We need to talk about volunteer teams

We need to talk about volunteer teams

For the last few years, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd has offered an online introduction to volunteer management course. The feedback I get from those who take the course is that they find the section on effective volunteer teams really valuable. So, when the online course closed at the end of 2018 I started looking into how I might address this issue of volunteer teams in a different way. What I found surprised me and made me wonder if we might sometimes have the wrong approach to volunteer teams.

NCVO’s recent Time Well Spent report highlights that when people volunteer they rarely do so alone, frequently they meet and work with new people. Unsurprisingly, this can have a direct bearing on the volunteer’s experience – volunteer with people you get on with and all is well, volunteer with people you don’t get on with and dissatisfaction isn’t far away.

From a volunteer management perspective, whilst we always want people to have a great experience volunteering, we also need them to deliver for the organisation. This means that building teams of volunteers who can work together harmoniously and achieve great things is a balancing act and an important priority for any volunteer manager.

Often, our first step to forming a good volunteers team is recruiting the right people onto it, people with the experience you need to get the job done. Yet it seems this focus on the individuals who we form into a team may not be the best approach.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant

In a 2013 Huffington post article by Adam Grant, Wharton Business School professor and author of the excellent book, Originals, Grant makes the following observations:

”In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.”

”A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1 percent. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.”

“The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anaesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.”

Grant continues:

“In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past.”

“Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In ‘Leading Teams’, he argues that in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability — whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.”

Grant’s observations got me thinking about volunteer recruitment and retention, how they relate to teams and what we may need to do differently.

Recruitment

As noted earlier, many of us recruit talented and experience individuals and form them into a volunteer team to achieve a particular goal. They go through Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing – and hopefully stay together long enough to get the job done.

Yet, if Grant is correct and group experience is key, should we be reframing our volunteer recruitment efforts? Should we instead seeking out established teams of people, teams who would bring the right skills and collaborative talents to bear on the issue we want tackling? We might find them in businesses, the public sector or other civil society organisations. They could, for example, be a group of friends who have had success in running events for their community and could use that collective experience to help with your next event.

However we find them, Adam Grant’s observations seems to suggest that we should be making more of an effort to seek out existing teams and bring their collective experience to bear on our missions, rather than trying to form new teams from experienced but unconnected individuals.

Retention

In his Huffington post article, Grant remarks that:

“Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”

This presents a big challenge for us in volunteer management. We know people are giving less time and wanting to engage in shorter term, more project oriented roles (at least initially). The Time Well Spent report makes this case very well. So, how do we keep our teams driving the bus together for long enough to have real impact on our work?

I think the principles that would work are the same as those that would work for individual volunteers.

You’ll notice I said earlier that short term, project roles may be attractive ‘at least initially’. That’s because I don’t believe we can’t find volunteers who will give us a long-term commitment, I just think we’ll struggle to find people who will sign up to such a role on day one.

Instead, we have to find ways to keep people interested and engaged, delivering enjoyable volunteering experiences and allowing them the flexibility to come and go as suits them.

Give me such a role I’ll probably increase my commitment over time because I enjoy my volunteering with you and am not made to feel guilty if I need to take a break.

I’m convinced that just as this will work for individuals, so it’ll work for teams. To expand on Adam Grant’s analogy, we want to get the right group of people on the bus, have them drive to together for a while, not worry when they all get off for a bit, but welcome them all back on further down the road.

A red double-decker London bus
A red double-decker London bus

Of course of none of this will be easy. Shifting to group recruitment and retention strategies will present come challenges. We’ll have to try new approaches. Which means risk and the possibility of failure. Yet from such failure will come new ideas and approaches that will work better and better until we get it right.

So, over to you:

  • Have you tried recruiting existing teams to work on volunteer projects?
  • What worked well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Are group retention strategies something you’re currently trying?
  • Would you be willing to share any success or lessons learnt?

I look forward to reading your comments.

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Funding volunteer engagement

I’m going to let you in on a consulting secret. Sometimes it’s easy to spot what attitude an organisation has towards volunteers. There are three main tells.

First, if they talk about ‘using’ volunteers. That’s a dead give-away – volunteers aren’t seen as part of the team but a resource to be used and disposed of (you can read more about this in an article I wrote back in 2011).

Second, senior managers make all the right noises about volunteering, but their walk doesn’t match their talk. For example, rarely do I see Directors leading the way and involving volunteers in their work (and the board doesn’t count here, senior managers are required to work with trustees!). It’s almost as if one benefit of being promoted beyond a certain level is that you don’t have to work with volunteers anymore!

