My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in 2016 I wrote an article recommending some productivity tools and resources. My intention was to help Volunteer Management professionals with the daily challenge of getting stuff done. Now, almost three years on, I’m revisiting the theme with the same aim, this time sharing five top tips to help you get more productive at work.

Tip #1 – Headphones

Volunteer Managers are always getting interrupted when they are at work.

Interrupted by paid staff colleagues asking for twenty volunteers for that event tomorrow. You know, the one that’s been in planning for the last year but only now do they remember they need volunteers!

Interrupted by volunteers who want a chat, or their expenses signed off, or have a complaint about another volunteer.

Interrupted by senior management who need someone to collect the lunch order for the SMT meeting and, well, you can get a volunteer to do that, right?

You get the idea.

Any interruption draws your attention away from your work, attention that takes time to regain.

Here’s my tip (and it works really well in open plan offices).

Buy the biggest pair of over-ear headphones you can find. They don’t have to be flashy noise cancellers, they don’t event have to be expensive. They just have to be big. Put them on when you don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t have to play music or anything, just put them on.

Why? People will be reluctant to walk up and remove your headphones whilst you’re wearing them, reducing the interruptions you experience.

Simple and effective.

A pair of large, over-ear headphones
A pair of large, over-ear headphones

Tip #2 – Walk this way

Steve Jobs used to hold his meetings walking around the Apple campus in California. He was mobile most of the time he was at work, rarely sat at a desk.

We don’t have to be sedentary all the time either. Perhaps you can’t hold your meetings walking around the local park (although have you ever suggested it?) but you can get up and go for a brief stroll when you need to reset your attention, refocus you energy or just reset your brain.

Every afternoon that I work from home I take an hour to walk my dog. I try not to listen to podcasts or music. I just walk. The clear headspace it gives me recharges my energy and often helps me solve problems I’ve been mulling over. On one walk I even wrote the first draft of a blog post, dictating it into my iPhone after inspiration struck.

Your walk doesn’t have to be an hour. It could just be a stroll to the sandwich shop at lunch, or five minutes round the block between meetings. Whatever you can manage, give it a go and see if it helps you.

Someone walking
Someone walking

Tip #3 – Stop

Every now and again, just stop. Pause for a minute between the phone call that just ended and turning to your email. Take a few deep breaths between the last meeting and the next one. Give your brain time and space to catch up and reset, ready for the next task.

Go home at a sensible time every night. Nobody has ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at work” when lying on their deathbed. You get paid the same whether you do your contracted hours or you work extra hours a week. I know you’re a Volunteer Manager and dedicated to your volunteers, but you won’t help them if you don’t look after yourself. There is more to life that volunteer management – there, I said it!

Oh, and make sure you take all of your annual leave / holiday allowance. However you want to spend that time away from work is fine, but make sure you spend it away from work. Email off, voicemail on. No sneaking a peek at your messages. They can wait. Life won’t.

A pause button
A pause button

Tip #4 – Know yourself

One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done to be more productive was monitoring my attention over a given day. I know I’m a morning person and am especially productive in the morning. I know I’m not productive after lunch. I know my afternoon dog walk will give me an energy boost, enough to get another hour of good work out of me late in the day. So I schedule my work around these attention rhythms.

I’m lucky of course. I work for myself, often at home. But you can structure your day in an office environment too. When I commuted to London, I’d start work on the train at 715am. By 9am I’d got 90mins of work done. I left at 4pm. Colleagues perhaps wondered why I was leaving early, but they didn’t see that solid block of work time on my morning train, done whilst many of them were just waking up.

Don’t let other people dictate when you are most productive. Know what works for you and try to structure your day accordingly.

Socrates
Socrates

Tip#5 – Notification

My last tip usually results in gasps of astonishment when I say it in productivity training for leaders of volunteer engagement. It’s easy to say, but hard for many to do.

Turn off notifications on your computer, smartphone and tablet!

Shocking right?

You don’t need these machines pinging at you every time someone tweets, emails, texts or otherwise interacts with you. Don’t let the device manage your attention, take control and manage the device. You’ll be amazed how much more focus you have and how much more you get done.

Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone
Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone

So there you have it, my top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement.

What would you add to the list?

Leave a comment below to add your tips.


I want to acknowledge Josh Spector’s article, “How To Free Up Two Hours Of Your Day” as the inspiration for this blog post. Josh curates an excellent weekly newsletter called For The Interested and I highly recommend subscribing for free, which you can do right here.

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Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

“The low levels of participation in employer-supported volunteering (ESV) reflects a wider lack of awareness of this kind of volunteering. As well as scope to increase awareness, the fact that around a third of volunteers who participated in employer-supported volunteering in the last year felt their employers did not actively encourage it suggests there is more that could be done to promote it.”

That was the conclusion of NCVO’s Time Well Spent report, released back in January. Despite more than twenty years of attention being given to ESV in the UK it remains a marginal way for people to get involved in volunteering. Why?

First, nobody seems to have successfully sold the concept of ESV into the small and medium sized business community (SMEs). Many have tried, but ESV persists in being something large employers embrace more than SMEs, perhaps because the absence of some paid staff during the working day may be less acutely felt amongst a larger staff team.

Second, many volunteer involving organisations still get hung up on whether ESV is really volunteering. The thinking goes that if the volunteer is taking time out of their typical working day, and so being paid by the employer for that time, then they aren’t really a volunteer. Whether or not you agree with this thinking (and I firmly disagree), from an employers perspective it must be frustrating to see good causes spurning the offer of help simply because of some definitional minutiae.

Next, I think some non-profits only engage in ESV because they see it as a route to getting a donation from the employer. This creates a tension between corporate fundraising and volunteer engagement functions, tension that holds the organisation back from making the most of the opportunities presented by potential – and consequently frustrated – corporate supporters.

Finally, ESV is still seen by non-profits as either traditional team challenge activities or initiatives that deploy the professional skills of their staff into the community. Both present problems. Team challenges frequently suck up non-profit time with little positive return. Sure the employees have a great time, but sometimes the organisation, for example, gets a poorly painted room and has to hire in professional painters to fix the work done by the volunteers. Skills-based volunteering can also be challenging, especially if skilled employee volunteers are seen as a threat by paid staff who may resent volunteers doing similar work to them ‘for free’.

Yet, new ways of doing ESV are developing that most non-profits aren’t even aware of, let alone embracing. In fact, I think the non-profit sector are increasingly falling behind the thinking of businesses when it comes to this form of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Consider the recent pilot in the USA by Starbucks and their charitable arm, The Starbucks Foundation. This is something Meridian Swift and I explored in two articles last year – you can find the first one here and the second one here.

This Starbucks pilot is one example of where employers are heading. They know that millennials want to work for employers who are truly engaged in the community, not those who just pay lip service to their warm, fuzzy CSR statements (I read somewhere that more than 50% of Millennials accept a job based upon a company’s involvement with causes). So, in an increasingly competitive marketplace for recruiting millennial talent, these businesses are developing innovative approaches to make them the employer of choice amongst young people.

What Starbucks have done is the tip of the iceberg, more will follow and, whilst these initiatives are mainly stateside, it won’t be long before they migrate to this side of the Atlantic.

Just like paid time off to volunteer during the working day, many non-profits see these innovations as ‘not volunteering’ and will steer clear. But that isn’t going to stop businesses exploring these ideas. They simply can’t afford to ignore what the the millennial workforce wants and, if we won’t get on board, they’ll simply do it without us.

As we saw at the start of this article, ESV appears to remain a marginal way for people to volunteer. In a changing landscape for CSR volunteering, finding a solution will require non-profits, fundraising departments and Volunteer Managers to embrace very different thinking about the employer / non-profit relationship of the future.

What do you think?


Note: I am aware that ESV happens in a wide variety of ways, not just paid time off work, and with employers in the private, public and voluntary sector. However, as the point of this article is not to explore the wider variety of ESV activity but to question why it isn’t making a big difference to volunteering rates, I have not explored this breadth of activity. Hence the use of the term employers and what may seem like an assumption that the supply of volunteers is only from private sector employers.

