The freedom to never volunteer together

The freedom to never volunteer together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Five important questions to answer if you want to effectively engage volunteers after the pandemic

Five important questions to answer if you want to effectively engage volunteers after the pandemic

Volunteering is recovering as we continue to emerge from the global Covid-19 pandemic. Like so much else, volunteering will not be unchanged from the experiences of the last two years. So, in this article, I want to pose five questions every Volunteer Involving Organisation should answer if they intend to be successful at engaging volunteers in the future.

1/ Does everyone know why you involve volunteers?

Successful engagement of volunteers requires more than just a great leader of volunteer engagement. Everyone must be committed to giving volunteers a great experience that allows them to make a meaningful difference.

Just like the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole organisation to effectively involve volunteers. It’s no good having a brilliant recruitment campaign if the person who handles calls from prospective volunteers hates dealing with them.

Does everyone at your organisation understand why volunteers are important to your work? Do they know what volunteers bring that is different from paid staff? Do you have a clear vision for volunteer involvement that is widely shared and understood among staff, volunteers, senior leadership, the board etc.?

If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’ then you have work to do to gear everyone up to giving a great experience to volunteers so that they can positively impact your mission.

2/ Are you using, involving or engaging volunteers?

Language matters. The words we choose and how we use them conveys much more than the simple assemblage of letters. That’s why for many years I have had an issue with organisations who say they ‘use’ volunteers.

As I put it in a blog post in 2011:

”I feel very strongly that we should never talk about using volunteers but involving them. Volunteers are people, they take an active role in fulfilling our missions. They are…not used. I think the language we use around volunteers and volunteering speaks volumes about the way they are viewed, regarded and respected in our organisations. If we talk of using volunteers, putting them on a par with the office photocopier, then we should not be surprised if volunteers are seen as providing a far from meaningful contribution to our work. If, however, we talk about involving them then there is implied within that a much more constructive, positive and meaningful attitude to the contribution volunteers provide.”

Do you use volunteers, with all the negative connotations I outlined back in 2011?

Or, do you involve volunteers, giving them a stake in what you do, but perhaps not fully embracing their potential?

Or, do you engage volunteers as active and equal participants with a valuable contribution to make in realising the future your organisation exists to create?

How you think and talk about volunteers conveys a lot about how your culture really values them.

What words do you use? What words do others in your organisation use? How can you shift the language in a more positive direction?

3/ Do you really need all that bureaucracy?

During the pandemic, and especially in those early lockdowns, it became surprisingly easy to volunteer. All we had to do was say ‘yes’ on a WhatsApp group, or join a Facebook or Nextdoor page. Even for big programmes like the NHS Volunteer responders scheme, application, and approval processes were smooth and speedy. I call it frictionless volunteering.

Now aspects of pre-Covid normality are returning, so too is the so-called Velcro volunteering of the before-times. Long application forms, Extensive references. Criminal record checks on anything that moves and breathes. Supervision and appraisals. You know the kind of thing.

Sometimes this is absolutely right and correct. We have a legal, moral and ethical duty to protect our clients, colleagues, and volunteers. Good screening is a vital part of that. We want to actively deter the ‘wrong’ people from volunteering.

Often, however, our organisations erect these barriers to volunteering not because they fear for the safety of others, but because they seem to think that volunteers are, by nature of being unpaid, high risk. I frequently see this thinking: volunteers are unreliable, untrustworthy, unpredictable and so need to be managed and contained lest they rock the boat or cause any trouble. When we take this approach, we can deter the ‘right’ people as well as the ‘wrong’ ones, harming our work.

Or perhaps the inconvenient truth is that we have all that bureaucracy because it’s a nice comfort blanket for us in our work. We are familiar with those systems and processes, they give us a feeling of security when being innovative or changing our approach down feels scary and uncertain? I’ve been there myself in the past.

As whatever normality returns in whatever way it looks in your setting, ask if the bureaucracy of old is really needed. With it gone during the pandemic, were people put at greater risk? If not, why bring it back?

