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.

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!

More change will come as lockdown life slowly, cautiously, comes to an end. We face an unprecedented economic downturn following the government bailouts, employment protection schemes and the ongoing costs of protecting people from Covid-19. For some, life may well get harder before it gets better. Some commentators even think the loss of GDP in the UK could result in more deaths than those caused by the virus.

Looking back to the global financial crisis a little over ten years ago, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) looked at the impacts on nonprofits and volunteer managers and there are some useful lessons for us to learn:

  • Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
  • Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
  • Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
  • There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources

As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?

What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.

1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something

It is wonderful to see reports of a million people coming forward to volunteer during the pandemic but we must not equate an interest in volunteering with actual volunteering.

On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.

Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.

In both cases, my interest in volunteering has not resulted in me actually volunteering. Instead, it is has caused frustration and annoyance. I’m not alone either. Recently a UK tabloid newspaper called the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme a shambles,not exactly the kind of press that encourages people to volunteer.

As Jayne Cravens once said:

”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”

Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed

To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.

Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.

We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!

If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?

Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back

For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.

As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.

We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.


Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers

What follows is a slightly edited article that was originally written by Susan J. Ellis and published on the Energize Inc website as the Hot Topic for December 2009. The original version is also available as an audio file.

The context for Susan’s hot topic was the global financial crisis which was impacting nonprofits and communities around the world. In today’s Covid-19 affected society, her thoughts and advice are as relevant as ever. Times are tough and many predict that an unprecedented economic shock is just around the corner. Let Susan’s words from eleven years ago inform and inspire you to act on her timeless wisdom and insight so that volunteer engagement might come out of the current situation stronger, not weaker.


Can an organization turn to volunteers to fill gaps when budgets are cut and employees laid off?

This ancient question has been resurfacing quite a bit recently, for obvious economic reasons. For many paid staff, it is fearfully voiced as, “Will my organization do this?” Even in the best of times, employees are often wary of new volunteer projects because of questions of job security, so it’s hard to deny the threat when budgets are in real danger.

I suspect that most readers here, being immersed in the dogma of our volunteer management profession, have a visceral negative reaction to even a hint of the “replacement” question. My stomach tightens, too. But we have to let our brains keep working and find a way to respond with care and concern when our organizations are struggling for their lives. Economic crisis is a teachable moment and has the potential to educate everyone about smart, motivating engagement of volunteers.

I see three levels of action: prevention/preparation; responding to hard times; and emergency mode.

Prevention / Preparation

Here is what I always give as my best advice: Plan for volunteers when times are good if you want their help in times of crisis. Crisis is the worst time for an organization to begin to involve volunteers. This reinforces the notion that volunteers are a temporary band-aid and is sure to be met with staff resistance to volunteer help just when they themselves are coping with an increased workload. Further, it is hard to sound sincere to the public about welcoming their help when recruiting in desperation.

If an organization already has an established volunteer corps and a solid volunteer management process, it is legitimate to assess how this group of loyal supporters can best be deployed to respond to an economic emergency. Top management ought to know already that volunteers are cost-effective but are never a “free” resource.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual to see organizations lay off their director of volunteer involvement in the first round of staff cuts. The theory is that there are already volunteers in place and there will be few immediate consequences from this vacancy. Then, often without seeing the irony, the same organizations also announce that they are seeking more volunteers!

Clearly it is my position that the more critical volunteers are to an organization, the more important the position of the person who leads the volunteer program. Not only will such a manager work to expand the volunteer corps, but current volunteers can feel unsupported and taken for granted if they lose their staff liaison.

Responding to Hard Times

In general, it is next to impossible to fill a gap left by a full-time employee with a single, qualified and available volunteer. Instead it would require an intricate schedule of several volunteers, each giving a certain number of hours per week and each bringing the organization a different set of qualifications. Take all the concerns of “job sharing” and multiply them several fold!

The best way to handle the real problem of forced lay-offs is to reassess the job descriptions of the entire staff, both those who have left and those remaining. This means doing a task analysis of the way things really work in the organization, not just what was put on paper in the distant past. Scrutinize the various tasks that each employee is/was doing and identify the following sorts of things:

  • What is someone doing once a week or periodically, rather than daily or on an inflexible schedule?
  • What is someone doing that really does not require his or her specialized training? (For example, a caseworker may spend a lot of time away from clients finding referral information – telephone calls, Internet searches – or a librarian might be diverted from core work by changing the book displays and bulletin boards.)
  • What is someone doing that might be done more effectively by someone else with more specialized training in that skill?