How to take control of your learning

How to take control of your learning

In the second of a two-part series, guest writer Sue Jones shares her thoughts on what’s really needed in terms of learning and development for people in volunteer management.

You can read part one, “No Qualifications Required” here.

Sue Jones, this article's author
Sue Jones, this article’s author

Although I’ve always viewed qualifications as an important part of Volunteer Managers gaining recognition for themselves and their work, I’m also a huge advocate of all types of learning experiences: from topic based training courses to networking events; conferences and mentoring programmes; working one-to-one with a coach; subscribing to an e-journal or magazine; and simply taking some time out to read a book. After all, we live in a world where information, resources and learning opportunities are available anytime and anywhere – even for a field as niche as Volunteer Leadership & Management! And, our focus needn’t be exclusive to volunteer management – there is a lot to be gained from looking beyond our immediate field.

The brilliant thing about embracing less formal approaches to learning is that it puts you in the driving seat.Yet this is something that perhaps we don’t fully appreciate when we are considering our options for learning and professional development. In my experience of working with volunteer managers, there is a tendency to look at what learning options are available to them, rather than being aware of the fact that we are always learning and that there are so many ways we can approach this, both formally and informally. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that it’s your learning and professional development – so, where you need to start is to ask yourself, what is it that you are seeking?

Susan Ellis once said:

“No-one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field, and a willingness to work together to build that field.”

If you are seeking recognition for your competence within a role, then qualifications may provide this. Even in-house training programmes and acknowledgement from your employer via the organisation’s appraisal process may be an indicator of your personal growth in terms of knowledge and skills.

Yet, if you are seeking professional status, as Susan suggests, this is something different – something you need to work on for yourself individually and collectively as a wider professional group. While studying for a qualification can certainly support you with this and maybe kick start your interest and passion for learning, expanding your knowledge and building your expertise; I believe it’s what you do next that really matters. How you use your learning to continue to build that professional status, for you and for others.

Now, you might be thinking, this is all well and good, but what time do I have to dedicate to my own CPD? My job is already so full. You might also feel its more your employer’s responsibility to bear any costs, whether that be financial outlay or time. Perhaps you even hold the view that there’s not much point to ongoing studying and learning if there’s no certificate from an awarding body to ‘prove’ your achievement at the end of it. These are all valid points, and they do need consideration; yet I would (gently) challenge each of these positions as being potentially detrimental to your own personal growth.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that:

“Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is a combination of approaches, ideas and techniques that will help you manage your own learning and growth. Perhaps the most important message is that one size doesn’t fit all. Wherever you are in your career now and whatever you want to achieve, your CPD should be exactly that: yours.”

For me, there’s something useful we can extract here about shifting our expectation of what learning should look like and maybe even letting go of the often discussed notion of there needing to be a clear career pathway for leaders and managers of volunteers.

As the workplace evolves it is becoming more evident that one of the key skills we need to develop and apply to our work is adaptability – and this also applies to how we approach our professional development. After all, learning isn’t something that just happens to us, we have to show up to it, to participate in it and most importantly, we need to get to know ourselves better so we can really get what we need from it.

So, how do you do this?

You could begin with a reflective exercise, just to see what comes up when you start to ask some questions, such as;

  • What do I enjoy within my work?
  • What am I good at?
  • What would I like to learn more about?
  • How does/will this support me in my existing role?
  • What would I like to do more of?
  • Going forward, what sort of role would enable me to work to my strengths?

Self-reflection isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do – it comes more naturally to some people than to others. Yet, in my experience it can have a very positive impact on people as they start to articulate what’s happening for them, what they are learning and how they can use that information to drive things forward. In fact, regular self-reflective practice, even for those who may initially approach it with scepticism, can lead you to discovering all sorts of useful stuff about yourself, which can be applied to various aspects of your life and work, including supporting you to seek out relevant CPD opportunities.

An exercise I often do with coaching clients is to set up a weekly reflective activity using questions we design together, which can prompt their thinking and encourages them to capture their thoughts as a way of tracking their learning and progression, either generally within their work, or as part of something specific they are working on in their life. And this is actually something we can all do for ourselves. All it takes is knowing what questions you want to ask and then setting up a mechanism for capturing your responses, for example in a journal or an app, or even by sending an email to yourself once a week.

