How much is that piece of paper in the window?: A volunteer leadership and management perspective

FeaturedHow much is that piece of paper in the window?: A volunteer leadership and management perspective

Not the catchiest title for an article is it? Sadly, the first half of it isn’t mine, I borrowed it from Seth Godin. The second (more boring) half is mine. It’s a qualifier to Seth’s better prose because I want to look at some things he said last Octoberand reflect on them in the context of those of us who lead volunteer engagement.

Regular readers of this blog may recall the wonderful Sue Jones writing two articles for this blog a year ago all about qualifications, learning and development.

Sue wrote these because 2019 was expected to see the end of accredited learning in volunteer management via the Institute of Learning and Management (ILM). Sue questioned whether gaining qualifications in volunteer management was important and encouraged readers to consider a broad range of professional learning and development opportunities. It’s a theme I want to return to as we get 2020 underway.

In his article, “How much is that piece of paper in the window?”, Seth Godin sets out the case for learning rather than the pursuit of qualifications.

”Learning…is self-directed. Learning isn’t about changing our grade, it’s about changing the way we see the world. Learning is voluntary. Learning is always available, and it compounds, because once we’ve acquired it, we can use it again and again.”

Seth believes people don’t do enough learning, preferring to focus on the pursuit of a certificate (diploma, degree, CVA etc.) which, he argues, is focused on a more restrictive approach to professional development, one grounded in compliance.

“We’re surrounded by chances to learn, and yet, unless it’s sugarcoated or sold in the guise of earning a scarce credential, most of us would rather click on another link and swipe on another video instead.”

This is something Seth thinks is ingrained in us from an early age.

” ‘Will this be on the test?’ is a question we learn from a young age. If you need to ask that before you encounter useful ideas, you’ve been trapped. It’s never been easier to level up, but the paper isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe.”

I find this fascinating. I’ve long held the belief that most accreditation in volunteer management doesn’t assess the right things. It looks at compliance, with things like National Occupational Standards which, in my view, determine how well someone does the systems, policies and processes part of volunteer management. What’s been missing for me is the really important parts of our work: our leadership competence; our ability to take ideas from other fields and apply them into our own; our competence at engaging with and relating to people etc..

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t have any form of accredited qualification in volunteer management. What I do have is more than twenty-five years experience working in volunteer engagement at all levels, in different settings, operationally, strategically, within infrastructure, on policy and practical matters. In all that time I have never encountered a volunteer management accreditation that would capture and reflect my experience in a way that would do those twenty five years of experiential learning justice.

So, where is this going you might ask? Good question!

As we start a new year and make resolutions for the twelve months, I’d like us to think about a few things:

  • Is the accreditation of volunteer management that exists fit-for-purpose? Does it not only assess, but accurately reflect the uniqueness of what leaders of volunteer engagement do? How?
  • Are there other forms of accreditation out there that may well suit our needs much better that what we’ve had before? Is there a marketing accreditation, for example, that would be more valuable in our recruitment work? Or a leadership accreditation that may be more generic than volunteer management but captures the so-called ‘soft skills’ (I hate that term) much better?
  • Are we really embracing learning in our professional lives, or simply pursuing a piece of paper that confers a status but doesn’t move us forward? Is that true of our organisations as well, striving for Investing in Volunteers every few years but never really addressing some of the fundamental barriers to volunteer involvement in our organisations?
  • How diverse a conception of learning do we have? Is it traditional face-to-face training all the way or do we see podcasts, books, journals, videos and a whole array of opportunities as valid learning? How would your boss view sitting and watching a series of YouTube videos compared to attending a course where you get a certificate of attendance (which isn’t even accreditation)?
  • How committed are we to our learning? As professionals, do we invest our own time, money and effort, or see it as something our organisation should invest in for us? When we attend a training course, do we approach it with the attitude of waiting for the trainer to impress us, or with an open mind, seeking out opportunities to learn new ideas and perspectives and to actively participate so others in the room (including the trainer) can learn from us?

These are big questions. But we mustn’t shy away from them.

To kick start your professional learning for 2020, pick one (or more) of the questions above and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If you’d prefer to take a different approach and make other observations on this theme, that’s fine too. The important thing is that we all engage and learn together from each other.

I’m excited to see what you think. Over to you.