Once you have identified such tasks, you are ready to rewrite all the staff job descriptions. First be sure these contain all the tasks that require daily attention, special training, etc., adding the similar critical responsibilities that had been assigned to the laid-off staff members. Next, remove the periodic or less technical responsibilities. You end up with the remaining employees now tasked primarily with the most vital, daily functions. The remaining activities then become the basis for legitimate volunteer position descriptions. You will be asking volunteers to handle important work that can be done on a once-a-week basis or that makes use of special talents for which the volunteers have been recruited.

Now turn to the current assignments that volunteers are filling and ask this major question: Are these the most essential things we need right now? Weigh the list of tasks you’ve just culled from the employees against what volunteers are doing and make choices. Of course include volunteers in this deliberation. You can assume that they want to be of the greatest help and will be proud to be seen as part of keeping the organization afloat.

This approach to the unfortunate need to trim the budget is therefore good management of both paid and volunteer staff. The organization is paying for the best utilization of its employees and will attract volunteers in its support. It is also more likely to avoid the mistake of recruiting volunteers mainly for clerical roles at a time when increasing numbers of people are seeking more challenging ways to serve the causes in which they believe. Not to mention giving unemployed people a way to keep their professional skills alive while doing something worthwhile for others. (Another finding in the MAVA study was that 52% of the respondents said they were interviewing new volunteers with stronger work skills and 54% said these applicants were more likely to be unemployed.)

Emergency Mode

For some organizations, the financial choices have come down to eliminating services (even closing the doors altogether) or turning to volunteer help as a stopgap measure. In that sort of crisis, your mission comes first. Volunteers as well as paid staff understand and respect that. It is legitimate to share information about the emergency situation with current and potential volunteers and to ask for their help. You are likely to get it.

Again, the first task is to reassess the job descriptions of the employees, being even more deliberate in making sure primary, daily services are assigned to paid staff. Then look at what, where, and how volunteers are doing now. Are they familiar enough with the work of a unit or area that they might take on additional responsibilities? Would they be willing to increase their volunteer time for, say, two months? Can they help you to recruit more emergency volunteers (with the skills you need most) and train them on-the-job? This is also a legitimate question to pose to board members, especially those with corporate ties.

Of course this is not a great situation! The key is honest and open communication about the plans to hold things together until new funding can be found. Solicit everyone’s ideas for how to operate in the crisis. Set a timeline for reassessing how things are going and, perhaps, for when to throw in the towel. Volunteers are a vital part of transitioning to a more effective, fully-funded organization but they cannot be expected to carry the load indefinitely.

Most important, always remember that volunteers are your most effective advocates for funding your work. Especially in a crisis, make sure you are asking volunteers to be spokespeople with legislators, donors, and other funders. Raising more money and having great volunteers are mutually compatible goals.

And, to repeat: The best way to gain expanded volunteer support in lean times is to have incorporated volunteers as a welcome resource in the first place.

  • Are you facing pressure to recruit more volunteers because funding has been cut? How are you responding?
  • How are you realigning volunteer position descriptions to be sure they are meeting the most pressing needs today?
  • What else are you experiencing about “paid vs. volunteer” thinking in your organization?

Eighteen nuggets of wisdom for leaders of volunteer engagement

One of the people I follow online is Josh Spector. He has a great newsletter that I have subscribed to for a few years now. In January he published an article entitled, “My Advice For Creators In 30 Sentences (Give or Take)”. That got me thinking.

I love quotations. I collect them (sad I know). So why not share some of my favourites, themed around leadership and volunteer engagement?

My hope is that the eighteen quotations I’ve chosen will inspire and challenge you in your work. They may be of help with leadership, influencing, ethical issues and a whole lot more. Use them, share them and let them help you do whatever is a priority to give people a better volunteering experience.

