Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Why might volunteers feel differently about your organisation than paid staff?

Earlier this year, Catherine Wearden at Agenda Consulting wrote an interesting piece on their website entitled, “What are the differences between how employees and volunteers feel about your organisation?”. Great question!

In this article, I want to reflect on Agenda’s findings and what they might be telling us about volunteer engagement and Volunteer Involving Organisations.

So, before you go any further, I highly recommend reading Catherine’s Agenda Consulting piece here.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on whistleblowing

Catherine highlights that employees are 26% more positive than volunteers when asked if they know how to report poor practice.

I agree with her that this is worrying. Volunteers should know how to report issues, to whom, and they should feel supported in this.

Volunteers can sometimes be more objective than paid staff, and perhaps feel more free to raise concerns, not least because they may not be putting their main source of income at risk by raising an issue as a volunteer.

If volunteers aren’t able to raise concerns, organisations may be missing out on valuable learning opportunities, as well as key information to support effective safeguarding.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager action on poor performance

It doesn’t surprise me that employees feel more confident than volunteers that managers take prompt action if people’s performance falls below acceptable standards.

If an employee is performing or behaving poorly, we know something needs to be done. Nobody like doing it, but action will inevitably be taken.

Whilst most Volunteer Engagement Professionals would be clear that they need to act if volunteers are behaving or performing poorly, it is often other paid staff (or volunteers) who do the day-to-day management of volunteers

These people may feel they can’t challenge poor performance or behaviour by volunteers. Perhaps they lack the confidence to do this. Perhaps they lack the emotional literacy to deal with people who aren’t being paid. Perhaps they fear that volunteers will get angry and leave, not ideal if you are already short of volunteers. Perhaps they think that because volunteers are unpaid they cannot be held to standards of behaviour and performance — they are doing it for ‘free’, and out of the goodness of their heart, after all.

We need to be equipping those who work directly with volunteers with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to act where it is needed. This is a good place to start.

Effective volunteer engagement is everyone’s job, not just the responsibility of the Volunteer Engagement Professional.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on receiving feedback

As Agenda Consulting put it:

“Volunteers are less likely to receive feedback from their managers, which they could find valuable in their development.”

To my mind, this is closely tied to the previous point. If we avoid having difficult conversations with volunteers, then perhaps we are also not giving volunteers timely and effective positive feedback. Given how important this is to retention and recognition of volunteers, we may be missing a big trick because of our fear about talking to volunteers when things aren’t going so well.

In saying this, I am aware that the opposite may be true — we may be happy to give good feedback to volunteers, it’s just the bad stuff we avoid — as we’ll see shortly.

Employees are more positive than volunteers on manager support with problem-solving

This is how Catherine puts it:

”Employees are also 18% more positive than volunteers on the question “My manager helps me find solutions to problems”. This indicates that volunteers are receiving less support from their managers than employees. Is this because line managers of volunteers typically have less time to devote to them? Or is it seen as less important to help a volunteer solve a problem than a paid employee?”

I’d say both of the questions Catherine asks are valid. I’d add another question too — is the work we are giving volunteers so basic and easy that they don’t need to solve problems along the way?

When a volunteer is tasked with envelope stuffing, tea making and filling, problem-solving isn’t really an issue.

When a volunteer is tasked with developing a new project, service or way of working, then problem-solving is far more likely.

But how often are volunteers given that kind of responsibility?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling valued

This is great news. 87% of volunteers gave a positive response to this question. It suggests that we are doing a great job of recognising the contribution volunteers make.

It is sad, however, that paid staff don’t feel as valued, and suggests that those managing paid staff in the sector might have a lot to learn from those of us who get the best out of people without paying them for their time.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on information sharing

As Agenda Consulting state:

“Volunteers are 16% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation is open, honest and shares information effectively”.”

This is interesting as anyone, whether employee or volunteers, needs accurate, timely and honest information to do their job.

