Aiming for the wrong target

FeaturedAiming for the wrong target

Back In July, Third Sector magazine ran an article with the title, “Turning Covid-19 volunteers in to long-term volunteers” (the article sits behind a paywall so may not be available to all). When I read that headline for the first time, I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands, summoning up the will to read on.

I passionately believe that the premise of the headline is the wrong approach to be taking.

Rather than seeking to bend these people to our will — our desire for regular, long-term volunteers, either because we genuinely need them or we just can’t our won’t change the volunteer model we’re comfortable with — shouldn’t our initial response be to learn from what has happened during the pandemic and consider what changes we might need to make as a result?

‘Covid-19 volunteers’ are people across the UK who helped out their friends, neighbourhoods, and communities as the economic drivers that dictate how we live our lives were stripped away through furlough, lockdown, and social distancing. With no employment and commuting to do, they stepped up to help when the world turned upside down because it was the right and responsible thing to do. They did so in a highly flexible, often informal ways, encountering little bureaucracy — no forms, risk assessments and ad nauseam paperwork. That’s a million miles away from what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘volunteer’. In fact, I’d bet that many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ would never even see themselves as volunteers.

If we believe the narrative, many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ hadn’t volunteered before. Which begs the question: if they didn’t want to engage with the stereotypical, formal concept of volunteering before Covid-19, why would they suddenly have a change of heart when their experience since March 2020 has been so radically different from what many Volunteer Involving Organisations offer?

If all many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ had to do to get involved was respond to a social media post or WhatsApp message, why would they choose to engage with the endless bureaucracy many Volunteer Involving Organisations require?

To me, it’s misguided to assume that because people have volunteered during the pandemic they will be automatically interested in doing so in future, especially on our terms and not theirs. Because the truth is, if we want to engage these people as volunteers in future, we have to change and in significant ways.

Thankfully, the leaders of volunteer engagement interviewed for the Third Sector article didn’t engage with the premise of the question either and focused on some of those changes that are needed.

Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants, nailed it when Third Sector quoted her as saying, “Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy.” If any organisation is entertaining the idea of embracing volunteering post-pandemic, then they need to start not with themselves, but with the people they seek to engage. Forget our desire for long-term volunteers — how do people want to serve our cause, what works for them, and how can we incorporate that into our plans for the future?

I’m sure Third Sector meant well with their headline, and some may think I am over-reacting to eight words at the top of their article. But, as I have written many times before, language is important. What language coveys matters. And there will be people — probably some board members and senior leadership colleagues — who saw that headline and are even now going to their Volunteer Managers and demanding something be done to convert ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ into long-term, regular givers of time, in total ignorance of the futility of such an approach.

The challenges of the last eighteen months have been immense. More are sure to come. But the opportunities we face in volunteer engagement are equally exciting and significant. If we are to seize them, organisations need to start from the right place, with a sound understanding of reality and a real desire to change, not as naive belief that the volunteers of 2020 are just waiting to do our bidding in future.

Perhaps a better headline would have been “Turning organisations into something Covid-19 volunteers want to get involved with”?


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What is excellence?

What is excellence?

The 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day theme is, “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary”. This is a great question for our profession to engage with and one that’s long overdue for attention. Here’s why.

Volunteer management as a paid professional role has been around for about fifty years. For more than half of those I have occasionally asked fellow leaders of volunteer engagement to define what makes someone a good leader of volunteers. For example:

  • Is it our ability to engage with and relate to people as individuals?
  • Is it our ability set policies and procedure that support and safeguard volunteers?
  • Is it our advocacy for volunteering within our organisations?

Rarely do I get a clear answer and even rarer still do I hear any consensus from those I ask.

This means that five decades in, our profession still struggles to define and agree on what constitutes ‘good’ in our work. Given that excellence is, “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”, it would seem that we don’t actually have a benchmark of good against which excellent can be defined.

This is why an article Seth Godin wrote for the Tom Peters blog in 2010 resonated with me when I looked at this question of, “What is excellence?”.

Here’s what Seth says, along with my brief reflections on his observations:

“Excellence means that you’re indispensable. At least right now, in this moment, there’s no one else I would choose but you. You, the excellent one, are so surprising, so delightful, so over-the-top and, yes, so human that there really isn’t anyone else I’d rather dance with.”

Are you and your organisation indispensable in the sense that you are the first choice for volunteers? The experience you offer and the relationship you have with your volunteers is so delightfully human that you are their preference.

In our for-impact space that may sit a little uncomfortably with some as it might be construed as setting us above other organisations. I think that misses the point. This isn’t about competition — winning isn’t the point — it’s the taking part, the striving to be excellent so that we connect with people that matters.

“Excellence isn’t about meeting the spec, it’s about setting the spec. It defines what the consumer sees as quality right this minute, and tomorrow, if you’re good, you’ll reset that expectation again.”

Excellence in volunteer management isn’t about meeting someone else’s spec. It’s not about meeting some external standard, helpful as they may be (e.g., Investing in Volunteers or CCVA). Excellence is defining the spec — setting the standard — based on your knowledge of and relationship with volunteers and the community you serve. It’s about striving for excellence in your interactions with volunteers, meeting that every day, and pushing the standard ever higher in future.

“The surefire way to achieve excellence, then, is not to create a written spec and match it. The surefire way is to be human. To be artistic: to make a connection with the customer and to somehow change them for the better.”

