Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

Three tips to help you develop meaningful volunteer roles

Finding truly meaningful things for people to do is one of the most important aspects of working with volunteers, yet is is something that we can spend too little time paying attention to. This is a problem.

Despite the fact that we know we pay with volunteers with meaning (not money), we sometimes skimp on the investment of time needed to craft really meaningful and motivating roles that will deliver a great volunteer experience. Instead, under pressure to get volunteers recruited and placed, we can cut corners, falling back on tired old approaches to constructing and structuring what we want them to do.

These tired old approaches just won’t cut it anymore. People want to fill their precious spare time with activities that are enjoyable and rewarding, so we need to create enjoyable and rewarding volunteer roles that are structured to fit the whatever spare time people are willing to give us. Oh, and we need to ensure those roles deliver for our organisations too!

Who said volunteer engagement was easy?!

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.”

– Rob Jackson, Mike Locke, Dr Eddy Hogg and Rick Lynch: The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2019)

This is why the training I run on ‘Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers’ continues to be popular. The course gives participants a chance to step back, explore volunteer roles design afresh and spend time creating a new role to help them in their work.

Here are three quick insights from my training that might help you improve your volunteer roles:

  1. When speaking with colleagues to identify new ways volunteers can help them in their work, do not ask, “What do you think volunteers can / could / should do to help?”. As soon as you ask this question people censor their responses based on their past experiences or prejudices about volunteers. So, if your colleague thinks volunteers will be unreliable, they will not suggest a role where reliability is important.

    Instead, work with colleagues to identify what their work actually involves – in as much detail as possible. Then work with them to suggest ways volunteers could contribute the skills, talents and experience they bring to your organisation to help get that work done.

  2. Games are fun activities people enjoy playing. People like spending time and effort playing and getting good at games. There are four elements present in all games that we should make sure are also present in our volunteer roles so that people will like spending their precious spare time doing the volunteer work.

    First, ownership – does the volunteer feel they own their role and the work within it?

    Second, responsibility for results – is the volunteer held responsible for actually achieving something in the course of their volunteering (remember, people want to make a difference, not just a contribution)?

    Third, authority to think – is the volunteer controlled and micro-managed, or are they trusted and empowered to use their own brains to figure out the best way to get the role done, perhaps bringing new ideas and insights to the work?

    Fourth, keeping score – does the volunteer know how they are doing and whether they are making progress towards that difference they (and you) want to make?

  3. Don’t use the typical task-oriented paid staff job description format for volunteer roles. Why? When did you last pull out your job description, look at it and get really excited by what it contain, so much so that you can’t wait to get to work tomorrow?

    If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t looked at your job description since you were recruited or had your last annual appraisal. Why then do we think that format will inspire volunteers, people who we need to remain passionate about our work so we can re-recruit them everyday whilst meeting their motivational paycheque?

    Instead, think about constructing volunteer role descriptions around the results you want volunteers to achieve, giving space for people to develop their own ideas about how to do things rather than just doing a list of uninspiring tasks.

If you’d like to know more and have me run training for you and / or your team on developing meaningful roles for volunteers then simplydrop me a line with an outline of your needs and I’ll get in touch.

What are your top tips for developing meaningful volunteer roles? Please leave a comment below and share your insights with us and with your colleagues in the field.


You can find out more about developing meaningful roles for volunteers in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

Front cover of the 2019 edition of the Complete Volunteer Management Handbook
Front cover of the 2019 edition of the Complete Volunteer Management Handbook

This post first appeared in a slightly different form in August 2016 on the old Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog site.


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“Can I speak to your manager please?”

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

Could the job titles we give those who manage volunteers be hampering their ability to recruit volunteers?

I’d been on the phone for ages and was getting nowhere. All I wanted was to update my policy. The customer service assistant I was speaking to couldn’t cope with any deviation from their script. It was a“Computer says no” experience. There was only one course of action left.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”.

I’m sure we’ve all had a situation like that. We’ve had to go over somebody’s head to speak to a person with the authority to get things done. Which got me thinking…

Back in 2016 I wrote an article about where leadership of volunteering should sit in an organisation structure. But I didn’t explore at what level responsibility for volunteering should sit. How much authority should the leader of volunteers have?

In my experience, most jobs responsible for volunteers include the words “assistant”, “officer”, “co-ordinator”, or “administrator” in their titles. These often suggest a low pay grade and little authority. It is unusual for me to come across a “Director of Volunteers”, or a “Senior Volunteering Executive”. In fact, the most senior title I usually encounter is that of “Manager” of volunteers / volunteering / volunteer engagement

This could be a problem, as my American friend and colleague Barry Altland remarked on LinkedIn some time ago:

What has also baffled me is the careless use of lexicon to describe the role. Even “manager” denotes a certain function within a typical corporate-equivalent structure, and the term “co-ordinator” carries even less juice. These two titles mean, to many volunteers who bring any corporate exposure, that the person in whose care they reside is just another cog in the machine, not a major player. All this has an impact on the ability of the leader of volunteers to fully equip, guide, support and inspire the volunteers who choose to serve.