Perhaps what the data is revealing is that organisations and managers are working harder to communicate with volunteers than paid staff. Perhaps they assume staff will pick things up from the endless stream of emails and Teams messages (because we all studiously read those, don’t we?), whereas they know they need to work harder to get information to volunteers who don’t have access to these forms of communication.

As with the previous point, whatever organisations are getting right with volunteers might be worth focusing on, so we do a better job for paid staff as well.

Volunteers are more positive than employees on feeling cared for

It’s great that volunteers are reporting a positive experience here. Feeling valued, cared for and communicated with creates a strong bond with an organisation, so it’s good to see such efforts paying off with volunteers.

Once again, it seems more effort needs to be placed on doing the same things with employees, especially when remote and hybrid working has replaced the bonding that can come from working in an office together.

If volunteer managers are getting so much right, why aren’t HR colleagues learning from us?

Volunteers are more positive than employees on organisational values and ethics

I’ve nothing to add to this beyond what Catherine wrote:

”Volunteers are 15% more positive than employees on the question “This organisation has strong values and operates to high ethical standards”, with 91% positive on this question. It is difficult to say why this may be, although it is encouraging that volunteers tend to believe this. Perhaps volunteers have lower levels of access to “insider information” that could lead employees to be more sceptical on this.”


Those are my thoughts and reflections. Why do you think?

Leave a comment below to continue the conversation.


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Developing your career beyond volunteering

Developing your career beyond volunteering

I am pleased to welcome Morven MacLean as guest writer of our latest blog post.

I have know Morven for many years and am very grateful for her taking the time to share her recent experience of moving into a senior role in the People / Organisational Development arena, along with some advice and tips if this is a career path you would interested in following.

So thank you Morven, over to you…


Are you pondering your next career move and considering taking on a senior leadership position? Maybe you’re thinking about a role in the People / Organisational Development arena? Perhaps you’re lacking confidence and feel your skills won’t be recognised next to candidates with an HR background? I’m here to challenge that thinking and encourage you to go for it!

That’s exactly what I did when I returned to work from maternity leave in January 2022. A year of away had given me the space to reflect on my career. I loved my job as Head of Volunteering at Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) but I was craving the stretch of a broader portfolio and the opportunity to influence more widely in the organisation.

When my maternity leave ended, I was delighted to see the role of Director of People and Strategy advertised. Excited by the scope of this role and the opportunities it presented, I applied, went through a rigorous selection process and I am happy to say, was offered the job, which I started in April 2022.

I was so pleased to see in the recruitment pack for the Director of People and Strategy role that CHAS was open to applications from candidates from a range of professional backgrounds. In my experience, most People Director roles stipulate an HR background. Another plus point was that it specifically mentioned volunteering development as an area of interest to the panel. CHAS is an organisation that values volunteering and understands the unique skills and contribution of staff in the volunteering function, so I was unsurprised to see this open-minded approach in the recruitment of the People and Strategy Director role.

How did I get here?

Having been a Head of Volunteering for seven years in a fantastic Scottish charity the options for my next move if I were to stay in volunteering were limited. Another Head of Volunteering role elsewhere – few and far between in Scotland – or moving to London, an option that was not on the cards for me! I loved my role but for some time had been considering taking on a new challenge that would broaden my experience and allow me to use the skills I had honed in relationship management, motivation, people engagement and strategy development.

During the pandemic, before I went on maternity leave, I seized the opportunity to take on some new challenges, leading pieces of work that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do, such as the establishment of the UK’s first virtual children’s hospice service. This allowed me to test my skills beyond volunteering and develop my confidence leading programmes of work in areas that were new to me.

My advice to you

If you’re thinking of moving beyond volunteering to a wider People role, I’d really encourage you to look for internal opportunities to develop your experience. Change doesn’t have to be a big step. You can start to broaden your experience incrementally through initiating and leading new and different projects across your organisation. Volunteering to take on a project outside of your usual area of focus will help you to broaden your knowledge and experience, as will joining a Board of Trustees outside of work. The experience of being a trustee at two charities over the years enabled me to develop my experience of governance which has really helped me in my transition to a senior leadership role.

