The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

FeaturedThe question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

On the 4th July this year I racked up 27 years working in volunteer engagement. Whilst I love being a part of this wonderful profession I dislike still having to answer the question we all dread, the one that comes when you meet someone for the first time, and they ask…

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

If you take the direct approach and respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” (or any of the other multitude of titles you could have) you might get one or more of the following responses (all of which I’ve experienced!):

  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “Do you get paid to do that?” A particular doozy when I was applying for my first mortgage application!
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer.”
  • “Oh, I was once a volunteer…,” usually followed by a long story about their volunteering. I once had someone blether on about how they volunteered once a few years ago as if that one experience made them an expert in a subject I’ve dedicated my whole professional life to!
  • A blank stare.
  • The person asking looks at you quizzically and then moves on to someone who they suspect might do that they might actually understand.

The other approach to answering the dreaded question is to fudge it and just say, “I’m in HR”. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called (read that article and reflect on why it’s still so relevant 15 years later!) then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone outside the profession?

A few years ago I read a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain it to others. What struck me was this line:

“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”

I like this approach. Instead of trying to get someone to grasp what we do by sharing our vague and confusing job titles or explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question instead, “Have you ever volunteered?”.

The chances are good that they have been a volunteer at some point and it’s very possible that they were engaged and supported by a Volunteer Manager. This gives us an excellent opportunity to relate what we do to that unknown peer who helped this person give time to a good cause.

Of course, you could be the Volunteer Manager who supported the person asking another Volunteer Manager what they do for a living. This highlights one reason behind our collective responsibility to give everyone a great volunteering experience — helping volunteers understand the importance of what our profession does to enable people to change the world for the better. Remember, you never know who your volunteers are talking to.

So, next time someone asks you what you do for a living, give this approach a try. Then come back here and let me know how it went.


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We need leadership that values more than money

We need leadership that values more than money

Five years ago, I read an article about a report from the fundraising think tank, Rogare. The headline finding of the report was that fundraisers should be rewarded not for performance against short-term metrics (such as income targets) but longer-term measures (such as donor satisfaction).

As the report put it:

“If you can focus on donor satisfaction, the money will surely follow.”

The Rogare report also found that the majority of the fundraisers surveyed have “problematic relationships with senior colleagues” which often manifested as a short-term approach that demanded immediate returns on investment.

The message was clear – fundraisers don’t have the support, buy-in, or understanding of their colleagues and superiors: from trustees, chief executives and finance directors; and from the likes of communications staff and campaigners at a peer level to be able to implement practical relationship fundraising.

This will sound very familiar to many leaders of volunteer engagement. Their performance is often measured against the wrong metrics like how many volunteers they have, how many they recruit and how many hours they give. They know that if you give volunteers a great experience (volunteer satisfaction) they will probably want to give more time, and maybe even money, in future. They certainly experience very little buy-in or understanding from colleagues and superiors, the very same people highlighted by Rogare in regard to fundraisers.

This similarity suggests to me that some of those who hold key senior roles in nonprofit organisations don’t really understand the factors that make fundraising and people raising successful. Why else would fundraisers and volunteer managers have such similar experiences?

Of course this isn’t true of every CEO, senior management team or board. There are many out there who ‘get it’. But there still seems to be a significant number who don’t, and I wonder what steps are being taken to rectify this? Volunteering is still undervalued and hidden in many organisations.

This quote sums up part of the problem:

“Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients.”
– Professor Clayton Christensen. Harvard Business School

As we look to a post-pandemic world where we will have to see new models of doing things, we also need to be looking at new models of for-impact leadership that value people over cash. Leadership that will nurture and sustain relationships, rather than finding ways to maximise the value of the next transaction with a person.

Until such leadership emerges in those places where it is currently absent I fear we will fail to live up to our potential to change our society for the better, at the time we are perhaps most needed.


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Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

Could the job titles we give those who manage volunteers be hampering their ability to recruit volunteers?