Third, how the organisation funds volunteering says a lot about the strategic importance the subject is given. If money for volunteer expenses, Volunteer Manager salary (stop sniggering in the back!), recruitment and marketing budget etc. are all sourced externally rather than internally, it suggests that the strategic commitment is pretty low. Funds may be tight, but if money can be found from core budgets for other work, just not volunteer engagement, then it’s pretty clear that volunteering is at the back of the priority queue.

Volunteers are a great way of extending the budget, doing more than we could otherwise achieve on our limited financial resources. But volunteer involvement needs investment if the benefits are to be realised – for the client, the organisation and the volunteer. As we used to say at Volunteering England, “Volunteering is freely given but not cost free”.

The first action of any organisation that is truly serious about volunteering is to put its money where its mouth is and invest its own financial resources. How to do this and where to prioritise the spending is something Susan J Ellis and I cover in chapter three of our book, “From The Top Down – The UK Edition”.

Of course, not every organisation has sufficient funds to invest as fully as it would like in volunteering. A charity with a £75 million turnover has more capacity to invest in its volunteer resources than a non-profit with much smaller turnover who might be able to fund expenses for volunteers, but not a volunteer manager.

Yet there are very few funding opportunities available to directly support volunteer engagement. The pots of money available are typically: tied to the delivery of other priorities; measured on how many volunteers are recruited and how many hours they work (not great measures, as I outline in this 2015 article); and focused on new work only, with support for tried and tested approaches excluded.

As IPPR put it so well in their 2018 report “The Value of Volunteering in the North” (link opens PDF file):

“Many funders, particularly charitable funders, can sometimes talk of wishing to fund transformational change in communities (that is, they want to see a radical difference in communities as a result of their funding). This is laudable but sometimes it is a question of learning to value what is there now and learning how to support its continuation. These worthy pursuits may not look very enticing to funders. They cannot promise to produce newsworthy ‘rags-to-riches’ outcomes that will secure column inches in the local paper or on the radio. But given the role that small groups of dedicated volunteers play in a thriving civil society and a healthy community – then it is arguably money well spent.”

My core argument is that we need to see change in how volunteer engagement is funded. First, funding from organisational core budgets. Second, from external funders.

We need more senior managers taking volunteering seriously as a strategic priority and investing core funds in its development, just as they would invest in fundraising.

We need a stronger business case for volunteering, demonstrating how a modest investment can reap significant rewards.

We need better measures of success, enabling us to demonstrate the impacts of volunteering, going beyond bums on seats and hours given.

We need more fundraisers who understand the value of volunteering and make a case for financial support when they write bids, rather than simply prioritising overheads and staff costs.

We need funders who understand and invest in enabling volunteers to change lives and fulfil missions.

How is they going to happen? In truth, slowly and with considerable effort.

Leaders and managers of volunteers cannot wait around for funders, sector leaders and colleagues to become enlightened. We are going to have to work to create the opportunities, do the influencing, develop the measures and create a better funding culture to support volunteering.

We need to be at funder events and conferences making our case. We need to be lobbying our senior teams and boards more effectively. We need to be reaching out to our fundraising colleagues. We need to be getting smarter about impact measurement and building a business case for investment.

It’s a big challenge and one we may not always have focused on in the past, especially when it comes to working with funders. But it’s an important challenge and one I think we need to rise to.

With a new financial year coming soon (in the UK at least) now is as good a time as any to start.


Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd run training on measuring volunteering and how to communicate the value of volunteers to others. If you’d like to speak with us about this, or any other support we might provide, please get in touch.

For practical resources and tips into funding volunteer engagement please see:

If you have comments on this article or additional resources to share on this issue, please contribute in the comments below. Thank you!

The pros and cons of passporting

The pros and cons of passporting

Late last year, The Daily Mail joined with Helpforce to launch a fresh call for people to volunteer within the NHS. Shortly afterwards Matt Hancock MP, the UK government’s Health Secretary, called for the introduction of a volunteer passport. He said:

“I want to make it easier to volunteer in the NHS. I want to introduce a volunteer passport so that the checks that it’s important people undergo can be done once and then somebody is approved and trained to work as a volunteer in any setting. At the moment if you have a background check it’s for a particular role. It should be based on the need for a particular person and then that could be taken across the NHS.”