Volunteers increasingly come with a lifetime of skills and abilities that they want to use to help good causes. Sadly, their experience isn’t always a positive one. Those working with volunteers often have low status in an organisation and can’t do much to change things for the better. As a result, volunteers may get angry and frustrated at having to deal with someone so junior. The next step is perhaps inevitable.

“Can I speak to your manager please?”

That’s not what we want talented potential volunteers to say. That doesn’t give people confidence that we will make the most of their time, that we will value them.

It’s long overdue that organisations give those who lead volunteering the authority to effect real change and a job title that conveys this.

To quote a frustrated volunteer who wrote about their experience for The Guardian some time ago:

“It’s a charity’s job to ensure that both potential and existing volunteers feel valued, recognised and useful. In a climate where charities need all the help they can get, finding and keeping enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers should be a priority.”


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Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

As we approach the end of the year we’re getting into that period when (in normal times) we usually see a rise in the number of people interested in volunteering, individuals giving a little of their time during the holidays to support a good cause. But, when January rolls around, we may never see some of these people again. Normal life (whatever that is these days) resumes and seasonal good intentions wane, replaced with doomed gym memberships and the resumption of the daily grind. So, how can we reach out and find fantastic volunteers throughout the year, even in a pandemic affected world?

Here are five quick tips.


1 – Target

A common mistake people make when recruiting volunteers is suggesting that anyone is suitable for the vacant role. This approach is often driven by a fear that nobody will come forward. It’s a technique that can work for certain positions, typically those that require no specific skills or experience, just a warm body. For roles where some kind of existing competence is required, however, we should target, target, target.

Ask these questions:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? What exactly will it involve? What does the person need to know or be able to do before they start?
  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? What skills, experience, abilities etc. do they need? For example, if you want someone to code then say that. Get as a specific as possible.
  • Where are you likely to find them? Given what you need, where might you find those people in your community? Again, be specific and avoid generalisations.

2 – Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, go and ask them! Research consistently shows that people who don’t volunteer feel like they haven’t been asked to give time. Ask, ask, ask. Keeping asking. And when you’re done, ask some more.

3- Sell

More than just asking, however, you need to sell your volunteer opportunities like a business would sell its products – focus on the benefits of someone volunteering with you, not the features. When we buy something we don’t just look at what it can do but how it will help us. For example, all kettles boil water but some do it faster than others, some have built in water filters and some work with apps etc..

It’s the same with volunteering – show people how volunteering with you will meet their needs. Don’t just tell them what they will do or how desperate you are for help. Show them how you’ll boil water in a way that is better suited to their needs than the other kettles on the market.

4 – Respond

If you are going to ask for someone’s precious spare time then make sure you are ready to respond and provide great customer service to them when they get in touch.

Don’t imply an urgency to your need and then take weeks to respond. That happened to me earlier this year when I tried to volunteer in my community and it’s not only annoying but gives a poor impression of volunteering generally. Remember, we want people to volunteer, not put them off!

Make use of simple tools like out-of-office email and voicemail messages so people instantly know when they should expect to hear from you – then keep that promise!

5 – Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up to regular, long-term volunteering on day one are in the past. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment anymore. Would you commit to two days a week for the next five years right now?

We can, however, get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want, but we have to be patient and plan for it.

Offer a scale of engagement, with regular, committed, long-term volunteering at one end and shorter term, bite-sized, easy to access opportunities at the other. Figure out where someone will start on that scale and how they might move along it (in both directions!) as you get to know them. It may take time but some of the volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire, even if it involves taking some steps back at times.


Despite what some may think, volunteer recruitment isn’t easy. Volunteers don’t grow trees.

There isn’t a ready supply of them in cold storage waiting to be defrosted and deployed at a moments notice on the whims of your colleagues.

Effective recruitment takes time and effort.

I hope these five tips help.

What tips would you add? Share your wisdom and experience with a comment below.


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Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

Three ways to adapt your volunteer management for the ‘new formal’

‘The new normal’. Everyone is saying it. Personally, I dislike the term. Every day is a new normal and always has been. But there is a new term I like, coined by Gethyn Williams on Twitter in late August 2020 – ‘the new formal’. What does it mean?

To me, ‘the new formal’ describes the changes needed to the pre-pandemic process-heavy, systems-oriented approach to volunteer engagement. One of the good changes Covid-19 brought about was to sweep away layers of bureaucracy so people could just get stuck in and help out. Old orthodoxies about form filling, risk avoidance and checking the criminal records of anyone with a pulse disappeared as communities mobilised in a matter of days and 700,000 applied in a week to be NHS Volunteer Responders. I was one of these eager volunteers and in under 24 hours was cleared to perform tasks that just a few days beforehand would have required Olympic standard hoop jumping to get involved in.

Like a piece of elastic that is stretched so hard and so fast it can never regain its original shape, so the formalities of volunteer engagement have changed forever thanks to Covid-19. This doesn’t mean abandoning safeguarding, never conducting a DBS / PVG check again, and putting the needs of volunteers before the safety of clients. But it does mean taking a long, hard look at what we do, when we do it and why, thinking afresh about our practice. Hence the ‘new formal’.