I’d been on the phone for ages and was getting nowhere. All I wanted was to update my policy. The customer service assistant I was speaking to couldn’t cope with any deviation from their script. It was a“Computer says no” experience. There was only one course of action left.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”.

I’m sure we’ve all had a situation like that. We’ve had to go over somebody’s head to speak to a person with the authority to get things done. Which got me thinking…

Back in 2016 I wrote an article about where leadership of volunteering should sit in an organisation structure. But I didn’t explore at what level responsibility for volunteering should sit. How much authority should the leader of volunteers have?

In my experience, most jobs responsible for volunteers include the words “assistant”, “officer”, “co-ordinator”, or “administrator” in their titles. These often suggest a low pay grade and little authority. It is unusual for me to come across a “Director of Volunteers”, or a “Senior Volunteering Executive”. In fact, the most senior title I usually encounter is that of “Manager” of volunteers / volunteering / volunteer engagement

This could be a problem, as my American friend and colleague Barry Altland remarked on LinkedIn some time ago:

What has also baffled me is the careless use of lexicon to describe the role. Even “manager” denotes a certain function within a typical corporate-equivalent structure, and the term “co-ordinator” carries even less juice. These two titles mean, to many volunteers who bring any corporate exposure, that the person in whose care they reside is just another cog in the machine, not a major player. All this has an impact on the ability of the leader of volunteers to fully equip, guide, support and inspire the volunteers who choose to serve.

Volunteers increasingly come with a lifetime of skills and abilities that they want to use to help good causes. Sadly, their experience isn’t always a positive one. Those working with volunteers often have low status in an organisation and can’t do much to change things for the better. As a result, volunteers may get angry and frustrated at having to deal with someone so junior. The next step is perhaps inevitable.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

That’s not what we want talented potential volunteers to say. That doesn’t give people confidence that we will make the most of their time, that we will value them.

It’s long overdue that organisations give those who lead volunteering the authority to effect real change and a job title that conveys this.

To quote a frustrated volunteer who wrote about their experience for The Guardian some time ago:

“It’s a charity’s job to ensure that both potential and existing volunteers feel valued, recognised and useful. In a climate where charities need all the help they can get, finding and keeping enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers should be a priority.”


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Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

A year ago I wrote an article called “Eighteen nuggets of wisdom for leaders of volunteer engagement” which shared quotations to inspire and challenge us in our work. As I explained at the time, I collect quotations and I’ve gained some new favourites in the last twelve months, so I’m returning to the concept of last year’s article to share a further twelve nuggets of wisdom for your enjoyment and inspiration.

1

“Crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends.” – Ruchir Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 2020.

2

”If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” – Beth Steinhorn

3

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” – Elizabeth Warren, USA Senator

4

“Learning is the difficult work of experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.” – Seth Godin

5

GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Senator Robert F Kennedy, 1968

6

“In a world that is continually changing, every right idea is eventually a wrong one.” – Roger Van Oech

7

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali

8

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.” – Greek proverb

9

“If we have made the world that we experience, then we should not be asking ourselves how to find our proper place within it. We should be asking whether we have structured it well.” – Prof. Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh

10

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” – Maya Angelou

11

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

12

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.” – Abraham Lincoln


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Getting it right! Nine areas Managers of Volunteers sometimes get wrong

Getting it right! Nine areas Managers of Volunteers sometimes get wrong

Guest writer Martin J Cowling is back, this time to discuss nine behaviours he dislikes from leaders of volunteer engagement.


I love seeing people engaged in supporting and making volunteering happen effectively, safely and positively. Over many years, I have learnt much from committed, hardworking and amazing leaders and managers of volunteers. But…

…there are nine behaviours that I see too often. These behaviours cause me to inwardly groan because these oft repeated bad behaviours are robbing the organisation’s chances of success and volunteers of the best possible experience.


