One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“I look back in pride at our profession. At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

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.


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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

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

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


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

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


1. Not knowing what our real job is

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

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

2. Lacking Passion

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

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

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

3. Not communicating the power of volunteering

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

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

4. There is no strategy

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

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

5. Measuring the wrong things

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

There are three things that are better measures:

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

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

6. Paid staff alienated

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

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

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

7. The too busy Volunteer Manager

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

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

8. We make it hard to volunteer

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

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

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

9. Sloppiness Rules

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

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

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

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


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

And conversely how many are you not guilty of?

What do you need to change first?


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

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

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


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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How much is morning tea worth?

How much is morning tea worth?

This unusual year has led many of us to question the norms we’ve lived under for so long. Before 2020 I often heard leaders of volunteer engagement say that their volunteers, especially the older ones, would never embrace technology. Then along comes Covid-19 and guess what?

It turns out that as we all rushed to change how we worked, volunteers of all ages were just as quick to adapt, embracing Zoom, Teams and a multitude of digital platforms. The old orthodoxy was well and truly challenged, which begged the question: perhaps the issue was never the reluctance of volunteers to use technology but some Volunteer Managers projecting their own resistance to new ways of working onto their volunteers? (feel free to debate this in the comments below).

It’s not just in volunteer management that these norms are being queried. I’ve heard variations on the following two questions being asked of trainers and event organisers over recent months:

  1. How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?
  2. Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online events and training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

Let’s look at both in a bit more detail.

How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?

The implication behind the question is often that online training should be a lower cost than in-person training. Charging by the hour, however, it costs the same to deliver content online as it does in-person – a two hour workshop in a meeting room still takes two hours to deliver over Zoom.

Actually, you could argue that preparation for online delivery takes longer, because of the need to consider alternative ways of engaging people in the content. Similarly the investment in a high quality delivery platform (like a pro-Zoom account) costs money that the trainer needs to re-coup. In which case the question is, why doesn’t online delivery cost more?

And that’s all just considering cost. The value the training delivers to a client may be even greater if the issues they face are more acute than ever. Speedy online delivery might help resolve the issues and so carry greater value to the client. Look at it that way and again the question is, why online delivery doesn’t cost more?

Finally, please remember that if this training would have been done face-to-face in ‘normal’ times, online delivery at the same price is delivering the client a saving. Why? Because they’re not having to pay for the trainer’s travel expenses, hotel accommodation etc..

Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

I’ll start by saying I have some sympathy with this question. Many organisations are facing rapidly shrinking budgets, spending freezes and potential staff cuts. Sadly, this often hits training and development budgets first and makes the cost attending an event harder to justify, a ridiculous argument if you consider training to be an investment in the skills and capabilities of an organisation’s most value asset (especially in challenging times), its people.

With that said, I think the driver behind this question is a belief that online training carries less value than getting a group of people into a room. Because online delivery is valued less it should, therefore, cost less. Take that argument to it’s logical conclusion and it would mean we place no value at all on free training, which is perhaps why (in my experience) about 50% of people who book onto free courses never turn up for them.

Despite months of new ways of working, are we still clinging to a belief that the old way of doing training is always better than the new, online approaches? Why is that? Are we once again confusing cost and value?

I’d also point out the following about objections to there being a cost to online training and events:

  • If you would have attended the event in ‘normal’ times and been happy to pay, bear in mind that you would also have had to spend money on travel to and from the event, perhaps a hotel as well, and maybe even meals whilst you were away. So, even if you pay to attend the online version, you still save money on the other costs.
  • Bear in mind that the organisers still have to put effort and money into an online event. They may not have venue and catering costs to meet, but they will have to invest in an online delivery platform, a booking system, and spend time figuring out how to make things work for attendees so they still get a great experience etc.. The desire to save money by attending an online event has to be balanced against the organisers not only covering their costs but making a profit. With other funding becoming scare, events may be an important source of income that enables them to keep operating, helping all of us in the future. Do we really want our infrastructure organisations and professional associations to go bust at a time when we need them most?
  • Remember that the people who deliver training content and facilitate workshops are often freelancers. They pay their mortgages and feed their families from the income they earn. They don’t have a regular salary and often can’t access the government schemes that have supported employees during the pandemic. Charging for their work isn’t a choice, its a necessity for survival.