Here are three aspects of volunteer engagement that we could start thinking about:

1 – Application forms & interviews

Why exactly do we ask questions on an application form and then ask the same questions when we interview volunteers? Can we not ask the questions once, face-to-face and fill in the form as a record of the conversation? Not only would that save paperwork, it’d help open up volunteering to those who can’t write, have a sight loss, have poor literacy or don’t use English as their first language. Two birds with one stone – a step toward greater diversity and less bureaucracy.

2 – Safeguarding in stages

Instead of taking references, conducting criminal record checks and all the other screening steps as soon as someone starts volunteering, why not do it in stages? Rather than viewing anyone unpaid as risky (why else do we check absolutely everyone who isn’t paid but often subject paid staff to far less scrutiny?), why not bring in appropriate screening at different stages as people depend their involvement with us?

That means someone volunteering one-to-one with a vulnerable client gets the full suite of checks, but someone checking in event participants for a few hours just has to give us an emergency contact and enough information for Track and Trace to do their thing.

3 – In volunteers we trust

An absence of pay does not mean an absence of competence. Likewise, paying someone does not automatically make them better at what they do, more reliable, more trustworthy etc.. So, perhaps we need to ease up on the fear and worry about what volunteers might do wrong and instead trust them to do things right. After all, if you’ve done a good job recruiting, selecting and training the volunteer, aren’t you trusting in your own abilities as much as theirs? What message does it send if you don’t trust your own work?

I’ve shared three thoughts on how we might adapt volunteer management to the ‘new formal’ but I know there are many more ways we could ease up the formality of volunteering without sacrificing the safety of volunteering.

What else would you add to the list? What have you done already or what are you planning to do. Share your thoughts in the comments or in response to wherever you found this article on social media.

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.

Coronavirus / Covid-19 – volunteer engagement resources and thoughts

Coronavirus / Covid-19 is dominating news and societies across the planet right now. It’s a worrying time. There seems to be no end in sight to the doom and gloom being spread faster than the virus itself thanks to social media and twenty-four hour news.

In this article I want to share some resources that may be of interest and help to you in your work leading volunteer engagement in these troubling times. I also want to share some thoughts with you about what all this might mean for volunteering in the coming months and years and, of course, get your thoughts in response.

Resources

I’ve seen lots of good stuff being shared online recently. Energize have started pulling this together into one central resource of advice for people leading volunteer engagement. From the public health resources of different countries, to those published by Volunteer Centres, professional associations and peak bodies, to guidance for specific sectors (libraries, animal welfare etc.) this is a great one-stop-shop for volunteerism related information.

Energize are also updating this resource as new material is made available. As they say on their site:

”If you have sample communications, tips, trainings, or other resources you are using, please share them through our Coronavirus Response form. If you have seen resources from others that you find helpful, let us know so we can share those too. We would love any and all suggestions.”

Please share this Energize information widely and submit your own resources so that it can become an ever more valuable resource for our profession.

In England, NCVO are working hard to support their members and the wider sector. The are also engaging with government and others around a co-ordinated volunteer response to the current situation. For more information, check out this blog post from their CEO, Karl Wilding.

With volunteering a devolved responsibility in the UK different information and resources may be available from the national peak bodies: WCVA (Cymru); Volunteer Now (N Ireland); and Volunteer Scotland.

If you are now working from home and it’s something you are not used to, Seth Godin’s company, Akimbo, are providing a virtual co-working space for one month – and it is free! I’ve signed up and created a message board around volunteer engagement so if you join, please connect with me and others there.

Finally, if you are starting to develop more online / virtual volunteering roles and looking for inspiration, please read this excellent article from Jayne Cravens.

Thoughts on volunteer efforts

It’s been great to see volunteers stepping up to the plate in the efforts to contain the virus and support those affected. In the UK we have more formal volunteering responses like British Red Cross community reserve volunteers and more informal informal volunteering responses like Covid-19 Mututal Aid, a group of volunteers supporting local community groups organising mutual aid throughout the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK.

Organisations are also facing immediate volunteer challenges too. My local Foodbank is struggling as most of their existing volunteers are 70+ and so now self-isolating. They urgently need ‘younger’ volunteers to help support the vulnerable in our community. I’m sure that’s happening elsewhere too.

What’s going on in your country and community? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media and share volunteer efforts around the virus where you are in the world.

For me, these more informal efforts are what stand out in the volunteer response to Coronavirus / Covid-19. They are a brilliant illustration of the volunteering spirit that is alive and well in society. They are also a reminder that people don’t always need organisations in order to mobilise volunteer effort to address community need. Our smartphones and social media networks enable people to self-organise in a way that bypasses the bureaucracy, risk-aversion and under-resourcing of volunteer engagement in traditional organisations.

There is also a dark side to the use of social media and technology in the current situation. Last weekend I saw people in my local community naming someone who has allegedly contracted Covid-19. No evidence was provided in support of this, just hearsay and rumour. The overall tone was as if the community had discovered a paedophile in its midst and was determined to out them, vigilante style.