Like it or not, volunteers have enjoyed the frictionless volunteering experience and are going to want volunteering to be more like that in future. Your challenge is matching that expectation with what’s really needed, and that means asking some challenging questions about whether all those barriers are really necessary.

4/ What is the appropriate balance of online and in-person activity for volunteers?

We’ve all lived and worked online so much since March 2020 it’s almost impossible to remember what working life was like when e could all get in a room together. Despite many a pre-Covid protestation, volunteers have embraced technology and online volunteering has boomed.

What we keep online and what returns to In Real Life (IRL) will be a juggling act every Volunteer Involving Organisation and every Volunteer Engagement Professional needs to embrace. There are pros and cons to both approaches, and a blend of the two will inevitably be the way forward for many.

But what’s the correct balance for volunteers?

We might see online activity as being something young people will continue to embrace. But NCVO’s Time Well Spent research (published in 2019) found that 18-34 year olds were more likely than any other age group to say volunteering was important to them as a way of combatting social isolation. In light of that, is giving young people volunteer roles to be done online really the best thing to do?

If you don’t know what mix of IRL and online works for your volunteers, now and in the future, then you have some work to do to understand build the kinds of volunteer experiences people will be attracted to.

5/ Are volunteers making a contribution or a difference?

We’ve already seen the importance of language, and I want to end on another linguistic reflection.

For as long as I can recall, the phrase ‘make a difference’ has been synonymous with volunteering. We used to have Make A Difference Day. Many organisations will advertise for volunteers with a promise that the public will get to make a difference in their spare time. The phrase crops up a lot when you look for it.

Do we really let volunteers make a difference, though? Do we actually show them the impact of what they do? Are volunteers truly engaged in activity that tackles fundamental change and addresses inequality? Or are we really letting volunteers make a contribution? Are they only allowed to help with the nice but non-essential tasks?

Where does your organisation stand? Are your volunteers allowed on the pitch, scoring goals and moving you towards mission fulfilment success? Or are they on the sidelines, cheering on the real stars of the show?

What would be your answers to these questions? If you’re not certain, or need some help thinking them through, then maybe Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help? Drop me an email and let’s have a conversation.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Online vs. In-person: do we have a choice?

Online vs. In-person: do we have a choice?

Since returning to work in January, I have spent nine days travelling within the UK, attending conferences, events, trainings and making site visits for a consulting client. These have been the first opportunity to leave home on business since the middle of March 2020. I’ve loved it. But will it continue?

Let’s be clear. Going anywhere for the last two years hasn’t been sensible. The risks to health from Covid-19 have been real and serious.

Selfishly, the impact of the worst effects of long Covid on me would have been disastrous. If I’m too ill to work, I don’t earn my income. The bills go unpaid. No sick pay, no government help. Less selfishly, I would never have lived with myself if I’d been a one-man super-spreader.

But now, with all the progress we’ve made, the return to in-person work is possible. Of course, we are all — individually and organisationally — going to have to decide what stays online and what should be done in real life (IRL), and why. Some want as much human connection back as possible (I won’t lie, I’m in that camp) and some want us to spend the rest of our lives at home on Teams, Zoom, and the like. As in all things, reality will be a balance between the two, as Matt Hyde of The Scouts so brilliantly wrote recently — you can read his thinking here.

What concerns me now is whether that choice about returning to IRL is being taken away from us by short-sighted organisational thinking. I’ve heard quite a few leaders of volunteer engagement (and others) saying that even if they wanted to attend an in-person event or learning and development opportunity, they can’t because their employer has banned attendance at anything that costs money for the foreseeable future.

