Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

Since 2019 I have had the honour of serving as Editor-In-Chief of Engage, an online journal written for volunteer engagement leaders around the world who want to be informed and challenged about volunteering trends and issues.

Whilst Engage is a subscription journal, we do publish some free content and, since 2013, I have co-written these Points of View articles, first with the late Susan J Ellis and then more recently with the marvellous Erin Spink.

What follows is the Points of View Erin and I published back in October 2021. It asks questions about the value your organisation places on volunteers compared to other supporters. It is just a relevant now as it was seven months ago.

Finally, please check out our other Points of View articles as well as consider becoming a member of Engage.


The global pandemic – along with raised consciousness on diversity, equity and inclusion – has forced many organisations to refocus, change directions and reflect on a range of issues. For example, some are re-evaluating how they serve their community, from both a procedural and ethical lens. Others are tweaking volunteer engagement to make it more accessible online. And still others are undergoing a wholesale review of the place and value of volunteers within their work.

Whatever such rethinking involves and must take into account (which includes fluctuating funding environments for many), new lines are being drawn in the sand around who and what is essential versus who and what is nice-to-have in mission-driven organisations.

When we talk about who and what is essential, we know that for any organization that engages volunteers such discussions can be challenging for leaders of volunteer engagement. When those conversations happen, the relative value of volunteers compared to other stakeholders is often a thorny topic.

Consider: your organization is going through an exercise in prioritising stakeholders (e.g. donors, clients, board members, paid staff, the public, funders, government, etc.) from most to least valuable. Are volunteers on the list? And, if so, where do they sit on this list and why do they sit there?

What seems to be a simple question actually reveals a host of unspoken, hidden assumptions and biases that aren’t discussed nearly enough or with the rigour and critical thinking needed. For many volunteers, their main ‘currency’ of time has been largely put on hold during the pandemic. Instead, we’ve heard a lot of anecdotal stories from peers that the major shift in volunteer engagement strategy was to say to volunteers, “Since you can’t give your time, please give us your money.”

There’s a lot to unpack within the ‘give money instead of time’ mantra. However, the core of it boils down to the perception of value contributed from a particular stakeholder group, in this case, volunteers. In many organisations, money is valued more than time and so financial donors sit above volunteers in the stakeholder pecking order. Clouding the conversation, however, is the historical practice of correlating volunteer time to an hourly currency amount, despite excellent work in evolving the understanding of how we assign value to volunteer time (see articles by Jayne Cravens, Sue Carter Kahl and Meridian Swift on this topic and how to articulate volunteer value).

The seemingly quick switch of many organisations to a ‘give money instead of time’ message to volunteers demonstrates how much farther we need to go in order to change perceptions by key decision makers and influencers on the value of volunteers and why we include them as part of our organisations. To be clear, we’re not saying it is/was wrong to ask volunteers for money during the pandemic or, indeed, at any time. Research has shown that volunteers are often more generous money donors than non-volunteers, if asked in the right way. No, the issue we have is the seemingly automatic distillation that volunteers’ value is the one-dimensional construct of time.

By equating volunteer value to time alone, we discount the many other important contributions that volunteers make and spotlight the fragility of any real change in the broader understanding of volunteer value.

We have been saying for some time now in these Points of View articles that the changes and challenges of the past year have presented great opportunities to move beyond the ‘tried and true’ and seek to effect innovative and lasting change in volunteer engagement. This ‘time vs. money’ issue is another example. Volunteer impact is not one-dimensional. Whether it’s the number of hours or a currency value assigned to that time, these overly simplistic valuations miss the mark. In discussions about stakeholders and the contributions they make, this is dangerous. Because when time is not an option – like during the pandemic – then volunteers fall to the bottom of the stakeholder value ladder.

How does volunteer value measure up in comparison to other stakeholders?

Volunteer contributions can (and should) be considered from multiple dimensions. For stakeholders and organizations, there is ideally an equitable benefit for both parties, as well as costs.

What is unique about volunteers as a stakeholder group is that they can, and often do, receive fewer of the benefits while at the same time more of the costs compared to other stakeholders. For example, have you ever heard of a program or structure being named after a volunteer? Probably not. But we bet you’ve come across something like that named after a cash donor in the past. Regardless of whether a volunteer was instrumental in developing or running a core aspect of your organization’s mission, they rarely get the credit in the way a cash donor might.

In business, some use the “triple bottomline” of people, profit and planet to measure positive and negative impacts. Perhaps the same should be true in our for-impact sector, too – and for all stakeholders.

Volunteer contributions and the involvement of volunteers form a virtuous cycle. Unlike a monetary donation which has a set value, the value of time and heart is unlimited. Due to the nature of their voluntary involvement with your organization, volunteers can advocate and influence a wide sphere with an authenticity unparalleled by other stakeholders, with the exception of participants. We have both seen examples over the years of how volunteers can bring something to an organisation that truly no other category of worker or supporter can bring.

Often volunteers are involved with projects and programs that are deeply embedded in the work of your organization. As a result, it can be argued that they more deeply impact (and are impacted by) the work of your organization. While some volunteer roles are of a more transactional and short-term nature, the ripple effect of the exposure to your mission is far more powerful than the transaction of writing a cheque or making an online donation. Most volunteers – no matter whether their involvement is in-person, episodic or virtual – go through some level of orientation to an organization. This awareness-raising and exposure heightens the emotional and educational aspects of becoming involved with an organization, and impacts a volunteer more than other stakeholders.