The move from functional leadership to systems leadership is without doubt a big one. However, the advantage of coming from a volunteering background, is that I was used to operating across the system, bringing together volunteers and staff to deliver results. There are so many skills that volunteering professionals can bring to the wider People agenda. Moreover, there is critical experience that can be obtained from working in volunteering that can’t be gained readily elsewhere. This is directly transferable to People/ Organisational Development Director roles.

As a volunteering professional you:

  • Need to have amazing relationship management skills to work with volunteers and manage emotional labour
  • Understand that volunteers are an integral delivery partner and you are experienced at influencing others to understand that
  • Are used to developing flexible opportunities that fit around peoples’ lives and still deliver results for the organisation. Most organisations work in a more agile way with volunteers than paid staff.
  • Are used to juggling a large workload and overseeing risk, health and safety, strategy development, L&D, the volunteer life cycle from planning and recruitment through to exit. This is something that is often shared by multiple teams when it comes to paid staff.
  • Are adept at influencing across, up and down the organisation.
  • Are innovative and creative, working efficiently (most volunteering teams don’t have vast budgets) to deliver results.

We know that talented people don’t work in our sector for the money. Connecting people with impact and building connection with the cause is what volunteering professionals do daily. This is as important for paid staff as it is for volunteers, especially in the charity sector where money is not generally the primary motivation.

At CHAS, we know from our last three engagement surveys that staff are hugely motivated by our mission – ensuring that no family in Scotland faces the death of their child alone. I’m keen to apply some volunteer engagement approaches to the employee experience in CHAS. Given that our staff are so motivated by our cause, it’s a no-brainer to ensure that a connection with the mission is explicit and embedded in all stages of the employee life cycle.

I would love to see more organisations being open-minded about the skills and backgrounds required for a People Director role. The volunteering development sector is full of innovative, inspiring, and creative people who could have a transformational impact on the people experience in so many organisations.

My top tips

In conclusion, having made the change of role recently, my top tips for anyone considering a step up from Head of Volunteering to People Director are:

  • You don’t need technical HR knowledge – you need to know how to lead and draw that out in others. The Head of HR has that technical expertise and a strong relationship between you and that person is key.
  • Grow your network – attend conferences, tap in to CIPD courses, events, and networking groups.
  • Find a mentor who has taken a similar path. I’m fortunate to have three people in my network who have moved from volunteering into broader People/Organisational Development roles and their experience and insight has been invaluable to me.
  • Surround yourself in specialist volunteers (the bread and butter of a volunteering professional!) to help develop your knowledge and skills in areas where you have less experience.
  • Seek opportunities in your organisation to lead projects outside of your team. Identify opportunities for secondments and demonstrate your skills beyond volunteering.
  • Join a Board and use your experience as a trustee to fill knowledge gaps and develop experience in areas you haven’t yet been exposed to.

If anyone is considering moving beyond volunteering to a broader role in People, Strategy and Organisational Development and would like some advice, I’d be happy to chat further. You can connect with me on Twitter — @MorvenMacLean — or LinkedIn.


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stakeholder Value Education

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

To get you started, consider the following:

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

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

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


Find out more about Rob and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on the website.

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Bored? Join a Board!

Bored? Join a Board!

For this blog post I am pleased to welcome guest writer, Claire Haggarty. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claire for a few years and serve with her on the Executive Board of the Heritage Volunteering Group. Claire share her personal reflections as a volunteer engagement professional taking on a new role as a trustee. Enjoy.


After working in a range of volunteer management roles across many heritage sites, I wondered if my experience of working across teams with different specialisms and (sometimes) competing interests put me in a unique position to support an organisation as a trustee. I’m pleased to report it did, and here’s why.

How I came to Trusteeship

In 2020, my job was made redundant. My employer, a museum, and national visitor attraction, suffered huge financial losses from being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that would have been their peak visitor season. Unfortunately, they had to make the hard decision to re-structure to ensure long-term survival.

