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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Has it all been said?

Has it all been said?

I’ve been regularly writing articles on volunteer engagement for over ten years now and I’ve started to wonder, has it all been said now?

Here’s some context. Since starting Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011:

  • I’ve written over 200 articles on my blog
  • For eight years I wrote a monthly column for Third Sector magazine
  • I’ve written quarterly Points of View articles for Engage with Susan Ellis and then Erin Spink, also for eight years.
  • I’ve written articles for people’s newsletters, journals and blogs at various points during the decade
  • I’ve co-written three books – two versions of ‘The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook’ and the UK edition of ‘From The Top Down’
  • I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve written on news articles, blog posts and the like

Looking back at all of that writing there are almost no volunteer management topics I haven’t touched on. This is unsurprising when two of the books I’ve been involved in have the word ‘complete’ in their titles!

I’ve written practical articles with tips and tricks for getting better at working with volunteers.

I’ve shared my opinions on issues and topics related to volunteering.

I’ve passed comment on government initiates, many of which have faded almost as fast as they appeared, to be replaced by something else which I also commented on.

I’ve (hopefully) challenged, rebuked, inspired, advised and informed.

So have others. Slowly but surely more people are writing about volunteer engagement, adding their perspectives and insights to our growing library of professional knowledge.

We also have a wealth of material available to us. Twenty years of articles on Engage. The numerous books, articles and hot topics from the late, great Susan J Ellis. The blogs of Jayne Cravens. And countless more if we choose to look for them.

So what’s left for me to say?

Can I spend the next decade writing with the same frequency, producing content that adds value to the profession?

Given the comparative lack of innovation in volunteer engagement practice of the last decade (or longer if you want to be really cynical), is there anything to be said that has a realistic chance of stirring some creativity and new practice?

Am I just having an existential wobble as a writer in the world of volunteer engagement, or is this really it, the end of having anything worth committing to the page and putting out into the world on a regular basis?

These aren’t just empty questions to be cast into the world and whose echo is left to resound with no reply. I’m asking them of myself, but also of you.

I want to know what you think, not as a way to stroke this writer’s wavering ego, but as a way to hopefully inspire to me to commit afresh to my role as one of many voices seeing to move our profession forward.

What issues do you think need covering that aren’t being addressed?

What insights, advice and challenge do you think we all need?

What issues are important that leaders of volunteer engagement are being silent on?

In short, what should I write and what would you want to read?

Over to you.


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The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

On the 4th July this year I racked up 27 years working in volunteer engagement. Whilst I love being a part of this wonderful profession I dislike still having to answer the question we all dread, the one that comes when you meet someone for the first time, and they ask…

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

If you take the direct approach and respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” (or any of the other multitude of titles you could have) you might get one or more of the following responses (all of which I’ve experienced!):

  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “Do you get paid to do that?” A particular doozy when I was applying for my first mortgage application!
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer.”
  • “Oh, I was once a volunteer…,” usually followed by a long story about their volunteering. I once had someone blether on about how they volunteered once a few years ago as if that one experience made them an expert in a subject I’ve dedicated my whole professional life to!
  • A blank stare.
  • The person asking looks at you quizzically and then moves on to someone who they suspect might do that they might actually understand.

The other approach to answering the dreaded question is to fudge it and just say, “I’m in HR”. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called (read that article and reflect on why it’s still so relevant 15 years later!) then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone outside the profession?

A few years ago I read a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain it to others. What struck me was this line:

“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”

I like this approach. Instead of trying to get someone to grasp what we do by sharing our vague and confusing job titles or explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question instead, “Have you ever volunteered?”.

The chances are good that they have been a volunteer at some point and it’s very possible that they were engaged and supported by a Volunteer Manager. This gives us an excellent opportunity to relate what we do to that unknown peer who helped this person give time to a good cause.

Of course, you could be the Volunteer Manager who supported the person asking another Volunteer Manager what they do for a living. This highlights one reason behind our collective responsibility to give everyone a great volunteering experience — helping volunteers understand the importance of what our profession does to enable people to change the world for the better. Remember, you never know who your volunteers are talking to.