I’m sure these people see themselves as doing something good, ‘volunteering’ to keep others safe by identifying people to avoid? Whether the target of their ire felt the same way is doubtful. It’s a reminder that not all volunteering is ‘good’ volunteering and we need to be mindful of the impact of people’s efforts on others.

After the recent suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack here in the UK the mantra was “Be Kind”. For many, that’s being carried through into the challenges we now face. For a worrying number though, those words have been forgotten with panic buying, hoarding and outing of those infected. Let’s try and keep volunteering efforts on the positive side of that divide.

What might the current situation mean for volunteering longer-term?

When this is all over, where might we stand with volunteering? Here are some thoughts?

  • Sadly there may be fewer older volunteers around – people who until now have been regular, committed individuals upon whom some organisations have been heavily reliant, for example in charity retail. That’s going to have implications for getting back to business-as-usual in future.
  • More positively, there may be a much greater awareness of the power of volunteering in our society thanks to the efforts of people across the globe to help and support those struggling with the virus. This may mean more people want to volunteer to help their communities in future, supporting others as Coronavirus / Covid-19 fades from the news headlines.
  • Will organisations capitalise on this interest and invest in finding ways to engage this potential influx people? Or will volunteering drop off the strategic priority list again, especially as fundraising efforts ramp up to fill budgetary shortfalls?
  • If organisations respond positively, will they adapt their volunteering offers to suit these new volunteers? I can see these ‘virus volunteers’ coming to an established organisation and facing a barrage of bureaucracy. If they’ve had a great, paperwork lite (or free) experience volunteering during the pandemic, then in future they may well just walk away when faced with the usual administrative trappings of volunteer management. Perhaps they will give up on volunteering, or perhaps they will start new organisations to address social needs in the way they want, just like they are doing right now!?
  • So perhaps we will see a swing away from formal volunteering as people realise how much difference they can make if they do things themselves without needing an organisation to facilitate that?
  • Or might we see a swing towards formal volunteering if people get frustrated that more informal efforts don’t make much of an impact?
  • Will we all be more willing to embrace virtual volunteering and remote working by volunteers given how we’re all going to be forced to do more at a distance over the coming weeks and months?
  • Will the involvement of volunteers in public services become more socially acceptable if volunteer efforts play a big part in holding the health and social care sector together in the next few months?

All of these are questions for tomorrow given many are so busy with today. But we must make time to think about these issues and prepare for when Coronavirus / Covid-19 is a thing of the past so that we are ready to lead volunteer engagement into the future. What is a challenge now will present opportunities in the future and we must be ready to seize them.

What do you think the volunteering legacy of Coronavirus / Covid-19 might be? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media.

This will all go away at some point and I hope we will come out of the current situation a more caring, considerate and thoughtful society and planet. In the meantime, we can all do our best to model such behaviours in the way we respond to the tough times and the work we do with our amazing volunteers. And in every situation, however bad, we can – we must! – find a reason to smile. Last weekend, as the new was gloomier by the minute, this picture I saw on Facebook made me chuckle, I hope it does the same for you…

Stay safe everyone.

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

In 2007 I was involved in the publication of a free eBook, ‘Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet’ (NB. link opens a PDF file), a grassroots guide to getting and keeping volunteers. What makes it different from most books on volunteer engagement is that it’s not written by consultants or known experts (although some are in there) but by leaders of volunteer engagement across the globe who share their practical experiences and tips for success. The eBook inspired a training workshop I run and this article, in which I want to share with you my top ten tips for being attractive to volunteers.

1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering

People volunteer in their discretionary leisure time. With the unrelenting pressures people feel in modern life, they want to spend their precious spare time enjoying themselves.

Making volunteering enjoyable is critical if you want to attract and keep volunteers. You see you’re not competing with other volunteer involving organisations when recruiting volunteers. You’re competing with all the leisure activities that people could spend their spare time doing – going to the cinema, having a meal with friends, watching a sports event etc..

So, make your volunteering rewarding and enjoyable. Really understand what drives your volunteers, their passions and interests. Or, in the words of a famous kids TV show from my childhood, they’ll go and do something less boring instead.

2 – Give great customer service

Do you remember the days where if you bought something mail order you usually had to wait 28 days for delivery? In today’s internet enabled age we now expect next day delivery at a minimum. Expectations have changed.

Yet I still hear volunteers frustrated that they don’t get responses quickly (or at all!) from organisations they are trying to volunteer with. What makes it worse is that sometimes these organisations have said they urgently or desperately need volunteers!


To make our organisations attractive we have to acknowledge that people’s customer service expectations are high and have to meet them – being a charity or voluntary group is no excuse. As one of the authors in the Magnet eBook pointed out, magnets can repulse as well as attract.


One suggestion is to have a team of volunteers whose role is to help respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers, even if it is just to give them a clear idea of how long a proper response will take. Another idea is to simply put an out-of-office message on your volunteer recruitment email account so that anyone enquiring gets told how long to expect to wait for a response, perhaps with links to videos they can watch or material they can read about your organisation whilst they await a response.

3 – Say thank you

Certificates, parties, awards, Volunteers’ Week events – they are all well and good, but nothing beats regularly and sincerely thanking people for their time and the contribution they make to your cause.

