Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?

FeaturedIs this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?

What makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had consistent answers from people. This includes the answers from those familiar with professional credentialing programmes, such as the Certificate in Volunteer Administration (CVA) or the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) we used to have in England.

But it’s a question we should be able to answer, right? We should be able to articulate what makes us good at what we do, especially if we want to influence others around volunteering and the importance of good volunteer management?

I was, therefore, pleased to recently discover this article from the UK’s Canal and River Trust which set out “Seven qualities of a great volunteer manager”. There is little to disagree with in the article, but that also means there is little to distinguish a Volunteer Engagement Professional from any other role.

Which begs a further question: Is what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement the same as what makes someone a good leader of paid staff, or of anything else?

In trying to answer that, I turned to the Volunteer Management Progress Report(VMPR), a piece of research specifically looking at Volunteer Engagement Professionals, which is conducted annually by Tobi Johnson. The VMPR has been running for seven years now and is perhaps the best source of up-to-date data on the profession.

The 2021 VMPR was the last one to contain comprehensive information on the characteristics of respondent volunteer mangers. Assuming those who respond to the survey are typical of the field, we can determine that good leaders of volunteer engagement are:

  • White (83.8% of respondents)
  • Female (88.1% of respondents)
  • Aged between 45 and 65 years old (mean and median average of respondents)
  • Work full time (80% of respondents)
  • Paid (93% of respondents)
  • Have more than ten years of experience in the field (56% of respondents)

Readers will hopefully realise that I am being facetious by suggesting these characteristics are what makes someone a good volunteer manager. There is, however, no getting away from the fact that they describe the typical Volunteer Engagement Professional. As Tobi put it in her analysis of the 2021 VMPR data (using her native USA for context):

“Research show that 66% of US nonprofit employees are women. While people of color are roughly 40% of the population, 32% of nonprofit employees are people of color, which is double the number of those who work in volunteerism (16%).

“Volunteering data in the US shows that volunteers also look like those who engage them – White (26.4% versus 19.3% of Blacks, 17.9% of Asians, and 5.5% of Latinos/as), educated (65.3% with at least some college education), and women (27.8% versus 21.8% men).”

“Our big questions continue to be – Does a lack of diversity affect who becomes a volunteer? Does this impact which volunteers discover opportunities, and which volunteers invite their friends, thus reinforcing a cycle of sameness?”

Let’s pause for a moment, then.

Does any of this bring us any closer to answering the question, what makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Not definitely, no. But that’s why I titled this article,“Is this the hardest question to answer in volunteer management?” In almost thirty years, I’ve struggled with this question. So have others. And if you’ve ever though about the question, perhaps you can see why.

My aim in writing this article is to challenge all of us to find some sort of coherent and consistent answer. To that end, I want to propose some questions to engage what Hercule Poirot would have called the little grey cells:

  • What exactly do we mean by good in the context of leading volunteer engagement?
    • Is it truly about leadership (doing the right things) or management (doing things well)?
    • Put another way, is it about our ability to engage with people, or manage systems and processes, or both and, if both, what is the correct balance?
    • Do our professional credentials (CVA etc.) adequately reflect this?
    • Does our learning and development activity, sector conferences and events etc. adequately reflect this?
    • Is it about something else altogether?
    • If so, what?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement context specific? In other words, is ‘good’ in sports volunteering different from ‘good’ in health and social care volunteering, or ‘good’ in fundraising?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement different for formal volunteering compared to, say, informal volunteering, community engagement, movement building, mutual aid etc.?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about serving and reflecting an existing audience of volunteers, or about actively implementing change to address inclusion, diversity, equality, and access issues?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement related to being different from the typical profile of our profession? If it is, then why? Is that because we can be more relevant and engaging to a wider range of potential volunteers?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about delivering or innovating? Or both? And what is the correct balance if it is both?
  • Is being a good leader of volunteer engagement about being steeped in the traditions and knowledge of our field (as laid out in the tried and trusted texts of the profession)? Or is it about being inductive learners, embracing and adapting the practices of others and applying them to our work (e.g. learning from the experts in marketing and customer service to enhance volunteer recruitment)?

What do you think?

What are your reflections on these questions?

What other questions would you ask to help answer this challenging question?

If you had to say it in one sentence, what do you think makes someone a good leader of volunteer engagement?

Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation going.

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Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Earlier this year, Catherine Wearden at Agenda Consulting wrote an interesting piece on their website entitled, “What are the differences between how employees and volunteers feel about your organisation?”. Great question!

In this article, I want to reflect on Agenda’s findings and what they might be telling us about volunteer engagement and Volunteer Involving Organisations.

So, before you go any further, I highly recommend reading Catherine’s Agenda Consulting piece here.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on whistleblowing

Catherine highlights that employees are 26% more positive than volunteers when asked if they know how to report poor practice.

I agree with her that this is worrying. Volunteers should know how to report issues, to whom, and they should feel supported in this.

Volunteers can sometimes be more objective than paid staff, and perhaps feel more free to raise concerns, not least because they may not be putting their main source of income at risk by raising an issue as a volunteer.

If volunteers aren’t able to raise concerns, organisations may be missing out on valuable learning opportunities, as well as key information to support effective safeguarding.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager action on poor performance

It doesn’t surprise me that employees feel more confident than volunteers that managers take prompt action if people’s performance falls below acceptable standards.

If an employee is performing or behaving poorly, we know something needs to be done. Nobody like doing it, but action will inevitably be taken.