There are three serious implications that immediately come to mind from this position:

  1. At a time when the jobs market is pretty buoyant, investing in the learning and development of our people will be crucial to attracting and retaining the best talent to our work. Banning people from attending conferences workshops, events, and the like will simply result in your people going elsewhere, leaving your organisation less capable of attracting and retaining the talent you need. Ultimately, this will probably cost you more money eventually.
  2. If your people can’t go and learn from others, network and make connections, then how will they gain the insights they need to change, adapt and grow their work to the benefit of your mission? Sure, reading a report or watching a webinar on your own will help build your knowledge, but not as much as being able to debate and interrogate that source material with others, something much more effectively done IRL as so many elements of communication get lost online (e.g., body language).
  3. If our organisations fail to invest in learning and development, then the infrastructure to support that activity may disappear. Local venues who host events will close. Local and national instructor bodies will wither away. For years, our voluntary sector infrastructure has been told they need to earn more of their income. They’ve adapted accordingly. Now we’re going to pull up the drawbridge and hang them out to dry, whilst lining the pockets of the likes of Zoom and Microsoft?

In saying all this, I am aware of the budgetary squeeze the pandemic and current world situation has brought to many organisations, my own included. I am aware of the need to avoid returning to the environmentally harmful behaviour of the past. I am aware of the need to behave responsibly and safely in a pandemic that hasn’t yet ended.

Likewise, I am aware that we are social creatures. Being with others in our DNA. We are not designed to only engage with others through a window on our computer desktops. We learn more from spending time with others, that’s why coffee and lunch break conversations and interactive workshops always rate highly on event evaluation forms (except for the online events!).

As I said earlier, we have to find a balance between online and IRL as the pandemic (hopefully) fades. Being left without that choice because of short-sighted financial worries could cause long-term negative effects from Covid-19 beyond those we have already experienced. We mustn’t let that happen.


What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

What perspectives do you have on these issues?

Please share your thoughts with a comment below.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Volunteer Management in Fundraising: Reflections on the ongoing journey from good practice to ‘excellence’

Volunteer Management in Fundraising: Reflections on the ongoing journey from good practice to ‘excellence’

In this article I welcome guest writer Jennifer Cathcart who shares the story of recent work she has been involved in to drive up excellence in volunteer engagement in a fundraising context. This is an area of working with volunteers that often gets little attention so I’m grateful to Jenn for penning this contribution to the profession.


I received a card in the post this week from a colleague thanking me for my support on a project. It was a lovely surprise, hidden amongst the visa bill and mail order dishwasher tablets, and it struck me yet again what a warm fuzzy feeling we get when we are re praised or thanked. In that one simple gesture, I knew that my time was valued and appreciated. We get this when it comes to volunteers but often forget it when we think about paid staff colleagues. Here at Marie Curie, we are changing that and I want to explain why and how.

Working as a Fundraiser or a Volunteer Manager in any setting can be really busy. Most days are spent in a blur of meetings, returning calls and trying to manage the to do list. After two years of rapidly changing Covid restrictions, personal stresses and collective uncertainty, taking time to make small gestures like sending a card can seem impossible. It feels like the thing that it is ok to push down the to do list as unimportant. Yet protecting time for those gestures with our volunteers is one of the most important aspects of our role. Our volunteers freely give their time and are vital in allowing us to provide our services, so our relationships with them deserve to be nurtured.

The demands on our time have only increased over the pandemic. From the very start, we had to quickly adjust plans to accommodate changes in restrictions and create plans for every eventuality. We needed to make sure we were always empathetic towards our volunteers’ fears around Covid-19, fears which we as paid staff often shared. Many teams were reduced due to furlough or self-isolation, and it would be easy for the quality of volunteer management to have slipped.

The Fundraising Volunteering Team at Marie Curie is responsible for the strategy, resources and processes of all things volunteering within fundraising, and to support our community fundraisers in rolling out new initiatives and supporting the volunteers in their area. Our priorities for 2021 were clear — re-engage with our volunteers, making sure they were kept up to date and on board for the future while we worked on creating new initiatives. This included launching online information sessions, holding engagement events, improving our newsletter and making sure our fundraisers had all the information they needed to connect with their volunteers. These were essential priorities for that time, but with 2022 approaching we had an ambition to grow our volunteering programme in new ways.