Stakeholder Value Education

The pandemic brought into stark relief a continued need for more education, advocacy and compelling evidence of the multiple bottom-lines that volunteers impact, as well as the more intangible qualitative contributions that volunteers uniquely add. This isn’t just about scoring points with colleagues by getting volunteers further up the stakeholder value list; it’s about ensuring that our organisations make the most of a multi-faceted, highly valuable resource without simply dismissing it as less valuable than a one-dimensional financial donation.

To get you started, consider the following:

  • What networks do volunteers give your organisation access to that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach?
  • What is the ‘opportunity cost’ to the volunteer of giving time to your organisation? What are they giving up to support you? How might this be used to show the value of what they bring to your cause?
  • How do volunteers contribute in unique ways from paid staff and other supporters? Do they, for example, bring a lived experience of your cause, or appear to clients as more reliable / committed etc. because they aren’t paid to be there? How does that help progress your mission through volunteer engagement?

We’d love to hear what you are already doing on this issue, how you get on if you’re just starting and what you think more broadly of the position we’ve taken in this Points of View.

Please leave us a comment and let’s get the conversation started.


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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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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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Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Twenty years ago this month, Susan J Ellis published a Hot Topic article about advocating for volunteer involvement, focusing specifically on the role funders can play. It’s such a great read and still so relevant I am republishing it below as a ‘guest’ post.

Please read Susan’s thoughts and leave a comment to add to the discussion.


No matter how long I work in this field, I simply will never understand why so few of our attempts at educating decision-makers seem to stick. We are constantly repeating our advocacy efforts whenever new executives come on board — too often starting again at square one. I actually discussed this in 1999 in my August Hot Topic. This issue is once again “hot” because of a recent rash of inexplicable budget cuts, reorganising decisions, and other actions severely limiting or even eliminating volunteer program resources that — to those of us in the field — seemed to be successful and effective. In almost every case, the changes have been done rapidly and with no apparent thoughtfulness or sense of consequence.

There are a number of key misconceptions that continue to fuel ignorant decision-making. We have to find ways to emphasise the following:

Volunteer Involvement Is NOT:

  • Free
  • A second choice
  • An alternative to adequate paid staffing
  • Simply a part of fundraising or development
  • Exactly like paid personnel management, or completely separate from it
  • Basically a problem of recruitment, not of organisational competence
  • Dying, old-fashioned, or unattractive to skilled people
  • A low-level management function that anyone can do
  • Something the paid staff welcomes or is capable of supporting
  • A responsibility that can be done as an “add on” to the job of an already-overworked employee
  • Extremely hard to control, measure, or hold to high standards
  • Self-evidently good PR, no matter how volunteers are treated
  • Inherently risky
  • Synonymous with the “nonprofit” or “voluntary” sector (or NGOs)
  • Always labeled “volunteering”
  • “Uniquely American”

But It IS:

  • Universal and international
  • A specialty management area
  • As effective as the thought and effort put into it
  • Too often under-utilised and undervalued
  • A way to expand the talents and skills available to an organisation
  • Access to perspectives specifically different from those of paid staff
  • Intimately related to:
    • Fundraising
    • PR / Visibility
    • Outreach
    • Client development
  • Something Executive Directors and the Board need to consider
  • A part of the resource mix
  • A way to dream and experiment with new service ideas
  • A way to demonstrate an organisation matters to the community

Over time, I have come to believe that funders have an obligation to force executives to make better decisions about volunteers. If foundations, major donors, and government agencies insisted on appropriate integration of volunteers in service planning and delivery, I predict we’d see immediate attention to volunteer management issues.

Jane Leighty Justis is crusading on this very topic in the foundation world, as she explained in an interview in e-Volunteerism last year. I agree with her advocacy and propose that, collectively, we find ways to get funders to:

  1. REQUIRE all grant proposals to include a section on how volunteers will be involved in the new project.
  2. ENCOURAGE requests to fund the position of volunteer services manager.
  3. EXPECT reports on the degree of volunteer involvement achieved (quantity) and its impact (quality).
  4. REJECT proposals from organisations unwilling to consider how the right volunteers might expand the success of their programs.

It is my opinion that an organisation seeking gifts of cash while refusing donations of talent is not a good steward of resources. Since “money talks,” funders have a strong effect on the ways that agencies operate. If volunteer involvement becomes more integrated with organisational development, and is rewarded with more funds, then executives and other staff will seek education in how to do it the right way.

So the question this month is:

How might we reach funders and advocate for greater attention to volunteer involvement?


Susan’s original article can be found on the Energize website, along with all her monthly hot topics from 1997 to 2017. Energize was Susan’s business and is now a part of Adisa and led by the brilliant Betsy McFarland.

You can also access The Susan J Ellis archive, an online repository of Susan’s writing and resources she collected over her forty plus years working in volunteer engagement. The archive includes a list of free books available to download.

Subsequent to Susan’ writing this post, the Leighty Foundation did further work on funding volunteer involvement and published, “The Funder’s Guide To Investing In Volunteer Engagement”. You can find out more about this on their website.


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

The 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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