Whilst most Volunteer Engagement Professionals would be clear that they need to act if volunteers are behaving or performing poorly, it is often other paid staff (or volunteers) who do the day-to-day management of volunteers

These people may feel they can’t challenge poor performance or behaviour by volunteers. Perhaps they lack the confidence to do this. Perhaps they lack the emotional literacy to deal with people who aren’t being paid. Perhaps they fear that volunteers will get angry and leave, not ideal if you are already short of volunteers. Perhaps they think that because volunteers are unpaid they cannot be held to standards of behaviour and performance — they are doing it for ‘free’, and out of the goodness of their heart, after all.

We need to be equipping those who work directly with volunteers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to act where it is needed. This is a good place to start.

Effective volunteer engagement is everyone’s job, not just the responsibility of the Volunteer Engagement Professional.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on receiving feedback

As Agenda Consulting put it:

“Volunteers are less likely to receive feedback from their managers, which they could find valuable in their development.”

To my mind, this is closely tied to the previous point. If we avoid having difficult conversations with volunteers, then perhaps we are also not giving volunteers timely and effective positive feedback. Given how important this is to retention and recognition of volunteers, we may be missing a big trick because of our fear about talking to volunteers when things aren’t going so well.

In saying this, I am aware that the opposite may be true — we may be happy to give good feedback to volunteers, it’s just the bad stuff we avoid — as we’ll see shortly.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager support with problem-solving

This is how Catherine puts it:

”Employees are also 18% more positive than volunteers on the question “My manager helps me find solutions to problems”. This indicates that volunteers are receiving less support from their managers than employees. Is this because line managers of volunteers typically have less time to devote to them? Or is it seen as less important to help a volunteer solve a problem than a paid employee?”

I’d say both of the questions Catherine asks are valid. I’d add another question too — is the work we are giving volunteers so basic and easy that they don’t need to solve problems along the way?

When a volunteer is tasked with envelope stuffing, tea making and filling, problem-solving isn’t really an issue.

When a volunteer is tasked with developing a new project, service or way of working, then problem-solving is far more likely.

But how often are volunteers given that kind of responsibility?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling valued

This is great news. 87% of volunteers gave a positive response to this question. It suggests that we are doing a great job of recognising the contribution volunteers make.

It is sad, however, that paid staff don’t feel as valued, and suggests that those managing paid staff in the sector might have a lot to learn from those of us who get the best out of people without paying them for their time.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on information sharing

As Agenda Consulting state:

“Volunteers are 16% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation is open, honest and shares information effectively”.”

This is interesting as anyone, whether employee or volunteers, needs accurate, timely and honest information to do their job.

Perhaps what the data is revealing is that organisations and managers are working harder to communicate with volunteers than paid staff. Perhaps they assume staff will pick things up from the endless stream of emails and Teams messages (because we all studiously read those, don’t we?), whereas they know they need to work harder to get information to volunteers who don’t have access to these forms of communication.

As with the previous point, whatever organisations are getting right with volunteers might be worth focusing on, so we do a better job for paid staff as well.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling cared for

It’s great that volunteers are reporting a positive experience here. Feeling valued, cared for and communicated with creates a strong bond with an organisation, so it’s good to see such efforts paying off with volunteers.

Once again, it seems more effort needs to be placed on doing the same things with employees, especially when remote and hybrid working has replaced the bonding that can come from working in an office together.

If volunteer managers are getting so much right, why aren’t HR colleagues learning from us?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on organisational values and ethics

I’ve nothing to add to this beyond what Catherine wrote:

”Volunteers are 15% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation has strong values and operates to high ethical standards”, with 91% positive on this question. It is difficult to say why this may be, although it is encouraging that volunteers tend to believe this. Perhaps volunteers have lower levels of access to “insider information” that could lead employees to be more sceptical on this.”

Those are my thoughts and reflections. Why do you think?

Leave a comment below to continue the conversation.

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A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

In this guest post from Laura White, you have a fantastic opportunity learn first had about volunteering in Berlin and gains ’em insights that you can apply in your own organisations wherever you are in the world.

Over to Laura…

It’s rare that someone gets to drop out of their normal life for twelve weeks, but thanks to Sustrans’ career break policy, that’s exactly what I was able to do between April and July this year. I put cover in place for my job for three months, packed my bags and travelled to Germany with literally zero plans, apart from to try to volunteer.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be – I can speak a bit of German, but I wondered if volunteering opportunities might be limited by the fact that I couldn’t commit long-term. In my job looking after volunteering on Scotland’s National Cycle Network, I’ve seen a huge growth of interest in episodic and short-term, flexible volunteering – would the same be true abroad?

To skip to the happy ending…YES, it was. Incredibly true. I was able to volunteer for many different projects in Berlin, for different lengths of time. It was easy, fun, fulfilling and, quite frankly, a real eye-opener.

Most of this was thanks to a volunteering platform called Vostel – after a simple registration I could search for opportunities based on my level of German language (“basic”) and my preference of activity (“hands-on”) and was immediately given nearly fifty opportunities in the Berlin area. For many, you simply read through the task outline and signed up for a shift, after which you receive exact details of where to be and who to ask for.

My first choice was to try to give time to a project supporting the huge number of Ukrainian people escaping the war and arriving into Berlin. I signed up for a three-hour shift with Berlin Caterers for Good at the main train station, where they distributed food and drink donated by local companies – I was welcomed, given a short briefing and put on the sweets and drinks stand, where I quickly learnt the Ukrainian words for juice and water, found out that people of all ages like a lollipop, and was reminded how much a smile can bridge a language barrier. I returned again a couple of weeks later.