A word of warning: if volunteers tell you they don’t want to be thanked, try not doing it and see how attractive that makes you! What they are perhaps implying is that they want to be thanked personally, not in the generic way many organisations approach volunteer recognition.

A second word of warning: don’t do it so the organisation can tick the recognition box for another year – make sure the thank you is genuine.

4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful

Imagine for a moment that you’re heading off this evening for a meal out. You get to the restaurant and order, anticipating the satisfaction of good food. Then it arrives and, well let’s just say you are underwhelmed. You leave the restaurant poorer than when you went in, probably still hungry and very likely vowing never to go back.

Opportunities are to volunteering as food is to eating out. When people volunteer they want to do something that enables them to have the satisfaction of making a difference whilst not having their time wasted. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that offers them that satisfaction and sense of fulfilment.

So ask yourself, do the opportunities you have on offer make the most of people’s time (however much they have to give) and enable them to make (and see that they’ve made) a difference to your cause? Being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions is critical to being attractive to volunteers.

5 – Be flexible

According to both the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation and the Third Sector Research Centre, 31% of the UK’s adult population provide almost 90% of the volunteer hours given, with 8% providing over half the volunteer hours. In other words we are reliant on a small (and diminishing!) pool of volunteers who commit large amounts of time – the living embodiment of ‘ask a busy person’.

Yet, as anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers recently will tell you, few people thrill to this kind of commitment anymore – the old fashioned notion of long term, open ended volunteer commitments on which so many organisations still rely. If you can’t fit that kind of commitment into your life why should anyone else?

The key is flexibility, having a range of opportunities with varying commitments on offer. For example, can you provide taster sessions, allowing potential volunteers to ‘try before they buy’?

Remember too that people’s interests, motivations and availability will change over time and adapt accordingly.

I believe that attractive organisations will successfully keep volunteers if they’re prepared to let them go. If volunteers see our willingness to accommodate their changing priorities and take a break from volunteering, they will be more likely to come back to us in future when their circumstances change and they have time to give once more.

6 – Let’s talk about expenses

Providing out-of-pocket expenses to volunteers isn’t just an admin issue, it’s a key part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Without expense provision, only those who can afford to be out of pocket will volunteer.

As economic hardship in society continues to grow and deepen, more and more people need their expenses covered if they are to volunteer. We need to budget for volunteer expenses every year and explain to decision makes why these funds are important. If you don’t get the budget, ask for it again next year. Keep asking until you get it.

It’s also important to guard against a culture of volunteers not claiming expenses. Where that happens, those who need to claim are often frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome. Instead, make everyone claim. Then, if some really don’t want the money, ask them to donate it back to the organisation (ideally with gift aid added). That way everyone claims expenses, aiding DEI, and those who don’t want the funds get the warm glow of becoming a financial donor as well as a volunteer.

7 – Word and world of mouth

Surveys of volunteering consistently tell us that word of mouth is the most common form of volunteer recruitment. This shouldn’t surprise us, personal recommendation is marketing nirvana. Most businesses would love it if their customers would go and tell everyone how much they love the company’s products.

Yet we often shy away from word of mouth recruitment, almost as if we’re embarrassed about it. This is a mistake. It’s time to re-embrace word of mouth, especially given the potential of social media to develop new and exciting ways to reach our friends. As Erik Qualman once said, social media enables word of mouth to become world of mouth!

Look to maximise the potential of the power of personal recommendation to make your organisation more attractive. Do your volunteers know that you want them to help recruit others? Do you give them resources to do this such leaflets, flyers etc.? Simple things that can make a world of difference.

8 – Embrace groups

We live in a world where it’s easy for people to feel socially isolated. Loneliness is a growing problem.

Volunteering provides a way for people to connect with others – to volunteer with friends and family, to meet new people, or even make new business contacts.

According to the 2019 Time Well Spent report, 68% of all volunteers agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated. This was especially true for those aged 18-34.


Look at your organisation and opportunities. What could you do to provide a group or family with a chance to volunteer together? Give it a go and see who else you can attract.

9- Lead, don’t manage

Management guru Peter Drucker once said:

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.

Sadly that is sometimes true of volunteer management, especially as things have become more formalised, risk averse and process driven.

People who volunteer want to make a difference and don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to use their skills and expertise to help you but they don’t want to be mired in processes and paperwork. As John Seeley Brown wisely commented:

“Processes don’t work, people do”.

To be attractive we need more leaders of volunteer engagement not more volunteer managers. Leaders simplify, they empower, they inspire and they keep us focused on where we want to go. In short, leaders attract and we need more of them in volunteering.

10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers

One contributor to the Magnet eBook asked, “are you excited about the opportunities you are offering to volunteers and the difference they will make?” What a great question! If you’re not excited about what you want people to do for you, chances are they aren’t going to be that excited either.

Be passionate about the work of volunteers in your organisation and that enthusiasm will attract people to you.


What would your top tips be?

Would you add anything to my top ten?

Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.


If you’d like help making applying these ten top tips to your organisation then please get in touch. I’d love to help you engage and inspire more people to bring about change.


