Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?

What is volunteer engagement?

My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword(subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):

“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”

How can we increase volunteer engagement?

My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:

“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:

  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
  • The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”

In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?

Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager

In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.

Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:

  1. Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
  2. Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
  3. Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).

Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?

Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.

Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership

In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:

  • Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
  • 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
  • When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.

In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!

This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.

Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:

  1. We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
  2. We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.

Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work

Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.

This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:

So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.


Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:

All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.

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Risk – learn to love it

Risk – learn to love it

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

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

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

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

Risk avoidance, not management

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

A story from New Zealand

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

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

Three lessons this story teaches us

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

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

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

An example from Australia

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

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

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

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

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

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

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

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

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

A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.

Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well-meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s not just people working in non-profits that believe this nonsense either.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. Whether in libraries, policing or other settings, volunteers as incompetent amateurs is a common position of unions and others.

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff – who are seen as essential – and the volunteers – who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking. Anytime we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

Here are three reasons why.

“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.” – GK Chesterton


The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional, on the other hand, suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

Over the last few years I have asked two questions when I train groups: how many of you have worked with incompetent volunteers?; how many of you have worked with incompetent paid staff? More hands go up in response to the second question. Every time. Everywhere I work in the world.

“When you love something so much that you’d do it without pay, you end up pretty good at it. So good that, at times, you can outclass the professionals.” – Charles Chu


Second, labelling volunteers as well-meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. Have any of the critics of volunteers in libraries ever considered that there might be very well trained, highly competent professional librarians who want to volunteer to help run these library services? Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practising librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and / or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, the assumption is that managers will take anyone they can find and throw them in at the deep end, untrained, to work in a library. If we did that then, of course, professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent leader of volunteers ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

“While professional has many reasons for doing something (money, prestige, power), an amateur has only one —the “genuine fire and reality” of pure, unbridled passion. You can always trust an amateur.” – Charles Chu


Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No nonprofit organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

“None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother — and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.” – GK Chesterton


We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well-meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead, we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful – and at worst negligent – behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on my old blog site back in February 2015. Quotations are from this article by Charles Chu.)

Who is our enemy?

Who is our enemy?

I often find writing hard. Sometimes the words flow freely and easily, sometimes there is a topic I want to address but I just can’t find the right way into it, and other times I just sit and stare at a blinking cursor wondering what I can say that will be helpful to others.

This is commonly called writer’s block. American author Anne Lamott has some helpful words of advice when we encounter it:

“Writer’s block isn’t a block. When your wife locks you out of the house you don’t have a problem with the door! The problem is acceptance. Accept you are empty.”

When I feel empty like that – empty of inspiration, empty of energy, empty of words – I read, often books and articles that have nothing to do with volunteering, like the Originals book I reviewed in my last posting.

Two of the places I go for inspiration are For The Interested by Josh Spector and the weekly newsletter from Charles Chu. In his recent article, “Feeling Lost? Maybe You Need An Enemy”, Charles explores how having an adversary to focus on can be a uniting force. That got me thinking. Who is our enemy, the nemesis of leaders and managers of volunteers?

  • Is it governments, who consistently fail to understand volunteering and what is needed to make it happen?
  • Is it fundraisers, who are so focused on getting in the cash they fail to see the potential of people?
  • Is it CEOs and senior managers, who consistently ignore us, cut our posts first when times get tough and take advantage of volunteers?

Whoever we may consider our enemy to be – and perhaps this is the first time you’ve even considered that person or institution to be an enemy – Charles Chu has a challenge for us in this quote from the late Umberto Eco:

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”

Charles continues:

“This enemy I am fighting  – the enemies we all fight  –  could they…simply be fake enemies that we’ve “invented” to satisfy our own needs? However scary it is, we should also pause and ask ourselves, “Does this enemy that I fight truly exist? And, if not, then what is it that I’ve been doing this all for?”

Are CEOs, fundraisers and governments really the enemy of leaders of volunteers? Have we invented them as adversaries so we have a common cause to unite behind? Are we rallying against a group, body or individual in order to demonstrate our own worth (as Umberto Eco put it)? Is this all just a convenient way for us to blame others for our frustrations rather than do something about them ourselves? What if we stopped viewing them as enemies? What if we stopped blaming others for our lack of progress, whether personally or as a profession, and started viewing them as potential allies?