Ask our Community Fundraisers what they love about their job, and most will say it’s working with their volunteers. They tell us it is their volunteers’ enthusiasm, passion and creativity that fuels them on the tough days, that their observations about their community leads to new opportunities and that their networks allow us to be part of their community. Yet, we weren’t routinely celebrating their role and skills in volunteer management.

That changed in November when we chose to celebrate the 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day. We felt the day could be used as a springboard to celebrate the excellent volunteer stewardship we knew existed already — but what did the theme of “excellence” really mean? Had I been a volunteer, was it demonstrated in the card I received last week? Where is the line between what is good practice and what is truly excellent in volunteer management? If we can define it, what are our expectations in how often we do each? Is it possible to be excellent all the time by consistently ticking the good practice box, or is it by providing peak moments that can elevate our practice into excellence (much like those suggested by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “The Power of Moments”?

We brought our community fundraising team together on the day to try and find the answers to those questions. Through our first early breakfast (aimed to allow space for learning before the call of the inbox) and lunchtime meetings, we explored our own experiences and what they represented to us. Many of us were brought to tears as a fundraiser talked about calling a volunteer on Christmas Day as she knew he was not looking forward to spending it alone.

The day culminated in the launch of our new awards for Volunteer Managers in fundraising. The scheme will run all year, with fundraisers nominated by their peers when they’re seen to have shown excellence in their work with volunteers. The awards encompass the whole team, from those with more than twenty years’ experience to those in their first fundraising post. Those newer to the team bring fresh ideas we can all be inspired by, and those with long standing respect from their volunteers and peers can remind us of the importance of small actions over time. All can embed excellence in their work with such ease that they don’t always recognise it with the respect it deserves.

Although we’ve set up these awards to celebrate excellence across our fundraising team, we also feel a responsibility to help grow excellence across the sector too. The experience a volunteer has in any setting impacts their passion for continuing to volunteer, be that in their current role or in the future. It will also influence how they reflect on their volunteering, and the reflections they share with others who may consider volunteering. As leaders in volunteering, we all have a part to play in ensuring volunteering continues to grow, adapt and be celebrated.

With that goal in mind, we set up an informal network for fundraising volunteer managers. The network provides a space for those responsible for volunteer strategy within fundraising teams to come together, share good practice and ensure we learn from the wider volunteering sector as we strive to build consistently excellent volunteer management within fundraising.

I write this as we channel hop between the Six Nations Rugby and the 2022 Winter Olympics – watching people who have dedicated their lives to being the best. Striving for excellence in their field. I don’t think volunteer managers are any different — we need to learn and grow, and it’s important to have a space to celebrate and share successes. There are the skills we need to put into practice every day, but there is also a need to be continually striving to evolve beyond the basics. To be continually inquisitive in trying new things so we are not left behind (quite literally if you’re talking about an athlete and the latest technology in trainers, but equally if we’re volunteer managers who fail to embrace new digital opportunities).

For me, my passion for volunteering was renewed when I was furloughed. With a sudden excess of time on my hands, it was volunteering I turned to and I found a welcoming home as a “furlonteer” at Blood Cancer UK. I had a great few weeks and was reminded how much volunteering can enrich your life. Not only did it give structure to my otherwise empty diary, but I was reminded of the sense of purpose you can find in using your time for good, and the chance it offers to learn new skills and make new friends.

Volunteering enriches lives and we, as volunteer managers, have a responsibility to ensure it continues to do so. We need to work together, always striving for excellence to ensure that volunteering continues to be appealing and rewarding to those who generously give us their time, skills and enthusiasm.

After all, where would we and our organisations be without our volunteers?

Closing note: If you are reading this as a Fundraising Volunteering Leader and would like to find out more about our new network, email us.