In writing this article I hope that the next time we see an online event or training we’ll all think twice about what’s going on behind it and why a fee might have to be charged to attend. I also hope it’ll spark some thinking that will help us all start to consider the best way to mix online and in-person events and training when the pandemic is behind us and we can all get back in a room together.

On which note, I’ll conclude with this thought.

If we’re happy to pay an event fee and travel costs to go to a conference in-person, but want online events to be free, then what is it about the in-person offering that we value so much we’re happy to pay for it? Assuming the content and value delivered is the same offline as online, there can only be one answer – the thing we value most is morning tea! That’s a lot of money we seem to be willing to spend for a cuppa and biscuit!


Disagree with me? Great! Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Changed your way of thinking as a result of what I’ve written? Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Want to ask a question? Guess what? Leave a comment below.


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Where next for volunteer rights?

Where next for volunteer rights?

Ten years ago I was working as a Director at Volunteering England and one of my responsibilities was to provide the secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Inquiry (VRI). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since this important and groundbreaking piece of work was done and I can’t help but wonder if much has actually changed in ten years?

I suspect not. Otherwise, why would the the UK government have felt it necessary last year to consult on changes to the Equality Act, putting volunteers on an equal footing with employees when it comes to sexual harassment? NCVO provided a briefing on the changes and engaged with the sector before producing their consultation response.

As was clear from the NCVO documents, volunteer rights remains an emotive issue and one that seemingly won’t go away. We may not have the high profile cases we had ten or so years ago, but I’m sure the problems still exist, whether it’s from poor management, serious abuse and harassment, or a whole range of other experiences in between.

Disappointingly the 3R Promise that resulted from the work of the VRI (see details below) seems to have been largely forgotten. The list of signatories is still there on the NCVO website but the momentum has been lost, as has the Call to Action progress group who were tasked with keeping this issue live.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for Volunteer Involving Organisations to get their houses in order. The Inquiry was clear that in the majority of cases it wasn’t Volunteer Managers who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers. It was other paid staff (often in management and senior leadership positions) and trustees (volunteers themselves!) who were at fault. Poor treatment of volunteers isn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management practice or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers.

I never tire of saying it – effective volunteer engagement is an issue everyone needs to take responsibility for in a Volunteer Involving Organisation, not just the Volunteer Manager.

There were plenty of voices during the VRI process calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That path wasn’t taken. Instead VIOs were given a chance to take responsibility and improve their practice against the principles of the 3R promise:

Ten years on, how does your organisation measure up? Do you do all of these things consistently? Was your organisation a signatory to the promise back in the day? If it was then it made a public commitment to do all these things, so feel free to use that leverage to get it back on the agenda with senior management!

Given the UK government’s stated approach to the Equality Act as a means of securing protection for volunteers against sexual discrimination, perhaps the 3R Promise, self-policing approach has had it’s day? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then, do we believe that legislation will stop the poor treatment of volunteers?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. With everything the UK government has on right now, would this time be found?

Thirdly, I believe legislation could be counter-productive. Legislative requirements will only make volunteer engagement more bureaucratic and employment-like. This is at odds with a more frictionless approach to volunteering during the pandemic and risks driving people away from volunteering.

Legislation would also increase risks and costs for Volunteer Involving Organisations as they have to comply with any new legal requirements – do we really want to be placing more of a burden on these organisations given the Covid-19 driven challenges the face today?

So, what is the way forward?

There is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body, as is the will for such an approach – self-regulation of fundraising only came about because government threatened statutory regulation if fundraisers didn’t get their house in order.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn, except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years. Furthermore, a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit. Finally, in my experience, the Commission’s knowledge of volunteering is pretty woeful.

How about NCVO (and its sister bodies across the UK), the Association of Volunteer Managers, or some other sector infrastructure body? Most sector infrastructure bodies represent organisations not volunteers, which puts them in a potentially difficult position: would they side with individual volunteers against their member organisations, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ their own members for poor practice? And, as noted with the Charity Commission, what about all the Volunteer Involving Organisations who aren’t in the voluntary sector, who polices their practice?