My personal circumstances, and impending motherhood, didn’t make it possible for me to return to the workplace immediately, but I wanted to do something valuable with my time (beyond being a mother) as many friends had advised me to retain something adult or professional for myself during that period at home. I already volunteered for our local Good Neighbour scheme, so wanted to find something that allowed a deeper level of engagement than ad hoc volunteering allowed. So, the idea of trusteeship, began to evolve.

I did some research by looking at role descriptions and responsibilities of a trustee, particularly thinking about the daily activities of a trustee. I wanted to know what it would look like if I chose to do it, the sorts of activities I might be involved in, and what to expect in terms of commitment. Likewise, I researched some activities and legal responsibilities involved with trusteeship (see links and resources at the end) and read up on experiences of those who had been trustees. Fortunately, I had some in my circle who were trustees, so I was able to reach out to them for a conversation. Soon enough, I saw an advertisement for a trustee at a small museum about forty minutes away from my home. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to lend my skills and knowledge to a growing organisation, so I applied, was interviewed, and accepted. I am now a proud trustee of Lowewood Museum in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

Surprises and Expectations

To my surprise, my experience of trusteeship hasn’t been that different to my experiences in the workplace. I work with Trustees who have different specialist skills sets and champion their professional skill area in the same way that I worked across varying teams in the organisation. I still use the same negotiating and influencing skills that I developed in my paid role to champion best practice volunteer management at a board level.

A museum of local history, Lowewood Museum recently had its application to National Lottery Heritage Fund for “Your Museum, Your Heritage” approved. The project will involve updating our museum interpretation with volunteers from under-represented communities in the parts of the borough experiencing inequality. Volunteering will be a large part of this project, and my involvement will likely increase as the projects unfolds. I am part of a working group planning our first Annual General Meeting, and I’m gaining experience with budgets and financial planning that I could have never hoped to gain in a junior or middle management role.

I was concerned by the financial responsibility of being a trustee before I started, but this has turned out to be less of a concern, partly because we have another highly skilled and excellent trustee on the board who knows his stuff, but not everyone can be so lucky. It is imperative that you read up on these responsibilities and understand the different business structures that exist and how they affect your individual financial commitment should something go wrong.

What Makes Volunteer Managers Ideal Trustees

In my experience of volunteer management, I have found the job “Volunteer Manager” is conceptualised differently across organisations. For a start, the job title differs. We are everything from volunteer co-ordinators to community engagement or duty managers, but there has been one commonality across all these professional experiences; my work has involved me working across departments supporting various teams with different specialisms. In my view, this is what makes us ideal candidates for trusteeship: there are very few people that have worked across an organisation the way we do. Critically, we already have a developed understanding of the way different parts of the business work and how these departments interact. Many of us have been involved in strategic or business planning and have some understanding of financial planning (which is a joint responsibility of all trustees, so not something you would have to do alone). We have written policy documents, volunteer handbooks and likely at some pint been involved in a problem resolution process. We are policymakers, peacemakers, strategists, negotiators, and accountants!

In short, as Volunteer Managers we are multi-skilled professionals with a high-level overview of the complex organisations we work for, and this makes us ideal candidates for a leadership role like trusteeship.

Why You Should Do It

So often volunteer management is not respected as a professional skill set in and of itself, but a part of a job, or an admin/recruitment role that sits within another department. Many of our colleagues fail to realise the broad range of skills a good volunteer manager can develop and the varied strands of work we are able to deliver. If, as volunteer managers, we want to be heard, and we want to not have to fight every time we need to achieve something strategic or something meaningful, then we need to have a seat at the table. This means more of us applying for trustee positions and gaining a voice at the board level. Without this, we will continue to struggle to influence change.


Resources

Directory for Social Change and OSCR (the Scottish Charity Regulator) have excellent video content on YouTube and are good places to start your research as they will give you references to other resources to look up or ways to structure your research. NB. If using OSCR, please be aware that of different laws and regulations in Scotland that mean not all the information will be relevant to charities elsewhere in the UK.

Charity trustee: what’s involved (CC3a) — Perhaps the most useful resource is the gov.uk website. Be sure to download and read The Essential Trustee and Being a Trustee documents.