1. Not knowing what our real job is

To be fair, no one in the world decided “when I grow up I want to be a volunteer leader”. Very few of us end up in this role deliberately. Many of us have had volunteer leadership tacked onto an already overflowing not-for-profit role or ended up in a full-time role by a serendipitous route. Equally of concern, on average, managers of volunteers only stay a very short time in their role. As a result, too many never really understand their role.

If I was to ask you “what is your job as a manager of volunteers”, what would be your answer?” A good answer would be “I mobilise the community to solve the issues or concerns of the community”. What many default to is: ”I recruit volunteers” or “I train volunteers” or “I support volunteers”. The difference is profound, and I want to challenge how you see your role. By focusing on one aspect of your job and thinking that is your entire job you’re missing out on the true power of your powerful mobilising role.

2. Lacking Passion

How passionate are you about your work? Too many employees are so hum or negative about the roles. In contrast, a leader of volunteers must be a cheerleader for volunteering. You cannot mobilise people effectively if you’re not passionate about them and their work.

We need to be deeply excited about our work. That passion is contagious and will potentially create a volunteer culture that is positive and successfully.

There are many things that you can do to maintain that passion and excitement. Have a peer or group of peers that inspire you. Take time to look at your successes. Indulge in some dreaming. Enrol in training. But whatever you do, avoid a lack of passion.

3. Not communicating the power of volunteering

The reality is that there is usually only one voice for volunteering in an organisation: the volunteer manager’s voice. Few people understand volunteering and few people advocate for it. The manager of volunteers must, therefore, see it as a priority to educate the organisation and seek out and invest in allies for volunteer engagement across the organisation. If you speak up for volunteering, people will expect it. If support for evaluating comes from the finance director or the operating officer, then people will take notice.

After a seminar, a woman in the USA told me how she gained an ally in her CEO. One of her volunteers gave her a $1000 donation to the organisation. Normally she would send the donation to the accounts department to process. On this occasion she sent it directly to the CEO with a note saying “another example of how our volunteers contribute”. That single move triggered a change for the CEO who called a meeting with the volunteer manager to understand what was going on. Within 30 minutes, the CEO had a completely new vision for volunteering and became the volunteer manager’s greatest advocate.

4. There is no strategy

It is astounding how many organisations in the 21st century have no strategic direction for volunteer engagement. Can your board and management team articulate the connection between volunteering and the direction of the organisation? Or is volunteering relegated to a one-line ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statement in the Annual Report?

Managers of volunteers need to be clear about what the direction of volunteer engagement is, ensure that their organisation understands it and that this relationship to the wider organisation’s mission is included in all formal strategic documents.

5. Measuring the wrong things

There are three measures of volunteers which get bandied around by managers and organisations. The first is how many volunteers we have. The second is how many hours a week/month/year they give. The third is the dollar value of our volunteers’ time. They are meaningless statistics. No one really cares except for other volunteer managers

There are three things that are better measures:

  1. What is the impact of volunteering on your volunteers? Ask them and quantify their responses.
  2. What is the impact of volunteering on your organisation? Are you ensuring that?
  3. What is the impact of volunteering in your community?

That is what we should be hearing volunteer managers declare about their work.

6. Paid staff alienated

This will seem heretical but there is such a thing as too much passion about volunteering!

The relationship between volunteers and paid staff can be fraught. It is rare that you will find harmony. All too common, we can instead see mutual suspicion or even all-out war!

The manager of volunteers must overcome being seen as an automatic apologist for every volunteer and their behaviours and be seen as a cheerleader for the whole organisation. Not bridging this will see your role isolated in the minds of most of the paid staff.

7. The too busy Volunteer Manager

If you are too busy to cover all the aspects of your job (and you will be), the obvious solution is to recruit a team of volunteers to work with you to take some of the load away from you. Yet, I find the greatest resistance to doing this comes from volunteer managers themselves. Such resistance is not acceptable.