Creating a system for noting your learning is also something you can apply to your CPD in general. Again, this needs to be something that you create and you drive, so ask yourself, ‘what am I already doing that contributes to my CPD and what additional activities do I want to intentionally seek out, in order to help me develop further?’

Here’s an example of the prompts I use within my own quarterly CPD tracker. It’s really basic, yet it enables me to keep a note and to reflect back on activities and learning that I may possible overlook or even forget about.

Sue's quarterly CPD tracker
Sue’s quarterly CPD tracker

There are so many opportunities to learn and to develop, you just need to decide whether it is something you want to make time for and to choose.

You could get involved with AVM’s speaker events or Thoughtful Thursdays on Twitter.

Sometimes sharing our expertise and knowledge is a great way of further expanding our skills and helps us to connect with others, so perhaps being a mentor or volunteering as a board member might suit you?

Why not set up a local or virtual volunteer managers’ network or reading group, where you can support yourself and others to share learning and experiences and build up your knowledge and expertise?

We can even learn from the process of blogging as writing can help us to think our thoughts through to a conclusion – or even better, helps us ask better and more insightful questions of ourselves and our work.

Finally, here are a couple of resources you may find interesting if you are looking for a starting point with getting to know yourself better.

  • The 16 Personalities questionnaire is a free tool which provides some insight into you – what makes you tick, where you gather your energy from and how you relate to others.
  • Or, if you are in need of something more structured then The Clore Social Leadership Discover Programme is an on-line course designed to help you gain insight into who you are as a leader and how to develop, for just £50.

I’d love to hear from you about the types of CPD activities you are involved in and any suggestions you have for how volunteer managers can support one-another with this.

Please do share your thoughts below.

No Qualifications Required?

No Qualifications Required?

In the first of a two-part series, guest writer Sue Jones shares her thoughts the current state of learning and development for volunteer managers and reflects on how we got here

Sue Jones, this article's author
Sue Jones, this article’s author

Did you know that 2019 will be the last year Volunteer Managers in the UK can access volunteer management qualifications through the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM)? In the past this would have made me exasperated at yet another example of how the role of Volunteer Management and Leadership is overlooked and unappreciated. Today, however, I am wondering whether this is actually a good thing.

How did we get here?

I remember being part of the working group to consult on the creation of National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Managing Volunteers, feeling proud to represent Volunteer Managers in my capacity as a Training Manager from a local Volunteer Centre. It seemed to me that we were developing an important tool, something to give credence to this work and highlight the value of the role to those who didn’t really understand it – which at that time, basically meant ‘everyone’. I knew of people who used the NOS when going through a pay review to demonstrate the extent of their responsibilities – showing how complex it could be in comparison to managing paid staff. And, others who saw it as a helpful approach to creating meaningful job descriptions when writing funding bids for volunteer management positions.

Next came the development of Excellence in Volunteer Management (EVM) – a dedicated programme designed specifically for leaders and managers of volunteers, informed by a consultation exercise and linked to a National Training Strategy. The programme comprised four modules; Managing Yourself, Managing People, Managing Resources and Managing in the Community. The content really did justice to the depth and breadth of the role of volunteer management, reflecting the wide ranging skill sets and knowledge required to deliver ‘excellence’. Themes included time management, interview techniques, coaching skills, leadership, budget planning and event organising, to name just a few. It felt as though managers of volunteers were, at last, being taken seriously and their professional development needs were being acknowledged and catered for.

Unfortunately, a flawed business model and various other factors meant it couldn’t continue as a sustainable option for the long term. The lack of qualification status certainly had some bearing on this, although the opportunity to gain an Endorsed Certificate through ILM was available. Qualifications were becoming increasingly important across the wider Voluntary and Community Sector workforce as discussions about professionalism and certification highlighted an emerging need to be able to demonstrate skills and ability in an increasingly competitive job market.

However, having been involved in it’s development, I felt strongly that there was something in EVM that was worth salvaging and through Volunteer Centre Warrington1, took on the branding and the materials, including the Moodle e-learning platform. Then, with some reimagining, we delivered it with success for a few more years as a viable learning option alongside other accredited programmes, available to volunteer managers at that time through various awarding bodies such as LANTRA and the Open College Network (OCN).

Eventually, ILM set things in motion to develop dedicated, nationally recognised qualifications, firstly at Level 3, aimed at the ‘first line manager’ or team leader. This was perfect for anyone responsible for co-ordinating, organising and managing volunteers in a hands-on role on a day to day basis. Later, the Level 5 Certificate in the Management of Volunteers became available, aimed at aspiring ‘heads of volunteering’ and anyone working in a more strategic role, perhaps leading on developing volunteering within an organisation, and / or supporting and leading others with day to day responsibilities for volunteers.

All these qualifications were built around the National Occupational Standards, with participants having the opportunity to complete a series of work-based assignments focusing on core volunteer management themes like supervision and support, volunteer agreements and managing risk; with the option to add-in more generic leadership and management units where relevant. Indeed, this was something I was keen to offer, particularly through the Level 5 Certificate. As well as promoting volunteering (internally and externally) and developing structures & systems to support volunteering, participants also completed the leadership unit. Although challenging, it was a fantastic opportunity to do some personal reflection and really dig into what makes for an effective leader of volunteers.

Volunteer Management had arrived at last!

Along with the continued emergence of the Association of Volunteer Managers, it felt as though finally volunteer management was recognised as being an integral part of volunteer involvement and engagement, acknowledged as a profession. Volunteer Managers seeking a qualification could now specialise in their field, rather than having to settle for certificates that didn’t quite fit or even reflect their expertise. Training providers no longer had to create work-arounds through endorsements and accreditations. Organisations were able to up-skill their volunteer management teams and demonstrate their value, investing in their volunteer managers’ professional development and supporting them to receive a qualification, benefiting everyone. And, in cases where organisations were unable to provide that financial investment, sometimes funding could be accessed, or volunteer managers themselves were keen to make that investment, highlighting the significance of such qualifications being readily available.

Success was short-lived

In the last couple of years, the ILM – Institute of Leadership and Management have decided not to renew the qualifications previously available in the Management of Volunteers. Due to lack of demand, these qualifications are being phased out at Level 3 and Level 5, with registrations only now open until the end of 2019 for the remaining Level 3 Award in Management of Volunteers. It’s not all doom and gloom however, there are other awarding bodies still offering qualifications for the time being, such as CERTA and LANTRA. It’s just that for me, as a training provider, there was something special about volunteer management being part of ILM. It felt grown-up, like we were finally sitting at the main table, rather than being on the sidelines, sitting at the camping table with the kids.

So, where are we now? Volunteer Managers seeking a specialist qualification with ILM have until the end of the year to sign up for the Level 3 Award, with various training providers still offering programmes. This is a great opportunity for anyone wanting a certificate to add to their portfolio, as well as providing a chance to network with other managers of volunteers and reflect on their work.

But what about those seeking a more in-depth learning experience? What if your work is more strategic, more about the education and promotion of volunteering internally? What if you are leading and managing others who manage volunteers? Or if you are an aspiring leader in this field? Previously, ILM’s Level 5 Certificate would have met this criteria, but what now? What qualifications do you feel you need? Or is it more about seeking out a range of individual learning opportunities, tailored to suit your specific needs, such as working with a mentor or participating in an informal networking group?

Have we actually reached a point where qualifications in volunteer management are no longer required, we simply need to demonstrate our abilities by developing our skill sets and strengths, not constrained by role definitions?

Is it simply a case of our training and learning needs being different in the new world of volunteer management? In Part Two I will be exploring this in more detail, focusing on what volunteer managers really need from Continuous Professional Development (CPD), training and learning.

For now, I’d love to know what you think?

Are qualifications really so important?

What have you gained from completing qualifications in Volunteer Management?

Please share your comments and experiences below.


Contact Sue to find out more about the next ILM Level 3 Award programme beginning March 29th or how you can arrange for this course to be delivered in-house.

  1. The Excellence in Volunteer Management brand is now part of Warrington Voluntary Action.

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.

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.