Why we need to stop talking about volunteer programmes

Why we need to stop talking about volunteer programmes

It’s a new calendar year for most of us.

A new start.

A busy time.

The holidays already seem like a distant memory and the demands of the job are piling up once more.

So, for this first blog article of 2020, I’m going easy on you.

It’s not a long read.

The core of it is a 116 word quote from the book I wrote five years ago with the late, great Susan J Ellis, “From The Top Down – UK Edition”.

It is a quote that I hope will encourage you to think about the volunteering vocabulary you use in 2020.

It suggests a simple but profound change we can all make that will better reflect the importance and value of what volunteers do.

Here we go:

”As the definition and use of the word volunteer changes, other vocabulary issues have surfaced. In this book, you’ll occasionally see ‘volunteer programme’ language to describe the organised integration of volunteers into an organisation’s service delivery, not least because it is language many who manage volunteers still use, but more often we have tried to avoid it. Why? We believe it is a valid observation that volunteers are not a programme. The word programme usually describes a subgroup of specific services within an organisation’s entire range of activities: the reading programme, the gardening programme, and so on. We do not speak of the ‘employee programme’, do we? That’s because employees provide programme services. So do volunteers.”

Think of it as a challenge to set a professional new year resolution – one you’ll keep beyond the end of the month!

Stop saying “volunteer programme”.

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Next Tuesday is the 20th annual International Volunteer Managers Day. To mark the occasion, this article is the second of two posts on the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.

Internatuional Volunteer Managers Day logo for 2019, "Change The Tune"
Internatuional Volunteer Managers Day logo for 2019, “Change The Tune”

Last time we looked at three such mistakes. If you haven’t read that article please do so now because in this piece we’re going to look at solutions to those three mistakes.

Ready?

Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

A hand moving a chess piece
A hand moving a chess piece

The actions that can be taken to resolve – or better still, avoid – this mistake are pretty simple. So simple, I wonder why more organisations don’t embrace them. For example:

  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to regularly present to and discuss with the board and / or senior leadership team on strategic issues regarding volunteer involvement.
  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to strategic planning away days when new plans are starting to be formulated or existing plans reviewed and revised.
  • Allocating lead responsibility for volunteer engagement at a strategic level to a board member and recruiting that person for their specialist knowledge, as well as their competence in governance. For a while now I’ve advocated that Volunteer Managers should volunteer to join the boards of other Volunteer Involving Organisations to provide volunteer engagement expertise at a governance level. Maybe you could partner with a colleague locally to do this for each other?
  • Including meaningful measures on senior management team KPI / scorecard or other performance monitoring dashboards. When I say meaningful I do not mean how many volunteers the organisation has, how many hours they give, or recruitment rates stated in isolation. I mean measures that link back to outcomes and / or impact achieved e.g. recruitment rates tied to a specific outcome that needs to be achieved, such as recruiting ten new volunteer mentors because ten new clients have joined the programme .

Turning to a more research informed perspective, take a look at this article I wrote last year, “Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers.” It drew on on work that explored how Chief Executive’s (CEOs) recruit, support, and resource four key positions in USA based non-profit and public sector organisations, including Volunteer Managers. Two key points are worth quoting: the first about getting more senior leaders to understand the strategic importance and value of volunteering; and the second about how we Volunteer Managers can scupper our own efforts to be taken more seriously.

“(There is) a need to include volunteer leadership and management in the curriculum of university non-profit management courses…how can we educate people to lead civil society organisations effectively if we say nothing about the strategic value and importance of volunteer engagement?”

“By describing what they do as a volunteer programme, leaders of volunteers reinforce the view that volunteer engagement is a tactical and not a strategic aspect of an organisations work. This limits the way they are viewed as a strategic asset to the organisation’s work and suggests why Volunteer Managers are often left out of strategic planning discussions.”

Finally, I did say last time that I am increasingly coming to think that where the lead post for volunteer engagement is located within an organisation is secondary to the inclusion of that person in strategic planning and decision making. That doesn’t mean their place on the organisational chart isn’t important though, which is why I addressed this in a 2016 article, “Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?”.

Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

A circie of people putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A circie of people putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

It’s easy for most of us to reach into our pockets and give a couple of quid to a good cause. It’s far harder for us to find a couple of spare hours to help that good cause through volunteering, especially if that commitment is needed regularly.