You need to be modelling the engagement of volunteers in your own work. In one organisation, I stopped doing any of the initial volunteer interviews after 15 months because I had a team of volunteers who conducted all of them. Likewise with induction. One of my volunteers who was the chief librarian of a university library. He audited all of the physical and electronic records paperwork. He was happy and I was happy and our paperwork was ship-shape!

8. We make it hard to volunteer

Mary retired from her advertising executive job and offered to volunteer for one day a week for a national youth sports organisation. The group told her that the only job available was to cut up fruit at sporting events because “volunteers don’t work in the office”. Can you imagine the profile that such a woman could have brought to the organisation? What their materials and publicity could have looked like. Or what could have brought to fundraising?

Organisations lock people out of volunteering because we don’t see some jobs as being available for volunteers or we create unrealistic hours or place unnecessary training burdens. For example, I found an organisation that required all volunteers to undertake a 40 hour literacy course before they could teach English to refugees. As most of the volunteers were current or recently retired literacy teachers, they could not see the necessity of such a course and would choose to volunteer somewhere else. Onerous paperwork should not sit on volunteer’s shoulders in order to do work.

If it’s legal, moral, ethical and practical, let’s find every means possible way for volunteers to contribute to our mission.

9. Sloppiness Rules

I have a concern with managers of volunteers when I witness or experience poor practice. In one organisation, when I took over, one of the volunteers asked if I had looked in the second drawer yet. In that drawer were 780 applications from volunteers that the organisation had never processed. It is not professional to keep somebody who wants to volunteer for an organisation waiting for months for a response. It is not professional if you’re not organising for volunteers when they arrive. It is not okay to cancel things continually or fail to say thank you to them.

Work hard to be as professional as possible. Always be looking for ways to improve. It amazes me when I step into an organisation and find they are operating the same way as they have always done! One charity I visited, was still using the brochure I designed 15 years before. Highly flattering but not a sign of progress and innovation.

Ask your your volunteers how you can improve, all the time. “Mystery shop” your own organisation by getting someone to test your recruitment processes. Check how quickly your agency responds to an initial enquiry. Check how the volunteer applicant feels. Then make changes.

Whatever you do, do not allow volunteer engagement to be known for sloppiness.


How did you do? Of the nine, how many have you witnessed or engaged in?

And conversely how many are you not guilty of?

What do you need to change first?


Martin J Cowling is a knowledgeable and popular international author, trainer and consultant from Australia. He possesses over 30 years of management experience with NGOs, government and corporates.

Martin works with organisations globally on volunteering, leadership, governance and change and has worked in partnership with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on projects in the UK and Australia.

Martin volunteers personally to tackle homelessness and poverty. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.


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Where next for volunteer rights?

Where next for volunteer rights?

Ten years ago I was working as a Director at Volunteering England and one of my responsibilities was to provide the secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Inquiry (VRI). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since this important and groundbreaking piece of work was done and I can’t help but wonder if much has actually changed in ten years?

I suspect not. Otherwise, why would the the UK government have felt it necessary last year to consult on changes to the Equality Act, putting volunteers on an equal footing with employees when it comes to sexual harassment? NCVO provided a briefing on the changes and engaged with the sector before producing their consultation response.

As was clear from the NCVO documents, volunteer rights remains an emotive issue and one that seemingly won’t go away. We may not have the high profile cases we had ten or so years ago, but I’m sure the problems still exist, whether it’s from poor management, serious abuse and harassment, or a whole range of other experiences in between.

Disappointingly the 3R Promise that resulted from the work of the VRI (see details below) seems to have been largely forgotten. The list of signatories is still there on the NCVO website but the momentum has been lost, as has the Call to Action progress group who were tasked with keeping this issue live.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for Volunteer Involving Organisations to get their houses in order. The Inquiry was clear that in the majority of cases it wasn’t Volunteer Managers who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers. It was other paid staff (often in management and senior leadership positions) and trustees (volunteers themselves!) who were at fault. Poor treatment of volunteers isn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management practice or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers.