Through the same shift sign-up process, I started volunteering with Bikeygees – a project supporting women from across the world to learn to cycle. For the twelve weeks I was in Berlin, I joined them nearly every week, and made new friends, helping women from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria progress from not being able to ride at all, to cycling solo around the park and repairing a puncture. Each week I simply registered for a shift and turned up. I had chosen to commit, but the admin was no greater.

With a slightly different start, I volunteered regularly for Berliner Stadt Mission at their Haus der Materialisierung – a collaborative zero-waste project based in an old multistorey carpark. They had advertised on Vostel for people to help upcycle old textiles into bags, and invited me along for an initial chat where I was shown the Haus and the task, and then we worked out what time commitment I could give and for how long – I chose four hours every Wednesday for ten weeks, and filled in their volunteer registration form (with a bit of translation help from Google Lens). They were the only project to ask me to report my hours and how much I had done, but also the project where I gained the most skills, thanks to one-on-one support from the project officer.

A commitment of a different kind came in June when I applied to be a volunteer with the Special Olympics National Games – a week-long competitive event for 4,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, supported by 2,000 volunteers. I had a role in Volunteer Management, which required training, a uniform and a commitment to a number of shifts that week, but which also gave me the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, practise my German, and dance at the Athletes Disco under the Brandenburg Gate.

Between these commitments, I also joined Clean River Project for a litterpick on the Landwehrkanal where I was put in a double kayak with a pharmacist named Nina, who gave me an informal tour of Berlin neighbourhoods as we paddled along and pulled bottles, plastic and an Oktoberfest Mickey Mouse from the water. (The latter won the Best Piece of Litter competition, judged by a volunteer clapometer…).

And I took on a stint volunteering to give out finish tokens at parkrun at Hasenheide Park. As I take part in the runs, I already knew the task and that these events rely on parkrunners volunteering themselves – a mutual-aid community.

What did I learn from all of this?

Taking part in every single one of these opportunities felt frictionless. There were no barriers. When I was asked to do more admin in order to volunteer, it was after I had a clear idea of what I would be doing and it was in return for support, skills-development or feeling part of a team; sometimes all three.

Almost every opportunity was based around the activity, rather than a volunteer role. In most cases I wasn’t asked to ‘become a volunteer’ for any organisation; I was supported and welcomed to undertake a task, at that moment, for the duration that I had committed to. I felt free to try new things and to step away from those that weren’t for me. But I could also commit to those that felt right. My time in Berlin was limited, and therefore precious. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on interviews, inductions, and getting started on something I didn’t know if I would enjoy and want to continue.

But this is always true for a lot of us. Time is a scarce resource for those of us who fit volunteering around other commitments and we need to maximise our use of it. Since I’ve been back in Edinburgh I’ve decided to step down from a voluntary Committee role I’ve been doing for thirteen years, and try some new voluntary activities, inspired by the things I did in Berlin. Many projects I contacted asked me to go through time-swallowing admin, including reference checking, lengthy handbooks and in-person inductions before I had a chance to try out the activity and decide if it’s something I want to do. It has taken ten weeks from starting to look, to be actively volunteering anywhere new – almost the length of my whole career break.

All of this is fuelling the fire of things I’ve been thinking about recently, as we’ve been implementing the Sustrans’ Five-Year Volunteering Strategy. How do we move to a more person-centred human approach for volunteering that removes friction and makes the most of people’s time? One that recognises a person’s unique strengths, interests and needs, and gives them choice and flexibility from the start? And how do we do that in a way that continues to take account of important volunteer processes, such as safeguarding and data collection, but that feels appropriate to an individual’s involvement?

I’ve been really pleased to see all of this referenced in the Systems map in the Scottish Government’s new Volunteering Action Plan – ‘fit’, ‘less bureaucracy’ and ‘accessible opportunities’ all feature in the system. Martin J Cowling talks about the same in his recent Engage article, suggesting we may need to “repackage elements of our volunteering to give people ‘taster’ experiences of volunteering in more supervised environments with fewer checks”. I’m excited to bring this all together in my own work with volunteers, and aim to give more people the same fulfilling volunteering experience that I had in Berlin.

Laura White is the Network Engagement Coordinator (Volunteering) for Sustrans, and has been volunteering since she was 18. Laura can be contacted through Twitter, through LinkedIn or via email.

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I’m sorry, what did you say?

I’m sorry, what did you say?

I enjoyed writing this article because, after what seems like ages, I once again get to question Government plans for volunteering.

I’m not being party political. All the parties get plenty wrong on volunteering. Some even get some things right, sometimes. It’s just that I used to enjoy writing articles highlighting the apparent default ignorance of politicians about what makes for successful volunteer engagement.

So, I was eager to put finger to keyboard last week when reports started coming through in The Huffington Post that the new UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (and deputy Prime Minister), Therese Coffey, had announced a “Call For One Million NHS Volunteers This Winter” (NB. This only applies to the NHS in England). The story then even got a mention on Have I Got News For You!

I went to the UK Government website to verify the announcement and found that it is indeed correct:

”As part of the plan, Dr Coffey will also call on the public to take part in a ‘national endeavour’ to support the health and social care system, calling on the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again. This will include a push for more volunteering across the NHS and social care.”

I have four immediate questions.

1—Why a million?


That’s a lot of people.

Where did the figure come from?