So, next time someone asks you what you do for a living, give this approach a try. Then come back here and let me know how it went.


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My career journey

My career journey

I’m always fascinated by how people got into the wonderful world of leading and managing volunteers. No careers advisor suggests it and no child ever says they want to be a Volunteer Manager when they group up — well my youngest son did when he was little, but that’s because I’m his dad!

So, how do we get into this work? Here’s my story.

As a young child I wanted to be a pilot, specifically a fighter pilot. Growing up in the 1980s, I guess you can blame Top Gun for that one. All through senior school that was the plan — finish school, go to university and join the Royal Air Force. My late and much missed mum even decided that I’d have an advantage if I could ride a horse so signed me up for riding lessons — I’m still not sure if I understand that one.

My plan was on track until I got to university. I was studying physics and modern acoustics and, after a year or two, I decided it wasn’t for me. I’d focused on other things than academic work and my worldview had started to change, as it so often does at that age in that kind of environment.

My third year at university was supposed to be a placement year. Poor grades meant getting anything in physics was impossible, so I landed a job at the university, running a scheme placing students as classroom assistants in local schools. The purpose was to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged children towards higher education. The work was volunteer management, although I didn’t know it and nobody called it that.

I learnt more in six months than in the previous two years of my degree and enjoyed the experience significantly more. I dropped out of university and carried on with the Volunteer Manager role, contributing to work CSV (now Volunteering Matters) were doing on student tutoring and mentoring.

CSV's book, "Learning Together", on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter - my first published writing for our field.
CSV’s book, “Learning Together”, on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter – my first published writing for our field.

After that one-year contract finished I spent the summer of 1995 unemployed before getting a job at the student union working as an advisor in the student support service. Part of my role was to recruit and manage a team of volunteer student advisors — volunteer management again. That contract lasted nine months after which I moved to London.

By this time I knew I wanted to do more work with volunteers and applied for a few jobs, not getting any of them. So out of necessity I moved into recruitment with Hays Accountancy Personnel for a few weeks. I hated it. I had a long commute across London during a long hot summer of frequent tube strikes and my boss thought I was good at cold calling, the part of the job I hated the most.

One day, completely out of the blue, I got a call from Barnardo’s. I’d applied for a job with them, supporting volunteer engagement across children’s services in London and the South East, but hadn’t been successful. The call was to tell me the person who had been appointed had decided not to take up the post and would I like it after all? I jumped at it.

I spent two and a half wonderful and formative years at Barnardo’s and will always think fondly of them for the opportunity they gave me. Through that work I attended the first National Volunteering Conference at UMIST in Manchester, hosted by the National Centre for Volunteering. I joined the National Volunteering Forum, members of whom are friends of mine more than twenty years later.

Barnardo’s also paid for me to attend the first-ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management where I met the head of volunteering for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Cutting a long story short, six months later I was working for RNIB, supporting volunteer engagement across all external relations work (fundraising, communications, marketing etc.) throughout the UK.

I loved it at RNIB. I got to work with some brilliant people, made many friends and had some wonderful opportunities. Not only that, but I took part in projects around business process improvement and customer service management, attended some great in-house leadership training and got to ‘act up’ as Head of Fundraising Strategy for nine months. They even let me take my first steps into freelance work, running a side-gig delivering training for the Directory of Social Change.

After six years at RNIB I moved on, taking up a role managing a team of nine regional officers at Volunteering England (VE). Our team supported the local Volunteer Centre network across England, specifically around our development agenda, Building on Success, which became the main thrust of the Westminster government’s ChangeUp initiative to modernise the capacity of the third sector.

I’d been at VE a little over a year when I applied for and was appointed into the role of Director of Development and Innovation (as it was eventually called). I now had a place on the Senior Management Team, oversight of all our externally funded work (Sport England, Department of Health etc.), lead responsibility for our grant making work and a team of about eighteen staff. During this time I also led VE’s merger with Student Volunteering England, temporarily took charge of our policy & public affairs work and worked on a variety of interesting projects.