Excellence in volunteer management is not about policies, procedures, forms, volunteer agreements and the like. Excellence is about connection, human connection that brings someone into a relationship with our organisation such that they can change the world, and themselves, for the better.

“To be excellent means you must be an artist. The art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. Artists do things that have never been done before. They dig deep to create passion. They connect by changing things for the better.”

I honestly can’t think of a better way of answering the question, ‘What is excellence?’, than by saying, “We connect by changing things for the better”.

It’s a powerful way of describing that leaders of volunteer engagement strive to do every day so that those we serve can change the world with their passion.

To sum up then, what is excellence in volunteer engagement? It means we must be an artist. We practice daily the art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. We do things that have never been done before. We dig deep to create passion. We connect by changing things for the better.

That’s excellence in volunteer engagement right there.

Do you agree?


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What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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We need leadership that values more than money

We need leadership that values more than money

Five years ago, I read an article about a report from the fundraising think tank, Rogare. The headline finding of the report was that fundraisers should be rewarded not for performance against short-term metrics (such as income targets) but longer-term measures (such as donor satisfaction).

As the report put it:

“If you can focus on donor satisfaction, the money will surely follow.”

The Rogare report also found that the majority of the fundraisers surveyed have “problematic relationships with senior colleagues” which often manifested as a short-term approach that demanded immediate returns on investment.

The message was clear – fundraisers don’t have the support, buy-in, or understanding of their colleagues and superiors: from trustees, chief executives and finance directors; and from the likes of communications staff and campaigners at a peer level to be able to implement practical relationship fundraising.

This will sound very familiar to many leaders of volunteer engagement. Their performance is often measured against the wrong metrics like how many volunteers they have, how many they recruit and how many hours they give. They know that if you give volunteers a great experience (volunteer satisfaction) they will probably want to give more time, and maybe even money, in future. They certainly experience very little buy-in or understanding from colleagues and superiors, the very same people highlighted by Rogare in regard to fundraisers.

This similarity suggests to me that some of those who hold key senior roles in nonprofit organisations don’t really understand the factors that make fundraising and people raising successful. Why else would fundraisers and volunteer managers have such similar experiences?

Of course this isn’t true of every CEO, senior management team or board. There are many out there who ‘get it’. But there still seems to be a significant number who don’t, and I wonder what steps are being taken to rectify this? Volunteering is still undervalued and hidden in many organisations.

This quote sums up part of the problem:

“Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients.”
– Professor Clayton Christensen. Harvard Business School

As we look to a post-pandemic world where we will have to see new models of doing things, we also need to be looking at new models of for-impact leadership that value people over cash. Leadership that will nurture and sustain relationships, rather than finding ways to maximise the value of the next transaction with a person.

Until such leadership emerges in those places where it is currently absent I fear we will fail to live up to our potential to change our society for the better, at the time we are perhaps most needed.


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“Can I speak to your manager please?”

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

Could the job titles we give those who manage volunteers be hampering their ability to recruit volunteers?

I’d been on the phone for ages and was getting nowhere. All I wanted was to update my policy. The customer service assistant I was speaking to couldn’t cope with any deviation from their script. It was a“Computer says no” experience. There was only one course of action left.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”.

I’m sure we’ve all had a situation like that. We’ve had to go over somebody’s head to speak to a person with the authority to get things done. Which got me thinking…

Back in 2016 I wrote an article about where leadership of volunteering should sit in an organisation structure. But I didn’t explore at what level responsibility for volunteering should sit. How much authority should the leader of volunteers have?

In my experience, most jobs responsible for volunteers include the words “assistant”, “officer”, “co-ordinator”, or “administrator” in their titles. These often suggest a low pay grade and little authority. It is unusual for me to come across a “Director of Volunteers”, or a “Senior Volunteering Executive”. In fact, the most senior title I usually encounter is that of “Manager” of volunteers / volunteering / volunteer engagement

This could be a problem, as my American friend and colleague Barry Altland remarked on LinkedIn some time ago:

What has also baffled me is the careless use of lexicon to describe the role. Even “manager” denotes a certain function within a typical corporate-equivalent structure, and the term “co-ordinator” carries even less juice. These two titles mean, to many volunteers who bring any corporate exposure, that the person in whose care they reside is just another cog in the machine, not a major player. All this has an impact on the ability of the leader of volunteers to fully equip, guide, support and inspire the volunteers who choose to serve.

Volunteers increasingly come with a lifetime of skills and abilities that they want to use to help good causes. Sadly, their experience isn’t always a positive one. Those working with volunteers often have low status in an organisation and can’t do much to change things for the better. As a result, volunteers may get angry and frustrated at having to deal with someone so junior. The next step is perhaps inevitable.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

That’s not what we want talented potential volunteers to say. That doesn’t give people confidence that we will make the most of their time, that we will value them.

It’s long overdue that organisations give those who lead volunteering the authority to effect real change and a job title that conveys this.

To quote a frustrated volunteer who wrote about their experience for The Guardian some time ago:

“It’s a charity’s job to ensure that both potential and existing volunteers feel valued, recognised and useful. In a climate where charities need all the help they can get, finding and keeping enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers should be a priority.”


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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I say, I think so.

What, then, can we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s make this happen together.


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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.


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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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