What then, are some of the pros and cons of such a passporting scheme?

Potential benefits

The obvious one is that a volunteer passport could help to reduce bureaucracy and make it quicker and easier for people to start volunteering. Instead of it taking three-to-six months from submitting an application to a volunteer starting in their role, the aspiration is to get this down to one month.

I have written before about the risk avoidance culture in many Volunteer Involving Organisations, a culture that creates barriers for people because paid staff view volunteers simply as well-meaning but incompetent simply because they are unpaid. Arguably, this culture is just as – if not more – prevalent in the NHS than the voluntary sector.

If this passport scheme tackles the excessive barriers many volunteers face, then it will be a very valuable tool in public sector volunteer engagement.

There is also the potential for such a passport to make it easier for volunteers to move between different volunteer roles more seamlessly. Instead of re-checking someone when they switch their volunteering to another department, the passport would credential the volunteer, enabling them to get started straight away.

Equally, if someone is doing a volunteer role in the NHS at one end of the country but moves house to the opposite end of the country, they should be able to move straight into a similar role near their new home without new checks and assessments being conducted. In fact, if this passport could be extended beyond the NHS it may well revolutionise the bureaucracy involved in all volunteer recruitment!

Potential challenges

First, who will conduct and pay for the initial volunteer screening and how will the quality of that process be assessed? Somebody has to do the first set of checks on a volunteer and conduct any induction training that the passport will cover. This work needs to be done to a standard that all NHS bodies and regulators will agree to if the passport is going to fulfil its purpose. There will be a cost to this that will need to be covered – volunteering is freely given but not cost-free after all – and the money for this will need to found from already over-stretched NHS budgets.

Second, will everyone who volunteers in the NHS be screened to the same level, regardless of role? If so, then I would suspect that level will be the highest one possible. But do we really need someone staffing the tea bar to have a full-suite of criminal record checks conducted when they will never get near a patient on an unsupervised one-to-one basis? And wouldn’t this contradict the rules bodies like the Disclosure and Barring Service have in place about not conducting volunteer checks on people who don’t need them? Similarly, might this not cut across the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which protects some people from having to disclose spent convictions when applying for some paid and volunteer roles?

Third, will a passport scheme on its own really address the ingrained cultural issues that regard volunteers as risky because they are unpaid? Might we not end up with well screened and trained volunteers working in the NHS who paid staff still look down upon and treat badly simply because they are volunteers? Tackling the operational barriers to volunteering such a culture creates is one thing, actually changing the culture in order to deliver a better volunteer experience is a whole other can of worms.

Fourth, technology has never been a strong point of the NHS. However good a passport scheme is, it needs to be built on sustainable, secure and reliable IT infrastructure, something the NHS isn’t known for. This is the institution that is only just phasing out fax machines and who still use outdated and un-secure versions of Microsoft Windows!

Finally, will there be any flexibility to allow for the importance of the human element of good volunteer management and screening? As one colleague from Australia commented when I shared this article on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd Facebook page:

“Volunteer Managers should still be allowed to make the reference check each time (if the role requires it). That chat to a previous Volunteer Manager can be vital to ensuring that the volunteer is in the right role for them and the organisation.”

Let me conclude by saying that I believe the Helpforce volunteer passport is a good idea and something worth supporting. It has real potential to make it easier for people to volunteer in and across the NHS. In fact, if it works, it may even set a model for a passport that could apply across other sectors as well.

It is worth the effort to try and overcome the challenges of these kinds of schemes so the benefits can be realised and I look forward to seeing how the plans develop over the coming months.

Gaining buy-in for your volunteering programme by working with your CEO – The Myton Hospice story

Happy new year! To get us started for 2019 we have a guest post, the story of how a Volunteer Manager successfully influenced for more resource and support to be dedicated to volunteer engagement in their organisation. I hope this story encourages and inspires you as the new year commences and we look to how we can strengthen volunteering in our organisations over the coming months. Enjoy!


Charlotte Witteridge, Head of Volunteering Development & Ruth Freeman, CEO

The Myton Hospices are committed to the delivery of high quality palliative care and enabling those with life limiting illnesses to live well until the end of their life. Supporting us with this is a team of over 1,000 volunteers who work within all areas of Myton, from direct patient contact roles and those that help to support the smooth day-to-day running of our hospices, to roles based within retail and fundraising.