1

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” – Bill Gates

2

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” – Gen. Eric Shinseki, US Army

3

“Part of leadership (a big part of it actually) is the ability to stick with the dream for a long time. Long enough that the critics realise that you’re going to get there one way or another…so they follow.” – Seth Godin

4

”To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers – especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay. What conditions would need to exist for your staff to want to enlist in your ‘volunteer’ organisation? Under volunteer conditions, what would you need to do if you wanted people to perform at high levels? What would you need to do if you wanted them to remain loyal to your organisation?” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book, “The Leadership Challenge”

5

“It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar

6

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only little.” – Edmund Burke

7

” He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” – Benjamin Franklin

8

“Volunteering is a sign of a healthy nonprofit organisation, not the solution for a failing one.” – Greg Baldwin, President, VolunteerMatch

9

”I strenuously resist the idea that money is more important than people. I believe the not-for-profit sector has a unique opportunity to recruit volunteers to fill critical talent gaps in organisations, and pay them in non-financial ways: with meaning, with opportunities to learn, and with a feeling of connection to community.” – Coleen Kelly

10

“The number one resource for a great social sector organisation is having enough of the right people willing to commit themselves to the mission. The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can never attract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.” – Jim Collins in his monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors”

11

“Satisfied volunteers are not the purpose of our work, mission is.” – Susan Ellis

12

” I will never tire of saying this: Volunteer management is about respecting our volunteers sufficiently that we properly invest in them to maximise their engagement and participation, and ensure the very best outcomes for our beneficiaries.” – John Ramsey

13

“I want to volunteer where my presence is an asset but my absence is not a liability.” – Sharon Eidsness, Sharon’s Axiom

14

”Volunteering permits everyone to rise to the level of their abilities, not their resumes.” – Susan Ellis

15

“They are not your volunteers, you are their organisation.” – Karl Wilding, NCVO

16

“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good” – Ivan Scheier

17

“No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.” – Susan Ellis

18

“When you don’t know what the right answer is supposed to be you can get darned creative making up your own answer.” – Steve McCurley

What are some of your favourite quotations that could be applied to the work of leaders of volunteer engagement? Leave a comment below or post them on social media using the hashtag #LOVolQuotes

Look Back to Look Ahead

A few words of introduction

I have thought long and hard about publishing this article but, in the end, I decided to take the Duke of Wellington’s advice, “Publish or be damned”.

From the outset I want to be clear that this piece is not about allocating blame or directing criticism towards people or institutions. We don’t have time for finger pointing right now. Instead, it’s a mix of my getting stuff me off my chest, having a rant and, in doing so, attempting to help consider the lessons to be learnt for volunteer engagement when Coronavirus / Covid-19 (C19) starts fading into memory.

Please take what follows in that spirit of reflection and learning and, if you add your thoughts with a comment, apply that same spirit to what what you contribute. Thank you.


Like all of us I’m watching the news every day with a mix of emotions.

I’m worried about my family and loved ones, including older relatives who are housebound for twelve weeks.

I’m worried for friends around the world, for their health, for their livelihoods and for some who are in awful circumstances with seriously ill loved ones in hospital who they can’t see because of C19 restrictions.

I’m worried about my business and my friends who run small businesses because our income for the foreseeable future has dried up, but the costs remain.

I’m concerned about the voluntary sector I love and how it will weather this storm.

I’m inspired by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people signed up to volunteer to support the NHS as Volunteer Responders in less than twenty-four hours.

I’m in awe of our health care workers who are battling C19 every day.

I’m full of gratitude for the key workers who are keeping our country running.

I’m hopeful that when we get out of this situation we will celebrate the people who really make our country run every day, not the celebrities, reality TV personalities and super-rich who we seem to have become obsessed with.

I look forward to the outpouring of national relief and celebration that will be felt someday (hopefully soon). I think we’re going to party like they did at the end of WW2.

I’m professionally frustrated too, at government, Volunteer Involving Organisations and Volunteer Managers (a group in which I include myself). Here’s why.

Government

For the last ten years the UK government in Westminster has not treated the voluntary and community sector as a genuine strategic partner. The sector’s role and voice has been diminished in government policy and practice. The Compact was scrapped. The Office for Civil Society has been downgraded over and over again, as well as being pushed from pillar-to-post across different departments.