Is it just there because it sounds big and so make for a good press release, or has there been a proper consultation and engagement across the NHS that has led to one million volunteer vacancies being identified?

I’m guessing the former.

2—What will a million volunteers do?

Assuming some thought has gone into this, what exactly are these volunteers going to do to help? Answer telephones? Triage patients? Make cups of tea? Take blood samples? Give injections? Drive ambulances?

I mean, volunteers can do all those things (if the right people are recruited, screened, trained and placed), but should they be doing them?

When public sector pay is lagging far behind inflation, when strikes are commonplace and more threatened, is this really a good time to be recruiting a million volunteers into the health & social care sectors? Don’t we risk accusations of volunteers undermining paid roles and strike-breaking?

That’s not a good look for volunteering and could damage us all.

3—Is there time to get them all recruited, screened, trained and placed?

To quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming.

How are a million people going to be found, their paperwork processed, interviews conducted, references taken up, criminal record checks done, training delivered and placement secured, all in the next few weeks?

And we are talking weeks, not months. It took RVS months to mobilise 400,000 NHS Volunteer Responders during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Government seems to want a million volunteers up and running by the new year! That’s a tall order, even if some of them have been active before.

Volunteer Managers in the NHS do a brilliant job, but they are often under-resourced, like the rest of us.

Is there a massive investment in volunteer management capacity coming to meet this million volunteer ambition, and soon?

I think we all know the answer to that one.

4—Are there enough people able and willing to help?

To quote the Huffington Post article I referenced earlier:

“The government hopes that the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS will come forward again.”

Do they now? Let’s look at some data.

Six million fewer people volunteered in the second lockdown in late 2020 than in the first lockdown that spring. The numbers dropped again in the third lockdown in early 2021. Oh, and of the 750,000 NHS Volunteer Responders recruited, over 300,000 were never given anything to do — not a particularly positive experience, as I can personally attest.

This suggests that it’s highly unlikely that there are a million people just sitting around with time to give to the NHS when the government wants them to.

It appears that the days of poorly thought through announcements about volunteering are back, announcements that completely fail to consider the practicalities and realities of effective volunteering engagement.

Politicians and officials really must do better. If they are going to come up with such ideas, however well-intentioned, they really ought to talk to the experts first — for example, Volunteer Engagement Professionals and Volunteer Centres.

They also need to invest for the long term too, so short-term ambitions like this are a little more manageable. As I said, back in 2020:

“Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts too funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on bare-bones resources that diminish year-on-year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times, it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best, but capacity is much reduced.”

I made similar points at the start of this year too, when I argued why volunteering infrastructure needs to be supported by all of us, not just those working in it.

But it isn’t just government that have to buck up their ideas.

I’m going to say it — our sector must also do better. So much of the post-lockdown narrative about volunteering has built this myth that there are millions of people who loved helping so much in the spring of 2020 that they are desperate to come forward and volunteer again. This narrative was being peddled just this week at the Labour Party Conference.

As if nothing has changed in the last two years to affect their availability and interests.

As if we were all still sat at home, furloughed on 80% pay, bored with Netflix and looking for something to fill our time.

As if, in a cost-of-living crisis, people can just find the time to volunteers and forget about making enough money to pay the bills.

In England, we have a Vision for Volunteering through to 2032. We need to use this to have a sensible, well-informed and realistic conversation that helps ministers and officials to understand how volunteers can help, and what is actually needed to make this happen.

It’s time for a reality check, and for sensible heads in government to prevail.

One can only hope.

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Why it’s important to take a break (and four tips for doing so regularly)

Why it’s important to take a break (and four tips for doing so regularly)

I don’t know about you, but the last couple of years have simultaneously felt like the longest years of my life, and the fastest to flypast. So, now, more than ever, it is important to take a break now and again, to switch focus away from work, from the volunteers we support and the cane we strive to make, and look after ourselves for a short while.

Since Covid-19 came along, we’ve lived through lockdowns that seemed to drag on forever as we put so much of what we took for granted on hold. Then, in our vaccinated and lockdown free society, life resumed at a frenetic pace as we all started to find our feet again, resuming a new-normal life.

But life is never normal, new or otherwise. We may not be masked-up and socially distancing like we did last year, but things have changed. They always do. Even without Covid-19, 2022 would have been different from 2020. And 2024 will be different from today.

We may still be working from home, but just when we think we’ve adapted to a new way of working, something else comes along to throw in another change. Perhaps now we are juggling time during the week, working at home whilst also resuming some travel as we start to visit offices and events again.

For some, the end of lockdowns has meant dealing with an influx of returning volunteers, champing at the bit to get going again. For others, it has meant stress and worry as the volunteers of the before-times stay away. We are then faced with the mammoth task of replacing them, recruiting from a public who are perhaps not as keen or committed as those ‘traditional’ pre-Covid volunteers.

In my own work as a consultant, I think I’m someone who thrives on change. In general, I like it and welcome it. I mean, I spend my professional life helping people to make it! But I acknowledge that change can be exhausting. Despite switching to a four-day week and ensuring I book some longer stretches of time off throughout the year, I still feel drained after a few months of hard work. I’m sure you do too.

That’s why it was nice last week to get away. Properly away. Out of the country away. Beside a pool in hot weather with no work or domestic chores to do away. It was the first break I’ve had like that in four years, and boy did I need it.

I know I’m very lucky and privileged to be able to take such a break, especially in the challenging financial climate we all live in right now. Not everyone can afford the time or cost of a week overseas, especially when the cost of just surviving day-to-day grows and grows.