We have recently secured significant investment from our Board of Trustees to develop our volunteering team. This recognises the potential to expand our volunteer team to help strengthen and enhance the work that we do and enable us to reach out to and support more patients and families across Coventry & Warwickshire. This hasn’t always been the case within Myton, however, and this is my story of how I have worked with our new Chief Executive to secure this additional funding to develop our volunteering team.

My Story…

23rd December 2011… My first visit to the Warwick site of The Myton Hospices… I had been to visit Myton to discuss the Volunteering Development Officer job that I had seen advertised. Being shown around the hospice and having conversations about what this new role would involve, I instantly realised that the full potential of volunteering at Myton was yet to be realised. I drove home full of excitement knowing that I had to work my hardest and do everything possible to secure this role.

After submitting an application and going through the recruitment process, thankfully I was successful in securing the role.

I joined Myton in February 2012 and was full of enthusiasm about my new position, only to realise very quickly that I was responsible for all things “volunteering”, with no administration support, no database and no basic infrastructure to underpin the engagement of approximately 1,000 volunteers.

I love a challenge, and was able to realise the impact that my new role could have on Myton’s volunteering. Slowly, over time, I began to build up our volunteer programme and the policies and processes to underpin volunteering throughout our organisation.

The Reality

Although I did initially make progress, it was incredibly slow. Slightly more resource had been allocated to the team in the form of part time administration hours – this was making a difference, but we still weren’t in a position to move volunteering forward and still struggled to keep up with the day-to-day tasks. My role had also changed in title to Volunteering Development Manager, but I still didn’t have the authority to make organisation wide changes.

The lack of resources within the team was highlighted following a complaint directly to our Chief Executive Ruth Freeman; I had been so overwhelmed with work (and hadn’t asked for help), that I failed to respond in a timely manner to a gentleman who had enquired about giving his time as a volunteer. Being a conscientious individual, I was mortified at the mistake I had made and worried about the reputational repercussions that this may have (especially when a large part of my role is about protecting our reputation in the way in which I engage with our volunteers!).

Now, I’m not advocating making a mistake or letting things get to the stage that I did, far from it (my biggest learning is that I should have asked for help sooner…) but this did open up an opportunity for me, because Ruth recognised that help was needed and we worked together to carry out a review of our volunteering function. The outcome was the realisation that the volunteer department was severely under resourced. Ruth and I then embarked on building a case for investment in volunteering…

A word from Ruth:

”Charlotte is a great advocate for volunteering within our organisation but for a long time she was a lone voice. In working closely with her it became clear that she was quite understandably frustrated with the fact that Volunteering was the only cross–organisational function at Myton that didn’t have a voice at senior level. This meant that top-line decisions were made without consideration for the value that volunteers could add to every area of our work”.

Building a Business Case for Volunteering

Step 1: Identify how volunteering supports your organisation to meet its strategy

Myton’s vision is to ‘provide high quality, specialist care to people whose condition no longer responds to curative treatment, from diagnosis to death. We aim to meet their physical, psychological, spiritual and social needs and ensure their families are supported both through and after this difficult time. We are also committed to training, supporting and encouraging other care providers to practice good palliative care’.

When developing our business case for investment into the volunteering team, we were clearly able to demonstrate how volunteering supports our organisation to meet its strategic aims and fulfil our mission – this is a clear influencer when getting the Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team to buy into your business case. Some examples of this linked to areas of our strategy are as follows:

  • We want to touch the lives of more people who need us – we will be able to reach out and support more patients and families by recruiting more volunteers for the right roles that enable us to deliver our services to more people…
  • Strengthening our marketing and communications – volunteers are ambassadors for our organisation, and they have the potential to build awareness of what we do within their local communities. This support of Myton will help to support our fundraising efforts and market our organisation externally to reinforce our brand and to educate people about hospice care. This all contributes towards ensuring that we are a sustainable organisation for the future (another key area of our strategy).

Step 2: Demonstrate the future potential of volunteering within your organisation

For us, this included…

  • Identifying areas of our organisation where volunteers can really add value to the service that we provide to patients and families. This involved coming up with ideas about how we can make the best use of our current volunteer resource, but also committing to work with areas of our organisation who do not currently involve volunteers.
  • Understanding our current volunteer profile (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, length of service) and the correlation between this and the changing external volunteering environment (e.g. providing flexibility in how people can give their time, potential changes in volunteering motivations and an ageing population). Having the data on our current volunteers helped us to identify future areas of opportunity but also areas of concern that we will need to address to ensure that we remain relevant and sustainable in the future.