However, engaging me as a volunteer is truly that, engagement. It’s more than a transaction. We form a relationship, hopefully a positive one where we both benefit. A relationship where I will most likely become strongly affiliated with your mission.

Too many organisations prioritise the shallow, transactional “£3 a month” donors over other, deeper forms of public support, missing out so much potential.

What we need is an approach in organisations that seeks to find friends, allies and supporters and then creates a way for those people to engage with us in whatever way is appropriate to them at whatever stage of their life they are in. In the jargon, a truly integrated support focused journey.

This means we have to adapt as our supporters’ motivations, interests and availabilities change. This means we should have systems, processes and supporter relationship management tools in place to make this happen, not simply using a tool that works best for one kind of supporter (shout out to all of you Volunteer Managers forced to use Raisers Edge as your volunteer database because that’s what fundraising use, not because it’s the right tool for you).

Ultimately, this means different departments don’t see people as ‘our’ volunteers or ‘our’ donors anymore, but a wider, well-stewarded pool of friends supporting our work – friendraising.

NB. You may be interested in Meridian Swift’s article “Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate” which explores a similar theme.

Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

Four hands with the text underneath' "It takes a village to raise a child"
Four hands with the text underneath’ “It takes a village to raise a child”

As I said last time:

”Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.”

The solutions here aren’t difficult. For example:

  • Every staff member should have engaging with volunteers in their job description. Everyone. That means the CEO and Senior Management (and not just saying they should work with the board!). How engaged these senior roles are with volunteers in their own work is a good indicator of how strong a volunteering culture an organisation truly has at a senior level.
  • Every new employee recruited should be selected in part for their willingness to engage with volunteers in the work of the post they are applying for. Ideally, they should have some experience of working well with volunteers. They should at least be asked at interview how they’d manage someone who is a volunteer and how this might differ from managing paid staff. This applies to the CEO and senior managers too!
  • Every new paid staff hire should have something meaningful about working with volunteers as part of their induction course so they understand that volunteers are an integral and important part of the team.
  • Every person working with volunteers should be required to attend training on leading and managing volunteers, just as they would usually be required to attend training on managing paid staff if they were in a management role. In fact, this could make all managers better managers, as working well with volunteers enhances someone’s ability to work with paid staff (the opposite isn’t always true!).
  • Effectiveness in working with volunteers should be evaluated as part of every employee’s annual appraisal and regular performance reviews.

I’ve looked at just three mistakes. There are, of course, many more that organisations can and do make. That’s why I wrote “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis. It make a great Christmas present for your CEO and is available now from Amazon (link is to UK store only – check your local Amazon store for availability if you’re outside the UK) and the Directory of Social Change in both print and electronic formats.

What mistakes (and solutions to them) would you add? Leave comment below with your thoughts.

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

It’s a little over two weeks until International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) 2019. Aside from the surprise that another year has passed and the day has come around again so fast, I am also astounded to realise that this year mark’s the twentieth anniversary of the very first IVMDay!

Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of 'Change The Tune' alongside the radio
Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of ‘Change The Tune’ alongside the radio

Since its inception, IVMDay has been about education through celebration. Whilst Volunteer Managers are welcome to mark the day in whatever way they wish, the core purpose is about educating others about the essential role we have to play in effective volunteer engagement.

This year’s IVMDay theme is “Change The Tune”. As colleague DJ Cronin said when he proposed the idea:

“Time to be proactive instead of reactive & discover our power & harness it for good. Time to teach HR the dynamic science of leadership found in volunteer management. And time to stop whinging about our lot!”

Here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog I’m doing my bit for IVMDay 2019 with a two part mini-series of articles.

In this first part, I briefly look at three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. I’m taking a step back from volunteer management to look at the wider organisational context in which volunteering takes place and three ways that organisation leaders can get things wrong, impeding the work of Volunteer Managers and limiting the potential of volunteer engagement.

In the second part (due out on 1 November) I will look at three solutions to the mistakes outlined below, giving ideas for how organisational leaders can create a more friendly volunteer culture.

So, here we go with part one – three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.


Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

Pieces on a chessboard
Pieces on a chessboard

This might be a bit controversial but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the question where volunteer management should sit in an organisation’s structure is to miss an important point. The location of a Volunteer Manager in a structure chart isn’t entirely irrelevant, but more important is whether they are involved at a strategic level in organisational leadership, management and planning.

