Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Back in June 2019 I wrote and article on writing – “Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)”. Last year I planned to do a follow up with some practical tips but, well Covid-19 got in the way and there were more pressing issues to write about. So here, somewhat overdue, is an insight into my writing process with four tips to helping you get started, or do more, writing for our field.

Routine

Lots of books on writing will tell you a simple truth – the way to write more and to get better at what you write is to do more writing. If you’re struggling to get started then this advice may seem stupid, but it works. To produce content you have to make the time to sit down and write. Write something. Write anything. But write. You don’t have to set aside days or even hours at a time, a few minutes will do. Just do it regularly.

Don’t waste time looking for the perfect environment, the best lighting etc., simply set aside a bit of time and write.

Forget about agonising over the right pen, paper, electronic device for software to use, simply set aside a bit of time and write.

To make this really powerful I recommend establishing a routine. I write three days a week. I start the first draft of a new article every Tuesday. I then come back and edit that article on Wednesday and again on Thursday. After that it’s done. This approach keeps Mondays free for other work (using the fresh energy of the week) and Fridays clear to review the week and get ready for the next week. This routine has helped me write more than 80,000 words between May 2018 and February 2021, the equivalent word count for the average novel.

Find a routine that works for you – a good time, a good frequency and then commit to it. Simple but powerful.

NB. Paul J Silva’s book, “How To Write A Lot” has lots of advice about establishing a writing routine. There is a link to the book in the further reading section below.

The first draft

The worst part of writing is sitting in front of an empty page and figuring out how to start. If you write on an electronic device then get comfortable with the tyranny of the flashing cursor on a blank page – you’ll become good friends.

Author Anne Lamott (see link to her book, ‘Bird by Bird’ in the further reading section below) encourages writers to embrace the concept of the ‘Shi##y First Draft’. This concept is simple – whatever you write first time will not be what you publish and so can be truly terrible because nobody else (other than you) is going to see it. Don’t worry about perfection, punctuation, grammar. Just get your thoughts and ideas down in front of you and worry about editing them later (we’ll come to that in a minute).

Which brings us on to writer’s block. If this is something you experience (and you will at some point) then take this advice from Seth Godin. Seth argues that writer’s block isn’t an absence of ideas, it’s a fear of expressing yourself in writing. You might have an idea but struggle to see how you’ll put that on paper. The solution is to write a shi##y first draft then take it from there.

If you really have no idea what to write then Anne Lamott has a solution, write about how it feels to not be able to write and see where it takes you. I know, it sounds crazy. But if you have a regular writing routine and embrace the shi##y first draft then, in time, you’ll be amazed at the writing that flows out of you.

Writing is editing

William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well” (see link in the further reading section below) has been instrumental in my approach to writing. Aside from being one of the few writing books aimed at non-fiction writers, Zinsser give sound advice about the importance of editing.

“Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Rewrite by putting yourself in the reader’s place. Reading aloud can identify improvements.” – William Zinsser

In the past I would sit down, write something, check it for spelling and hit ‘publish now’ to put it out into the world. That stopped when I read “On Writing Well”. Following Zinsser’s advice I took an old blog post and tried to edit it. I made lots of changes. Lots. So many I was embarrassed that I’d ever published the original post. What I ended up with was so much better – it was clearer, more succinct and it flowed better too. Now, anything I write gets at least two edits before it’s either published or shared with anyone else.

If you write, whether blog posts, books, emails, reports, social media posts, embrace editing. Take your shi##y first draft and give it at least a couple of polishes. Your readers will be grateful and you’ll feel much more confident putting what you’ve written out into the world.

Putting it out there

So far, only half the battle is won. You’ve done your shi##ty first draft, refined and revised it and now have an article ready to go. Get ready for the biggest obstacle still – actually publishing your writing. I don’t mean deciding what blogging platform to use. I mean actually getting up the courage to publish.

In my experience there are three common obstacles that cause people to keep their writing to themselves instead of sharing it with the world:

1/ People won’t want to read what I have written

If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing something then there is only one way to find out if people want to read it and that’s to give them the chance. If you never publish, you’ll never know.