You can find out more about the breadth and depth of volunteer management practice in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me, this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

Late last year I wrote my final article for Third Sector magazine online. I think the issues I talked about are so important for leaders of volunteer engagement that I want to give the article a wider audience here on my blog.

For those that don’t know, Third Sector is one of the main nonprofit magazines in the UK. I have written for them every month since 2011 – until December 2019.

Sadly, following their recent review and restructure of the publication, regular opinion pieces are being scaled back, including mine. I may still do occasional pieces for them, but the regular opportunity I had to speak to the wider sector about volunteering issues – what was once dubbed (not by me!) ‘the voice of volunteering’ – is no more.

Whilst I always shared my Third Sector articles via my website and social media channels, in recent years the online magazine moved behind a paywall so not everyone could access the content. This was a problem when I had something to say that I think people – especially those outside the volunteer management community – really needed to hear. My last article in December 2019 was one of those, so here it is in full (slightly edited to make it better!) and freely available to all who care to read it.


The 2019 word of the year was “climate strike”. I know, it’s two words! Don’t blame me, blame Collins Dictionary. If they wanted one word though, perhaps it should have been “volunteer”.

Quite rightly, climate change issues dominated headlines in 2019. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) cropped up everywhere throughout the last twelve months.

And the great thing is that Greta and the XR activists are all volunteers.

Great Thunberg, the original climate striker
Great Thunberg, the original climate striker

Of course, that’s not how the media have reported it. It’s not the language the government have used. It’s not how society sees them. XR volunteer activists are disrupting, creating change, challenging the status quo. To most people, that’s not what volunteers do. Volunteers make tea. Volunteers staff charity shops. Volunteers don’t rock the boat. Volunteers don’t cause trouble. Volunteers don’t march down streets waving placards.

And we are perhaps no better. Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations, safe in our nice cosy sector bubble, are largely ignoring this explosion of volunteer effort and impact. We don’t talk about XR as volunteers. We don’t reach out to learn from them. We don’t celebrate their volunteering and it’s impact. We’re too busy worrying about: recruitment and retention rates; how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteers roles; planning next year’s Volunteers’ Week events; and whether anyone will come to the volunteer Christmas party.

The world is changing around us – and fast. In the modern world people don’t need our organisations and precious sector institutions if they want to tackle the issues they are passionate about. Social media, the internet and mobile technology are enabling people to self-organise and have a real impact on the things that matter to them. They don’t need long winded application forms, two references, health and safety training, risk assessments and regular supervision meetings. They don’t need paid staff to manage them or strategy away days to direct them. They just get on with making change happen, seeking to address the root causes of society’s problems rather than tinkering with the symptoms.

These individuals and their new movements are moving faster than the traditional voluntary and community sector is. They are catching the public’s attention better than we are. And volunteers are at the core of that.

Extinction rebellion protest in London
Extinction rebellion protest in London

Are volunteers truly at the core of your organisation? In many cases, if we’re honest, the answer to that question is no. They may be more numerous than paid staff but they aren’t at the heart of fulfilling your mission. They do nice but non-essential things, leaving the real work to paid staff.

As 2019 draws to a close we in our sector bubble are perhaps falling further behind. The way we think about, talk about and organise volunteering risks becoming more and more irrelevant to people.

Will 2020 be another year we become even more out of touch and irrelevant? I hope not, but much needs to change if we are to find ourselves in a better place in a year’s time.

It’s time for action.


If you would like help thinking through the implications of this article for your volunteer engagement practice then please get in touch. Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd is all about engaging and inspiring people to bring about change – we’d love to help.

The art of volunteer management – beware your volunteers!

September has turned into guest post month here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog. Last time Andy Fryar’s shared his tips for Volunteer Managers looking for a new job. Now, Chris Reed from the British Red Cross explores whether it’s always a good idea to consult with volunteers when seeking to improve your volunteer engagement work.

Enjoy!


Back in June Rob wrote about leaders of volunteer engagement needing to put pen to paper or alternatively, as I’ve done, finger to keyboard and ‘share our views, opinions and insights on anything and everything’. I responded on Twitter violently agreeing, as I do with so much of what Rob says, and now here I am!

I must confess, Rob and I have history! Our paths have crossed on many occasions, we’ve both been Trustees of our respective charities over the years – Rob on my Board when I ran a Volunteer Centre and I on his when he was at Volunteering England. Since then I’ve spent a bit of time (understatement alert) dabbling in volunteering at a few household name charities.

With all this under my belt and a commitment to craft a blog what was I going to write, where do I start, what will strike a chord, what will be of interest?

Early days of volunteer management

When I started out in the world of volunteering there was no Association of Volunteer Managers, there was no Volunteer Centre network (we weren’t even called Volunteer Centres back then) and networking opportunities were quite rare. What did exist was UKVPMs (an email group for UK Volunteer Programme Managers) set up in 1997 by, you guessed it, Rob! It was realistically one of my only sources of help and inspiration in my early career in volunteer management.