Perhaps as a result, charities seem to be at the back of the queue for C19 financial help. As I write this Government are yet to announce meaningful economic support for the voluntary sector. NCVO and others estimate charities in England will lose more than £4billion of income in the next twelve weeks. Organisations that help the most vulnerable and marginalised in society could potentially be closing their doors soon and forever.

Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts to funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on on bare bones resources that diminish year on year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best but capacity is much reduced.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Involving Organisations

For as long as I can remember CEOs, board of trustees, Executive Directors and senior managers of Volunteer Involving Organisations all around the world have paid too little attention to the strategic importance of, and need to invest in, effective volunteer engagement. Many of us have argued long and hard for this to change, with very little success.

Yes, government are currently letting the sector down in the UK. But the neglect shown towards volunteering by so many organisations over so many years needs acknowledging too. It has left us woefully under-prepared for what we now face and that’s on us, not government.

Whilst charities rightly highlight the sudden and dramatic decline in fundraising income over the last few weeks, they also fail to acknowledge that they could have taken steps long ago that might have softened this blow. With a more integrated approach to supporters, all those volunteers who have had to stop giving time because they need to self-isolate might have been open to being asked to donate money instead of time. Many of these volunteers are, of course, worried about the impact of C19 on their finances, but a strong relationship with the organisation (thanks to a well supported leader of volunteers) might well have helped. What these volunteers might have given wouldn’t fill the £4bn hole in funding, but it would be of some help. Similarly, a more integrated supporter approach would enable charities to ask their financial donors if they’d consider stepping up to fill the gaps in service left by volunteers having to step back at this time.

Instead of taking such a holistic view of all their supporters, organisations have kept them firmly in the donor and volunteer camps, where never the twain shall meet. Our siloed approach that puts the donated pound ahead of the donated hour means we aren’t able to deploy all our resources effectively at a time of great need.

In too many cases, volunteers are still seen as nice-to-have add ons, not core assets and members of the team. Here’s one illustration of this.

I ran a Twitter poll between 20 and 27 March which asked if respondents organisations included volunteer engagement in their continuity / emergency management plan. 54% of respondents said their organisation did, 16% of didn’t and 19% said their organisation does now, which suggests – however well intentioned – that the inclusion of volunteering is a C19 related afterthought.

So, whilst the 54% figure is good news, we can also imply that before all this kicked off, more than third of organisations had no mention of volunteering in their continuity / emergency management plans. I find that shocking.

At a time when we need our volunteers more than ever, many Volunteer Managers face barriers to engaging, supporting and communicating with volunteers that are created by their organisations. Now they have to work from home, these Volunteer Managers can’t easily access their volunteer data which sits in spreadsheets on computers in an office they can no longer go to. Why? Because their organisations have refused to spend just a few hundred pounds on a proper volunteer management system, one that is cloud-based and allows volunteer management to be done from home, as well as enabling volunteers to stay in touch, organise their work, update their data, undergo training etc.. It may have been a risk to have yet another IT system in place, especially when it’s only for volunteers, but that risk pales in insignificance against the risk that organisations are now struggling to mobilise, mange and safeguard their volunteers.

I’m also aware of leaders of volunteer engagement being excluded from organisational emergency planning meetings, Volunteer Managers being laid off and furloughed, and other examples of our profession being sidelined by their employers who clearly don’t grasp how important volunteer effort is right now.

The long and short of it is that too many in organisational leadership have neglected strategic volunteer engagement for too long. As a result, their organisations are weaker and less able to help the people the serve at the time they are needed most.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Managers

We may not like to acknowledge it but we Volunteer Managers have to shoulder some responsibility here as well.

For too long we’ve been too timid in making a robust argument to our organisations about why they need to take volunteering more seriously as a strategic priority and invest accordingly. Look at this article I wrote over three years ago – we had a golden opportunity and we didn’t seize it.

We haven’t been vocal enough in challenging the growing risk-avoidance culture we work in and the associated escalating bureaucracy that makes it harder for people to volunteer, not easier. If we’re honest, we’ve sometimes been complicit in adding to this bureaucracy and the barriers it creates for people wanting to volunteer.

