The software unicorn

The software unicorn

What is the best volunteer management software? It’s a good question. That’s why Jayne Cravens and I tried to help people answer it back in 2012. As we said at the time:

”The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organisations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organisations. We also wanted to get a sense of what organisations were thinking about volunteer management software.”

As our work confirmed, the answer to the question ‘What is the best volunteer management software?’ isn’t an easy one.

So, my interest was piqued when our friends at VolunteerPro in the USA (shout out to Tobi Johnson!) tackled the subject of volunteer management software topic in a recent blog post, “Software for Volunteer Management: What We Want Now”. As Tobi explains:

”If we were building something from scratch, how would it look and feel? What would it accomplish for us? How would it make our lives easier, not more challenging? How could it help us save time?”

The list of requirements that VolunteerPro crowdsourced from their members illustrates a problem. There is no magical software unicorn that can do everything that the globally diverse community of volunteer engagement professionals wants.

A small child holding a pink toy unicorn
A small child holding a pink toy unicorn

As Jayne and I said in 2012:

“…how organisations involve volunteers, what information they need about those volunteers, and what kinds of activities those volunteers do varies hugely among organisations. Also, different people like different features; a software loved by one organisation may be loathed by another.”

And as Tobi says in her article:

”…no software platform, whatever its purpose, is perfect”

Tobi’s article did, however, prompt three thoughts about the subject of volunteer management software that I think are important to consider.

First, leaders of volunteer engagement are frustrated at data entry. I get this. Nobody likes to have to sit there and plug data into any system. But even if we could have all the fancy software features people want to see, the value of those features would only be as good as the data inputted. So, rather than being a frustration to avoid, perhaps data entry should be seen as a top priority?

So, as VolunteerPro say, we should look at automation of data entry – I love the suggested idea that when a volunteer arrives on-site, their phone reminds them to start and stop logging their hours – or even does it for them! But let’s also remember that, as volunteer engagement professionals, we should be able to find support for data entry from volunteers rather than have to do it all ourselves. Odd as it may seem, there are people out there that love data entry, so let’s go find them and get them to volunteer.

Two people at a computer doing data entry
Two people at a computer doing data entry

Second, the list people came up with for VolunteerPro is very ‘now’ oriented: email and text (SMS) communications; integration with existing donor software etc.; live chat support; an online volunteer community forum etc.. I understand why that is – we are busy with the now, delivering for our volunteers so they can deliver for our clients. But the world is changing around us and what we need now isn’t necessarily what we will need in five, ten or twenty years time.

Where is the forward thinking about what volunteer management software might need to do for us? For example:

  • Being able to observe the data on where volunteers are as they work out in the community (handy for health and safety / lone working monitoring etc.)
  • Integrating AI / machine learning into recruitment and screening of potential volunteers
  • Application of bots in managing ongoing communications with volunteers, especially around frequently asked questions
  • Automated expense submission, process logging and electronic payment
  • Delivery and monitoring of induction training via video
  • Social media communication integration

(NB. This list isn’t actually that futuristic, it’s all stuff that is possible today! – see CHASbot in this example).

Good software providers will be doing this future-focused thinking already. If we want their products to help our profession, then leaders of volunteer engagement need to be a part of those conversations now.

Third, and finally, I was surprised to see so many suggestions for volunteers to be given more control over their data. For example, updating profiles, logging hours, submitting impact reporting data, managing shift allocations. All of these are great ideas and some volunteer engagement software has these functions already. But I always hear Volunteer Managers saying that their volunteers won’t use it because it’s too much hassle or the volunteers are too old or too young or…insert alternative excuse here!

Maybe things are changing. Maybe the growing demands of volunteers to be in control of their volunteering are finally getting through. Maybe our tendency to project our own IT anxieties onto our volunteers is finally reducing. Whatever the reason, it’s an encouraging sign that more leaders of volunteer engagement are awakening to the potential of giving volunteers control.


What do you think? Have you got thoughts and ideas about the future of volunteer management software? Leave a comment below or on social media where you’ve seen this article posted.

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

In 2007 I was involved in the publication of a free eBook, ‘Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet’ (NB. link opens a PDF file), a grassroots guide to getting and keeping volunteers. What makes it different from most books on volunteer engagement is that it’s not written by consultants or known experts (although some are in there) but by leaders of volunteer engagement across the globe who share their practical experiences and tips for success. The eBook inspired a training workshop I run and this article, in which I want to share with you my top ten tips for being attractive to volunteers.