I never tire of saying it – effective volunteer engagement is an issue everyone needs to take responsibility for in a Volunteer Involving Organisation, not just the Volunteer Manager.

There were plenty of voices during the VRI process calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That path wasn’t taken. Instead VIOs were given a chance to take responsibility and improve their practice against the principles of the 3R promise:

Ten years on, how does your organisation measure up? Do you do all of these things consistently? Was your organisation a signatory to the promise back in the day? If it was then it made a public commitment to do all these things, so feel free to use that leverage to get it back on the agenda with senior management!

Given the UK government’s stated approach to the Equality Act as a means of securing protection for volunteers against sexual discrimination, perhaps the 3R Promise, self-policing approach has had it’s day? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then, do we believe that legislation will stop the poor treatment of volunteers?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. With everything the UK government has on right now, would this time be found?

Thirdly, I believe legislation could be counter-productive. Legislative requirements will only make volunteer engagement more bureaucratic and employment-like. This is at odds with a more frictionless approach to volunteering during the pandemic and risks driving people away from volunteering.

Legislation would also increase risks and costs for Volunteer Involving Organisations as they have to comply with any new legal requirements – do we really want to be placing more of a burden on these organisations given the Covid-19 driven challenges the face today?

So, what is the way forward?

There is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body, as is the will for such an approach – self-regulation of fundraising only came about because government threatened statutory regulation if fundraisers didn’t get their house in order.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn, except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years. Furthermore, a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit. Finally, in my experience, the Commission’s knowledge of volunteering is pretty woeful.

How about NCVO (and its sister bodies across the UK), the Association of Volunteer Managers, or some other sector infrastructure body? Most sector infrastructure bodies represent organisations not volunteers, which puts them in a potentially difficult position: would they side with individual volunteers against their member organisations, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ their own members for poor practice? And, as noted with the Charity Commission, what about all the Volunteer Involving Organisations who aren’t in the voluntary sector, who polices their practice?

Do we need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry? Updating the report might give it some more contemporary clout but the core of the original Inquiry’s work is probably still valid. The priority must instead be what we do about the issues it raised, not rehashing the same old issues, especially given that the resulting 3R Promise has been largely forgotten.

A few years ago I wrote that what we need is somebody to step up and start a debate about how to proceed. Somebody who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than reply on a legislative sticking plaster imposed on us by others for when things go wrong. I don’t see a body with the will and credibility to provide such leadership today. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope so.

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with.


What do you think is the way forward? Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who might take the lead on this issue.


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The changing role of Volunteer Engagement Professionals

Back in January (which feels like at least a year ago now!) my Canadian friend and colleague Erin Spink published “Top 20 Ideas in Volunteer Engagement for 2020”. This free eBook featured short essays from a global mix of Volunteer Engagement Professionals (VEPs) and thought-leaders (myself included). Contributors explore trends, the evolution of our practice and the need to reframe our role and I highly recommend reading the eBook, if you haven’t already.

For me, one of the recurring themes is a questioning of the role of VEPs. Specifically, a need to move from the comfort of doing the day-to-day, process driven, ‘cat-herding’ of volunteer management administration, to a more strategic and aspirational leadership role.

Here are two examples from the book to illustrate this:

”For years I’ve been asking volunteer leaders to define what they understand their core role to be – and without doubt, the same set of responses follow; recruitment, selection, screening, training, retention and a few essential management functions. I’ve constantly argued that this both over simplifies and limits the role of volunteer management, and while this viewpoint may have once been an accurate reflection of volunteer leadership, the undertaking of these tasks does nothing more than keep the Volunteer Manager incredibly busy and nowhere near as productive as they might otherwise be…In short, I believe that the ‘core’ role of the volunteer leader has changed forever and it’s time to re-define our core function and understand our roles in a different light!” (Andy Fryar, page 6).