UKVPMs gave me chance to see what others were thinking in the sector, to read opinions, views and gain insights from folk I thought far more knowledgeable than myself. Over time my connections and networks grew, I moved on from the volunteer centre and began working for household name charities. As a Head of Volunteering I had my own volunteers and wasn’t just advising other organisations on how best to look after theirs. These volunteers were the lifeblood of the organisation, without them we couldn’t deliver our mission.

This is where for some of you I may start to get controversial.

Every volunteer manager, whether new to the role or long in the tooth will know of a time where your organisation hasn’t had enough volunteers. Either the recruitment process is taking too long (if you’re able to measure it) or you’re losing too many people (if you can measure that). So we diagnose a recruitment and retention problem and, having identified the problem, say ‘right, in order to fix this we’re going to set up a working group of volunteers to find a solution’. This has the added benefit of allowing us as leaders of volunteers to demonstrate a real commitment to volunteer involvement, showing the rest of the organisation how it’s really done.

But wait! Remember the title of this article – beware your existing volunteers. In the situation I describe you absolutely don’t want to be engaging with your traditional consultative group of longstanding volunteers, for three very good reasons:

  1. If recruitment is your problem, what does a volunteer you recruited twenty years ago know about what it’s like to go through your recruitment system today?
  2. Your longer standing volunteers might be the ones who are the ‘go to people’ for consultations but you should be thinking about those that have only just joined you, ideally those who started the process, but gave up (non-volunteers).
  3. If retention is your problem, what are you doing talking to your existing volunteers, they are the ones who have stuck around. Get to those who left! They will be the ones who have the stories to tell about whether you’re actually offering a good quality experience or not.

The benefits of thinking differently

As far as retention is concerned, doing some digging with those who have left you may well reveal that you have delivered such a great volunteering experience people have used it to go on and get a paid job. On paper that’s a retention problem, but in actual fact by talking to people who are no longer your volunteers you’ll find out whether there is really a problem with retention or that you’re success at getting people into work means you’ll just have to live with always refilling a bath with the plug out. You can then focus on how to turn the tap on more and bring more people in at the front end. (Very oversimplified I know, but you get what I mean.)

You can be more nuanced in how you benchmark good and bad. After all, a good volunteer recruitment process for your volunteer with twenty years service may not be the same as a good experience for today’s tech savvy social media user who, if you’re too bureaucratic, will simply get a load of their online friends / followers together and set up their own social movement (#activism).

You’ll get the benefits of an external perspective – do you have marketing experts in your organisation and, more importantly, have you ever talked to them? If not can you get some pro-bono volunteer support in this area? Ask them to help you find out what the outside world, your non-volunteers, think about your volunteering proposition.

At some point though, despite the title of this article, you should engage with your volunteers. They are the ones who know what it’s like today. They know what works and what doesn’t (and have probably found workarounds for the latter completely unbeknown to you!). For this their experience is invaluable, but be cautious, use their skills, knowledge and experience in conjunction with and not at the expense of other equally valuable sources of insight.

To conclude

Take a step back and think hard about who are the right audiences to engage in the right things and at the right time. What’s the exam question you’re trying to answer as you transform your volunteer programme to make it fit for purpose, or indeed just keep it on track and up to date? And, for goodness sake, talk to others in the sector. At best someone will have done what you’re doing before, at worst, someone else will be tackling exactly the same problems as you and you can share the pain. So don’t just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, be curious and read as well, network, engage and share, and good luck!

PS Thanks Rob for the challenge of writing this, its been a pleasure (for me at least but hopefully for the reader too).


Chris Reed is Director of Volunteer Mobilisation at the British Red Cross, one of over 190 Red Cross/ Red Crescent Societies across the globe. Chris’ previous experience includes Head of Volunteering positions at Barnardo’s and St John Ambulance and Chris was Chief Executive of Volunteer Centre Westminster.

His voluntary roles include Trustee of Horsmonden Social Club and Committee member for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for volunteer groups.

Chris has been a Trustee/ Board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), Volunteering England and Greater London Volunteering.

All the views expressed in this blog are Chris’ and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organisations Chris has worked or volunteered for.

Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

Getting a new job can be exciting. You get that initial thrill of excitement at the opportunity to make your mark in a new organisation. For many leaders of volunteer engagement, that feeling often disappears when we realise volunteer management has low status and we have little or no influence to make change happen. How do we avoid getting into jobs like this?

Helpfully, my friend and colleague Andy Fryar wrote an article in 2015 to address this very question. I was reminded of it recently whilst talking with a colleague and, having read it again, I reached out to Andy to see if he’d be willing for me to share it as a guest post on this blog. Happily he said yes, so here it is!


As leaders of volunteers one of our specialty areas is (or at least should be) the ability to properly interview someone:

  • To ask the right question.
  • To draw out that extra layer of information.
  • To determine a candidate’s suitability.
  • To safeguard our programs.
  • To get the very best out of each candidate.

Over the years I’ve interviewed thousands of people and if I might say so myself, I am damned good at it!

Recently, however, I have been thinking a lot more about interviews from a completely different angle. This different line of thought has been spurred on by a number of independent discussions I have had with volunteer managers who have taken on new positions, only to find that the job that was advertised – that was promised – was not the job that was delivered!