Step 3: Consider and challenge your own views of volunteering

In some organisations, volunteers can be quite protected… “Betty is giving her time to Myton, she is already giving us so much, and we couldn’t possibly ask her to fundraise for us too…” This is an attitude that I have come across during my career – we don’t want to ask volunteers to do more for fear of upsetting them.

When building our business case we flipped our thinking on this to consider the future potential of viewing our volunteers as ‘engaged supporters’ of our organisation. We focused on ensuring that volunteers are well managed, supported and have a great volunteering experience with us. By investing in our volunteering infrastructure, the longer term outcome of this will be that we are able to work with our volunteers to extend their support of our organisation (e.g. getting involved in different volunteering opportunities, being participants in our fundraising events, supporting our shops etc.).

A word from Ruth:

“Whilst volunteers don’t have the same contractual obligations as paid members of staff there are many examples where we have seen the commitment being no less than that of paid staff (and in some cases more). We should be looking for volunteer roles in most departments. We should be looking for specialists and be attracting volunteers to specific roles because of their skills and experience and ensuring they have the scope to use them.”

“Senior Leaders within the organisation need to take a serious approach to encouraging and rewarding their teams for achieving successful outcomes relating to working with volunteers. Each success should be celebrated and communicated across the organisation and training & support for managers and those designated to work with volunteers should be on-going.”

Step 4: Demonstrate the return on investment

With any business proposal, it is important that you are able to demonstrate the return on investment. In order to show this for our volunteering function, we used the Volunteer Investment to Value Audit (VIVA) tool which gave us a calculation of the value that volunteers add to our organisation, and the return on our investment into volunteering. For us, the figures were staggering… using this tool, the estimated total value added by volunteers to Myton is over £1.5million, and for every £1 that we invest in volunteering, there is a return of £10.

A word from Ruth:

“In presenting to the Board it was important to focus on the true added value of volunteers and volunteering. Just like many other charities, Myton waxed lyrical about the difference volunteers make to our work without really understanding what the true difference is or what the potential might be. There was (and still is) a reticence from managers to let unpaid staff undertake those specialist tasks traditionally saved for those that are paid. In the proposal we pointed out that this thinking must be challenged because significant opportunities were being lost. We also pointed out that a culture which treats volunteers as ‘nice to have’ must change, but that this could only be achieved with a great deal of hard work across the organisation supported by a team of volunteer development professionals.”

Our Outcomes

Ruth presented our business case to the Board of Trustees and was successful in securing the investment – we doubled the paid resource within our Volunteering Development Team, including the addition of a significantly more senior role!:

  • Head of Volunteering post – this was a newly created role (that replaced the previous Volunteering Development Manager post within our establishment) that we felt was vital for us to establish volunteering as a strategic priority to support the sustainability of our organisation moving forward. Volunteering now has representation around the decision making table, which is a huge step forward for us
  • Volunteering Development Officers (two new posts) – these roles will focus on ensuring that all departments across the organisation have support with developing their volunteering.

Other Top Tips

To help with the development of our business case and to secure support from the wider Senior Leadership Team, we found the following things useful:

Develop an action plan for volunteering

This was the starting point for building our business case, as it provided a clear plan of work that needing carrying out and the potential resourcing implications that delivering on this action plan would have. This action plan has also helped other members of the Senior Leadership Team to understand the volunteering function in more detail.

Get your Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team (SLT) involved with volunteering

Don’t forget that your Board of Trustees are volunteers themselves. We have found it really useful to ensure that members of our Board and SLT are present at all of our volunteering events. This has helped to demonstrate the importance of volunteering and the impact that volunteers have across the whole organisation.

Listening to feedback from volunteers

Volunteers come to us from a variety of different backgrounds and with many different skills and experiences. Once you have worked your way through some of the grumbles, there can be some really useful and ideas and feedback brought to you by volunteers.

A word from Ruth:

“My top tip would be to focus on opportunity, potential and the significant return on any investment in volunteering, which can range from cost savings to significantly increased organisational resilience and sustainability.”

The Future

Our new Volunteering Development Department structure was implemented in June 2018, timed perfectly to coincide with the start of Volunteers’ Week, and we are still in the process of building our team. I think it is fair to say that we are at the start of our new journey in relation to volunteering, but the investment that we have made into volunteering will help to support the future sustainability of our hospice and to ensure that we are able to respond to the external influences that will affect volunteering in the future.