The good news is we don’t always need a big recharge holiday away, in fact, it’s just as important to make sure we get a break on a regular basis, week to week, rather than saving all our rest up until a big annual break.

Whatever our circumstances are, there are things we can do to try to make the most of some time off to recharge our batteries. Here are four that I try and do regularly:

Get a change of scene. Even if only for a day or even a few hours. Take a trip to somewhere new or different. Don’t stay at home the whole time, especially if that’s also where you work. If you are a homeworker like me, the temptation to just deal with a couple of emails could be too great. Put some distance between you and your laptop. Go for a walk in a park, visit a nearby city or heritage site, have a coffee at the cafe down the road. As the cliché says, sometimes a change is a good as a rest.

Turn off your devices. Disconnect work email. Divert calls to voicemail. Be brave, and turn off your phone. No social media, no alerts pinging at you. Even if you can’t physically get away, mentally take a break from all that occupies you in daily life. Juts a couple of hours of this can help.

Read a book. Grab a novel and let yourself be transported to a different time, place, circumstance, or even universe. If reading isn’t your thing, try an audiobook. No visual stimulation, just immersion in something different.

Meditate. This can help you relax, especially if it involves visualisation where you can visit a beach or park or other relaxing setting in your mind’s eye. If you’ve never tried meditation before, I recommend Balance, not least as you get a year for free!

As this article goes live, I have been back at work for four days already. I’ve got some more time booked off in October. I’m full of good intentions to actually take that time off work, because in previous years I’ve just carried on through to Christmas. I’m also intending to try to manage my workload a bit better, so I’m not so exhausted when the next break comes along.

If you want, I’ll let you know how I get on.

How have you taken a break this year? Did it make a difference to you? Why?

What can you plan to do now that will give you a break in those long months between summer and Christmas?

What top tips for taking a break would you share?

Whatever your thoughts, please leave a comment below and share them with me and others.

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

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Marketing to Generation Z

Marketing to Generation Z

Earlier this year, I happened across a report from the CM Group entitled, “Marketing to Gen Z: A Fresh Approach to Reach a New Generation of Consumers”. Whilst aimed at the commercial sector, it’s a free and easy read with insights that leaders of volunteer engagement will find useful.

With that in mind, if you want to engage more young people — Pew Research define Generation Z as those born between 1997 and 2012 — then here are my top four takeaways from the report.

Takeaway one – Act now

If we intend to engage Gen Z, then we must act now.

As the report states:

“Marketers who aren’t evolving their strategies to engage this younger generation are already falling behind.”

The body of research into Gen Z is growing fast. We need to learn from, understand and engage with these young people if we want to effectively engage them in our organisations.

Takeaway two – Understand them

We have to understand Gen Z as a distinct group, rather than assuming they are just younger Millennials. According to the CM Group report, Generation Z:

  • are more practical and ambitious than emotional and idealistic
  • are less optimistic than millennials when it comes to issues like climate change, and gender & racial equality
  • are more cautious than Millennials when it comes to embracing new technology
  • are focused on education and success, and they use technology to get what they want
  • are most receptive to value-oriented messages and engagement tactics (a boon for non-profits)
  • more than any other generation, they expect personalised communications and seamless experiences across all online and in-person channels

Is this news to you? Some of it was to me, and I have Gen Z children!

We have to find ways to genuinely understand how Gen Z are different from other generations — what drives them, scares them and inspires them — if we want to have any success at connecting with them.

Takeaway three – Know how to engage with them

The report points out that Gen Z are more likely to use YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Twitch than Millennials. Unsurprisingly, therefore, video is a key format to reach Gen Z.

Like Millennials, Gen Z prefer engaging via social media and are more likely to trust the information they receive there but, unlike older generations, they are more open to using chatbots.

Unlike Millennials, Gen Z are more likely to seek the recommendations of online influencers they trust. They are, however, turned off by a lack of transparency and authenticity.

Are we embracing the social media Gen Z are using? Are we being truly authentic in how we use social media? Have we started using chatbots as a way to engage with people? If not, we appear to have some work to do if we want to connect with Generation Z online.

Takeaway four – Volunteering gets phygital

Gen Z uses technology to suit their convenience, but they’re comfortable taking what they want and leaving what they don’t need. They like in-person social interaction, and they aren’t afraid to ditch technology for a better experience In Real Life (IRL).

This chimes with the findings of NCVO’s 2019 Time Well Spent reportwhich found that it was young people who most valued volunteering as a way of combating social isolation. In other words, Gen Z might not thrill to doing online volunteering quite as much as we think. They may actually want to volunteer IRL and with others more than on their own through computers and mobile devices.

One word used in the report is phygital, the merger of physical and digital worlds to provide Gen Z with a seamless experience. What would phygital volunteering looking like, allowing Gen Z to get involved online and IRL in a way that suits them (not just us)?

Those are my four top takeaways from the CM Group report. I encourage you to read it and perhaps share your reflections in the comments below.

Similarly, if you’ve done any other reading on Gen Z, or are already working to engage them in your organisation — especially if you have examples of phygital volunteering — then please share your suggested resources, thoughts, experiences, and lessons learnt by leaving a comment below.

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The freedom to never volunteer together

The freedom to never volunteer together

I recently read the brilliant book, “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. Combining insights from philosophy and psychology, the book is recommended for anyone interested in productivity and how we spend our time in the modern world. One chapter in particular really made me think about the future of volunteering and I wanted to share those thoughts with you.