1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering

People volunteer in their discretionary leisure time. With the unrelenting pressures people feel in modern life, they want to spend their precious spare time enjoying themselves.

Making volunteering enjoyable is critical if you want to attract and keep volunteers. You see you’re not competing with other volunteer involving organisations when recruiting volunteers. You’re competing with all the leisure activities that people could spend their spare time doing – going to the cinema, having a meal with friends, watching a sports event etc..

So, make your volunteering rewarding and enjoyable. Really understand what drives your volunteers, their passions and interests. Or, in the words of a famous kids TV show from my childhood, they’ll go and do something less boring instead.

2 – Give great customer service

Do you remember the days where if you bought something mail order you usually had to wait 28 days for delivery? In today’s internet enabled age we now expect next day delivery at a minimum. Expectations have changed.

Yet I still hear volunteers frustrated that they don’t get responses quickly (or at all!) from organisations they are trying to volunteer with. What makes it worse is that sometimes these organisations have said they urgently or desperately need volunteers!


To make our organisations attractive we have to acknowledge that people’s customer service expectations are high and have to meet them – being a charity or voluntary group is no excuse. As one of the authors in the Magnet eBook pointed out, magnets can repulse as well as attract.


One suggestion is to have a team of volunteers whose role is to help respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers, even if it is just to give them a clear idea of how long a proper response will take. Another idea is to simply put an out-of-office message on your volunteer recruitment email account so that anyone enquiring gets told how long to expect to wait for a response, perhaps with links to videos they can watch or material they can read about your organisation whilst they await a response.

3 – Say thank you

Certificates, parties, awards, Volunteers’ Week events – they are all well and good, but nothing beats regularly and sincerely thanking people for their time and the contribution they make to your cause.

A word of warning: if volunteers tell you they don’t want to be thanked, try not doing it and see how attractive that makes you! What they are perhaps implying is that they want to be thanked personally, not in the generic way many organisations approach volunteer recognition.

A second word of warning: don’t do it so the organisation can tick the recognition box for another year – make sure the thank you is genuine.

4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful

Imagine for a moment that you’re heading off this evening for a meal out. You get to the restaurant and order, anticipating the satisfaction of good food. Then it arrives and, well let’s just say you are underwhelmed. You leave the restaurant poorer than when you went in, probably still hungry and very likely vowing never to go back.

Opportunities are to volunteering as food is to eating out. When people volunteer they want to do something that enables them to have the satisfaction of making a difference whilst not having their time wasted. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that offers them that satisfaction and sense of fulfilment.

So ask yourself, do the opportunities you have on offer make the most of people’s time (however much they have to give) and enable them to make (and see that they’ve made) a difference to your cause? Being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions is critical to being attractive to volunteers.

5 – Be flexible

According to both the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation and the Third Sector Research Centre, 31% of the UK’s adult population provide almost 90% of the volunteer hours given, with 8% providing over half the volunteer hours. In other words we are reliant on a small (and diminishing!) pool of volunteers who commit large amounts of time – the living embodiment of ‘ask a busy person’.

Yet, as anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers recently will tell you, few people thrill to this kind of commitment anymore – the old fashioned notion of long term, open ended volunteer commitments on which so many organisations still rely. If you can’t fit that kind of commitment into your life why should anyone else?

The key is flexibility, having a range of opportunities with varying commitments on offer. For example, can you provide taster sessions, allowing potential volunteers to ‘try before they buy’?

Remember too that people’s interests, motivations and availability will change over time and adapt accordingly.

I believe that attractive organisations will successfully keep volunteers if they’re prepared to let them go. If volunteers see our willingness to accommodate their changing priorities and take a break from volunteering, they will be more likely to come back to us in future when their circumstances change and they have time to give once more.

6 – Let’s talk about expenses

Providing out-of-pocket expenses to volunteers isn’t just an admin issue, it’s a key part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Without expense provision, only those who can afford to be out of pocket will volunteer.

As economic hardship in society continues to grow and deepen, more and more people need their expenses covered if they are to volunteer. We need to budget for volunteer expenses every year and explain to decision makes why these funds are important. If you don’t get the budget, ask for it again next year. Keep asking until you get it.

