Community Life Survey 2021-22: Beyond The Headlines

Community Life Survey 2021-22: Beyond The Headlines

On 28th February 2023, the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport published the 2021-22 Community Life Survey results.

I want to share some quick insights into findings that go beyond the headline results. But first…

What is the Community Life Survey?

The Community Life Survey (CLS) has been conducted every year since 2001 and provides the most consistent trend data on volunteering anywhere in the world — that I am aware of, anyway.

CLS gives us an annual snapshot of volunteering across England: how many people volunteer formally and informally?; why do they say they do it?; why don’t some people volunteer?; and lots more data and detail for those of us who are volunteering research nerds.

The most recent CLS data is based on fieldwork that was conducted between October 2021 and September 2022, the year following England’s release from its three national Covid-19 lockdowns. The dataset before his one covered the period from April 2020 to March 2021, the year England experienced three national Covid-19 lockdowns.

This new data, therefore, provides an early glimpse at whether volunteering has recovered or changed since the pandemic started.

This article isn’t written to share the headline findings. I published a summary of those on LinkedIn on the 1st March 2023, and you can read that summary here. If you haven’t yet looked at this headline data, or are still quoting studies like the Together Coalition research published in February 2021, I urge you to bring yourself up-to-date because things have changed quite a lot over the last three years, and the volunteering reality of summer 2020 is nothing like the volunteering reality of today.

In this article, I want to highlight three ‘beyond the headlines’ findings from CLS 2021-22 that, I think, will be of interest to Volunteer Engagement Professionals.

Ready? Let’s get started.

1 – Change in why people say they don’t volunteer

One of the most interesting bits of data in the CLS is why people say they don’t volunteer. What issues get in the way of people giving time?

The number one barrier for many years has been work commitments. Either people’s experience is that they can’t fit volunteering around their paid work or, perhaps more importantly, they perceive that they won’t be able to, and so are put off trying to volunteer.

Before Covid-19, about 50% of people said their paid work was a barrier to volunteering.

Between April 2020 and March 2021, this fell to 48%. Not a massive drop, and perhaps not statistically significant, but intriguing nonetheless.

Was work less of a barrier because people were furloughed from it during lockdowns?

Was work less of a barrier because the pandemic led to more people working from home, working more flexibly?

Was work less of a barrier because many people stopped commuting and so found they had some spare time in their day that hadn’t been there before Covid-19?

What surprised me in the CLS 2021–22 data was that after lockdowns, work commitments became more of a barrier to volunteering, not less, with the rate of people claiming it got in thew way of them volunteering rising from 48% to 49%.

Again, not a big rise, nor statistically significant perhaps, but an indication that paid work is still a noteworthy obstacle to volunteering. I think this is important because how, when and when many people work is very different to life pre-pandemic, thanks to the changes we have seen in home, remote and hybrid working.

Maybe this increase in paid work being a barrier to volunteering is driven by the cost-of-living crisis? As finances get tighter, paid work becomes more of a priority for people, so they could be more likely to state it is a barrier to doing any volunteering. But, the recent CLS data was collected between October 2021 and September 2022 and the cost-of-living challenges really didn’t start to bite hard for many until the last six months of that period, so I’m uncertain if we can say inflationary pressures are the sole driver of change in people saying work commitments are a barrier.

Another way of looking at it is that because people now live and work more flexibly, but the volunteering opportunities they see available are not so flexible and adaptable, possibly creating a barrier to people giving time?

Put simply, we don’t understand why work is growing as a barrier to volunteering after lockdowns ended. And it may just be a statistically insignificant blip. But I find it interesting as a potential indicator of change. Good research always raises more questions than it answers. So, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

2 — Change in why people say they volunteer

As well as reporting on why people say they don’t volunteer, CLS also looks at why people say they do volunteer.

Now, I think answers to this question always need a bit of caution. When someone asks you why you want to volunteer, it’s natural to lead with the socially acceptable things, the altruistic drivers, rather than the equally valid egoistic, more personal motivations, such as career development.

It’s a bit like when researchers ask if you intend to volunteer in the future. I think most people are likely to answer positively because we would rather not appear to be a selfish, uncaring person.

That is perhaps why the most common answer in many CLS datasets about why people volunteer is to ‘improve things / help people’. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is likely a socially conditioned response that masks a deeper, more complex individual mix of motivations.

Pre-pandemic, 47% of CLS respondents said improving things and helping people was their reason for volunteering. During 2020-21 this figure rose to 50%, no doubt because of the more immediate, visible and pressing need in the community during lockdowns. In the latest data, that response rate has dropped back to 48%, slightly above pre-pandemic levels but lower than during lockdowns.

Now again, it isn’t a big drop, and most likely not a statistically significant one, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting.

We don’t have reasons for the drop, but perhaps that community minded spirit of lockdown is fading as life gets back to normal, whatever that means nowadays?

Perhaps the need to look after oneself when times are financially is taking priority over looking after others?