Getting on Board have great information for aspiring Trustees and a community for young trustees or those from diverse backgrounds


About Claire

Taking time out from her career to raise a young family, Claire Haggarty is involved in several volunteer management projects, from being Membership Officer for the Heritage Volunteering Group, a specialist support network supporting volunteering in the UK, to being an active volunteer in her local community, often co-ordinating the local good neighbour scheme in her hometown.

In 2016 Claire received a highly commended in the London Volunteers in Museums Awards in the Supporting, Managing and Encouraging Others category for her work with volunteers on the award-winning Painted Hall Project at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

For Claire, volunteering was a way to build confidence back and return to the workplace after a long-term illness, giving her an understanding of the varied reasons why people get involved and choose to volunteer.


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Belief and knowledge

Belief and knowledge

Every so often I read something from outside our field, and it strikes me immediately as being very relevant to volunteer engagement professionals. That happened when I read this short article by Seth Godin. I’ve copied it here for ease of reference, giving due credit to Seth as the originator and author:


Belief and knowledge

They’re different.

Knowledge changes all the time. When we engage with the world, when we encounter data or new experiences, our knowledge changes.

But belief is what we call the things that stick around, particularly and especially in the face of changes in knowledge.

While more knowledge can change belief, it usually doesn’t. Belief is a cultural phenomenon, created in conjunction with the people around us.

The easy way to discern the two: “What would you need to see or learn to change your mind about that?”


As volunteer engagement professionals, our knowledge changes all the time. We learn what volunteers want, or don’t want, and adapt our practice. And we’re good at adapting. Look at all the changes we’ve made during the pandemic, often at great speed. As just one example, we’re far more adept at using technology in our work than we were two years ago.

When it comes to beliefs, however, perhaps we have a problem.

For example:

  • We continue to believe that this is an isolating profession, and that nobody in our organisation understands or appreciates what’s involved in our work.
  • We continue to believe that volunteering isn’t taken seriously by our senior management, our sector leaders, our government officials and ministers, and that nobody will listen to us if we try to effect change.
  • We continue to believe that all the paperwork and bureaucracy we have to put up with has to be there, no other options exist, and we couldn’t change things even if there were.

Seth Godin’s article suggests beliefs are hard to change. In our context, I’m not so sure.

Before Covid-19, we believed volunteers wouldn’t embrace technology. That belief has been proven wrong.

Our knowledge of using technology changed, and our beliefs followed, to the point where we now often think digital by default. A complete 180 degree shift in our beliefs in under two years (albeit in exceptional circumstances).

So, if our beliefs can change, what do we need to see or learn to change our minds, and challenge any limiting beliefs we are clinging too? To go back to the examples I used earlier:

  • If we knew that it’s easy to network and connect with colleagues through bodies like the Heritage Volunteering Group and the Association of Volunteer Managers and the Association of Voluntary Service Managers, then would we change our beliefs about how isolating our profession is?
  • If we knew that our leaders don’t ignore volunteering because they don’t care about it — it is more likely because they don’t know much about it, so-called benign neglect — would that change our beliefs about our ability to effect change by filling the gaps in their knowledge?
  • If we knew that much of the bureaucracy we are comfortable with wasn’t used during the pandemic because volunteers were mobilised in different ways, and that this change doesn’t appear to have caused any crises, would we change our beliefs about how we go about risk management and safeguarding?

In conclusion, here are four questions for you:

  1. What limiting beliefs do you hold?
  2. What do you need to know to help change those limiting beliefs?
  3. Where can you find that knowledge?
  4. What will you commit to doing now to learn and make change happen?

As Seth often says, go make a ruckus.


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The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

I’m thrilled to welcome Breauna Dorelus as guest blogger this week. Breauna has written a really insightful, thought-provoking and challenging article that I hope will get you reflecting on how you do what you do, and how our profession needs to change.

Over to Breauna.


Once upon a time, my compassion demanded more of me. It cornered me into making a decision that was a personal one but would redefine the way I viewed my role as a volunteer engager and as a connected member of this world.