If you’re not familiar with his book, Oliver argues against the typical approaches to time and productivity management, pointing out that we cannot possibly get everything done in the average human lifespan of four thousand weeks. He proposes that when we drop the pretence of getting everything done we open up new ways of thinking about how we spend our time, embracing rather than denying our limitations.

Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter called, ‘The Loneliness Of The Digital Nomad’, that challenged my thinking about the future of volunteering.

Oliver starts the chapter by pointing out that so much modern productivity thinking is geared towards helping each of us individually to take control of our time. Being in charge of our own schedule, doing things on our own terms, is often the goal. We can perhaps see that most clearly in the way work is being re-shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us wanting more control over when and where we work.

As Oliver explains, this flexibility and emphasis on us (not our teams, colleagues etc.) can lead to increased misalignment of our schedules, not only with those we work with, but potentially with our friends and families as well.

For example, if we know we work best in the evenings then, with our newfound workplace flexibility geared to our needs, we can now more easily do that. But, in the before-times, when we perhaps worked to a organisationally driven schedule, evenings might have been the time we used to socialise or spend time with family. Thus, in our pursuit for more control over our schedule to work when we want to, we may be impeding valuable social connections that the old ways of working made possible.

This could have significant implications, because having free time (away from work) isn’t much good if you can’t experience it with others.

“Having free time but not being able to use it with others isn’t just useless, it’s unpleasant.”

Oliver illustrates this with the way the former Soviet Union allocated shift patterns for workers in factories. For maximum efficiency, people were placed in colour coded shifts of four days on, one day off, often regardless of their connection to each other. So, two friends might be on totally different shift patterns meaning their days off work never aligned. This even happened to husbands and wives, even though it wasn’t supposed to! Needless to say this did not make for happy lives or relationships, even if it made for productive factories. Whist we may not be being forced into shift patterns, we are increasingly choosing the hours and places we work on our individual terms, and not so much in regard to others.

Oliver also highlights Swedish research that showed that when people took time off work they were happier, but when they took time off work with others, happiness increased even more. And this wasn’t just when friends and family took time off together. The effect was also seen when more people in Sweden were off work, regardless of how well they knew each other, people were happier. Even retired people were happier when others took time off work!

Simply put, taking control of our own schedules may result in more freedom to choose when and where we work, but this potentially makes it harder to forge connections, not only at work, but in our wider lives too. And, as volunteering doesn’t exist in a bubble, I think there are some potential implications for volunteering.

As more of us switch to working from home more often, working away from others on schedules that work for us but may be misaligned with others in our lives (colleagues, friends, family, other volunteers), might this not also have negative implications for how and when we volunteer? Could all this freedom about when, where and how we work mean we never get to volunteer together again?

We know that for many, volunteering is a social activity. Studies frequently state that one of the top motivations for people to volunteer is to meet people and make friends. We know this is especially true of 18-34 year olds, the age group most likely to say volunteering was important to them as a means of combatting social isolation in NCVO’s 2019 study, Time Well Spent.

As workplaces move increasingly to allow all of us to organise our time on our own terms, do we make it harder for that social, human connection to be realised in volunteering?

Away from concerns about the spread of Covid-19, is pushing more and more volunteering online, into roles that are increasingly done alone, on individual schedules and remotely, a good thing for volunteering? What about for our communities and wider society overall?

What about those who need the social connection volunteering provides: the young, the lonely, the isolated and many others? If we make it harder and harder to give them the human connection they thrive on because it’s cheaper for our organisations to close offices, work remotely and do more online, is that something we are comfortable with?

If we gain more personal freedom, but at the cost of never coming together to see or make new friends, of never coming together to volunteer, is that a world we want?

Of course there are many perspectives and nuances to these reflections. Changes in how we work might also create opportunities for volunteering, as I outlined in a blog post about employee volunteering earlier this year. Growth in online volunteering might help tackle challenges around inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

What I am asking, based on thinking prompted by Oliver’s book, is whether we are looking at all the angles? Whether, in our rush to re-shape our lives and communities after the pandemic, we are thinking about what we might lose as well as what we might gain, and whether we are happy with that trade off.

That’s why I’m excited to be be hosting the next AVM Book Club meeting at 430pm on 28th June 2022 where we will be discussing the concepts and ideas presented in “Four Thousand Weeks”. There are more details available and you can book your free place (for AVM members only) here.

If you’re not an AVM member, or you can’t join us in June, or you just want to get your thoughts out now, then please leave a comment below.

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

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Three reasons why Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s prices are changing

Three reasons why Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s prices are changing

For only the second time in ten years, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s prices are going up. Read on to find out when and why.

When I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd back in April 2011 our day rate was £650. This was based on the results of a calculation suggested in the excellent book, “Starting And Running A Successful Consultancy” by Susan Nash.

After a couple of early years when business was particularly good, the company’s turnover crossed the threshold for mandatory Value Added Tax (VAT) registration, and so VAT started to be added to the invoices. As many clients can claim the VAT back due to their organisation status, or are VAT registered themselves so could get VAT relief on their spend, this has never been a big issue.

In 2015, I increased the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd pricing to £700 a day. This was a modest rise to help compensate for slowly rising costs. And that’s it — since then, the price charged for what I do hasn’t changed in seven years. Until now.

From 1st April 2022 our fees will increase to £800 a day. This will apply to customers throughout the UK and be the new base rate against which all overseas billing will be based too.

Why is this happening now? There are three main reasons.