My Story Continued…

On the 18th May 2018 I was delighted to have been successful in securing the Head of Volunteering role within our new structure. It has taken me years to get to this point, however, I would encourage you to continue to have belief in your vision for volunteering. These things can take time, patience and tenacity. You have control over the way in which you present information to influence others to demonstrate the true value that volunteering can add to your organisation. Working with Ruth gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my leadership skills, and in doing so, my passion for volunteering shone through.

A word from Ruth:

“Charlotte is totally committed to her vision about raising the profile of volunteering at Myton, she is testament to the saying ‘never give up’ because she never did and that tenacity has paid off for her and our organisation.”

Having been through this journey, it is an honour to have been appointed to lead our volunteering team and I can’t wait to make our plans for volunteering a reality!

Three reasons why do I do this every day

Three reasons why do I do this every day

“Why do I do this every day?” It’s a question I haven’t properly asked myself since the early days of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd back in spring 2011. It’s a good question to ask ourselves every now and again. Our friends at Realized Worth celebrated their tenth anniversary earlier this year by asking and answering that question. Inspired by their example, and as a way of reflecting as 2018 draws to a close, this post is my attempt to answer that question afresh.

But first, let’s address the potential elephant in the room.

An elephant. In a room.
An elephant. In a room.

I don’t do what I do for the money. Well, that’s not strictly true: I do need to pay the bills just like anyone else. But some people think that consultants are out to make a quick buck from non-profits, that we are laughing all the way to the bank to top up our already healthy account balances.

David Dickinson holding money with the caption, "Quids In!".
David Dickinson holding money with the caption, “Quids In!”.

Let me assure you this isn’t true, not for me anyway. My take home income as a consultant is about a third of what it was in my last proper job and, thanks to combined VAT, Corporation Tax & income tax, my annual taxes are a much higher proportion of my income than they ever were when I was in full-time employment.

I love what I do, but I’m not in it for the money anymore than I suspect that anyone works in volunteer management or non-profits world is. None of us are buying a super yacht and mooring it in Monaco harbour!

A super yacht at sea
A super yacht at sea

So, if it isn’t for the riches, why do I do it? Here are three main reasons:

1. I have a passion for volunteering
2018 marked three decades since I started volunteering. It was at school and at 14 years old that I got the bug. I’ve volunteered ever since.

Volunteering has helped me in so many ways. I’ve made friends, gained new skills and done things I’d probably never have done otherwise.

I want volunteering to be such a transformational experience for everyone.

No matter who you are, there should be an opportunity for you to do more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider good (credit to the late Ivan Scheier for my favourite definition of volunteering). You should have as much chance as anyone else of being exposed to experiences that will change your life as you change the life of others.

When I wake up in the morning that’s what drives me out from under the warm cosy duvet and gets me in front of the computer, or standing in front of a training group, or working with a consulting client. That belief that today I can help make it easier for someone to volunteer and make a difference for themselves, their community and the world.

A neon sign saying passion
A neon sign saying passion

2. It’s a lifestyle choice
I used to commute to London every day from Lincolnshire. When the trains worked it was a three hour round trip every day. When the trains didn’t work, I was stuck 100 miles from home with no alternative route back. For a third of the year I didn’t see my house in daylight. I did that for six years. I’d rather not do it again.

Of course I still travel. Recently I was training in North Wales. The ten hour round trip on the railway (with the associated stress of missed connections) and night away from my family was worth it to spend time with twenty-two brilliant people doing amazing work.

This time last year I had just finished a work trip to Australia and New Zealand. That’s a 20,000 mile commute, taking over two and a half days just to get there and back again. It was nine weeks away from home and family, eating alone and spending more time than is sensible in hotel rooms and airports.

But this morning my commute took me from my bedroom to my office at the foot of the stairs. This afternoon I get to take 45 mins away from my desk to walk the dog with nobody questioning my absence.

Being your own boss isn’t for everyone. The worry about where the money is coming from, being your own IT, marketing, communications, HR and finance department (to name just a few) comes with it’s challenges. But they are far outweighed by the flexibility, fun and enjoyment of doing what you love whilst still having time for the people you love.

My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby
My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby

3. I want to engage and inspire people to bring about change
2018 also marks twenty-four years since I started paid work in the volunteering movement.