Back to Charles Chu again:

“Those we make enemies out of are, in the end, still people. Deep down, they suffer from many of the same fears and worries. If we take the time to see the world as they do, it becomes a whole lot harder to hate them.”

Just spend a few moments reflecting on the following questions, either in regard to your personally and what you are trying to achieve as a manager of volunteers, or as our wider profession:

  • Who do we see as our enemy?
  • Why are they our enemy?
  • Have we invented that enemy or are they real?
  • How can I see the world as my enemy does and how might that help me achieve my goal?
  • What might I be avoiding doing because I’m blaming someone else for my challenges?
  • What action would help me take control of the situation and move forward instead of blaming someone else?

I hope that through tackling my writers block I’ve produced something that’s got you thinking. I also hope it inspires you write too, in the form of a response by leaving a comment below.

I’d love to know what you think.

Book review: Originals by Adam Grant

I haven’t written a book review for over thirty years, most likely since primary school. So what’s making me write one now? The simple answer is the excellent and valuable content of the fantastic book, “Originals” by Adam Grant.

I’d never heard of Originals until a friend on Facebook recommended it. I don’t know why, but I took a punt and added it to my list of business reading. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve not come across the book, Originals is described as, “A manifesto for originality and a guide to championing new ideas that challenge the status quo.” As the description on Amazon puts it:

“Adam Grant shows how to improve the world by championing novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battling conformity, and bucking outdated traditions. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Parents will learn how to nurture originality in children, and leaders will discover how to fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.”

The book was a joy to read as Grant not only informed but entertained. What really hit home for me was how strikingly relevant and helpful some of his points were to leaders and managers of volunteers, especially in our essential work of influencing others – volunteers, colleagues, bosses, funders, policy makers etc..

One of Grant’s points from Originals inspired me to write my July 2017 piece for the UK’s Third Sector magazine. Described by infrastructure body NAVCA as the article they never thought I’d write, “Three reasons why involving volunteers might not be a good idea” takes Grant’s concept of selling an idea by emphasising it’s weaknesses and applies it to volunteer leadership management. Take a look and let me know what you think by leaving a comment on the Third sector site.

Some of Grant’s observations help shine a light on contradictions in our field. For example, studies of Volunteer Managers often illustrate that we are happy wth our roles yet frustrated at the (lack of) support we get. Grant notes the work of John Jost, commenting that “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject or change it”. He goes on to explain why, giving a useful thoughts as to why, despite the frustration many Volunteer Managers feel, they may not seek to change the status quo.

Other points from the book could be applied to: volunteer recognition (affirmation of character, p168); volunteer induction (entry interviews rather than exit interviews, p 204); motivating others; challenging groupthink; improving brainstorming & ideas generation; and both understanding and working with or against organisational culture. Helpfully, Grant provides a list of actions individuals and leaders can take to apply the principles to their lives and work.

I’ve always liked reading books outside of the usual volunteer management literature and seeking insights to apply back to our field. Adam Grant’s book Originals has been one of the richest sources of these in a long time and is a text I will keep referring back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Tilting at windmills again

Tilting at windmills again

Since setting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in 2011 I have been writing and speaking about the need for senior managers to take volunteering seriously as a strategic priority. Despite six years of effort it seems little has changed.

Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have recently published a new study, “Charities Taking Charge”. They surveyed 300 charity leaders, of whom only 51% thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!). 16% thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).

Furthermore, when asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”. By contrast, 31% chose funding and 23% public profile.

What it is going to take for those at the top of non-profits to pay proper attention to the strategic role of volunteering in delivering organisational missions? When will the focus on money as the only resource at their disposal change, opening minds to the full range and wealth of community resources available to change the world for the better?

Susan Ellis has been tilting at these same windmills since the 1970s. That’s why she wrote From The Top Down in the 1980s and why we adapted the book for the UK in 2015.

I’ve only been at it six years and I am not going to give up.

Now, where’s the nearest brick wall?