“We all know that volunteer engagement professionals wear many hats, yet that doesn’t mean we alone should be responsible for volunteer engagement. If volunteer engagement is truly to be embraced as an essential strategy for mission-fulfillment, then the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone. When organizations commit to engaging volunteers as a strategy critical to achieving mission, volunteer engagement professionals do not personally recruit, screen, train, support, recognize, and manage the volunteers. Instead, they lead by equipping colleagues in other departments to engage and manage volunteers in their own areas – much as Human Resources departments equip others to be effective managers.” (Beth Steinhorn, page 21)

This shift to a more strategic approach by VEPs is something that’s been talked about for a few years now, so it is encouraging to see that focus being sharpened in Erin’s eBook. It’s a theme that has particular resonance in our Covid-19 affected world, something none of Erin’s contributing authors could have foreseen when they were writing their essays in late 2019.

As I recently argued on this very blog, organisations are going to need VEPs like never before in the world after the pandemic. Setting aside the clarity of hindsight, there are lessons to learnt as to why we weren’t as ready as we could have been when Covid-19 struck. Looking forward, the situation is unclear – the post-pandemic context will be for volunteering and VEPs is still being revealed.

There will be administrative issues to tackle. Thousands of people who quickly mobilised as volunteers with few bureaucratic obstacles in their path will not thrill to our reams of recruitment and selection paperwork. Online systems and quick, seamless communications tools will be expected where before we may have gotten away with offline systems that were slower and clunkier. We will need to re-frame our risk management systems to accommodate new concerns about the virus, ensuring volunteers are kept safe and able to supply robust contact tracing information where required.

There are, however, more significant changes that will be needed to underpin all this. As the quote from Beth Steinhorn stated earlier said, “the multifaceted responsibilities of engaging and supporting volunteers cannot live with the engagement professional alone”.

According to the 2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report, before the pandemic, only 25% of VEPs were 100% focused on volunteer management. Those roles need protecting from job and budget cuts so organisations have the skills, knowledge and resources at their disposal to help everyone adapt – VEP’s influencing skills may be called on as never before!

The other 75% of Volunteer Managers who were unable, pre-pandemic, to dedicate so much of their time to effective volunteer engagement, will need supporting and resourcing to dedicate put more into their VEP duties. Making this case to organisations as budgets shrink and fundraising effort struggle will be a challenge we need to rise to.

All VEPs will need to give significant attention to supporting colleagues across their organisations to embrace working with volunteers, delegating the nuts-and-bolts workload required to get people recruited and deployed effectively. VEPs will also need to analyse and adapt to the shifting organisational requirements of post-pandemic society, reflecting on how those match or conflict with shifts in how, when and why people may want to volunteer. This strategic juggling act will be a key priority for VEPs if organisations are to truly harness the potential of volunteering.

In recent months I have found myself repeatedly quoting Albert Einstein who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. Just as these words effectively summarised for me the themes of Erin’s eBook before I’d ever heard of Covid-19, so they clarify the even greater challenge now facing volunteer engagement professionals in our brave new world.

I know we are up for that challenge and I look forward to seeing how we will, together, rise to meet and overcome it.

Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

A couple of years ago I read Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals. In the book, Grant – a highly respected organisational psychologist – explores how non-conformists change the world, using a wide range of stories, research and insights to challenge accepted wisdom about creativity and originality. In an early chapter he argues that it is more effective to influence change by pointing out the flaws in an argument, not the strengths. This got me thinking.

Over the last few weeks on this blog I have been exploring how, in these changed times, leaders of volunteers are going to have to engage in some tricky conversations.

We are going to have to navigate objections related to paid staff job security and ensuring safe volunteer engagement practice is applied and followed by everyone.

We are going to have to educate colleagues and bosses about why we can’t just magic volunteers into existence to meet the needs of clients as incomes fall.

In short, we are going to have to step up our influencing and advocacy around volunteering.