Or perhaps other motivations are becoming a bigger priority, such as meeting people and making friends, which, after a year or more of Covid-19 enforced isolation, might be a bigger driver than it was when life was the old normal (this motivation grew 1% between 2020-21 and 2021-22).

Once more, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

3 — Informal volunteer age profile

Perhaps the most surprising thing from the CLS 2021–22 data was the decline in informal volunteering after the Covid-19 lockdowns ended.

Much has been written and said in the past three years about the so-called boom in informal volunteering, driven in part by the high-profile narrative of mutual aid groups active in communities when the pandemic started.

According to CLS, that hasn’t been sustained, with rates significantly down on 2020-21 and much lower than they were a decade ago.

What those headline figures mask is diversity in informal volunteering rates by age. The CLS 2021-22 data states that:

”Those in the age group 65-74 were more likely to informally volunteer at least once a month (34%) compared to respondents in all other age groups (20% to 27%), except those aged over 75 (30%).”


”There was an decrease in informal volunteering from 2020/21 to 2021/22 at least once a month in age groups 16-24 (32% to 25%), 25-34 (31% to 20%), 35-49 (31% to 24%) and 50–64 years old (34% to 27%).“

Simply put, people aged 65+ are far more likely to do informal volunteering than any other age group, and all those other age groups saw anything up to an 11% drop in participation in informal volunteering between 2020-21 and 2021-22.

As with the headline figures on informal volunteering, it is unclear to me why this is.

Have older people switched to informal ways of helping because it fits better with their lifestyles?

If so, why aren’t younger age groups embracing this when, one could argue, they feel more time pressured than those more likely to be retired?

When we hear so much about people wanting to volunteer on their terms, in more flexible ways, wouldn’t we expect informal volunteering to become more popular across more age groups, especially those likely to be in paid work, not less popular?

Once more, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

So, there are three ‘beyond the headlines’ findings from the 2021-22 Community Life Survey data on volunteering that I found interesting.

As I have said throughout, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, but I’d also welcome any observations on the CLS data that you may have.

Please leave a comment below and share your thinking.

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Recruitment and retention aren’t the answer

Recruitment and retention aren’t the answer

We all know that the Covid-19 lockdowns and the current cost-of-living crisis have affected volunteering rates. I’ve written about it on this blog, and the sector press has shared reports of volunteer shortages, like this one from last year and this from just last month.

The solution to these woes is often suggested to be the two Rs: recruitment and retention. Personally, I do not believe that this focus on the two Rs is the solution, at least in a traditional sense.

Why? Well, my view is that if we pursue recruitment and retention as it is typically understood in the sector, we would be putting our effort into actions like this:


  • Work harder (not smarter) at what we’ve done before: do more of the same, but with more intensity and frequency.
  • Craft new recruitment messages to try to grab people’s attention and stand out from the pack.
  • Find ways to seek to more people, for example: through large-scale recruitment campaigns; attending recruitment fairs; finding new sites for posters; signing up with different recruitment websites etc.


”We never have enough volunteers. Because they are always scarce, we tend to take on (and keep) volunteers even if they are problematic or not a perfect fit.”

  • Find ways to keep people for longer, even if they aren’t that keen to do so, perhaps starting to formally recognise length of service, or providing other incentives to stay.
  • Guilt trip people into staying. For example, ‘if you leave then we won’t be able to keep helping people in the same way, so please stay for a bit longer’. Be honest — we’ve all done it at some point!

The problem is, none of these approaches will work in a context where attitudes to volunteering have shifted. As many people have said for several years (including pre-pandemic), people today want more flexible volunteering that fits around their availabilities & interests, that connects them to a larger sense of purpose, and that really makes an impact. If you want the evidence, look no further than NCVO’s excellent Time Well Spent report, which lays all this out in detail thanks to a survey of some 10,000 people.

(NB. The Time Well Spent report was published in 2019, but a new version is coming in May 2023!).

Similarly, people want to volunteer on their terms and perhaps do things that may well not match your organisation’s traditional understanding of volunteering. No more making cups of tea and stuffing envelopes, instead we may see a growth in activism, campaigning for social justice or action to tackle the climate crisis. All volunteering, even if society rarely labels it as such.

All of this change means that, as I am fond of saying, doing what we’ve always done (or doing more of it) won’t get what we always got.

The world has changed, and so must we. Trying harder to recruit and retain volunteers just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyone reading this who is a Volunteer Engagement Professional will probably know this. They’ll be all too aware of the need to change and adapt if they want to find and keep good volunteers who will positively impact the cause and mission of their organisation.

Maybe the rest of this article needs to be read by others in the organisation? The board. The CEO. The Finance Director. The management team. Your colleagues who look to you, the Volunteer Manager, to find them volunteers.

Because if the roles we want volunteers to do aren’t flexible and impactful enough, then however well-crafted and fancy looking our recruitment campaign is, we will struggle to engage new volunteers.

Because, in a cost-of-living crisis, if we don’t make available the funds to reimburse volunteer expenses, then people won’t volunteer because they simply can’t afford to be out-of-pocket to subside our work.