Consider this from the 2014 “New Alchemy” report by nfpSynergy:

“It is no coincidence that charities doing particularly interesting work with volunteering also tend to boast meaningful senior roles in the field, where those leading volunteer development sit on a level with peers in Fundraising, Membership or Communications and are therefore better situated to champion their agenda and argue for joined-up strategy across these departments.”

Yes it’s talking a bit about hierarchy but the key point is a bigger one about strategic thinking. That’s why the first mistake I am highlighting here is the failure to think strategically:

  • failing to learn from the insights volunteers can provide as well as the talents and skills they bring to the organisation
  • forgetting to think about the role volunteers can play in fulfilling the mission until the last minute when all the other planning is done
  • not involving the volunteer management function in strategic planning

Which leads us to our second point.


Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

In the same report quoted above, the next paragraph says:

“Such organisations have been able to discern the benefits of a more integrated understanding of engagement across donor, member and volunteer co-ordination functions and may also have significant functions around external engagement more broadly; rightly seeing community volunteer engagement as knitted in with voluntary income, partnership-building and marketing objectives.”

Money is important, I get it. But it isn’t the only resource non-profits have at their disposal. If it were we’d be no different from for-profit organisations. Furthermore, an organisation’s current money donors aren’t the only source of individual donations. Volunteers can be some of the most generous donors, if asked – and asked in the right way!

NB. Donors could also be a great source of volunteers, if they were allowed the opportunity to give a bit of time.

Keeping donors, volunteers, members and others in separate silos fails to maximise the potential of all an organisation’s supporters, however they show that support or might wish to show it in future. This is a potentially serious mistake, limiting the resources an organisation has to achieve its aims.


Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

Four cartoon hands with text below them saying "it takes a village to raise a child"
Four cartoon hands with text below them saying “it takes a village to raise a child”

It doesn’t matter how great your volunteer manager is, they can’t realise the full potential of effective volunteer engagement on their own. As the late great volunteer management expert Susan J Ellis used to say:

“Even the most effective Volunteer Manager cannot engage volunteers alone, it takes everyone’s attention”.

Expecting the volunteer manager to do it all on their own is akin to expecting the HR manager to be the sole person responsible for effective staff engagement, from recruitment to retention, discipline to reward, induction to performance management and everything else.

Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.


So there are three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. Stay tuned for our next article on 1 November 2019 which will explore three solutions to these mistakes.

If you can’t wait that long, why not take a look at “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, the book Susan J Ellis and I wrote for senior leaders to help them understand the key role they play in creating a positive organisational context for effective volunteer engagement.

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

September has turned into guest post month here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog. Last time Andy Fryar’s shared his tips for Volunteer Managers looking for a new job. Now, Chris Reed from the British Red Cross explores whether it’s always a good idea to consult with volunteers when seeking to improve your volunteer engagement work.

Enjoy!


Back in June Rob wrote about leaders of volunteer engagement needing to put pen to paper or alternatively, as I’ve done, finger to keyboard and ‘share our views, opinions and insights on anything and everything’. I responded on Twitter violently agreeing, as I do with so much of what Rob says, and now here I am!

I must confess, Rob and I have history! Our paths have crossed on many occasions, we’ve both been Trustees of our respective charities over the years – Rob on my Board when I ran a Volunteer Centre and I on his when he was at Volunteering England. Since then I’ve spent a bit of time (understatement alert) dabbling in volunteering at a few household name charities.

With all this under my belt and a commitment to craft a blog what was I going to write, where do I start, what will strike a chord, what will be of interest?

Early days of volunteer management

When I started out in the world of volunteering there was no Association of Volunteer Managers, there was no Volunteer Centre network (we weren’t even called Volunteer Centres back then) and networking opportunities were quite rare. What did exist was UKVPMs (an email group for UK Volunteer Programme Managers) set up in 1997 by, you guessed it, Rob! It was realistically one of my only sources of help and inspiration in my early career in volunteer management.

UKVPMs gave me chance to see what others were thinking in the sector, to read opinions, views and gain insights from folk I thought far more knowledgeable than myself. Over time my connections and networks grew, I moved on from the volunteer centre and began working for household name charities. As a Head of Volunteering I had my own volunteers and wasn’t just advising other organisations on how best to look after theirs. These volunteers were the lifeblood of the organisation, without them we couldn’t deliver our mission.