See, I had come at a crossroads with constantly deciding if I wanted to uphold my professional role as a volunteer manager, or advocate for the community I was serving that often looked like me.

I made the decision that I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, between bringing harmful corporate transactional groups in with their photo ops and matching t-shirts, just to feel empty later because the volunteer opportunity we set up for them stroked their ego more than served our community, and just saying no.

I didn’t want to have the number of volunteer hours and individual bodies recruited to be the litmus test of what success, impact, and growth looked like.

Between managing a volunteer program or creating a movement.

I decided that I didn’t want to do either or. I wanted to bring a holistic community-centered approach to my heart work. I wanted to see myself in this work. This meant that I had to be willing to stand alongside my community and hold nonprofits and volunteer programs accountable for the harm I experienced as a practitioner while also being a community member.

It pushed me to go on a personal journey of internalized oppression and root out those parts of me that white supremacy culture kept bound and motionless.

I had to conclude that volunteerism was worth cherishing. That my love for service compelled me to say enough is enough.

I decided to tell the truth.

I’ve thought a lot about the role of the volunteer engager and have pondered on the 2021 theme for International Volunteer Managers Day “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary.” My heart and the sheer well-being of my community is calling me to push the space we inhibit beyond the “best practices” and beyond “but it doesn’t make sense” to what must be.

As a Black woman, who’s now dedicated my life to uprooting oppression in volunteerism and keeping it community-centered, I am openly asking you to go beyond kind and go beyond your perceived limitations.

I’m asking you to stop just talking about justice and equity, but instead do the work and hone into stepping up and latching onto what the world tangibly needs from us. This requires risk and sacrifice. I am taking a deep breath and believing that if you’ve made it this far you believe that harm hurts our mission. If it hurts our mission, you want to recognize and stop the harm.

I also want you to believe my voice and that this stems from a place of conviction and love for humanity. A love for the connection we uniquely have to this work.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to our profession embracing as we continue towards the future of volunteerism:

The nonprofit sector should not operate like we have a monopoly on service and volunteer managers are the gatekeepers of help. We never have and we never will. Serving one another has always been around and it’s always belonged to the community. We embody the help and helper simultaneously but, unfortunately, our sector has formalized serving and put up barriers to keep the privileged in the position of the giver and the community the constant given to.

Oftentimes this type of formalization chokes out the very organic and sacred flow between one another. It’s a necessity to learn from and partner with the storytellers, the community historians, and grassroots movements that oftentimes don’t even have a formal status. We must be willing to co-partner and give up power instead of using the relationships to extract for our own best interest.

What would it look like to collaborate and construct volunteer opportunities that directly benefit the communities’ goals? To build a coalition of volunteer engagers who work to re-establish volunteer protocol around applications and orientations so that barriers are broken for communities looking to volunteer with your organization?

We must be okay with not knowing the answers but recognizing that they are out there even if they don’t look like the traditional forms of learning we’re used to or from the types of people we’ve deemed acceptable to learn from.

Our personal journey to justice will affect our professional one. We understand that most volunteer managers are white and don’t have the same lived experience as those they mostly serve. Their lives are more aligned with their volunteer base, so oftentimes, it’s easier to lean towards our default and ask “how would I like to experience volunteerism” and use that to construct the experience.

Dedicating yourself to justice is bringing in and considering multiple voices and seeing them as worthy and experienced enough to glean from. And that work will not be confined to your professional nine-to-five. This is a practice, a constant relearning. The volunteers you interact with should not be expected to think differently about service if you aren’t leading the way and implementing the awakening in yourself.

For most individuals, your volunteer program and their connection with you may be the only opportunity they have to rethink what it looks like to serve well. Are you open to being their accountability partner or are you more focused on their feelings and making sure every condition is nice, dainty, cuddly, and entertaining? Are you willing to be a student of the cause?

Embrace that the future of volunteerism may not be anything like you’ve ever seen before. And that’s okay. A while ago I wrote down a brief version of how I see the future of volunteerism, with justice and community at the center and I’d love to share it with you.