Seven years is a long time without price increases

Most businesses regularly adjust their prices according to a range of economic factors. That’s because their prime motivation is making as much profit as possible. I take a different approach.

Sure, I want to make a profit — the income I earn from Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is how I feed and house myself and my family — but the main motivation for what I do is enabling and inspiring people to bring about change. I want volunteers to make a bigger difference in the world, and the people who lead, engage and deploy those volunteers to be better supported and equipped to enable that change to happen. That I make money to live on is a happy byproduct of that work.

So, I haven’t varied the company’s prices for seven years because I’ve been focused on the value of the work I do, not the costs of running a business or day-to-day living in our modern society. There comes a time though when that needs reviewing, and that time is now because…

… The cost of living is going up

As I said before, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is my only course of income. What I earn is what I have to live on, whether I have a good or a bad year financially. And anyone who thinks nonprofit consulting is a path to untold riches is living in an alternate reality from the one I live in.

Covid-19 has been hard on all of us. Many were furloughed, others lost their jobs and had to find new employment. Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd wasn’t eligible for any help from the UK government because it wasn’t the kind of business they wanted to support. I got through it but, with the cost of living rising for all of us, I have to make a change.

So, I am increasing Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s fees by £100 a day from 1 April 2022. That’s an increase of £14.28 an hour. Out of that has to come rising running costs, income tax and corporation tax on profits, so it’s not like I’ll be retiring to a Caribbean island because of the price rise!

Why aren’t the fees increasing by more, then? I considered this. I looked at £840 a day, a £20 an hour increase. I think what Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd offers is worth it, and client feedback seems to agree. But the company’s clients, mainly civil society organisations themselves, are also facing rising costs and I have to be mindful of that. I want to avoid pricing Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd out of the market. To that end, a £100 a day rise in fees seems fair, for now.

Supporting the free stuff I provide

Over the last few years, I have provided an increasing amount of free resources for the sector. Individuals and organisations don’t have to be clients to benefit from these, they are there for anyone to access. They include:

Whist it may not cost you anything to access these resources, it costs me time to produce them, and that’s time I am not earning income from paid work. For example, the Advancing The Profession podcast took 33.5 hours to prepare, record, edit, deliver and promote. In that same time, I could have billed for £3,350 of paid work!

So, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s prices are going up in part to help fund my work to continue to develop free resources and materials. As long as I can afford to keep the business going, I’ll keep producing them.

There you have it, when Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd’s prices are changing and three reasons why.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or get in touch direct.

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

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Belief and knowledge

Belief and knowledge

Every so often I read something from outside our field, and it strikes me immediately as being very relevant to volunteer engagement professionals. That happened when I read this short article by Seth Godin. I’ve copied it here for ease of reference, giving due credit to Seth as the originator and author:

Belief and knowledge

They’re different.

Knowledge changes all the time. When we engage with the world, when we encounter data or new experiences, our knowledge changes.

But belief is what we call the things that stick around, particularly and especially in the face of changes in knowledge.

While more knowledge can change belief, it usually doesn’t. Belief is a cultural phenomenon, created in conjunction with the people around us.

The easy way to discern the two: “What would you need to see or learn to change your mind about that?”

As volunteer engagement professionals, our knowledge changes all the time. We learn what volunteers want, or don’t want, and adapt our practice. And we’re good at adapting. Look at all the changes we’ve made during the pandemic, often at great speed. As just one example, we’re far more adept at using technology in our work than we were two years ago.

When it comes to beliefs, however, perhaps we have a problem.

For example:

  • We continue to believe that this is an isolating profession, and that nobody in our organisation understands or appreciates what’s involved in our work.
  • We continue to believe that volunteering isn’t taken seriously by our senior management, our sector leaders, our government officials and ministers, and that nobody will listen to us if we try to effect change.
  • We continue to believe that all the paperwork and bureaucracy we have to put up with has to be there, no other options exist, and we couldn’t change things even if there were.

Seth Godin’s article suggests beliefs are hard to change. In our context, I’m not so sure.

Before Covid-19, we believed volunteers wouldn’t embrace technology. That belief has been proven wrong.

Our knowledge of using technology changed, and our beliefs followed, to the point where we now often think digital by default. A complete 180 degree shift in our beliefs in under two years (albeit in exceptional circumstances).

So, if our beliefs can change, what do we need to see or learn to change our minds, and challenge any limiting beliefs we are clinging too? To go back to the examples I used earlier:

  • If we knew that it’s easy to network and connect with colleagues through bodies like the Heritage Volunteering Group and the Association of Volunteer Managers and the Association of Voluntary Service Managers, then would we change our beliefs about how isolating our profession is?
  • If we knew that our leaders don’t ignore volunteering because they don’t care about it — it is more likely because they don’t know much about it, so-called benign neglect — would that change our beliefs about our ability to effect change by filling the gaps in their knowledge?
  • If we knew that much of the bureaucracy we are comfortable with wasn’t used during the pandemic because volunteers were mobilised in different ways, and that this change doesn’t appear to have caused any crises, would we change our beliefs about how we go about risk management and safeguarding?

In conclusion, here are four questions for you:

  1. What limiting beliefs do you hold?
  2. What do you need to know to help change those limiting beliefs?
  3. Where can you find that knowledge?
  4. What will you commit to doing now to learn and make change happen?

As Seth often says, go make a ruckus.