This is where for some of you I may start to get controversial.

Every volunteer manager, whether new to the role or long in the tooth will know of a time where your organisation hasn’t had enough volunteers. Either the recruitment process is taking too long (if you’re able to measure it) or you’re losing too many people (if you can measure that). So we diagnose a recruitment and retention problem and, having identified the problem, say ‘right, in order to fix this we’re going to set up a working group of volunteers to find a solution’. This has the added benefit of allowing us as leaders of volunteers to demonstrate a real commitment to volunteer involvement, showing the rest of the organisation how it’s really done.

But wait! Remember the title of this article – beware your existing volunteers. In the situation I describe you absolutely don’t want to be engaging with your traditional consultative group of longstanding volunteers, for three very good reasons:

  1. If recruitment is your problem, what does a volunteer you recruited twenty years ago know about what it’s like to go through your recruitment system today?
  2. Your longer standing volunteers might be the ones who are the ‘go to people’ for consultations but you should be thinking about those that have only just joined you, ideally those who started the process, but gave up (non-volunteers).
  3. If retention is your problem, what are you doing talking to your existing volunteers, they are the ones who have stuck around. Get to those who left! They will be the ones who have the stories to tell about whether you’re actually offering a good quality experience or not.

The benefits of thinking differently

As far as retention is concerned, doing some digging with those who have left you may well reveal that you have delivered such a great volunteering experience people have used it to go on and get a paid job. On paper that’s a retention problem, but in actual fact by talking to people who are no longer your volunteers you’ll find out whether there is really a problem with retention or that you’re success at getting people into work means you’ll just have to live with always refilling a bath with the plug out. You can then focus on how to turn the tap on more and bring more people in at the front end. (Very oversimplified I know, but you get what I mean.)

You can be more nuanced in how you benchmark good and bad. After all, a good volunteer recruitment process for your volunteer with twenty years service may not be the same as a good experience for today’s tech savvy social media user who, if you’re too bureaucratic, will simply get a load of their online friends / followers together and set up their own social movement (#activism).

You’ll get the benefits of an external perspective – do you have marketing experts in your organisation and, more importantly, have you ever talked to them? If not can you get some pro-bono volunteer support in this area? Ask them to help you find out what the outside world, your non-volunteers, think about your volunteering proposition.

At some point though, despite the title of this article, you should engage with your volunteers. They are the ones who know what it’s like today. They know what works and what doesn’t (and have probably found workarounds for the latter completely unbeknown to you!). For this their experience is invaluable, but be cautious, use their skills, knowledge and experience in conjunction with and not at the expense of other equally valuable sources of insight.

To conclude

Take a step back and think hard about who are the right audiences to engage in the right things and at the right time. What’s the exam question you’re trying to answer as you transform your volunteer programme to make it fit for purpose, or indeed just keep it on track and up to date? And, for goodness sake, talk to others in the sector. At best someone will have done what you’re doing before, at worst, someone else will be tackling exactly the same problems as you and you can share the pain. So don’t just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, be curious and read as well, network, engage and share, and good luck!

PS Thanks Rob for the challenge of writing this, its been a pleasure (for me at least but hopefully for the reader too).


Chris Reed is Director of Volunteer Mobilisation at the British Red Cross, one of over 190 Red Cross/ Red Crescent Societies across the globe. Chris’ previous experience includes Head of Volunteering positions at Barnardo’s and St John Ambulance and Chris was Chief Executive of Volunteer Centre Westminster.

His voluntary roles include Trustee of Horsmonden Social Club and Committee member for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups.

Chris has been a Trustee/ Board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), Volunteering England and Greater London Volunteering.

All the views expressed in this blog are Chris’ and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organisations Chris has worked or volunteered for.

When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

I’m sat writing this article on 11 June 2019. My weather app tells me it feels like six degrees celsius outside (42.8F). It’s pouring with rain and blowing a howling gale.

