not for them. A new breed of brand is not just surviving, but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are getting their market to do their marketing. These are what Iris calls Participation Brands.

These brands are thriving by activating the power of people to build their brand and creating content and conversations that people want to actively participate in.

Ben Essen, executive planning director at Iris, says:

“Brands no longer influence people. People do. With the Participation Brand Index we wanted to understand more deeply why people are choosing to get involved with certain brands and what the secret is for those brands who manage to get their market to do their marketing.”

“It’s become ever easier for consumers to shortcut the media-driven decision making process and access beliefs, behaviours and new ideas directly from other people. Communities can now live on their own terms and agendas without the need for organisations telling them what to do and what to buy. Participation Brands are those who have responded to this change by designing content and experiences that positively disrupt the networked lives we now live.”

The brands who top the Iris The Participation Brand Index study are those seen to not just have a positioning, but a passionate purpose at their heart. They are the ones felt not to just respond to culture but actively shape it. They are the brands creating content, conversations and experiences that people want to get involved in.

For example, the number one brand globally was Apple, who excelled against all these aspects. The number one brand amongst a millennial audience was Netflix, for whom there is a stronger sense of anticipation in ‘what the brand is going to do next’ than any other brand in the study.

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).


I’m a big fan of taking ideas from outside our field and applying them to our work. For example, see my article about how organisations can adapt their approach to volunteer recruitment in light of what’s called influencer marketing.

So what does participation branding mean for those of us leading, managing and recruiting volunteers? Here are my topthree thoughts.

Get your market to do your marketing

Word of mouth has always been an effective way of recruiting volunteers. I am more likely to support a cause if someone I know and trust asks me than if I see a poster or leaflet saying I should get involved.

Remember the quote from earlier, “Brands no longer influence people. People do”? Put simply, participation branding is just a fancy new term for word of mouth. It recognises that a personal ask is more powerful than an impersonal advert.

How can we get more of our volunteers to talk to people they know about volunteering with us? Here are two simple tips to get started:

  • Ask your volunteers to ask their friends and family if they consider volunteering. You’d be surprised how few organisations actually do this.
  • Help volunteers to ask others. For example, tell them what your current recruitment needs are, give them some information about that, and perhaps create a hashtag they can use on social media when talking about volunteering.

Be passionate about your purpose

According to Iris, the brands who top theThe Participation Brand Index are those that have a passionate purpose at their heart. That may be hard for some corporates to find but it shouldn’t be an issue for non-profits who, by their very nature, are driven by a passionate purpose.

Yet so many volunteer recruitment messages don’t really address they purpose. They talk in a dry way about what the organisation wants people to do, but not why.

Review your recruitment messages. Do they sell the cause before they sell the organisation or role? Do they inspire people to action by showing how they can change the world with you?

Measure return on involvement

I love the phrase Iris use, “The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).”But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most helpful definition I found online was from this article:

”Return on investment to me is something lucrative that you put into a company with the purpose of getting more value back, than the money you put in.”

”Return on involvement is some engagement that you put into a company and you get more value back, because you engaged in the company.”

In volunteering we’ve traditionally tried to measure the return on investment for volunteering in a purely financial sense. Whilst this can be helpful when arguing for more financial resources to support volunteer engagement, speaking about volunteers in financial terms can cause problems.

With return on involvement we could start to look at how building relationships with volunteers brings a return for us in ways that benefit our organisation. For example, if we invest time in our volunteers, do they have a better experience and so are more predisposed to talking to others about our organisation, making recruitment easier and cheaper?

Return on involvement is a new concept to me and one I want to look into further so I can develop my thinking on this. I’d love to hear your ideas and any suggestions you might have for how it could apply to our work as leaders of volunteers.


Over to you. What do you think about participation branding and how it might apply to volunteering. Share your thoughts below.

A national gathering with an important purpose

A national gathering with an important purpose

In July this year leaders of volunteers from across North America will gather in Minnesota for a significant event.

The National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be the first time in almost a decade that volunteer mobilisation and support will be the total focus of a major conference in the USA. As in the UK, many conferences address general non-profit issues, with volunteering just one of several tracks. At this Summit, leaders of volunteer engagement will be front and centre.

Plenaries and small group discussions will allow participants to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect our profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers we engage.

Over one hundred workshops are on offer throughout the Summit, presented by leaders and practitioners in the field. In addition, it’s the first time in years that many of the thought-leaders, authors, and trainers in our field will all be together in one place. From established personalities like Susan J Ellis, Greg Baldwin, Betty Stallings, Tony Goodrow and Sarah-Jane Rehnborg to newer leaders like Liza Dyer, Jerome Tennille, Betsy McFarland, Elisa Kosarin, Meridian Swift and Tobi Johnson, the Summit is going to be an inspiring and educational event.

I am super excited to be attending the Summit. I’ll be taking part in a pre-event affinity group for writers and bloggers, as well as delivering three of my favourite sessions during the main programme:

  • Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers, Wednesday, July 26: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
  • The Philosophy of Volunteering, Thursday, July 27: 2:15 pm – 3:45 pm
  • Customer Service and Volunteering, Friday, July 28: 8:30 am – 10:00 am

Plans are also afoot for a fringe session over breakfast on the Thursday – watch this space!

As I don’t fly back to the UK until the day after the Summit finishes, I will be joining others who want to stay after the closing session as we continue to meet so that the Summit truly moves our field forward. More details on this after-Summit event will be announced so if your travel schedule permits, please consider joining in.

If you’re going to be at the Summit I’d love to hear from you. Maybe leave a comment below or just come and say ‘hi’ when we are in Minnesota in July.


The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will take place in Minnesota, USA between 26 & 28 July. To register please visit the Summit website.

If you are unable to attend then you can join in via Facebook, Twitter and the official hashtags, #2017nationalsummit, #mappingthefuture, #VolMgmt