The future of volunteerism will not be dependent on four walls. It will not have loyalty to an organization but allegiance to a cause. It will call out paternalism and will center the community, not the white hero. The traditional role of the giver and recipient will blur, will be unrecognizable. People will serve because they want to see justice win, and not just because it feels good to give. This sector needs to be challenged to continue looking at all ALL aspects of volunteer engagement through the lens of belonging, anti-racism, and justice and should continue to move the needle against the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The motivation will come from a place of unrest, perseverance, and radical love. It won’t be posted for likes. It will be a long game, not a transactional action. It will be seized by those who are willing to suffer and sacrifice and give up their traditional harmful mindsets and physical comforts for the sake of growth, change, and impact. It will be a lifestyle.

It will be woven into daily life. It will be the tool used to revolt against power and supremacy. When people meet, it will be common to ask their name and the cause they’re connected to. It will turn into what it was always supposed to be. The future of volunteerism is risky, radical, and inconvenient. Because justice will be served.

My type of excellence implies risk. I hope this isn’t a moment you feel like bowing out but a moment you feel invigorated to start on or continue the important work of uprooting harm from the inside out.. It’s worth it for the people. For all of our liberation.


Breauna Dorelus is the Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause, a consultancy dedicated to dismantling harmful volunteer practices implemented by nonprofits and volunteers towards Black and brown communities. Breauna believes in community inclusion in all aspects of the volunteer process, and has dedicated her work to ensuring that service is centered around co-liberation and not harmful charity.She believes that best practices may not be the best for all and that we must look at service through the lens of community-centered support in order to create a more just future.

Connect with Breauna on LinkedIn and on Instagram.

Join the community of volunteer leaders, volunteers and community members dedicated to rooting out oppression in volunteerism and creating a more just future of service.


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Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

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

1

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

2

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

3

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

4

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

5

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

6

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

7

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

8

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

9

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

10

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

11

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

12

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


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Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

In the autumn of 1998 I travelled to the North London campus of the University of Westminster to attend an event that changed my professional life.

CSV (now Volunteering Matters) had organised the first ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (IAVM). A small group of Volunteer Managers (no more than fifty I think) met for three days to learn from international leaders in our field. Susan J Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Arlene Schindler were the faculty I can clearly remember being there for this revolutionary learning opportunity.

I can recall the first day’s schedule clearly. A three hour workshop with Arlene Schindler on ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’, then six hours (!) with Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch on advanced volunteer recruitment. Just think about that – nine hours of in-depth learning in small groups. Not your typical conference schedule – no keynotes, no one-hour sessions where you barely learn anything or get a chance to reflect with others on the application of what’s been shared to your work.

CSV went on to run many more IAVM events over the next few years. Eventually the format resembled that of a typical conference with more attendees and shorter sessions, I suspect because of the economics involved. The cost of bringing together an international faculty of respected trainers and providing a decent venue was unlikely to be met from the fees of a deliberately limited number of attendees.

Then, one year, IAVM didn’t happen. It’s never happened again since.

Other countries tried the concept. I was privileged to be on the faculty of two IAVM’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, USA in 2000 and 2001. Both great events put on by the local Volunteer Centre, but they never happened again.

Perhaps the most success that anyone had outside of IAVM was Australian colleagues Andy Fryar and Martin Cowling. They ran a number of advanced volunteer management retreats in Australia and New Zealand, one of which I was fortunate to be on the faculty for in 2009. Keeping close to the original concept, the retreats limited the number of participants, with people having to apply to attend as demand outstripped the places available. Eventually these retreats stopped too, in part due to the limiting economics.

As far as I am aware there has been no dedicated event aimed at advanced level of volunteer engagement professionals anywhere in the western world since 2013. This doesn’t mean what is still on offer for our profession isn’t good – I attend many events and conferences (well, I used to before Covid-19) and there are some wonderful learning and network opportunities available. But are we being held back as a profession because of the lack of focused, advanced learning opportunities?

I think we are. I may have been in this wonderful world of volunteer engagement for over 26 years but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything left to learn. I’m unlikely to find that learning at a conference or event geared towards people just starting out though. And I’m not alone.