Jennifer Cathcart is Fundraising Volunteer Development Manager at Marie Curie and has been in the role for four years, having previously held other roles in the charity. Jenn can be contacted through LinkedIn or Twitter.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Belief and knowledge

Belief and knowledge

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


Belief and knowledge

They’re different.

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

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

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

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


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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, here are four questions for you:

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

As Seth often says, go make a ruckus.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Is employer supported volunteering changing?

Is employer supported volunteering changing?

Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) has been around for well over thirty years. It’s gone through some changes in that time, but nothing radical. Which makes me wonder: now we’re coming out of the pandemic, could we be about to see real and significant future change in employee volunteering?

I don’t have any answers, but I do have thoughts, so here are three areas I want to look at in this article:

  1. How the pandemic has changed our working lives, and so may change ESV
  2. The opportunities of millennial recruitment
  3. Employee volunteering as direct action

Throughout this post, I’ll pose some questions, and it’d be great to hear your thoughts on these, so please consider leaving a comment at the end of the article.

How the pandemic has changed our working lives and so may change ESV

I live in Grantham, a small market town in Lincolnshire, England. We have a population of about 44,500. We’re located on the A1, the main road linking London and Edinburgh. Furthermore, we are a stop on the East Coast Main Line, the railway connecting London to Leeds, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. We have the A52 running through town, the main road connecting the agricultural fenlands to the road transport network, and cities like Nottingham.

I mention all those connections because they directly relate to the expansion of Grantham. Hundreds of houses have been built, with more to come because living here is an attractive proposition. The cost of living is much lower than in the South East, and the transport connections make it possible to commute to London in a little over an hour. The urban centres of Leeds, York, Lincoln, Peterborough, and Nottingham are all within an hour by road or rail.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, these changes were having a significant effect in the local community. People were moving here but not spending most of their time here. They mainly spent Monday to Friday at work in one of those towns and cities mentioned above. They would leave Grantham early in the morning and return late at night. Weekends were when they actually lived here, and those days were taken up with the usual leisure activities and family commitments. This left very little time for volunteering. For these people, employee volunteering may have been the only way they could get involved, and that was most likely taking place in the communities where they worked, not in Grantham where they lived.

Those who did live here during the week were largely retirees. An ageing population, not all of whom volunteered but, those who did, were slowly dwindling in number. This left local Volunteer Involving Organisations with a problem — fewer ‘traditional volunteers’ and a growing population unavailable to volunteer when the organisations needed them.

Then along comes Covid-19.

Fast-forward to today. With a widespread vaccination roll-out, offices are re-opening, but commuter numbers are not even close to where they were two years ago. This means more and more people working from home, living and working in Grantham — they don’t just sleep and spend weekends here any more. And working from home perhaps affords a greater flexibility in their lives than before. In short, unlike before the pandemic, they could now volunteer here in Grantham, potentially on any day of the week.

Are the employers of those staff working from home in Grantham looking at the opportunities and challenges this presents for employee volunteering? For example:

  • Supporting their staff to get involved with smaller, community-based nonprofits, rather than the big name charities, as might have been the case before.
  • Shifting their focus away from ESV as a team building activity that brings employees together, to a more skills-based approach in communities across the country, not just where large offices are located.
  • Exploring the practicalities of employee volunteering from home, from capturing data on what their volunteers do, to monitoring paid time off to volunteer, to facilitating links between employee volunteer and local organisations.
  • Helping local Volunteer Involving Organisations to create opportunities that accommodate the talents of professional, skilled workers who may be looking to volunteer in significantly different ways than these organisations are used to.

Of course, Grantham is not the only community in the country (or the world) that could tell a similar story of how the pandemic has affected local life. How have such changes influenced your community, and what might that mean for employee volunteering as a result?

The opportunities of millennial recruitment

In 2018, Meridian Swift and I wrote about a new ‘volunteering initiative’ from Starbucks in the USA. You can find the links to our two articles below:

The motivation behind this initiative was to try to attract more millennials to make Starbucks their employe of choice. As The Guardian newspaper reported at the time:

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

Back in 2018 I was seeing this kind of issue borne out in the USA more than the UK. I still don’t think it’s a big feature of ESV here four years later, either. But it may well become so.