Because, if we are not prepared and set-up to be flexible, to let volunteers take a break, to switch roles, to walk away, then our retention efforts will stall and likely fail. All those beautifully designed length-of-service certificates will be wasted. We keep volunteers by being open to letting them go, not hanging onto them for dear life.

Because, if we think now might be a good time to scale back funding and support for volunteer engagement because the Volunteer Manager post doesn’t bring in any income and budgets are tight and getting tighter, then we are only going to make the volunteer recruitment and retention problems worse.

For our organisations to succeed at volunteer engagement post-lockdown, we need systemic change.

Volunteer engagement can’t be left to just one overworked Volunteer Manager any more.

Volunteer engagement can’t be the first thing to get cut when money gets tight.

Volunteer engagement requires proper resourcing, proper support and needs to be elevated to a genuine strategic priority, not just something senior leaders talk nicely about in Volunteers’ Week and then neglect for the rest of the year.

Yes, we all face challenges in 2023, some more than others. Yet in time of adversity we see creativity and innovation bloom.

With the right support, the potential of volunteering in our current context is huge.

Change is needed if we are to realise that potential.

Change that we, as Volunteer Engagement Professionals, have to drive. Because if we don’t, it’s likely nobody else will. We have to become more influential, more persuasive, more tenacious in our efforts to shape the wider context for volunteering in our organisation.

There are no shortcuts or quick fixes, but the rewards have the potential to be huge.

Are we up for the challenge?

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Four highlights from 2022

Four highlights from 2022

Another lap of the sun is almost complete. In many ways, 2022 has been a challenging year for all of us, so I want to focus on some positives from 2022 in this brief end of year review.

Here are four professional highlights for me.

A return to in-person

Back in January, I attended my first in-person event since 12 March 2020. The “Future of Charities” conference only had about forty people attend, but we all had a great day learning, debating and building connections in a way that I still think is superior to Zoom.

Since January, I’ve attended several in-person events, meetings, and trainings. This includes two large, multi-day, national conferences as well as smaller events across the country. For someone who thrives on engaging with people, this has really energised me and provided a nice counter-point to participating from home in the events that have stayed online.

Which begs the questions:

Should everything go back to in-person in 2023?


Should everything stay online in 2023?


For me, the key is to intentionally choose in-person or online for their specific benefits, not just because we did things differently online in the exceptional circumstances of 2020 and 2021 and don’t want to change.

A brief word about hybrid events too. Simply letting a couple of people join an in-person gathering online doesn’t cut it. Hybrid events need careful planning and thoughtful consideration to make them work effectively. Having been involved in exceptional hybrid events in the past, I hope we see more of them working well next year.

Whether in-person, online or hybrid, I’m excited to see what 2023 will bring to the world of conferences, events, training and consulting.

A big step forward for the Heritage Volunteering Group

The main outlet for my personal volunteering is with the Heritage Volunteering Group(HVG). I’ve been involved for a few years now, and they are a great group of people to work with, doing excellent work to connect Volunteer Engagement Professionals working in the heritage sector.

This year, HVG took a step forward in its evolution to become a constituted group, and I was appointed to the Executive in a non-portfolio role. It has been exciting and challenging to get to grips with the changes this has brought, all of which will help the group strengthen the work we do for Volunteer Managers working in heritage.

Whether it’s been reviewing constitutions, planning AGMs, engaging with members, speaking at events, supporting the organisation of conference, or just the day-to-day engagement with some fantastic people, I have loved my volunteering for HVG and look forward to what 2023 has in store of us.

Visions, action plans and strategies

In the last few months we have seen the launch of England’s Vision for Volunteering, Scotland’s Volunteering Action plan, and some great work from Volunteering Australia as they develop their new National Volunteering Strategy.

With many organisations and Volunteer Engagement Professionals struggling with the perfect storm of post-Covid recovery and a cost-of-living crisis, it’s great to see these initiatives setting out a positive and transformative future for volunteering in our communities.

These initiatives not only inspire us all to build a getter future, but also challenge us to change, to transform our practice to meet the needs of those who volunteer or want to volunteer. As Jayne Cravens has recently argued, we can’t simply blame Covid-19 for all our ills — we have to act to adapt to succeed.

I’m excited to see how these and other such initiatives develop into next year, and how we will all embrace the change we need to make if we want people to change the world for good.

Working together

As I said this time last year, one of the joys of the last couple of years has been working with fellow consultants.

Thanks to some lockdown networking in 2020, a small group of us have found opportunities to collaborate on several projects over the last couple of years. This adds fresh ideas to the work we all do and gives our clients fanatic value for money, drawing together a broader mix of skills in areas like consulting, training, research, coaching, and facilitation.

So, a huge thank you to the consulting colleagues I’ve worked with in 2023. I’ve loved working with you and hope we can do more projects together in 2023.

Those are four of my highlights from 2022.

What are yours?

Leave a comment below to share the positivity.

Please note that because of the fortnightly publication schedule for this blog, and when I am taking time off over Christmas and New Year, the next article will be published on 20th January 2023.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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”?

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