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

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Three highlights of 2021 and three things to watch in 2022

Three highlights of 2021 and three things to watch in 2022

This is my last blog post for the year, so I thought I’d share my top three highlights from 2021 and muse on three volunteer engagement things to look out for in 2022. Ready?

2021 Highlight one — working with other consultants

I’ve been running Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd for over a decade now and have mainly worked solo. Despite occasional projects with other consultants, most of what I have done has been just me, working directly with clients to engage and inspire people to bring about change.

During the last year, however, I have had the pleasure of collaborating more with others. This has happened largely because a group of us working for ourselves connected during 2020 to support each other through those dark days of the first lockdowns.

Working with others this year has been great, providing new opportunities for me, as well as having a group of people who understand running a business that I can turn to when things get tough. After another year of not travelling or seeing people, another year of sitting at home every day, having regular connection with peers has helped my business and, more importantly, benefited my wellbeing and mental health.

You know who you are — thank you! It’s been a blast and I hope we get to do it again soon.

2021 Highlight two — conference connections

My second highlight is the two major UK conferences I attended this year, not as a speaker but as a delegate. Inevitably these were online and not in-person, but they both provided connection, inspiration, learning and laughs, despite the virtual distance between participants on Zoom.

Before the pandemic, so much of my life was spent with other people, at events and in workshops across the UK and around the world. I miss that connection and interaction with other people, making new connections and strengthening existing friendships. In different times this drove me in my work, but has been noticeable in its inevitable absence as the world has struggled with Covid-19.

So, a big thank you to the Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG) and the Association for Volunteer Managers (AVM) for your two conferences. You provided me with something I have missed so much, and I am truly grateful.

2021 Highlight three — number three

My third and final highlight is also about people, it is the wonderful team of volunteers at Engage.

I have been Editor-In-Chief at Engage for a little over two years now, and it’s one of the great pleasures of the role to work with people around the globe who generously give of their time to support and develop the profession of volunteer engagement through their work for Engage.

The volunteers on the editorial and social media teams are the beating heart of what we do, the engine through which great content is produced and shared with leaders of volunteer engagement around the world. Their generosity of spirit and dedication to the field inspire me every day, and I want to say a huge thank you to all of them. I can’t wait to see what we achieve together in the future.

Oh, and if you aren’t currently an Engage member, please consider it, maybe as a new year’s resolution or a Christmas present to yourself (or someone else, as we now have gift memberships available).

Find out more about becoming an Engage member on our website.

2022 Issue to watch one — A new vision for volunteering

The Vision For Volunteering initiative is due to report in the early spring of next year, and I am fascinated to see what will result from this work. Not just the positions it will take, but the resulting action that follows.

Announced back in June, Vision For Volunteering recently announced their first series of workshops, with more to come soon. This came soon after news of the welcome addition of Sport England to the existing partnership of NAVCA, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and the Association of Volunteer Managers.

“The purpose of the Vision for Volunteering is to set out the ambition for volunteering in England, over the next decade, with a clear and optimistic plan for the future.”

I was involved in a not dissimilar exercise back in 2008 when the Commission On The Future of Volunteering published its “Manifesto for Change” and associated documents. Sad to say, that little actually changed for the better as a result of that project, so I hope that Vision For Volunteering doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

I, for one, will be keeping a keen eye out for their final report and recommendations and, more importantly, what actually happens as a result.

2022 Issue to watch two — Warm words or actual action?

Alongside — but not directly related to — Vision for Volunteering, there is the Shaping The Future Of Volunteering chief executives group. Another initiative designed to capitalise on the attention volunteer received during the earl days of the global pandemic, this group brings together two dozen CEOs of charities to position volunteering to “play a transformative role in creating the kind of society we all want to live in”.

Clearly, a group of influential CEOs taking an interest in advocating for volunteering is a good thing. However, little has been heard about what is actually happening — what do they want, what role do we all have to play, how does it connect with other initiatives etc.? This worries me and brings to mind a phrase Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy used at the 2021 AVM conference:

“Beware of strangers carrying a basket of promises”

I hope 2022 results in some tangible recommendations, actions, and benefits from the Shaping The Future Of Volunteering initiative. We should all be keeping our eyes and ears wide open and asking questions about their progress, especially if you work in one of the member organisations.

2022 Issue to watch three — the return of in-person?

I’m writing this at a time when Covid-19 infection rates are high and causing concern across most of the UK. Big questions are being asked about the Westminster government’s plans and whether we are sleepwalking into another Christmas of lockdowns and disruption.

Like all of you, I hope we aren’t. I hope the end of 2021 will be a pandemic turning point for the UK, a moment we can mark a turnaround to something more like regular life returning on a sustainable basis as next year progresses. And with that comes my final issue to watch for 2022 — a return to in-person.

It is my sincere hope that as the next twelve months progress we can safely resume more in-person events, trainings, meetings, conferences and gatherings, giving us all a chance to re-connect.

Don’t get me wrong, technology has its place, and we should continue with the likes of Zoom where necessary, not least to minimise the harm we inflict on the environment. But humans are social creatures, not designed to sit alone connecting on screens, so I hope that, when it is safe to do so, we can regain the benefits of gathering in-person.

I already have some in-person event bookings for early 2022, and I hope that more will follow. I guess we’ll wait and see.

So, there are my highlights of the year and predictions for the next twelve months. What are yours? Leave a comment below or on the social media platform where you saw this blog post promoted. I’m interested to read your thoughts.

Before we go

Please note: Because of the fortnightly posting schedule and when my time off for Christmas is taking place, the next post on this blog will be on 21 January. See you then!

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

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