Do we need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry? Updating the report might give it some more contemporary clout but the core of the original Inquiry’s work is probably still valid. The priority must instead be what we do about the issues it raised, not rehashing the same old issues, especially given that the resulting 3R Promise has been largely forgotten.

A few years ago I wrote that what we need is somebody to step up and start a debate about how to proceed. Somebody who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than reply on a legislative sticking plaster imposed on us by others for when things go wrong. I don’t see a body with the will and credibility to provide such leadership today. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope so.

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with.


What do you think is the way forward? Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who might take the lead on this issue.


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Cost, value and funding cuts

Cost, value and funding cuts

In the future, when we look back on the year 2020, Covid-19 will inevitably come to mind. The weeks of lockdown, the seismic shifts in how we live our lives, driving thirty miles to check if your eyesight is good enough to drive – all will live long in the memory. Yet perhaps the biggest challenge of the year lies ahead, in what some think will be the worst economic downturn in living memory.

When the cost of the pandemic is finally calculated, many feel it is inevitable the the years of austerity that were only just coming to an end in the UK will return with even more devastating impact than we experienced over the last decade. Add to that the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit which would add to the economic woes and the future does not look bright (no need for shades!).

Post-pandemic we might well see cuts to public spending, significant challenges generating charitable income, cuts within civil society organisations and, if the past is to be repeated, reductions in funding for and investment in volunteer engagement. In such a climate it becomes more important than ever to focus on the value we get for the money we spend, rather than simply the cost.

Over the years I have sometimes heard individuals and organisations say that they can’t justify a training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost. So, a cheaper option is found with little or no regard for its efficacy. Rarely, it seems, is consideration given to the value different options would return.

A training course may be free or cost less than a more expensive option, but is it a better quality learning experience? Would spending more money enable improved performance, resulting in greater efficiencies, which in turn recoup that extra cost?

An effective volunteer management system might be a more costly option than a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it’s enhanced functionality and remote accessibility could deliver savings and returns in the longer term that continuing to struggle with a spreadsheet will fail to realise.

With many organisations facing a future with less money than before, there is even more of an imperative that resources get spent on things that will return real value.

Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality. I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting. A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value. By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering a much nicer wine.

More than ever we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too. We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost. This isn’t just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment etc.. It’s also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our organisations when the inevitable budget cuts come.

Sadly, it is all too often the case that when the belts get tightened one of the first things to go is the volunteer engagement function. That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs (because volunteers are free, right!) without any appreciation of the value of that function. How do we help our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if they cut the volunteer management function?

In 2009, 2011 and 2013 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment. The studies showed that organisations which cut the funding for their volunteer engagement work performed less well on a number of measures than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.

In the absence of such research in the UK, and with more cuts coming, volunteer managers need to provide even more evidence of their value and articulate this effectively to their organisation’s leadership. Evidence that demonstrates wider value of their role, as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering, especially when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.

My question to you is, are we up for this challenge in this Covid-19 affected world?


If you are interested in reading more about how how strategic volunteer engagement can help an organisation navigate the challenges of a recession then check out this article from USA-based colleague, Tobi Johnson: “How to Survive the 2020 Nonprofit Recession”.

You can access details on the right free photograph accompanying this post here.

Technology and the changing role of volunteers

Technology and the changing role of volunteers

Last year I wrote the articles “Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date” and “Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future”. Since then we’ve had a global pandemic which has got us all embracing new ways of using technology, both personally and professionally. But has technology transformed the act of volunteering during 2020?

In some ways, the answer is yes. More attention has been given to virtual volunteering than at any time since this way of giving time first developed some thirty five years ago. Perhaps more people have used an online platform to facilitate their in-person volunteering, for example signing up as one of the UK’s NHS Volunteer Responders using the GoodSam app? And I’m certain more volunteers than ever have done some form of video calling via a platform like Zoom, either to do their volunteering and / or to attend support meetings, volunteer social events etc..

I’d argue, however, that whilst these tech driven changes to volunteering are important, they are not really reflective of the scale of change that could happen. Take, for example, the decision by Microsoft earlier this year to replace human journalists with AI content curation. That’s a pretty fundamental shift in the role of paid staff, way beyond those people communicating remotely whilst working from home or applying for their job online.