It’s also important to guard against a culture of volunteers not claiming expenses. Where that happens, those who need to claim are often frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome. Instead, make everyone claim. Then, if some really don’t want the money, ask them to donate it back to the organisation (ideally with gift aid added). That way everyone claims expenses, aiding DEI, and those who don’t want the funds get the warm glow of becoming a financial donor as well as a volunteer.

7 – Word and world of mouth

Surveys of volunteering consistently tell us that word of mouth is the most common form of volunteer recruitment. This shouldn’t surprise us, personal recommendation is marketing nirvana. Most businesses would love it if their customers would go and tell everyone how much they love the company’s products.

Yet we often shy away from word of mouth recruitment, almost as if we’re embarrassed about it. This is a mistake. It’s time to re-embrace word of mouth, especially given the potential of social media to develop new and exciting ways to reach our friends. As Erik Qualman once said, social media enables word of mouth to become world of mouth!

Look to maximise the potential of the power of personal recommendation to make your organisation more attractive. Do your volunteers know that you want them to help recruit others? Do you give them resources to do this such leaflets, flyers etc.? Simple things that can make a world of difference.

8 – Embrace groups

We live in a world where it’s easy for people to feel socially isolated. Loneliness is a growing problem.

Volunteering provides a way for people to connect with others – to volunteer with friends and family, to meet new people, or even make new business contacts.

According to the 2019 Time Well Spent report, 68% of all volunteers agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated. This was especially true for those aged 18-34.


Look at your organisation and opportunities. What could you do to provide a group or family with a chance to volunteer together? Give it a go and see who else you can attract.

9- Lead, don’t manage

Management guru Peter Drucker once said:

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.

Sadly that is sometimes true of volunteer management, especially as things have become more formalised, risk averse and process driven.

People who volunteer want to make a difference and don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to use their skills and expertise to help you but they don’t want to be mired in processes and paperwork. As John Seeley Brown wisely commented:

“Processes don’t work, people do”.

To be attractive we need more leaders of volunteer engagement not more volunteer managers. Leaders simplify, they empower, they inspire and they keep us focused on where we want to go. In short, leaders attract and we need more of them in volunteering.

10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers

One contributor to the Magnet eBook asked, “are you excited about the opportunities you are offering to volunteers and the difference they will make?” What a great question! If you’re not excited about what you want people to do for you, chances are they aren’t going to be that excited either.

Be passionate about the work of volunteers in your organisation and that enthusiasm will attract people to you.


What would your top tips be?

Would you add anything to my top ten?

Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.


If you’d like help making applying these ten top tips to your organisation then please get in touch. I’d love to help you engage and inspire more people to bring about change.


You can find out more about the breadth and depth of volunteer management practice in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me, this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

Late last year I wrote my final article for Third Sector magazine online. I think the issues I talked about are so important for leaders of volunteer engagement that I want to give the article a wider audience here on my blog.

For those that don’t know, Third Sector is one of the main nonprofit magazines in the UK. I have written for them every month since 2011 – until December 2019.

Sadly, following their recent review and restructure of the publication, regular opinion pieces are being scaled back, including mine. I may still do occasional pieces for them, but the regular opportunity I had to speak to the wider sector about volunteering issues – what was once dubbed (not by me!) ‘the voice of volunteering’ – is no more.

Whilst I always shared my Third Sector articles via my website and social media channels, in recent years the online magazine moved behind a paywall so not everyone could access the content. This was a problem when I had something to say that I think people – especially those outside the volunteer management community – really needed to hear. My last article in December 2019 was one of those, so here it is in full (slightly edited to make it better!) and freely available to all who care to read it.


The 2019 word of the year was “climate strike”. I know, it’s two words! Don’t blame me, blame Collins Dictionary. If they wanted one word though, perhaps it should have been “volunteer”.

Quite rightly, climate change issues dominated headlines in 2019. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) cropped up everywhere throughout the last twelve months.

And the great thing is that Greta and the XR activists are all volunteers.

Great Thunberg, the original climate striker
Great Thunberg, the original climate striker

Of course, that’s not how the media have reported it. It’s not the language the government have used. It’s not how society sees them. XR volunteer activists are disrupting, creating change, challenging the status quo. To most people, that’s not what volunteers do. Volunteers make tea. Volunteers staff charity shops. Volunteers don’t rock the boat. Volunteers don’t cause trouble. Volunteers don’t march down streets waving placards.