As the UK faces labour shortages brought about by Brexit and the pandemic, employers are all too aware of the need to recruit the best people into their workforce. With the huge baby boomer cohort continuing to retire in vast numbers, and a comparatively small Generation X population, this places the focus squarely on recruitment of the larger Millennial generation.

How might UK employees factor ESV into their offer to Millennials? Might we see more initiatives like Starbucks tried in 2018, initiatives which might challenge our understanding of volunteering? Might employers need to embrace the issues illustrated earlier by my story from Grantham, giving Millennials time and space to engage in local causes that matter to them where they live, not just where the corporate offices are located?

How might Volunteer Involving Organisations get on the front foot with these issues? Are we prepared to be flexible on our concept of volunteering? Can we actively promote employee volunteering opportunities to businesses as a way of addressing their Millennial recruitment challenges? What might we need to change to create more ESV opportunities for our employees, potentially making us more attractive to Millennials who want to work in our sector?

Employee volunteering as direct action

For a few years now, the traditional team challenge approach to ESV has been declining. Fewer groups of employees have been setting out to, for example, paint the local community centre or clean a canal towpath.

In place of these team challenges, employee volunteering has morphed into something where individuals or groups of employees use their professional skills to help nonprofits on a project basis. This could be, for example, developing a new marketing plan or designing and building a website.

A third approach to employee volunteering is starting to gain traction now, too. If employees can take paid time off work to paint a wall or help organise an event, why can’t they also take time off to take part in a protest march or some other form of direct action? It’s rarely referred to as volunteering but, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then perhaps it’s a duck!


We may not think of Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion protestors as volunteers, but they are, they certainly fit the accepted definitions of a volunteer. So, what if employees want to choose this form of service as their employee volunteering? Or volunteering for a candidate for political office? Are employers willing to allow this? Would your employer? Would you?

My colleague Jerome Tennille has written more insightfully and eloquently on this evolution of ESV than I possibly can, and I really encourage you to read his thoughts on the issue from his June 2020 blog post.

Jerome also brought my attention to this May 2021 story from the USA about the company Peloton allowing staff time off for, “voting, volunteering for a candidate, participating in peaceful and lawful demonstrations, or any other time devoted to civic participation.”

So, there are my thoughts on how we might see Employer Supported Volunteering changing in the future. Now it’s over to you?

What do you think?

What other issues can you see driving change in this area?

Do you agree with some of my observations or see things differently?

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


See also my 2019 blog post, ”Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?”


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Aiming for the wrong target

Aiming for the wrong target

Back In July, Third Sector magazine ran an article with the title, “Turning Covid-19 volunteers in to long-term volunteers” (the article sits behind a paywall so may not be available to all). When I read that headline for the first time, I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands, summoning up the will to read on.

I passionately believe that the premise of the headline is the wrong approach to be taking.

Rather than seeking to bend these people to our will — our desire for regular, long-term volunteers, either because we genuinely need them or we just can’t our won’t change the volunteer model we’re comfortable with — shouldn’t our initial response be to learn from what has happened during the pandemic and consider what changes we might need to make as a result?

‘Covid-19 volunteers’ are people across the UK who helped out their friends, neighbourhoods, and communities as the economic drivers that dictate how we live our lives were stripped away through furlough, lockdown, and social distancing. With no employment and commuting to do, they stepped up to help when the world turned upside down because it was the right and responsible thing to do. They did so in a highly flexible, often informal ways, encountering little bureaucracy — no forms, risk assessments and ad nauseam paperwork. That’s a million miles away from what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘volunteer’. In fact, I’d bet that many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ would never even see themselves as volunteers.