Volunteer management is my vocation and my career. Through my work I’ve formed friendships that have lasted longer than any others in my life. I’ve travelled to countries I never dreamt I’d go to and I’ve worked with and for some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

Volunteer management has seen some changes over those twenty-four years, some good and some not so good. But too little progress has been made. Many of the issues that concerned volunteer managers in 1998 still concern them today – risk, criminal record checks, whether we’re a profession, how to deal with problem behaviour, influencing senior management, whether we are the same as HR…the list goes on and on.

When I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd 2011 I didn’t just want to do the basic volunteer management work: how to recruit a volunteer, how to deal with problem behaviour. I also wanted to get stuck into bigger issues. I wanted the work of people-raising to be regarded as as important as fundraising. I wanted volunteering to be a strategic priority for organisations, not just a casual afterthought. I wanted to expand people’s horizons beyond the accepted wisdom of our field, challenging assumptions, tilting at windmills and encouraging new thinking.

I’ve made some progress but there is only so much one independent consultant trainer and writer can do. That’s why the one sentence description of what I do is ‘Engaging and inspiring people to bring about change’.

I want to help everyone in volunteer management step up to the plate and advocate for volunteering and our profession.

I want to inspire, enthuse and equip people to feel confident in speaking up for volunteering, not just for the sake of it but because of a shared passion for the power of people doing great things in the world.

The word 'change' spelt out in jigsaw pieces
The word ‘change’ spelt out in jigsaw pieces

Why do you do what you do every day?

What gives you your get up and go?

Share your thoughts and reflections in the comments below or on social media with the hashtag #WDIDTED.


If you’d like to know more about Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, what we do, our values and how we can help you then please check out our website.

We’d love to hear from you.

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

One of the enduring issues in volunteer management (at least in the UK) is the avoidance of volunteers working under a contract of employment. In fear of this, many organisations follow restrictive practices, increased bureaucracy, reduced scope for providing attractive benefits to potential volunteers, and allow wrong-headed thinking on the issue to predominate. In my view, it is time for this to stop.

Someone signing a contract
Someone signing a contract

Most conferences on volunteer management will feature a lawyer or other legal expert speaking on the issue. Whilst there are some good ones out there, most use the platform they are given to scare volunteer managers into submission. Whether ensuring nobody gets any possible benefit from giving time, or pontificating on what volunteers can and can’t do, Volunteer Managers are encouraged to put legal considerations before all else, rather than take a more considered and common sense approach, a situation not helped when boards and senior managers listen more to legal advisers than their own volunteer management experts.

A bit of background

The issue of whether a volunteer has a contract or not gained attention in the 1990s with a small number of high profile cases where volunteers successfully claimed they actually worked under a contract of employment. This entitled them to the same rights as any employee, enabling them to bring discrimination cases against the volunteer involving organisation.

Understanding this context is important because the creation of a contract of employment with volunteers is actually a risk issue. To my knowledge, in those 1990s cases, the volunteers who claimed employment rights were actually discriminated against by the organisations they volunteered for. Having no means of addressing this via their volunteer status, the individuals concerned had to claim under employment law as the legislation doesn’t cover volunteers. Yet if the organisations had treated these volunteers properly in the first place the contractual status of the volunteers would never have been an issue.

It’s all about risk

Rather than fixating on whether there is a possibility our volunteers might be entitled to contractual status as an employee, perhaps we should be focusing first on managing the risk that a volunteer feels so aggrieved with us that they want to claim employee status in the first place? In short, perhaps we need to practice risk management not risk avoidance!

Risk management involves four simple steps:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?

Risk avoidance takes the more nuclear option of not doing something just because a bad thing may happen (by the way, not all risk is bad). It is as naive as it is misguided – risk is an inherent part of life. If we wanted to avoid all risk we’d just shut up shop and stay in bed all day.