And we are perhaps no better. Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations, safe in our nice cosy sector bubble, are largely ignoring this explosion of volunteer effort and impact. We don’t talk about XR as volunteers. We don’t reach out to learn from them. We don’t celebrate their volunteering and it’s impact. We’re too busy worrying about: recruitment and retention rates; how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteers roles; planning next year’s Volunteers’ Week events; and whether anyone will come to the volunteer Christmas party.

The world is changing around us – and fast. In the modern world people don’t need our organisations and precious sector institutions if they want to tackle the issues they are passionate about. Social media, the internet and mobile technology are enabling people to self-organise and have a real impact on the things that matter to them. They don’t need long winded application forms, two references, health and safety training, risk assessments and regular supervision meetings. They don’t need paid staff to manage them or strategy away days to direct them. They just get on with making change happen, seeking to address the root causes of society’s problems rather than tinkering with the symptoms.

These individuals and their new movements are moving faster than the traditional voluntary and community sector is. They are catching the public’s attention better than we are. And volunteers are at the core of that.

Extinction rebellion protest in London
Extinction rebellion protest in London

Are volunteers truly at the core of your organisation? In many cases, if we’re honest, the answer to that question is no. They may be more numerous than paid staff but they aren’t at the heart of fulfilling your mission. They do nice but non-essential things, leaving the real work to paid staff.

As 2019 draws to a close we in our sector bubble are perhaps falling further behind. The way we think about, talk about and organise volunteering risks becoming more and more irrelevant to people.

Will 2020 be another year we become even more out of touch and irrelevant? I hope not, but much needs to change if we are to find ourselves in a better place in a year’s time.

It’s time for action.


If you would like help thinking through the implications of this article for your volunteer engagement practice then please get in touch. Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is all about engaging and inspiring people to bring about change – we’d love to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we need to stop talking about volunteer programmes

Why we need to stop talking about volunteer programmes

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

A new start.

A busy time.

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

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

It’s not a long read.

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

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

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

Here we go:

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

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

Stop saying “volunteer programme”.

That was the year that was

That was the year that was

As the sun sets on 2019 I am in reflective mood, turning my thoughts back to the last twelve months as I prepare for the Christmas break.

In some respects, 2019 has been in tough year.

In February we lost one of the leaders in our field, Susan J Ellis.

Volunteer engagement professionals around the world lost an advocate and a friend, someone who was as fearless in her evangelism for what we do as she was in challenging us to grow and move forward.

Susan was also my mentor and my friend for more than twenty years. With her death I lost someone who was incredibly important to me.

Then, just a few weeks after Susan’s death, my mum died. Mum had been taken into hospital with suspected jaundice just after Valentine’s Day. It turned out to be cancer. She lasted just eight weeks before the disease took her. It was – and still is – a massive shock to me and my family.

My mum
My mum

Losing two people who shaped my life up until now – albeit in different ways – was a real kick in the guts. Needless to say that by late April I was ready for 2019 to be over!

This year has also had its challenges on the work front. If you ever thought the life of a consultant was one that led to riches, let me tell you now that you are very wrong! Hearing of my work trips to other countries may sound like I lead a glamorous life (and I am certainly very fortunate for), but the current climate for business means I’m squeezing the financial margins all the time. International work is simply a necessity when work at home is scarce.

Some of the recent challenges in the UK are:

  • The legacy of the years austerity and resulting tight budgets for things like training and development
  • Uncertainty and nervousness caused by Brexit
  • The low strategic priority many organisations give to volunteering, which means the idea of engaging a consultant to develop volunteer engagement is off many people’s radar
  • The sometimes extremely long decision making timeframes organisations go through when they do want help – the record so far is about eighteen months from enquiry to delivery!

Of course we all have challenges and I’m not looking for sympathy or a pity party. I’m simply being honest about the challenges of what I do as I look back on the year that’s gone.

Of course it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, far from it. Running a one-person volunteer management training and consultancy business for more than eight years has been a rollercoaster ride with many more ups than downs.