If we believe the narrative, many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ hadn’t volunteered before. Which begs the question: if they didn’t want to engage with the stereotypical, formal concept of volunteering before Covid-19, why would they suddenly have a change of heart when their experience since March 2020 has been so radically different from what many Volunteer Involving Organisations offer?

If all many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ had to do to get involved was respond to a social media post or WhatsApp message, why would they choose to engage with the endless bureaucracy many Volunteer Involving Organisations require?

To me, it’s misguided to assume that because people have volunteered during the pandemic they will be automatically interested in doing so in future, especially on our terms and not theirs. Because the truth is, if we want to engage these people as volunteers in future, we have to change and in significant ways.

Thankfully, the leaders of volunteer engagement interviewed for the Third Sector article didn’t engage with the premise of the question either and focused on some of those changes that are needed.

Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants, nailed it when Third Sector quoted her as saying, “Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy.” If any organisation is entertaining the idea of embracing volunteering post-pandemic, then they need to start not with themselves, but with the people they seek to engage. Forget our desire for long-term volunteers — how do people want to serve our cause, what works for them, and how can we incorporate that into our plans for the future?

I’m sure Third Sector meant well with their headline, and some may think I am over-reacting to eight words at the top of their article. But, as I have written many times before, language is important. What language coveys matters. And there will be people — probably some board members and senior leadership colleagues — who saw that headline and are even now going to their Volunteer Managers and demanding something be done to convert ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ into long-term, regular givers of time, in total ignorance of the futility of such an approach.

The challenges of the last eighteen months have been immense. More are sure to come. But the opportunities we face in volunteer engagement are equally exciting and significant. If we are to seize them, organisations need to start from the right place, with a sound understanding of reality and a real desire to change, not as naive belief that the volunteers of 2020 are just waiting to do our bidding in future.

Perhaps a better headline would have been “Turning organisations into something Covid-19 volunteers want to get involved with”?


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

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.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

A new year message for 2021

A new year message for 2021

Happy new year!

Well, we made it through 2020. Is anyone missing last year? No, thought not.

I can’t recall an end of year when so much hope, desire and aspiration was directed to the next twelve months. With attention so future focused some big questions will be asked. What do we want our country to be like now we’re properly outside the EU? As the pandemic (hopefully) subsides, how do we want our society to change? What lessons do we want to learn from the last year? What will our ‘new normal’ look like?

It’s worth reflecting on these words from Seth Godin (published on his blog on 1 September last year):

“We’ve got a deep-seated desire for things to go back to normal, the way we were used to. But this, this moment of ours is now normal. For now. And then, there will be another normal. There is no “the new normal”. Because that’s definitive. There’s simply the normal of now.”

Whilst some of our attention as leaders of volunteer engagement should absolutely be future focused, reflecting on what this time of global upheaval and change will mean for volunteering and our organisations, we also need to pay attention to now. To the opportunities of the present. To how our volunteers feel in the moment. To the challenges of today. To ensuring we have the energy and resolve to face tomorrow.

To focus on the now, I am drawing on the year gone for inspiration as 2021 begins.

I’m still in awe at the outpouring of compassion and care so many people demonstrated in 2020. Everyday people offering help to those affected by the pandemic during the UK’s lockdown. Volunteering (even if it wasn’t always called that) became essential, not a second tier way of doing things by incompetent amateurs out to take people’s jobs (as volunteering is all too often viewed by too many). The first lockdown made us a society and a community once again, not an economy populated by units of ever more production to feed the machine.

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.

At the passion and commitment of those Volunteer Managers who spent weeks on furlough, concerned about their volunteers and desperate to support them despite not being allowed to.

At the collaboration that enabled an amazing Volunteers’ Week 2020 to happen in England.

As a new year begins we should remember with pride what we achieved in 2020. If we survived and thrived in spite of everything the last twelve months threw at us then we can face whatever comes our way the year(s) ahead with confidence – today and one day at a time.

Here’s to a great 2021.


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

Sign up here for the free Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd newsletter, published every two months.