We’ve been slow on the uptake of technology in our work. Perhaps because we have projected our anxieties about technology onto our volunteers, claiming they won’t like using tech so we don’t have to? Consequently, some of us are now scrabbling to pivot to online and virtual volunteering when we could have been doing this years ago.

That may also be why we haven’t embraced online volunteer management systems or pushed our organisations to invest in them. As a result, we can’t act fast enough when needs change, or respond in a way that meets people’s expectations. Consider my recent experience:

  • On 24th March I signed up to be an NHS Volunteer Responder. It took less than ten minutes on my iPhone and I received an instant email response. I was approved to get started in 30 hours.
  • I also applied to volunteer with a local organisation in urgent need of volunteers. On 19th March I downloaded a PDF application form that I had to fill in and email back. I didn’t hear anything until 22 March. This article was published on 3 April and, at that point, I had still heard nothing . Remember, their need was urgent.

We’ve spent too much time navel gazing about what is and isn’t volunteering. At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?

We’ve failed to engage seriously and intelligently in the debates about job displacement & replacement, falling into line with the idea that volunteers must never ever do what paid staff do or did. So we’re now slow to respond in mobilising volunteers to fill the gaps left by staff who are off sick or being furloughed. We also risk being stuck in now meaningless existential debates about whether volunteers should be involved in public services when the NHS and social care system needs help like never before.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.


As I said at the start, this article isn’t about allocating blame, pointing fingers and criticising. It’s me (selfishly) having a good old rant and (less selfishly) trying to highlight some of the issues that C19 has revealed which we must do something about in future.

Because, if we don’t change we won’t be ready for whatever comes next, whether that’s a more mundane day-to-day reality or another pandemic, disaster or significant societal change.

Because, if we don’t change, we will have squandered a major opportunity to do better, to be better.

That would be unforgivable.

Why we need to stop talking about volunteer programmes

It’s a new calendar year for most of us.

A new start.

A busy time.

The holidays already seem like a distant memory and the demands of the job are piling up once more.

So, for this first blog article of 2020, I’m going easy on you.

It’s not a long read.

The core of it is a 116 word quote from the book I wrote five years ago with the late, great Susan J Ellis, “From The Top Down – UK Edition”.

It is a quote that I hope will encourage you to think about the volunteering vocabulary you use in 2020.

It suggests a simple but profound change we can all make that will better reflect the importance and value of what volunteers do.

Here we go:

”As the definition and use of the word volunteer changes, other vocabulary issues have surfaced. In this book, you’ll occasionally see ‘volunteer programme’ language to describe the organised integration of volunteers into an organisation’s service delivery, not least because it is language many who manage volunteers still use, but more often we have tried to avoid it. Why? We believe it is a valid observation that volunteers are not a programme. The word programme usually describes a subgroup of specific services within an organisation’s entire range of activities: the reading programme, the gardening programme, and so on. We do not speak of the ‘employee programme’, do we? That’s because employees provide programme services. So do volunteers.”

Think of it as a challenge to set a professional new year resolution – one you’ll keep beyond the end of the month!

Stop saying “volunteer programme”.

Three solutions to the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Next Tuesday is the 20th annual International Volunteer Managers Day. To mark the occasion, this article is the second of two posts on the mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.

Last time we looked at three such mistakes. If you haven’t read that article please do so now because in this piece we’re going to look at solutions to those three mistakes.

Ready?

Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

The actions that can be taken to resolve – or better still, avoid – this mistake are pretty simple. So simple, I wonder why more organisations don’t embrace them. For example:

  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to regularly present to and discuss with the board and / or senior leadership team on strategic issues regarding volunteer involvement.
  • Inviting the lead person for volunteer engagement to strategic planning away days when new plans are starting to be formulated or existing plans reviewed and revised.
  • Allocating lead responsibility for volunteer engagement at a strategic level to a board member and recruiting that person for their specialist knowledge, as well as their competence in governance. For a while now I’ve advocated that Volunteer Managers should volunteer to join the boards of other Volunteer Involving Organisations to provide volunteer engagement expertise at a governance level. Maybe you could partner with a colleague locally to do this for each other?
  • Including meaningful measures on senior management team KPI / scorecard or other performance monitoring dashboards. When I say meaningful I do not mean how many volunteers the organisation has, how many hours they give, or recruitment rates stated in isolation. I mean measures that link back to outcomes and / or impact achieved e.g. recruitment rates tied to a specific outcome that needs to be achieved, such as recruiting ten new volunteer mentors because ten new clients have joined the programme .