Whilst 2019 was the first time in five years that I didn’t visit my beloved Australia, I did go to Canada twice and the USA three times (albeit briefly – two visits to the States were barely forty-eight hours long!). It was an immense privilege to:

  • Co-present the opening volunteer engagement plenary and run workshops at the Points of Light conference in St Paul, Minnesota
  • Deliver the opening keynote address to the Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada / PAVRO conference in Ottawa
  • Work with an amazing team at this years “The Future is Now: Tech trends” hybrid conference, broadcast from Hamilton, Ontario
  • Make my first visit to South Dakota to present at a state-wide volunteer management conference in Sioux Falls
  • Work with the wonderful people at the Minnesota Historical Society again
  • Deliver workshops in Ontario for some fantastic clients (I just missed filming of The Handmaids Tale outside the training venue by a few hours!)

Whilst it always sounds like the majority of my time is spent overseas, the reality is that I mainly work in the UK. I’ve had some wonderful clients this year and met some amazing people doing excellent volunteer engagement work. I’ve been to Scotland and Northern Ireland (hint hint Wales!) and all across England. What I see and hear from the volunteer managers I meet is inspiring and invigorating, giving me huge pride to be a part of this amazing profession.

To all of my clients a huge thank you for hiring me in 2019. I hope you’ll have me back in 2020 (hint hint)!

To everyone I have met, trained and spoken with, thank you for your time, energy and commitment. I look forward to seeing what you achieve next year.

To anyone I didn’t work with in 2019, well bookings are open now for 2020 so get in touch and let’s make it happen!

Finally, this will be my last article of 2019 with the next one going live on 10 January 2020. Thank you to all of you have have visited my blog and read the articles I have published over the last twelve months. Your continued support is both humbling and very much appreciated.

I wish you all a restful and enjoyable holiday and look forward to engaging with you throughout 2020.

An image saying thanks and goodbye
An image saying thanks and goodbye

Valuing values

Valuing values

Around this time last year I took the opportunity to reflect on why I do what I do every day. Now, a year on, I want to take a slightly different approach.

In April 2020 it will be nine years since I sat down at my desk for the first time as an independent consultant, event speaker, trainer and writer. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then but the core values behind my business, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, remain the same. Shortly after the company launched, I wrote a piece on my old blog site explaining those values and I want to revisit that because the principles I signed myself up to back then still hold true today.

So, here is that 2011 article. It has been edited slightly to tidy it up – I think I have become a better writer in the last nine years and can’t help but make some changes! (NB. a link to the original version is at the end of this article).


Organisational values. Rarely have I encountered a topic in my career that has provoked so much scepticism. From those who are totally against corporate values to those who just think its is all hot air and no action, it’s unusual to come across anyone who thrills to the idea of discussing values.

Copyright Scott Adams.
Copyright Scott Adams.

A former boss of mine talked about people, not companies, having values. People, he argued, are all individuals and have differing values. Companies cannot force their values onto people, so there is always going to be some tension between people living their personal values and abiding by corporate values. The conclusion, therefore, was that talk of corporate values is pointless.

On the other hand, one charity I know restructured and, rather than deciding which skills and competencies they wanted and redeploying and recruiting staff accordingly, they decided to focus on values. The recruitment process was focused on exploring individual employees’ congruence with the charity’s values. Those with the strongest fit stayed. Those with the weakest fit were first in line for redundancy. They firmly believe this has given them a more committed staff base to build on for the future.

One of the nice things about being your own boss is that your corporate values are your personal values. There should be no conflict between the way the firm goes about its business and the way the owner behaves. That’s why I want to use this article to explain the six values of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, or as I put it on the website, what I believe about the way I go about the work of engaging and inspiring people to bring about change.

1 – Honesty

This is a non-negotiable for me. It is an absolutely fundamental value. That’s why it is first in the list.

I will always be honest in my dealing with clients and potential clients.

I will not sell you a service if I don’t think you need it.

I will not commit to doing a piece of work if I don’t think I can do it (either because of availability or fit with my skills).

I will be honest and upfront about how I can help and what it will cost you.

I will also be honest in what I say and write about the volunteering movement. In my view there aren’t enough people speaking up and speaking out about volunteering issues. I want to help fill that void with honest views, opinions and advice. That’s what I hope this blog will increasingly be used for.

This is a critical time for the volunteering movement in the UK and I hope in some small way that I can honestly and helpfully speak and write about the issues we face.

2 – Passion

It say’s on the company website:

“At Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd we are passionate about the potential of people, about their potential to effect change and make the world a better place.”

In fact passion is a word that I keep hearing when people talk about how I go about my work. I am happy about that because, for me, being in the volunteering movement isn’t just a job, it is a vocation.