So, what can we learn from Adam Grant’s idea to help us with this? What if we argued why involving volunteers might not be a great idea? What might such a proposition look like? Here’s my three-point take on how it might look:


1 – Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

Until someone invents the instant volunteer (just add water, microwave for two minutes and stir!), involving volunteers effectively takes time. You’ve got to develop the right roles, identify the target audience, create engaging recruitment materials, go out and find people, interview them, select them, induct them, train them and support them. And you won’t get them to make a regular, long-term commitment on day one. You’ll have to cultivate a relationship with them, deepening their commitment and giving them flexibility in how they volunteer. There is no quick fix to your problems to be found here.

The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll probably gain a supporter for life. But it’s going to take time.

2 – Volunteers may not give an immediate return on investment

For all the reasons listed above, it’s going to take a while before you see the benefits of volunteers getting involved in your work. Fundraising volunteers have to build relationships with others to bring the income in. Service delivery volunteers need time to settle into their roles to truly make a difference. You’ve got to be patient and committed to see the benefits that will come in time.

Done properly though, the return on involvement and return on investment can be huge.

3 – We will have to give up some power and control

Volunteers don’t want to be told what to do all the time. They don’t want to be micromanaged. They are intelligent, skilled and passionate people. They want to unleash their talents for the good of your mission, not work as mindless servants to the paid staff. So you’re going to have to relinquish some control, trusting the volunteers to do their best and not squeezing out their creativity and enthusiasm.

When you get this right, will you have some amazing new ideas and effective people working with you.


As we continue to come out of lockdown, organisations must look carefully at how they involve and deploy volunteers. Covid-19 has accelerated the changes in volunteering that we always knew were coming. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect the same results. We have to change. This was clearly laid out recently in an article from Civil Society magazine, “Coronavirus crisis shows charities need to change approach to volunteering, leaders say.

In my response to this article I said:

”What’s crucial is that this isn’t just dismissed as something for Volunteer Managers to act on. The points Karl, Paul and Tiger make are all important, but can only be addressed if everyone in an organisation is willing to take volunteer engagement seriously, including at a strategic level. This isn’t some quick fix a Volunteer Manager can address on their own. It takes a whole organisation to make this happen.”

The key to effective change around volunteer engagement is how we can help our colleagues embrace this change in mindset. Adam Grant’s idea of arguing against an idea might enable us to spot how we might better argue for that idea, increasing the chances we will successfully influence others.

What do you think?

How would you pitch why involving volunteers isn’t a good idea in your organisation? How might that help you make a better case for volunteer involvement?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Four mistakes Unions sometimes make about volunteering

In my last article I discussed how Volunteer Managers need to be leading debate about job substitution issues as our organisations adapt to a world changed by Covid-19. When we get into these discussions we may encounter resistance from unions, resistance we need to counter. But how?

First, let’s remember that unions do an important role protecting their members: this isn’t an anti-union rant. As I said last time, however, old ways of thinking won’t cut it in our Covid-19 ‘new normal’ – that’s true of unions as music as the rest of us. Consequently, leaders of volunteer engagement may need to challenge unions more than we might have done in the past.

To that end, I want to highlight four mistakes unions often make when thinking about volunteering that may be useful when you need to challenge their position.

1 – Unions can confuse amateur (volunteer) with incompetent

Unions typically come at volunteering issues with the assumption that professional (paid) means competent. This is the same argument some in the voluntary sector use to argue for paid trustees – if we pay people, we get more professional behaviour and more competent practice.

Neither argument holds up in reality. What someone is paid is no indicator of their professionalism or competence. This is an area I’ve blogged on before so do take a look at a post on my old blog site for more of my thinking.

2 – Unions can assume we will deploy anyone as a volunteer

In my experience, unions sometimes think volunteers will be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. This is, of course, something no competent volunteer manager would ever do. Volunteers, when properly recruited, trained, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff (see point one above).

3 – Unions can get it wrong on commitment

This one is a little bizarre – unions sometime suggest volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid staff. Interesting. Filling a role for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed! Sure some volunteers may be a bit flaky but you know what, that can be true of paid staff too. Just as volunteers don’t have a monopoly on passion, whether someone is paid does not indicate their reliability or commitment.