On British summer days like this I wish there was an element of truth when I say to people “If I had £1 for every time I’ve heard someone ask if we should call volunteering something different…”. If it were true then, after 25 years in volunteer management, my view wouldn’t be of rainy England but something like this…

View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day
View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day

Yes, we’re still we having the same old debate. If we called volunteering something else wouldn’t it make it more attractive to non-volunteers? Wouldn’t it sound cooler and sexier, like GamesMakers did at the 2012 Olympics?

My answer is no.

Consider the term social action. This gets bandied about all the time here in the UK, especially in regard to young people. In the report into full-time social action for young people that was published in February 2018, social action was defined as being:

“…distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights.”

As I noted at the time:

”Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s). Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment). Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.“

Calling volunteering something different doesn’t solve a problem, it creates new ones. Every time we come up with a different term for volunteering we have to spend time, effort and energy explaining what it is so people understand it.

Look at what the report mentioned above found:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”.

As I observed at the time:

“In other words, whilst they may of heard of it (social action), half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem (i.e. volunteering)?”

What then is holding us back from rebranding volunteering as an alternative to inventing new words for it?

I think part of the problem is that organisations can have a very traditional, almost purist, approach to what is and isn’t volunteering. This then reinforces a traditional, outdated view of volunteering which isn’t attractive to people. For example, if valid volunteering requires a regular, long-term commitment to low level tasks then count me out. I want something more dynamic, flexible and meaningful that I can dip in and out of.

This traditional mindset can also impede the ability of volunteer managers to influence others, further limiting our ability to reclaim the v-word. As Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling pointed out in their 2007 article:

”Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the “true” or “real” volunteer.”

That’s why I have always loved the late Ivan Scheier’s definition of volunteering – doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good. It’s a personal definition. It implies organisations should start with what people want to do, the passions and experience they want to bring. It means creating roles with them that both meet our needs and fit with their availabilities and interests. It means a volunteering experience they enjoy, they find fulfilling and rewarding, and that doesn’t conform to the stereotype of old fashioned models of giving time.

John Ramsey, the founding chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, once said:

“Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities.”

John was talking about the need to keep debating what volunteering is because society is always changing and so, therefore, is volunteering. But John always came back to and used the term ‘volunteering’. He didn’t go down the linguistic equivalent of the emperors new clothes, with terms like social action. We mustn’t either.

We have to reclaim and re-brand the word ‘volunteering’ so that its essence isn’t lost or diluted as others try to give it new names.

That’s why I run a workshop called ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’. It gives people space to think hard about their fundamental beliefs on volunteering and what that means for their practice as leaders of volunteer engagement.

Sadly, ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’ is one of the sessions I am asked to do least. What a shame! It’s exactly the kind of session we need to ensure we resist clinging to an outdated, purist doctrine of volunteering in a fast changing world. It’s exactly the kind of session we need to help us inject new vitality and energy into the v-word.

Whilst it would be nice to get booked to run my philosophy workshop more often (hint hint!) there are other steps we can take to ensure the word volunteering remains relevant and important. Here are just two ideas:

  • When you hear another word for volunteering being used (e.g. social action, community action, time giving, pro bono etc.) ask why the v-word isn’t being used. Challenge any spurious distinctions being used to justify not calling something volunteering.
  • Keep abreast of how society is changing and what that means for volunteering. Years ago people giving short term commitments weren’t seen as valid volunteers, that status was reserved for the long-term, high commitment people. Those times have changed (thank goodness). How might today’s orthodoxies need to shift for the future?

What else would you add? What do you think about the use of v-word?

Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think.

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why should leaders of volunteer engagement put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and share their views, opinions, insights and thoughts on anything and everything volunteering?

One of my aims when I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011 was to write more and, since then, I have lost count of how many articles I’ve written. It must be coming close to 170 for my own blog, where I now publish one piece every two weeks. There is also a monthly column I write for Third Sector online which has been running since the early days of my freelance career. And, of course, the quarterly Points Of View feature I have co-authored since 2013 for e-volunteerism.com, first with the late Susan J Ellis and more recently with the wonderful Erin Spink.

On top of all that are guest posts for others, commissioned writing for clients and two books: “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis; and “The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook” for the Directory of Social Change, both the third edition and the forthcoming fourth edition with Dr Eddy Hogg, Mike Locke and Rick Lynch.

But why do I write and, more importantly, why should you?