Turning to a more research informed perspective, take a look at this article I wrote last year, “Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers.” It drew on on work that explored how Chief Executive’s (CEOs) recruit, support, and resource four key positions in USA based non-profit and public sector organisations, including Volunteer Managers. Two key points are worth quoting: the first about getting more senior leaders to understand the strategic importance and value of volunteering; and the second about how we Volunteer Managers can scupper our own efforts to be taken more seriously.

“(There is) a need to include volunteer leadership and management in the curriculum of university non-profit management courses…how can we educate people to lead civil society organisations effectively if we say nothing about the strategic value and importance of volunteer engagement?”

“By describing what they do as a volunteer programme, leaders of volunteers reinforce the view that volunteer engagement is a tactical and not a strategic aspect of an organisations work. This limits the way they are viewed as a strategic asset to the organisation’s work and suggests why Volunteer Managers are often left out of strategic planning discussions.”

Finally, I did say last time that I am increasingly coming to think that where the lead post for volunteer engagement is located within an organisation is secondary to the inclusion of that person in strategic planning and decision making. That doesn’t mean their place on the organisational chart isn’t important though, which is why I addressed this in a 2016 article, “Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?”.

Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

It’s easy for most of us to reach into our pockets and give a couple of quid to a good cause. It’s far harder for us to find a couple of spare hours to help that good cause through volunteering, especially if that commitment is needed regularly.

However, engaging me as a volunteer is truly that, engagement. It’s more than a transaction. We form a relationship, hopefully a positive one where we both benefit. A relationship where I will most likely become strongly affiliated with your mission.

Too many organisations prioritise the shallow, transactional “£3 a month” donors over other, deeper forms of public support, missing out so much potential.

What we need is an approach in organisations that seeks to find friends, allies and supporters and then creates a way for those people to engage with us in whatever way is appropriate to them at whatever stage of their life they are in. In the jargon, a truly integrated support focused journey.

This means we have to adapt as our supporters’ motivations, interests and availabilities change. This means we should have systems, processes and supporter relationship management tools in place to make this happen, not simply using a tool that works best for one kind of supporter (shout out to all of you Volunteer Managers forced to use Raisers Edge as your volunteer database because that’s what fundraising use, not because it’s the right tool for you).

Ultimately, this means different departments don’t see people as ‘our’ volunteers or ‘our’ donors anymore, but a wider, well-stewarded pool of friends supporting our work – friendraising.

NB. You may be interested in Meridian Swift’s article “Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate” which explores a similar theme.

Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

As I said last time:

”Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.”

The solutions here aren’t difficult. For example:

  • Every staff member should have engaging with volunteers in their job description. Everyone. That means the CEO and Senior Management (and not just saying they should work with the board!). How engaged these senior roles are with volunteers in their own work is a good indicator of how strong a volunteering culture an organisation truly has at a senior level.
  • Every new employee recruited should be selected in part for their willingness to engage with volunteers in the work of the post they are applying for. Ideally, they should have some experience of working well with volunteers. They should at least be asked at interview how they’d manage someone who is a volunteer and how this might differ from managing paid staff. This applies to the CEO and senior managers too!
  • Every new paid staff hire should have something meaningful about working with volunteers as part of their induction course so they understand that volunteers are an integral and important part of the team.
  • Every person working with volunteers should be required to attend training on leading and managing volunteers, just as they would usually be required to attend training on managing paid staff if they were in a management role. In fact, this could make all managers better managers, as working well with volunteers enhances someone’s ability to work with paid staff (the opposite isn’t always true!).
  • Effectiveness in working with volunteers should be evaluated as part of every employee’s annual appraisal and regular performance reviews.

I’ve looked at just three mistakes. There are, of course, many more that organisations can and do make. That’s why I wrote “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis. It make a great Christmas present for your CEO and is available now from Amazon (link is to UK store only – check your local Amazon store for availability if you’re outside the UK) and the Directory of Social Change in both print and electronic formats.

What mistakes (and solutions to them) would you add? Leave comment below with your thoughts.