2/ I don’t want to face the criticism I might get for sharing my thoughts

Since my first blog post back in April 2011 I have (at the time of writing this) published 199 articles and had 378 comments on my blog sites. That sounds like a lot but it’s a little under two comments per post (on average) and fewer than one comment per week over the last decade. Most articles get no comments at all.

This may sound harsh but, at least initially, the chances are that not many people will read what you have written and even fewer will bother to comment. Of those that that do they might actually leave a positive comment. And if they say something negative, see what you can learn from it to become a better writer.

Put your anxiety about what people think about your writing into perspective and hit the ‘publish now’ button. Then let me know you’ve done it and I’ll read it and give you some feedback – I promise.

3/ What I have written isn’t good enough to publish

What exactly defines something being ‘good enough’ to publish? Seriously, I’d like to know what the accepted standard is because I’ve read some great books and some real stinkers, terrible wastes of time that some publisher thought derived a wider audience.

Same with blog posts. Chances are some people probably think I’ve written some of the stinkers! Oh, and I’ll let you into a secret – some of the articles that I thought were the worst things I’ve ever written are some the articles I’ve had the most positive feedback about. Go figure!

The truth is, you’ll never know if what you’ve written is good enough to publish until you do it. Unless you put your writing out there you’ll never get any feedback, information that’s vital to help you improve. Josh Spector wrote a short blog post with some very wise words to get us all over that feeling what what we’ve written isn’t good enough to share with an audience. Read Josh’s article, “You Have to Be Ok with Being Ok to Become Great”, and then publish what you’ve written.

Further reading

If you’re interested in writing or want to do some more reading about writing from writers vastly superior to me, please check out the following list of one article and five books. The book links all go to Amazon but feel free to get a copy from your library or any other retailer:

“40 One-Sentence Writing Tips” by Josh Spector

“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

“On Writing” by Stephen King

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

“How to Write a Lot” by Paul J Silvia

“The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield

And finally, remember…

”Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet!” (Original source unclear)


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

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Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

Working from home: how I do it

Working from home: how I do it

This year’s global pandemic has caused more of us to work from home than ever before. Some have loved it, some have tolerated it and some long for a return to the office. As someone who has worked from home for most of the last ten years I thought some of you might find it interesting to learn about my set up – the tools and techniques that make working along at home a pleasant and productive experience.

Desk

I refitted the office with new furniture last year and invested in a new sit-stand desk, an electric model from Ikea. The sit-stand facility is not only potentially good for my health but provides work benefits too. For example, when delivering online training I find it much better to stand to deliver content rather than sitting. At an in-person event I’d be standing at the from of the room so being upright is a more natural posture for me when working with a group.

Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk
Ikea Bekant electric sit-stand desk

If you’re investing in a sit-stand desk I recommend a floor mat as well (I don’t endorse the product in this link, it’s just a helpful article). A mat provides some cushioning against a hard floor, educes the stress on your ankles from too much stationary standing and (so some claim) helps fight fatigue. With a hard wooden floor in my office I certainly find a mat beneficial.

When not standing at the desk I have a good office chair to help with posture as well as a sit / stand stool which helps with posture and alertness – when using it I can’t put my feet on the desk and recline into a more laid back and relaxed position!

Technology

Good technology is essential these days for any productive workplace. Here is what I use almost every day:

13inch MacBook Pro 2020

My main computer. It’s light and small enough to be portable (should those days of travelling ever return!) and compact enough to store away at the end of the day (see below for why that’s important). It’s also powerful enough to cope with the demands of delivering content over the likes of Zoom. I’ve used a MacBook since 2012 and this latest version was an upgrade worth making in light of the changes the pandemic brought, forcing me to do more online delivery.

iPhone

The only office / business phone I own. It does all it needs to do, including keeping me connected to the office when I’m away – these days if I have to pop out and walk the dog or get essential groceries. The seamless integration between Apple products is a big benefit to me, second only to the privacy Apple provide, which is essential for keeping business data secure.

iPad

Key to working from home is saving paper – you don’t need loads of it taking up space and posing a fire risk. That’s where the iPad comes in. I use it for all my speaker notes when presenting as well as lot of my reading, saving a forest or two of printing a year.

reMarkable

Which leads nicely into this handy piece of kit. reMarkable is a device about the same size as an iPad but with an e-ink display similar to that on a Kindle that can be written on, replacing the need for a notebook. It has plenty of capacity to store thousands of pages which can be formatted according to a range of pre-set templates (lined, blank, dotted, organiser layouts etc.). Notes can be filed into folders, synced with my other devices and emailed to other people and apps as PDF documents. I have the first version (a second version came out in July 2020) and I love it.