Of course, by the time many learn this cold hard fact, it’s far too late to turn back. They have already given their notice and embarked on a whole new journey – and sadly for many, the new job that promised so much, is often actually a role made up of lacking resources, little support, cultural clashes and working in isolation.

The typical scenario that ensues over the months that follow gaining a new (but unsatisfactory) position often reads something like this:

  • Happiness and excitement
  • Oh really, that’s not what I was led to believe?
  • Hmmm – OK, well I can still fix this!
  • Wait – WTF!
  • You gotta be kidding me!
  • OK – I am outta here

Which brings me to my point about interviewing.

I think that for far too many of us, the opportunity to work in a new agency, for a new cause and with new people often sweeps away our usual common sense. It takes us to a point where somehow we morph into simple starry-eyed applicants, champing at the bit just to get started, not asking clarifying questions and, all too often, resulting in us letting our guard down.

The most important part of any interview, for me at least, is that point in the process where our potential new employer asks that critical question, “So do you have any questions of us?”

Here’s where we need to force ourselves to think beyond simply clarifying what our new pay packet will look like and blurting our details about pre-planned holidays we have booked!

For it’s at this point that we get to do some of the interviewing – and remember, we are good at this!

So to this end, I have prepared ten questions that I believe we should all be asking of our potential employers during the interview process, to ensure the environment we are walking into is worthy of the skills that we bring to the table.

So, here goes (in no particular order):

Question One – What is your agency’s philosophy surrounding the utilisation of volunteers?

This is a pretty broad question, but what you are looking for here is a response that gives you some assurance that the agency you are about to throw yourself into has a well thought through position on how volunteers add to the delivery of services and the value of the organisation. You want to know that volunteers are not some sort of ‘add on’ – but a properly planned human resource within the organisation.

Question Two – How does having the support of volunteers impact the mission of this organisation?

Taking it one step further – and if the previous answer does not draw this out – you’ll want them to be clear about how the involvement of volunteers helps to achieve the organisation’s mission. If they can’t clearly demonstrate that, then perhaps volunteers are more of added ‘extra’ rather than a core part of the agency and its drive.

Question Three – How do you measure the successful engagement of volunteers in this agency?

This is an important one. If they talk only about growing volunteer number and hours for the simple sake of growing number and hours then run! Their response should ideally demonstrate that the engagement of volunteers is measured alongside the organisations mission – these two factors are inseparable!

Question Four – Do you have clear goals about where you would like to see the volunteer program head / grow?

You would hope this response is able to be clearly articulated, especially as they are heading through an interview process. However, that may not be the case! Be sure they are not simply working through a ‘replacement’ process but rather that they have clear ideas about the future of the program.

Question Five – What resources have you committed to this growth?

Possibly, the most critical of all these questions. This is also a direct flow on from the previous response they would have given to you. If they are serious about program growth and development they will not only know where they want to head but what resources they have to throw at achieving it! If you are going to accept an offer from this group, then be as sure as you can be that adequate resources (financial, physical and emotional) are available to you

Question Six – Does this agency value the input and feedback of volunteers and the volunteer department in its planning and review processes? Please explain.

It’s one thing to involve volunteers – another to seek their input. Ask them to articulate!

Question Seven – Who will I be answerable to and what are their direct views of volunteer engagement?

It’s critical to understand that your direct line manager is on the same page as you. If they are not at the interview be alarmed! And if they are, don’t be afraid to eye ball them and ask. This person will be your first line of both defence and support. It’s such a critical relationship you need to make sure it is a good one.

Question Eight – What is the agency view of the position / role of the VM in an organisational context?

We are moving away from the role of volunteers now and focusing on the volunteer management role more specifically. Listen out for clues that give you an assurance that the Volunteer Manager is seen as a lynchpin in an organisational context. Is the Volunteer Manager part of the decision making team? Is the role valued and critical to the agency?. Do they consider your role to be that of a volunteer management ‘specialist’ and do they expect you’ll jump up and down and challenge stupid decisions they might be considering? Do they see your role as the one that just does the ‘busy work’ of volunteer recruitment or do they consider it to be more strategic?

Question Nine – What mechanisms are in place for me to be able to undertake professional development?

Make sure you can subscribe to journals, attend conferences and participate in network meetings. Ensure that the agency understand that this is a critical part of the role and that professional development is central to growth.

Question Ten – Ask for a referee!

By now they’ll either be sick of you or caught up in your zeal for the role! So why not hit them with one more whammy?! If they can ask you for a referee, there’s no rule to say you can’t ask for one back! Ask for the name of some employees or department heads – or even volunteers – to see if the rhetoric they are spinning you matches reality! If nothing else you’ll gain their attention and they’ll know you are serious about the role.

As Volunteer Managers I don’t need to remind you that an interview process should always be a two way process and by asking a series of the right questions there is a much higher possibility that you are going to find a suitable match for the skills that you bring to the table.

Try it – I’d love to hear the outcome.

I’d love to hear your feedback too!


This post originally appeared on OzVPM on the 17th November 2015.