It’s also a shift that could be coming to volunteering. Yes, that’s right, technology replacing volunteers! This is something I touched on last year when I discussed autonomous vehicles and volunteer drivers, but since then other examples have appeared.

Consider the announcement in February 2020 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed an ‘text generating system’ that can accurately and effectively update content on Wikipedia. The AI even ensures the grammar and style of the text it adds matches what was there before. It’s not a stretch to think that before long thousands of volunteer Wikipedia editors will no longer being needed.

It’s also worth reflecting on the UK government’s investment in technology to transform the care system. Reporting on this in 2019, CNBC stated:

“The scheme, backed by funding of £33.9 million across five years, could result in the development of sophisticated “care robots” which would be deployed to assist the elderly. Actions that could potentially be taken by such robots include helping people up after a fall, making sure medication is taken, and delivering meals.” – CNBC, October 2019

In a world more aware than ever of the risks of disease transmission from human contact and where people in care have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not difficult to see volunteers in the care system being replaced by so called ‘care robots’.

If all that seems a little far fetched, just think about the growing use of drones for household deliveries. This could be used right now to replace the work of volunteers who delivered food and medicine to vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown earlier in the year.

“The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April” – Slate.com, April 2020

Given how important and high profile such volunteer roles have been this year, the introduction of current drone technology could be transformative in the development of post-pandemic volunteering.

You may now be thinking something like, “OK, I get it, but our organisations need volunteers, they are fundamental to our work, we can’t just replace them with technology”. I agree, but consider:

  1. Organisations generally don’t exist to give people an opportunity to volunteer. They exist to fulfil a mission. If they can do that in a different and potentially more effective (and cheaper?) way then why not embrace technology?
  2. During lockdown, some organisations that previously proclaimed they couldn’t do their work without volunteers stopped all volunteering. That’s right, volunteers were so integral to the work that they could all stop whilst the organisation kept on going! In that context why wouldn’t a different way of doing things be considered?

Put it all together and I have to ask, if we faced another global pandemic in ten years time, would volunteers be as needed as they were in 2020, or would technology have replaced them? Will it even be ten years and need a global crisis – is technology coming for our volunteers sooner than we think?

The changing role of Volunteer Engagement Professionals

Back in January (which feels like at least a year ago now!) my Canadian friend and colleague Erin Spink published “Top 20 Ideas in Volunteer Engagement for 2020”. This free eBook featured short essays from a global mix of Volunteer Engagement Professionals (VEPs) and thought-leaders (myself included). Contributors explore trends, the evolution of our practice and the need to reframe our role and I highly recommend reading the eBook, if you haven’t already.

For me, one of the recurring themes is a questioning of the role of VEPs. Specifically, a need to move from the comfort of doing the day-to-day, process driven, ‘cat-herding’ of volunteer management administration, to a more strategic and aspirational leadership role.

Here are two examples from the book to illustrate this:

”For years I’ve been asking volunteer leaders to define what they understand their core role to be – and without doubt, the same set of responses follow; recruitment, selection, screening, training, retention and a few essential management functions. I’ve constantly argued that this both over simplifies and limits the role of volunteer management, and while this viewpoint may have once been an accurate reflection of volunteer leadership, the undertaking of these tasks does nothing more than keep the Volunteer Manager incredibly busy and nowhere near as productive as they might otherwise be…In short, I believe that the ‘core’ role of the volunteer leader has changed forever and it’s time to re-define our core function and understand our roles in a different light!” (Andy Fryar, page 6).

“We all know that volunteer engagement professionals wear many hats, yet that doesn’t mean we alone should be responsible for volunteer engagement. If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” (Beth Steinhorn, page 21)

This shift to a more strategic approach by VEPs is something that’s been talked about for a few years now, so it is encouraging to see that focus being sharpened in Erin’s eBook. It’s a theme that has particular resonance in our Covid-19 affected world, something none of Erin’s contributing authors could have foreseen when they were writing their essays in late 2019.