Dropbox, Evernote and Things 3

I’ve talked hardware so far but these three pieces of software deserve a mention.

Dropbox keeps all my files synchronised between my devices. If I need a file whilst I’m walking the dog I can access it on my phone just as easily as I can on my computer in the office. It also gives me the security that if any of my devices get lost, damaged or stolen, the files are all still there and can be accessed as soon as I get a replacement or login via another machine.

Evernote is where I keep all my reference material: clients notes, business receipts, content for my newsletter, interesting articles I read online, resources for preparing new training, ideas for things to write about. Whether it’s a webpage, a typed note, a photo or an audio file, it all goes into Evernote. Like Dropbox, I can access all of this on any device as the material is stored in the cloud.

Things 3 is the app I use to keep track of all my projects, actions and to-do lists. Like the other software I’ve mentioned it’s always in sync on every device and keeps me on top of everything I need to do. Adding new actions is effortless and can even be done simply and accurately using Siri. I’d be lost without Things 3.

Space

One of the hardest things for people new to working from home is having the space to be productive. Many people have had to find a workspace in kitchens, on crowded dining tables, in spare rooms or in living rooms whilst the kids watch TV. It’s been a real issue this year for those who have home-schooled children, or live in smaller properties (or both!) especially as the switch to home working happened overnight for many, leaving no time to prepare.

I’m lucky that I have a dedicated space in my home for my office, as the pictures below show. Sure, my work stuff has to share with some of my CD collection and personal filing but its a place where I can close the door and tune out the rest of the household when I need to, a task made easier with a good pair of headphones! In fact, the only downside with my office is the window is next to the front door, so delivery people and the postie can always see someone is in, even if I can’t answer the door because I’m delivering online training or taking a call.

My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
My desk and tech in place with a glimpse of the view from my office window
Wide shot of the office
Wide shot of the office
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Clocks showing three key timezones for my business and family life
Office books and filing share space with my CDs
Office books and filing share space with my CDs

Routine

A good routine is one of the most important aspects of effective home working. Having a good space for working helps immensely, but it’s only part of the story – you still need the discipline to get the work done in the face of the other distractions of being at home.

Having followed Graham Allcott’s advice in his book, “How To Be A Productivity Ninja”, my typical work-at-hone day is scheduled around my energy and attention levels. I know I work best in the morning, so I crack on and get all the important stuff that requires my brain at its best between about 8am and 1230pm. I limit my lunch break by tying it to the lunchtime news – as soon as that finishes I’m back to my desk. The afternoon is usually set aside for reading and working on less demanding things like email handling. When I get the post lunch lull around 230pm I take the dog for a walk and return, raring to go until the day ends.

Finally on routine, it’s important when the work is done to pack it away for the day, especially if the work space is also family space (hence my earlier point about a compute small enough to pack away). Doing this gives a clear signal between work and home life. With some bosses expecting work into the evenings now their staff aren’t commuting as much and, for someone like me, meetings taking place outside of ‘normal’ work hours due to the working time of overseas clients, having a clear signal that the day is done is important.

So that’s it, a bit of an insight into the means and method of how I work from home. I hope it’s been of interest and potentially some help too, perhaps inspiring you to make some changes for the new year?

I’d love to hear your working from home tips and tricks as well as any feedback you’d like to give – please leave a comment below or on the social media platform where you found this article.

PS – this is my last blog post for 2020. The next article will go live on 8 January 2021.


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

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The software unicorn

What is the best volunteer management software? It’s a good question. That’s why Jayne Cravens and I tried to help people answer it back in 2012. As we said at the time:

”The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organisations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organisations. We also wanted to get a sense of what organisations were thinking about volunteer management software.”

As our work confirmed, the answer to the question ‘What is the best volunteer management software?’ isn’t an easy one.

So, my interest was piqued when our friends at VolunteerPro in the USA (shout out to Tobi Johnson!) tackled the subject of volunteer management software topic in a recent blog post, “Software for Volunteer Management: What We Want Now”. As Tobi explains:

”If we were building something from scratch, how would it look and feel? What would it accomplish for us? How would it make our lives easier, not more challenging? How could it help us save time?”

The list of requirements that VolunteerPro crowdsourced from their members illustrates a problem. There is no magical software unicorn that can do everything that the globally diverse community of volunteer engagement professionals wants.

A small child holding a pink toy unicorn
A small child holding a pink toy unicorn

As Jayne and I said in 2012:

“…how organisations involve volunteers, what information they need about those volunteers, and what kinds of activities those volunteers do varies hugely among organisations. Also, different people like different features; a software loved by one organisation may be loathed by another.”

And as Tobi says in her article:

”…no software platform, whatever its purpose, is perfect”

Tobi’s article did, however, prompt three thoughts about the subject of volunteer management software that I think are important to consider.

First, leaders of volunteer engagement are frustrated at data entry. I get this. Nobody likes to have to sit there and plug data into any system. But even if we could have all the fancy software features people want to see, the value of those features would only be as good as the data inputted. So, rather than being a frustration to avoid, perhaps data entry should be seen as a top priority?

So, as VolunteerPro say, we should look at automation of data entry – I love the suggested idea that when a volunteer arrives on-site, their phone reminds them to start and stop logging their hours – or even does it for them! But let’s also remember that, as volunteer engagement professionals, we should be able to find support for data entry from volunteers rather than have to do it all ourselves. Odd as it may seem, there are people out there that love data entry, so let’s go find them and get them to volunteer.

Two people at a computer doing data entry
Two people at a computer doing data entry

Second, the list people came up with for VolunteerPro is very ‘now’ oriented: email and text (SMS) communications; integration with existing donor software etc.; live chat support; an online volunteer community forum etc.. I understand why that is – we are busy with the now, delivering for our volunteers so they can deliver for our clients. But the world is changing around us and what we need now isn’t necessarily what we will need in five, ten or twenty years time.

Where is the forward thinking about what volunteer management software might need to do for us? For example:

  • Being able to observe the data on where volunteers are as they work out in the community (handy for health and safety / lone working monitoring etc.)
  • Integrating AI / machine learning into recruitment and screening of potential volunteers
  • Application of bots in managing ongoing communications with volunteers, especially around frequently asked questions
  • Automated expense submission, process logging and electronic payment
  • Delivery and monitoring of induction training via video
  • Social media communication integration

(NB. This list isn’t actually that futuristic, it’s all stuff that is possible today! – see CHASbot in this example).

Good software providers will be doing this future-focused thinking already. If we want their products to help our profession, then leaders of volunteer engagement need to be a part of those conversations now.

Third, and finally, I was surprised to see so many suggestions for volunteers to be given more control over their data. For example, updating profiles, logging hours, submitting impact reporting data, managing shift allocations. All of these are great ideas and some volunteer engagement software has these functions already. But I always hear Volunteer Managers saying that their volunteers won’t use it because it’s too much hassle or the volunteers are too old or too young or…insert alternative excuse here!

Maybe things are changing. Maybe the growing demands of volunteers to be in control of their volunteering are finally getting through. Maybe our tendency to project our own IT anxieties onto our volunteers is finally reducing. Whatever the reason, it’s an encouraging sign that more leaders of volunteer engagement are awakening to the potential of giving volunteers control.


What do you think? Have you got thoughts and ideas about the future of volunteer management software? Leave a comment below or on social media where you’ve seen this article posted.

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in 2016 I wrote an article recommending some productivity tools and resources. My intention was to help Volunteer Management professionals with the daily challenge of getting stuff done. Now, almost three years on, I’m revisiting the theme with the same aim, this time sharing five top tips to help you get more productive at work.

Tip #1 – Headphones

Volunteer Managers are always getting interrupted when they are at work.

Interrupted by paid staff colleagues asking for twenty volunteers for that event tomorrow. You know, the one that’s been in planning for the last year but only now do they remember they need volunteers!

Interrupted by volunteers who want a chat, or their expenses signed off, or have a complaint about another volunteer.

Interrupted by senior management who need someone to collect the lunch order for the SMT meeting and, well, you can get a volunteer to do that, right?

You get the idea.

Any interruption draws your attention away from your work, attention that takes time to regain.

Here’s my tip (and it works really well in open plan offices).

Buy the biggest pair of over-ear headphones you can find. They don’t have to be flashy noise cancellers, they don’t event have to be expensive. They just have to be big. Put them on when you don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t have to play music or anything, just put them on.

Why? People will be reluctant to walk up and remove your headphones whilst you’re wearing them, reducing the interruptions you experience.

Simple and effective.

Tip #2 – Walk this way

Steve Jobs used to hold his meetings walking around the Apple campus in California. He was mobile most of the time he was at work, rarely sat at a desk.

We don’t have to be sedentary all the time either. Perhaps you can’t hold your meetings walking around the local park (although have you ever suggested it?) but you can get up and go for a brief stroll when you need to reset your attention, refocus you energy or just reset your brain.

Every afternoon that I work from home I take an hour to walk my dog. I try not to listen to podcasts or music. I just walk. The clear headspace it gives me recharges my energy and often helps me solve problems I’ve been mulling over. On one walk I even wrote the first draft of a blog post, dictating it into my iPhone after inspiration struck.

Your walk doesn’t have to be an hour. It could just be a stroll to the sandwich shop at lunch, or five minutes round the block between meetings. Whatever you can manage, give it a go and see if it helps you.

Tip #3 – Stop

Every now and again, just stop. Pause for a minute between the phone call that just ended and turning to your email. Take a few deep breaths between the last meeting and the next one. Give your brain time and space to catch up and reset, ready for the next task.

Go home at a sensible time every night. Nobody has ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at work” when lying on their deathbed. You get paid the same whether you do your contracted hours or you work extra hours a week. I know you’re a Volunteer Manager and dedicated to your volunteers, but you won’t help them if you don’t look after yourself. There is more to life that volunteer management – there, I said it!

Oh, and make sure you take all of your annual leave / holiday allowance. However you want to spend that time away from work is fine, but make sure you spend it away from work. Email off, voicemail on. No sneaking a peek at your messages. They can wait. Life won’t.

Tip #4 – Know yourself

One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done to be more productive was monitoring my attention over a given day. I know I’m a morning person and am especially productive in the morning. I know I’m not productive after lunch. I know my afternoon dog walk will give me an energy boost, enough to get another hour of good work out of me late in the day. So I schedule my work around these attention rhythms.

I’m lucky of course. I work for myself, often at home. But you can structure your day in an office environment too. When I commuted to London, I’d start work on the train at 715am. By 9am I’d got 90mins of work done. I left at 4pm. Colleagues perhaps wondered why I was leaving early, but they didn’t see that solid block of work time on my morning train, done whilst many of them were just waking up.

Don’t let other people dictate when you are most productive. Know what works for you and try to structure your day accordingly.

Tip#5 – Notification

My last tip usually results in gasps of astonishment when I say it in productivity training for leaders of volunteer engagement. It’s easy to say, but hard for many to do.

Turn off notifications on your computer, smartphone and tablet!

Shocking right?

You don’t need these machines pinging at you every time someone tweets, emails, texts or otherwise interacts with you. Don’t let the device manage your attention, take control and manage the device. You’ll be amazed how much more focus you have and how much more you get done.

So there you have it, my top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement.

What would you add to the list?

Leave a comment below to add your tips.


I want to acknowledge Josh Spector’s article, “How To Free Up Two Hours Of Your Day” as the inspiration for this blog post. Josh curates an excellent weekly newsletter called For The Interested and I highly recommend subscribing for free, which you can do right here.