Someone lying in bed
Someone lying in bed

How then would risk management look when it comes to the issue of volunteers and employment contracts? Let’s consider those four steps again:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
    Twenty-three million people volunteer every year. There have been perhaps half a dozen cases of volunteers successfully claiming employment rights in the last thirty years. The implication therefore is that the risk is very low. So low it isn’t really worth considering.However, if your organisation; fails to invest properly in volunteer management; allows volunteers to be treated poorly by paid staff and other volunteers (including trustees); doesn’t have sensible policies in place around volunteer engagement; actively discriminates against volunteers etc.; then your risk is higher. But a volunteer still has to feel so aggrieved they want to seek legal recourse rather than just walk away.Either way you look at it the risk is still pretty low. Sadly, few organisations seem to look at this step in the risk management process, jumping first to the next step…
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
    The worst case scenario is that a volunteer takes you to an employment tribunal claiming employment rights, wins, then returns to tribunal with a discrimination case, and wins again. Aside from the resulting fines and sanctions possible under employment law, there is the potential for reputational risk and associated impacts on fundraising, future volunteer recruitment and negative media coverage. This is why many people rightly think the risk is pretty severe.Unfortunately, this is where the risk management process not only starts but also stops for many people. The risk is severe so they do everything they can to avoid it. But that fails to acknowledge the next step…
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
    Considering the statistics alone, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk. Assuming six successful claims for employment rights happened in one year (and 23 million people volunteered that year) the percentage chance of you facing such a successful claim would be 0.00000026%! The only way to reduce that risk further would be to stop volunteer involvement altogether, a drastic solution to a minuscule problem.Instead, let’s focus on the other issues we raised in step one.Your organisation can minimise the risk of a volunteer claiming employment rights by; investing properly in volunteer management, perhaps employing someone who takes a sensible approach to these issues and has experience in the field; not allowing volunteers to be poorly treated, disciplining staff who do, and educating everyone about how to work well with volunteers; establish clear and well thought through policies around volunteer engagement that are regularly reviewed and consistently implemented; never discriminate against a volunteer.

    With the exception of the last point there will be a cost associated with all of these actions. That cost is an investment to manage risk, enabling volunteers to make a transformative difference to your work whilst reducing the potential of the serious liability identified at step two.

  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?
    The formula for working this out is pretty simple: we know the worst case scenario is bad; we also know the likelihood of the risk happening is very low; and we’ve identified sensible and implementable steps to reduce that likelihood further. I’d see the retained risk as low to medium as a result, although you may view it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and your personal and organisational attitude to risk.So we have a low to medium retained risk. With that in mind, how sensible does it seem to avoid involving volunteers in some roles (or altogether)? Or limiting access to things that might help with volunteer recruitment (such as access to training and skills development not directly related to their role) just because there is a vague chance it might cause a problem down the road? Pretty silly really isn’t it?

In summary

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence it’d be this: Instead of focusing first on contracts and what creates them, let’s concentrate on treating volunteers well in the first place. Do that and the contract issues become less of a priority, not something to be ignored but certainly not something to be obsessed about. The result? Our work will be more enjoyable, and we will create a more impactful and fulfilling experience for our volunteers.

Useful resources

For some useful resources on risk management for leaders and managers of volunteers, take a look at a recent issue of Energize Inc’s Book Buzz newsletter.


Please note that I and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd are not legal experts. We are sharing our experience of over twenty-four years in volunteer management and, as usual, challenging accepted wisdom. Please do take legal advice if you are in anyway unsure about the legal position in your organisation.

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

On the 12th October I published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after my American friend and colleague the amazing Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Meridian and I got our thinking caps on and devised some further questions that we felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of our joint efforts to try and provide some answers.


HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME, IN MY OFFICE, IN MY TOWN, AND WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

SHOULD WE BE PREPARED FOR MORE OF THIS? IS THIS WHERE CORPORATE VOLUNTEERING IS GOING?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUSINESSES WHO ADMIRE STARBUCKS AND WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, SO THEY WILL ATTEMPT TO MODEL THIS INITIATIVE?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.”

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

”18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

Furthermore:

“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE “SERVICE FELLOWS” DOING? A REGULAR VOLUNTEER’S JOB? A REGULAR EMPLOYEE’S JOB? OR SOMETHING THAT CAN’T REPLACE ANYONE ALREADY THERE?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.”

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take.

DID THEY CONSULT A VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT EXPERT? WHAT ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN PLACE WITH THE POL AFFILIATE NONPROFITS?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

IS THIS ONE OF THOSE LOFTY, NOT THOUGHT OUT EDICTS FROM ABOVE THAT WILL MAKE A VOLUNTEER MANAGER’S LIFE A LIVING HELL BECAUSE NO INPUT WAS ASKED FOR?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.”

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

WILL VOLUNTEERING BE ON-SITE OR IS IT PROJECT BASED OFF-SITE?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD BODIES LIKE POINTS OF LIGHT HAVE IN FUTURE, REPRESENTING NON-PROFITS AND VOLUNTEER MANAGERS?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employer Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

”The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.”

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

IF WE WERE VOLUNTEER MANAGERS ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS, WHAT WOULD WE LIKE TO KNOW?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian