One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“I look back in pride at our profession. At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

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

Risk – learn to love it

Risk is everywhere. From dawn to dusk we live with risk all around us. Consider – 450 people in the USA die from falling out of their beds each year and more than 1,000 people die every year in the UK after falling down stairs?

How do you respond to that information? Will you now avoid going to bed or using stairs? I doubt it. Instead, armed with that knowledge, you’ll adapt to the risks you face and respond accordingly.

“The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen” – The Oxford English Dictionary definition of risk

Likewise, if you know electricity and water don’t mix then you don’t sit in the bath with an electric fire on the edge of the tub. If you know what a car does when it hits a human body, then you’re likely to wait for the crossing to be clear rather than just wandering into traffic. This is risk management.

Risk avoidance, not management

Yet that isn’t how risk plays out when it comes volunteering. All too often I see organisations practice risk avoidance, not risk management. To continue our examples, they avoid bed, avoid stairs, avoid baths (no wonder these organisations stink!) and avoiding crossing roads, never seeing the possibilities on the other side of the street.

A story from New Zealand

I saw a wonderful – but maddening – illustration of this in New Zealand last year.

A lady I met volunteers with two environmental organisations, located on opposite sides of a road. One organisation is community run, the other is a local government run. In the community organisation, volunteers use all the machinery and equipment (there are no paid staff), but only once they have been properly recruited and trained. In the local government project volunteers are not allowed to use the machines and equipment because it is deemed too risky – only the paid staff can use it. It doesn’t matter if they are trained and qualified to use the kit from the organisation across the road (and many people volunteer for both groups), because they are unpaid their use of the machinery is too much of a risk.

Three lessons this story teaches us

  1. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because they are volunteers. If someone does not get paid it does not mean they are less competent. Pay, and how much someone is paid, is not a determinant of competence.
  2. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because of ignorance about good volunteer management practice. Competent Volunteer Managers recruit the right people for the role, equip them with the training, skills and tools to do the job properly and safely, and regularly check in to make sure everything was going OK. They manage risk.
  3. Organisations miss out on a huge pool of talent, ideas and resources to fulfil their missions if they practice risk avoidance. Not allowing volunteers to do something because there might be a risk is not the same as being cautious and taking steps to minimise that risk.

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

Of course, not every organisation thinks this way, but many do. I passionately believe that if we lead and manage volunteers then need to advocate more forcefully to overcome such ignorance and prejudice towards volunteers.

An example from Australia

Last year I had a workshop participant explain that her organisation wouldn’t let volunteers do a certain role because they can’t get insurance for it. I urged her to go back to the organisation and explain that insurance is not risk management. Insurance provides a pay out if risk management fails.

I urged them to go back and lobby for some proper risk management to take place, asking questions like:

  • How big a risk would it be for a volunteer to do that role?
  • What might happen if things go wrong?
  • How likely is that?
  • What could they do to reduce the likelihood?
  • Are they comfortable with the retained, net risk?

The point being that the organisation could probably secure insurance cover if it could demonstrate good risk management. Not doing so actually revealed a resistance to engaging volunteers – insurance was just the excuse.

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

Looking back history we can see the huge societal changes that have come about because volunteers took a risk. For example, one hundred years ago women in the UK gained the right to vote because many people took huge risks volunteering to fight for that right. Today, volunteers serve in risky situations and save lives doing so – look at lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and volunteer firefighters across the globe, to name just three examples.

We need to learn to love risk, to embrace it as a marker of the potential for the world to be changed.

We need to help our organisation rediscover their pioneering, life changing, world shaking possibilities.

The potential of those who give time to transform the world is too great for us to stay silent.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Back in 2010 the UK’s general election resulted in a coalition government that brought in widespread funding cuts. Volunteering infrastructure was amongst the early victims as financial belts tightened.

Despite forming in 2004, Volunteering England (VE) ceased to be in 2013, merging into NCVO. Volunteer Centres closed as local government funding dried up. Some merged into other bodies like Councils for Voluntary Service, others just disappeared altogether. And the closures continue to this day as the cuts continue and deepen.

It’s still too early to tell what the long-term consequences of these changes will be for volunteerism in England. We’ve already lost a huge amount of knowledge about what was done before the age of austerity began. The Commission on the Future of Volunteering, the outputs from the ChangeUp National volunteering Hub and subsequent Modernising Volunteering National Support Service – all are consigned to the memories of those who were there. Any online presence can be hard to find, if it even exists anymore.

We’ve also lost the means to deliver any new ‘national’ volunteering initiative, a point conceded by a Cabinet Office official last year when he remarked that if the (now forgotten?) ‘three-day volunteering pledge’ was to happen we’d need a local volunteering infrastructure to deliver it.

So I am both saddened and angry to see a similar situation unfolding in Australia.

Earlier this year the Australian federal Government’s Department of Social Services announced changes to the funding pot for Volunteer Resource Centres (VRCs) that could have a devastating effect. You can read all about the situation in this excellent article from Pro Bono Australia.

Efforts are underway to work with the Australian Government to review their decision and take a different approach. Volunteering Australia, state and territory peak bodies and local VRCs are mobilising to protect the future of volunteering support services. My sincere hope is that they succeed and do not see a repeat of what has happened here in England over the last few years.

I’ll leave the last word to Alison Lai, the CEO of Volunteering Tasmania. Read her excellent article about the likely impact of the cuts in Australia here.