Sadly, the 2010 general election led to VE’s strategic funding from Westminster being cut. In 2011, I was made redundant. The organisation merged into NCVO two years later when the funding was scrapped altogether.

In 2011 work was hard to come by. The effects of the 2008 global financial crisis were still being felt and the coalition government in Whitehall was slashing funding for the charity sector. So, I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd. We opened for business in April 2011, and I have loved every minute of it.

I’ve worked across the UK with a wide range of interesting and amazing clients.

I’ve spoken and trained at countless events, conference, and workshops.

I’ve been across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA.

I’ve co-written three books and published over 200 articles on my blog.

I remain as passionate about the profession of leading volunteer engagement as I did in 1994 when I took that first job at University.

After all that looking back, I can’t wait to see what the future brings!


What’s your story in volunteer management? How did you find yourself in this amazing field? Please post a comment to join the conversation.


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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

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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Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

A year ago I wrote an article called “Eighteen nuggets of wisdom for leaders of volunteer engagement” which shared quotations to inspire and challenge us in our work. As I explained at the time, I collect quotations and I’ve gained some new favourites in the last twelve months, so I’m returning to the concept of last year’s article to share a further twelve nuggets of wisdom for your enjoyment and inspiration.

1

“Crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends.” – Ruchir Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 2020.

2

”If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” – Beth Steinhorn

3

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” – Elizabeth Warren, USA Senator

4

“Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.” – Seth Godin

5

GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Senator Robert F Kennedy, 1968

6

“In a world that is continually changing, every right idea is eventually a wrong one.” – Roger Van Oech

7

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali

8

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.” – Greek proverb

9

“If we have made the world that we experience, then we should not be asking ourselves how to find our proper place within it. We should be asking whether we have structured it well.” – Prof. Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh

10

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” – Maya Angelou

11

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

12

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.” – Abraham Lincoln


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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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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

A new year message for 2021

A new year message for 2021

Happy new year!

Well, we made it through 2020. Is anyone missing last year? No, thought not.

I can’t recall an end of year when so much hope, desire and aspiration was directed to the next twelve months. With attention so future focused some big questions will be asked. What do we want our country to be like now we’re properly outside the EU? As the pandemic (hopefully) subsides, how do we want our society to change? What lessons do we want to learn from the last year? What will our ‘new normal’ look like?

It’s worth reflecting on these words from Seth Godin (published on his blog on 1 September last year):

“We’ve got a deep-seated desire for things to go back to normal, the way we were used to. But this, this moment of ours is now normal. For now. And then, there will be another normal. There is no “the new normal”. Because that’s definitive. There’s simply the normal of now.”

Whilst some of our attention as leaders of volunteer engagement should absolutely be future focused, reflecting on what this time of global upheaval and change will mean for volunteering and our organisations, we also need to pay attention to now. To the opportunities of the present. To how our volunteers feel in the moment. To the challenges of today. To ensuring we have the energy and resolve to face tomorrow.

To focus on the now, I am drawing on the year gone for inspiration as 2021 begins.

I’m still in awe at the outpouring of compassion and care so many people demonstrated in 2020. Everyday people offering help to those affected by the pandemic during the UK’s lockdown. Volunteering (even if it wasn’t always called that) became essential, not a second tier way of doing things by incompetent amateurs out to take people’s jobs (as volunteering is all too often viewed by too many). The first lockdown made us a society and a community once again, not an economy populated by units of ever more production to feed the machine.

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.

At the passion and commitment of those Volunteer Managers who spent weeks on furlough, concerned about their volunteers and desperate to support them despite not being allowed to.

At the collaboration that enabled an amazing Volunteers’ Week 2020 to happen in England.

As a new year begins we should remember with pride what we achieved in 2020. If we survived and thrived in spite of everything the last twelve months threw at us then we can face whatever comes our way the year(s) ahead with confidence – today and one day at a time.

Here’s to a great 2021.


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