I am passionate about volunteering, about what I do, about how I do it and about the difference it makes. I want to bring that passion, that enthusiasm to my work with clients. I want others to share that passion and enthusiasm. I want volunteers to feel even more passionate and enthusiastic about their work and the difference it makes. I want paid staff to feel even more passionate about what they do and the challenges & opportunities they face.

It is this passion about the potential of people that is at the core of my vision for the business to engage and inspire people to bring about change.

3 – Fun

According to a survey I once read, the average person spends 99,117hrs at work during their life. That’s about eleven years! I don’t know about you but I don’t want those eleven years to be devoid of any enjoyment.

That’s why I want to bring a sense of fun to my work. Yes, what my clients and I do is serious and we take it seriously. But let’s also get serious about having fun.

In early years education children learn through play, through having fun. Who says this has to stop when you’re a child? In my experience people learn more if they are having fun learning. I know I do.

So I want to enjoy my work and have fun doing it and I want that to be your experience of working with me too.

4 – Integrity

There is a great book on leadership called ‘The Leadership Challenge’, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. In it they argue that a critical ingredient to effective leadership is integrity – living out your values.

That’s why I wanted to blog about them here, so I can be open about them and let people judge for themselves if I live them in my work.

Kouzes and Posner sum integrity up in a chapter on leaders modelling the way as DWYSYWD – Do What You Say You Will Do.

That’s my goal – please tell me if I get it right (or wrong!).

5 – Value

In the past I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in shaping the content for conferences. One of the things that delegates had always fed back about previous events was the price – it was, in their view too, high.

From the view of the organisation I was working with, the price was the minimum they could offer as it allowed them to break even, just. So we took a different approach. We increased the price just enough to cover inflationary rises to our costs but re-focused the content so that is gave really good value to the delegates. After the next event we got very few comments about the price, but lots about how valuable the conference had been.

Value refers to the perception of benefits received for what someone must give up, in this case the price. Where the organisation in question had gone wrong in the past was in focusing solely on the price (keeping it as low as possible without making a loss because they thought this is what got people to book places) rather than on the value of what people were paying for.

That is an important point I am taking into my new business.

I have to charge a fee for what I do. This is my livelihood now. This is how I pay my mortgage and feed my family. That’s why there is a price for what I do.

But if you hire me I hope you don’t feel like you get a service that simply costs money (price). Instead, I hope you feel like you get a service of real value, a service that is built on many years of experience and that is dedicated to bringing you benefits that will help you achieve your goals.

6 – Effectiveness

Someone wisely said that efficiency is doing this well but effectiveness is doing the right things well.

There isn’t much to add really, it speaks for itself and that’s how I want to help my clients – focus on doing the right things well.


I’d love to hear from you in response.

Have you worked with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd over the last nine years? Do you think we lived out our values? How? And if not, why not?

What values are important to you in your work? Why?

Please leave a comment below so we can explore this topic further together.


This article appeared in it’s original form on 12 April 2011.

Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Earlier this autumn, the BBC aired a show called The Big Hospital Experiment. In my view it should be essential watching for anyone leading volunteer engagement in any setting, especially healthcare.

The programme followed fourteen young people giving their time for four weeks as clinical volunteers on wards at the Royal Derby Hospital in England. The hospital has a long history of volunteer involvement but this was something new, volunteers undertaking clinical tasks alongside nursing staff and doctors in challenging departments like Accident and Emergency (A&E), Cancer, Renal, Paediatrics and the like.

The volunteers undertook a range of tasks, from monitoring patient’s blood pressure to feeding to intimate care (washing and toileting) to simply sitting and having a cup of tea with patients and their families. The roles were part of a pilot designed to assess if clinical volunteers could work effectively alongside medical staff too improve patient care and increase the capacity of medical professionals to do what their specialist training required them to focus on.

It is important to note that the show made no judgement about whether placing volunteers in these roles was ethically good or bad, both in regard to the responsibilities placed on the volunteers but also whether such roles should be undertaken by paid staff, not volunteers.

Almost all the young people were new to this kind of work. Little was said about the recruitment and selection process (were they chosen because they ere the best for the roles or because the producers though they’d make for good TV?) but we did get to see all fourteen of them doing two weeks of training before their first placement. They were also closely supervised throughout the pilot by ward sisters, the senior nurse who trained them, and executive nursing staff motioning the efficacy of the pilot.