As I recently argued on this very blog, organisations are going to need VEPs like never before in the world after the pandemic. Setting aside the clarity of hindsight, there are lessons to learnt as to why we weren’t as ready as we could have been when Covid-19 struck. Looking forward, the situation is unclear – the post-pandemic context will be for volunteering and VEPs is still being revealed.

There will be administrative issues to tackle. Thousands of people who quickly mobilised as volunteers with few bureaucratic obstacles in their path will not thrill to our reams of recruitment and selection paperwork. Online systems and quick, seamless communications tools will be expected where before we may have gotten away with offline systems that were slower and clunkier. We will need to re-frame our risk management systems to accommodate new concerns about the virus, ensuring volunteers are kept safe and able to supply robust contact tracing information where required.

There are, however, more significant changes that will be needed to underpin all this. As the quote from Beth Steinhorn stated earlier said, “the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone”.

According to the 2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report, before the pandemic, only 25% of VEPs were 100% focused on volunteer management. Those roles need protecting from job and budget cuts so organisations have the skills, knowledge and resources at their disposal to help everyone adapt – VEP’s influencing skills may be called on as never before!

The other 75% of Volunteer Managers who were unable, pre-pandemic, to dedicate so much of their time to effective volunteer engagement, will need supporting and resourcing to dedicate put more into their VEP duties. Making this case to organisations as budgets shrink and fundraising effort struggle will be a challenge we need to rise to.

All VEPs will need to give significant attention to supporting colleagues across their organisations to embrace working with volunteers, delegating the nuts-and-bolts workload required to get people recruited and deployed effectively. VEPs will also need to analyse and adapt to the shifting organisational requirements of post-pandemic society, reflecting on how those match or conflict with shifts in how, when and why people may want to volunteer. This strategic juggling act will be a key priority for VEPs if organisations are to truly harness the potential of volunteering.

In recent months I have found myself repeatedly quoting Albert Einstein who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. Just as these words effectively summarised for me the themes of Erin’s eBook before I’d ever heard of Covid-19, so they clarify the even greater challenge now facing volunteer engagement professionals in our brave new world.

I know we are up for that challenge and I look forward to seeing how we will, together, rise to meet and overcome it.

How Covid-19 may change our views on job substitution for ever

Four weeks ago I published a guest post (of sorts) from the late Susan J Ellis. It was a slightly edited version of her 2009 Hot Topic, “When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers”.

Reading Susan’s eleven year old article got me thinking about a piece on job substitution that I wrote for Third Sector magazine in February 2017. In this article I want to revisit those thoughts with a particular eye to our pandemic affected world, not least because the idea of volunteers doing what was once paid work seems to be the main thrust of calls for furloughed charity workers to volunteer for their employing organisations.


Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term ‘job substitution’ itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that, in reality, is both impractical and unrealistic.

Far better terms to use are job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement may seem subtle but they are important:

  • Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.
  • Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles due to funding changes, so deploys volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of it’s clients (remember that in most cases charities exist for the benefit of their clients, not their employee and volunteers).

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, then concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihood, two serious errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made:

  1. Volunteers are a free or cost saving option
  2. It is easy to recruit people who will take on those paid roles and do it for no pay

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a preferable way to doing things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase, “Volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff”. It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low status activity next to paid work

I’ve worked in organisations where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who they believe is there just because they are paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement or complement or displace or replace paid staff, they brought something that paid staff could not.

I accept that these issues of who does what for the mission aren’t easy to discuss and resolve – if they were we would have stopped debating them years ago. Yet engaging intelligently and thoughtfully with these issues is essential as we emerge from the early phases of Covid-19, because the way we always did things before the virus simply won’t cut it anymore.

Not everyone who volunteered for us in the past will do so again.

Paid staff are, sadly, going to be be laid off.

Money may be in short supply as unemployment and financial hardship reduces charitable donations.

Mission driven organisations will have to rethink how they fulfil their goals with a different mix of human talent and skill than they did before.

As Albert Einstein said:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”.

Are we as leaders of volunteer engagement ready to lead this debate in our organisations? Are we ready to challenge old orthodoxies that may not fit the new world we live in?

I hope so, because our leadership is needed now more than ever.

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.