4 – Unions typically say one thing and do another

Finally, and crucially, almost every union rep I have engaged with professionally has failed to recognise the the very movement and organisation they represent runs on volunteer labour. As one of the UK’s biggest unions state on their website:

UNISON employs around 1,200 people across the UK and has more than 1.3 million members. But we rely on volunteer activists for much of the support we offer. Without them UNISON would not be able to function.

Which begs the question – why are volunteers in other settings viewed as untrained, uncommitted, well-meaning amateurs, individuals who are out to take paid staff jobs, yet union volunteers aren’t? Is it one rule for them and another for everyone else?

Conclusion

Remember, this is not an anti-union rant. When plans were recently announced for Boots (the chemist) to recruit volunteers to work thirty-two hours a week as Covid-19 testers, it was the unions who had the most sensible objections.

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said: “Many people want to give their spare time to the NHS to help it through the Covid crisis, but this advert takes the notion of volunteering way too far.” She added that rather than “seeking to take advantage of people’s good nature, the government would be better placed utilising the experience of NHS staff returning from retirement, or the healthcare students in their final years, to help expand the UK’s testing capacity”.

In contrast, politicians argued it was physically demanding work and so should be paid. Which begs the question as to why they have no such qualms about volunteer gardeners, lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and countless other physically demanding volunteer roles?

Unions don’t always get it right though and as leaders & managers of volunteers we need to stand up to any ill-informed, prejudice driven perspectives anyone has about volunteering. We need to find a way to work with unions, and others, to ensure volunteer involvement in adds value without displacing people from paid work.

  • What have been your experiences of engaging with unions around volunteer engagement issues?
  • Have you found any success in working with them around volunteer engagement in times of change?
  • Are there other tips you might share with colleagues?

Please leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion.

How Covid-19 may change our views on job substitution for ever

Four weeks ago I published a guest post (of sorts) from the late Susan J Ellis. It was a slightly edited version of her 2009 Hot Topic, “When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers”.

Reading Susan’s eleven year old article got me thinking about a piece on job substitution that I wrote for Third Sector magazine in February 2017. In this article I want to revisit those thoughts with a particular eye to our pandemic affected world, not least because the idea of volunteers doing what was once paid work seems to be the main thrust of calls for furloughed charity workers to volunteer for their employing organisations.


Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term ‘job substitution’ itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that, in reality, is both impractical and unrealistic.

Far better terms to use are job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement may seem subtle but they are important:

  • Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.
  • Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles due to funding changes, so deploys volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of it’s clients (remember that in most cases charities exist for the benefit of their clients, not their employee and volunteers).

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, then concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihood, two serious errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made:

  1. Volunteers are a free or cost saving option
  2. It is easy to recruit people who will take on those paid roles and do it for no pay

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a preferable way to doing things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase, “Volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff”. It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low status activity next to paid work

I’ve worked in organisations where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who they believe is there just because they are paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement or complement or displace or replace paid staff, they brought something that paid staff could not.

I accept that these issues of who does what for the mission aren’t easy to discuss and resolve – if they were we would have stopped debating them years ago. Yet engaging intelligently and thoughtfully with these issues is essential as we emerge from the early phases of Covid-19, because the way we always did things before the virus simply won’t cut it anymore.

Not everyone who volunteered for us in the past will do so again.

Paid staff are, sadly, going to be be laid off.

Money may be in short supply as unemployment and financial hardship reduces charitable donations.

Mission driven organisations will have to rethink how they fulfil their goals with a different mix of human talent and skill than they did before.

As Albert Einstein said:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”.

Are we as leaders of volunteer engagement ready to lead this debate in our organisations? Are we ready to challenge old orthodoxies that may not fit the new world we live in?

I hope so, because our leadership is needed now more than ever.