Here are my reflections on the four episodes.


Episode one

It’s fair to say that nursing staff were cautious about the pilot, fearing that too much time would be taken up managing the volunteers, detracting from patient care. This wasn’t helped when cancer ward volunteer Will requested a different break schedule for his shifts so he could have more frequent cigarette breaks.

Very quickly, however, the nursing staff discovered that by investing some time in the volunteers they developed engaged, committed and productive people who were keen and able to help in meaningful ways. This demonstrates that if we get the right people in the right volunteer roles, train them properly, support, trust and encourage them to do a good job, they invariably will.

Episode two

This episode focused on the emotional impact of the work on the volunteers. What wasn’t really acknowledged was that everyone experiences challenges adjusting to the emotions faced in a hospital setting. On day one you have the same lack of experience and strategies for coping, whether you are a nurse, doctor or volunteer.

Similarly, how everyone copes when they do get onto a ward is different. For example:

  • Will (he of the cigarette breaks) came face-to-face with the reality of death as he cared for a patient. After initially struggling he persevered and adapted.
  • In comparison, Erik, who had led a sheltered and spoilt life before the programme, struggled more with his role. He made excuses for not turning up one morning because he couldn’t face being with the patients. He arrived four hours late for his shift, leaving the ward short-handed.
  • Finally, Aleshpa was placed on the children’s ward with a boy called Blake. She stayed two hours after her shift ended to check on the results of Blake’s MRI, such was her concern for him. So much for volunteers being unreliable!

On the Head and Neck ward the lead sister had already made her mind up about the clinical volunteers – the experiment was extended into subsequent weeks after what she judged as strong early success.

Episode three

Fittingly there were three key points for me:

  1. Patients and the families can respond differently (in a good way) when they engage with a volunteer rather than a paid nurse or doctor. This unsalaried credibility was a real asset for the wards involving volunteers.
  2. The senior executive nurse noted the importance of placing people into the right roles. Piotr had excelled in A&E but struggled with the increased interpersonal engagement with patients on another ward. Finn had struggled on the cancer ward but was very effective when placed on a ward treating older people.
  3. After Charlotte experienced three patient deaths during one shift on the renal ward I thought about how few of us are exposed to such experiences at such a young age. I’m pretty confident few of the nursing staff would have had such experiences at Charlotte’s age. So, yet again, a person’s ability to cope in roles such as those given to the volunteers is not down to their pay grade. It’s related to their competence, confidence and temperament, all of which can be screened for during recruitment and addressed in training.

Episode four

The final episode focused (in part) on how different volunteers responded to more challenging patients.

Mark had been admitted to A&E having been found unconscious in the town centre. He was homeless, an alcoholic and had taken an overdose. One volunteer was immediately compassionate towards Mark, whilst another privately remarked that people like him should take personal responsibility and sort themselves out. After spending more time with Mark, the latter volunteer’s views softened as their understanding and empathy for the patient grew.

The point was also repeated that patients can respond differently to volunteers than paid staff. Eric, a patient who has been bed bound during his hospital stay, got out of bed for the first time thanks to the efforts of two volunteers. None of the paid staff had managed this with Eric. The success of the volunteers was attributed by the nursing staff to the strength of the relationship the volunteers had with Eric because of the time they’d spent with him.

As the episode concluded we learnt that the hospital senior management had judged the pilot a success and were rolling it out on a permanent basis across the hospital. Furthermore, two of the volunteers, Piotr and Michael, had decided to join the NHS, as a nurse and paramedics respectively.


As I said at the start The Big Hospital Experiment is must watch TV for anyone working in volunteer engagement. It would help challenge the prejudices and stereotypes some paid staff hold about the competence and reliability of volunteers. Also, when was the last time a programme about volunteering and volunteer management got a four-part prime time series on the BBC?! To not watch it would be a missed opportunity.

Did you watch the show?

What did you think?

Leave a comment below – I’d love to read your thoughts and reflections.


See also, “Patients, volunteers and the NHS were all winners in the Big Hospital Experiment” in which the Chief Nursing Officer for England gives her views on the programme.

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

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

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

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

Ready?

Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I said last time:

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

The solutions here aren’t difficult. For example:

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

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

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

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

Pieces on a chessboard
Pieces on a chessboard

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us to our second point.


Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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