Four reasons why I write

  1. To contribute to and build up the field. The vast majority of what I write is done voluntarily – I don’t earn a penny for 99% of my written work. Why? Because I am passionate about volunteering and the essential work of those who lead and manage volunteers. When I started in the field I benefited from the freely available writing of leaders like Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Jayne Cravens, Ivan Scheier and Linda Graff. Now I can share the insights and experience I have developed during my twenty-five years of experience and contribute to the field myself. “Pay it forward” in action.
  2. From personal experience, I know how busy the day-to-day life of a volunteer manager can be. It can feel like an isolating role, with demands mounting up daily from volunteers, colleagues, managers, prospective volunteers and organisational leaders. Consequently, it can be hard to carve out thinking time during the day – time to reflect on some of the big issues facing volunteerism. And if we do manage to carve out the time, what are the big issues? Through my writing I hope to provide food for thought for colleagues, musing on issues relevant to you in your busy professional lives. My aim is that what I say leads to actions that help volunteers to have a more rewarding experience whilst they make important contributions to organisations’ missions and society’s needs.
  3. Whilst things have improved more recently, I think we have a shortage of independent people in the UK who speak out when issues come up that affect volunteering and volunteer management. Volunteer Managers have traditionally relied on our peak bodies (NCVO, Volunteer Now, WCVA and Volunteer Scotland) and professional associations (AVM, Heritage Volunteering Group, AVSM, NAVSM etc.) to speak for us. And they do, but they can’t always take the line that’s needed or speak out on every issue. As an independent writer, I believe I have a voice that is free from the potential constraints of political influence, funding or inter-agency politics.
  4. Whilst my main motivation for writing is to give back to and build up our field, I also do it because it is great marketing for me and my work. I hope those of you who read what I write like it, feel challenged or inspired by it and so might consider hiring me to work with you as a consultant, a trainer or a speaker. Of course, what I write will continue to be freely available, even if you do’t hire me, but some have, and for that I am grateful.If you’d be interesting in getting in touch about how I can help you in your work then just drop me an email.

Four reasons why you should write

  1. Writing things down makes you think about what you want to say. Whether it is sharing an insight you have, a response to a news story, or something you feel passionate about, the process of getting what’s in your brain down into written form forces you to have an opinion. Not enough people working in volunteer leadership and management roles share their opinions about the strategic and operational issues we all face.I am not urging you to go write a book – although perhaps you might! But what about replying a blog post (like this one – hint hint) or to an article in an online magazine, or making a social media post?
  2. Which leads me to my second reason more people in the volunteerism field (you!) should write. Once you have an opinion and you share, it gives an opportunity for others to engage in debate over your views. Such debate forces us all to think, to sharpen our understanding, challenge our perspectives and advance the theory of volunteer leadership and management (and ultimately the practice, for there is nothing as practical as a good theory). My own views on working with volunteers have developed significantly (and continue to do so) from reading and discussing the thoughts and insights of others. I haven’t always agreed with them but I have always learnt something. What could you help others learn and think about today?
  3. And so to my third reason why you should write – I want to know what you think. So do others. It isn’t just the ‘leaders’ in volunteerism from whom we can learn. All of us have something to share. That’s why I started UKVPMs over twenty years ago: as a forum for people in the trenches of volunteer management to ask questions, share tips and ideas and advance our collective knowledge. That’s why I got involved in co-editing the free Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet eBook (link opens a PDF download), in which forty people from across the field of volunteer management around the globe (contributions come from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and the USA) share what they have learned about making your organisation attractive to volunteers. You have fabulous treasures of knowledge others could benefit from, so please share.
  4. My final reason for encouraging you to write is that it has never been easier to share your ideas and insights. Blogging, social media and new technologies have revolutionised the provision of – and access to – information on volunteerism. It’s no longer necessary to write a book or dissertation to get your voice heard, so there is no longer an excuse for not having the time to comment.

Susan J Ellis wrote that the internet means no volunteer manager should ever feel isolated again. This is true, but the more people write and contribute to the ever-growing library of knowledge online, the richer we all become.


This article is an edited and updated version of one that originally appeared on my old blog site on 25 July 2011. You can access all the articles I published before switching to WordPress in November 2016 here on the old blog site.

If you have an idea for an article on volunteering matters and you’d like to suggest is as a guest post on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog then I’d love to hear from you. Just get in touch here.