Twelve more nuggets of wisdom for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

FeaturedTwelve 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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Cost, value and funding cuts

Cost, value and funding cuts

In the future, when we look back on the year 2020, Covid-19 will inevitably come to mind. The weeks of lockdown, the seismic shifts in how we live our lives, driving thirty miles to check if your eyesight is good enough to drive – all will live long in the memory. Yet perhaps the biggest challenge of the year lies ahead, in what some think will be the worst economic downturn in living memory.

When the cost of the pandemic is finally calculated, many feel it is inevitable the the years of austerity that were only just coming to an end in the UK will return with even more devastating impact than we experienced over the last decade. Add to that the very real threat of a no-deal Brexit which would add to the economic woes and the future does not look bright (no need for shades!).

Post-pandemic we might well see cuts to public spending, significant challenges generating charitable income, cuts within civil society organisations and, if the past is to be repeated, reductions in funding for and investment in volunteer engagement. In such a climate it becomes more important than ever to focus on the value we get for the money we spend, rather than simply the cost.

Over the years I have sometimes heard individuals and organisations say that they can’t justify a training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost. So, a cheaper option is found with little or no regard for its efficacy. Rarely, it seems, is consideration given to the value different options would return.

A training course may be free or cost less than a more expensive option, but is it a better quality learning experience? Would spending more money enable improved performance, resulting in greater efficiencies, which in turn recoup that extra cost?

An effective volunteer management system might be a more costly option than a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it’s enhanced functionality and remote accessibility could deliver savings and returns in the longer term that continuing to struggle with a spreadsheet will fail to realise.

With many organisations facing a future with less money than before, there is even more of an imperative that resources get spent on things that will return real value.

Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality. I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting. A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value. By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering a much nicer wine.

More than ever we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too. We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost. This isn’t just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment etc.. It’s also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our organisations when the inevitable budget cuts come.

Sadly, it is all too often the case that when the belts get tightened one of the first things to go is the volunteer engagement function. That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs (because volunteers are free, right!) without any appreciation of the value of that function. How do we help our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if they cut the volunteer management function?

In 2009, 2011 and 2013 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment. The studies showed that organisations which cut the funding for their volunteer engagement work performed less well on a number of measures than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.

In the absence of such research in the UK, and with more cuts coming, volunteer managers need to provide even more evidence of their value and articulate this effectively to their organisation’s leadership. Evidence that demonstrates wider value of their role, as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering, especially when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.

My question to you is, are we up for this challenge in this Covid-19 affected world?


If you are interested in reading more about how how strategic volunteer engagement can help an organisation navigate the challenges of a recession then check out this article from USA-based colleague, Tobi Johnson: “How to Survive the 2020 Nonprofit Recession”.

You can access details on the right free photograph accompanying this post here.

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