The 2021 Volunteer Management Progress Report found that 29% of respondents had more than twenty years experience in volunteer engagement.

Whilst length of service is only one way to determine if someone is advanced in our field (a discussion worthy of an article in it’s own right perhaps?) this data gives a clear indication that there is a population of Volunteer Engagement Professionals who might not be being best served by current learning and development opportunities for our field.

Without such advanced learning opportunities, isn’t there a risk that practice stagnates and innovation opportunities are missed? Might we also be running a risk that some of our more experienced colleagues get bored with our profession, taking their insights and knowledge elsewhere? In short, is the lack of advanced learning opportunities holding the wider profession back?

As I say, I think so.

What, then, can we do about it?

As I suggested earlier, putting on an IAVM style conference or retreat is difficult financially in the best of times. With the restrictions on life from Covid-19 and the associated difficult economic climate, it may be almost impossible.

Might an online solution be a way forward? There would still be a cost but, without venue, catering and accommodation considerations it might be more viable. We’d need, however, to ensure the learning environment works online compared to intense, small group face-to-face learning of the kind IAVM provided.

Even with this option, would organisations fund their Volunteer Managers to engage in advanced learning? As budgets shrink, spending on training and development will likely be an early victim. Sadly, Volunteer Engagement Professionals rarely seem willing to invest personally in their own development, so without organisational funds even an online, reasonable cost option may not work out.

Where does this leave us? Well it’s not exactly a positive outlook is it? But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the issue. We need advanced learning opportunities for our field.

So I’m going to commit to finding a solution that will work and I want to hear from you in the hope that you’ll join me.

If you’re a trainer or consultant who wants to be involved then please get in touch.

If you’re somebody who would want to attend and participate please get in touch.

If you’re an infrastructure body who wants to be a part fo this then please get in touch.

Let’s make this happen together.


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A new year message for 2021

A new year message for 2021

Happy new year!

Well, we made it through 2020. Is anyone missing last year? No, thought not.

I can’t recall an end of year when so much hope, desire and aspiration was directed to the next twelve months. With attention so future focused some big questions will be asked. What do we want our country to be like now we’re properly outside the EU? As the pandemic (hopefully) subsides, how do we want our society to change? What lessons do we want to learn from the last year? What will our ‘new normal’ look like?

It’s worth reflecting on these words from Seth Godin (published on his blog on 1 September last year):

“We’ve got a deep-seated desire for things to go back to normal, the way we were used to. But this, this moment of ours is now normal. For now. And then, there will be another normal. There is no “the new normal”. Because that’s definitive. There’s simply the normal of now.”

Whilst some of our attention as leaders of volunteer engagement should absolutely be future focused, reflecting on what this time of global upheaval and change will mean for volunteering and our organisations, we also need to pay attention to now. To the opportunities of the present. To how our volunteers feel in the moment. To the challenges of today. To ensuring we have the energy and resolve to face tomorrow.

To focus on the now, I am drawing on the year gone for inspiration as 2021 begins.

I’m still in awe at the outpouring of compassion and care so many people demonstrated in 2020. Everyday people offering help to those affected by the pandemic during the UK’s lockdown. Volunteering (even if it wasn’t always called that) became essential, not a second tier way of doing things by incompetent amateurs out to take people’s jobs (as volunteering is all too often viewed by too many). The first lockdown made us a society and a community once again, not an economy populated by units of ever more production to feed the machine.

I look back in pride at our profession.

At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on.

At the passion and commitment of those Volunteer Managers who spent weeks on furlough, concerned about their volunteers and desperate to support them despite not being allowed to.

At the collaboration that enabled an amazing Volunteers’ Week 2020 to happen in England.

As a new year begins we should remember with pride what we achieved in 2020. If we survived and thrived in spite of everything the last twelve months threw at us then we can face whatever comes our way the year(s) ahead with confidence – today and one day at a time.

Here’s to a great 2021.


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Where next for volunteer rights?

Where next for volunteer rights?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is the way forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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