A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

A Break in Berlin – what I learnt from my volunteering sabbatical

In this guest post from Laura White, you have a fantastic opportunity learn first had about volunteering in Berlin and gains ’em insights that you can apply in your own organisations wherever you are in the world.

Over to Laura…


It’s rare that someone gets to drop out of their normal life for twelve weeks, but thanks to Sustrans’ career break policy, that’s exactly what I was able to do between April and July this year. I put cover in place for my job for three months, packed my bags and travelled to Germany with literally zero plans, apart from to try to volunteer.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be – I can speak a bit of German, but I wondered if volunteering opportunities might be limited by the fact that I couldn’t commit long-term. In my job looking after volunteering on Scotland’s National Cycle Network, I’ve seen a huge growth of interest in episodic and short-term, flexible volunteering – would the same be true abroad?

To skip to the happy ending…YES, it was. Incredibly true. I was able to volunteer for many different projects in Berlin, for different lengths of time. It was easy, fun, fulfilling and, quite frankly, a real eye-opener.

Most of this was thanks to a volunteering platform called Vostel – after a simple registration I could search for opportunities based on my level of German language (“basic”) and my preference of activity (“hands-on”) and was immediately given nearly fifty opportunities in the Berlin area. For many, you simply read through the task outline and signed up for a shift, after which you receive exact details of where to be and who to ask for.

My first choice was to try to give time to a project supporting the huge number of Ukrainian people escaping the war and arriving into Berlin. I signed up for a three-hour shift with Berlin Caterers for Good at the main train station, where they distributed food and drink donated by local companies – I was welcomed, given a short briefing and put on the sweets and drinks stand, where I quickly learnt the Ukrainian words for juice and water, found out that people of all ages like a lollipop, and was reminded how much a smile can bridge a language barrier. I returned again a couple of weeks later.

Through the same shift sign-up process, I started volunteering with Bikeygees – a project supporting women from across the world to learn to cycle. For the twelve weeks I was in Berlin, I joined them nearly every week, and made new friends, helping women from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria progress from not being able to ride at all, to cycling solo around the park and repairing a puncture. Each week I simply registered for a shift and turned up. I had chosen to commit, but the admin was no greater.

With a slightly different start, I volunteered regularly for Berliner Stadt Mission at their Haus der Materialisierung – a collaborative zero-waste project based in an old multistorey carpark. They had advertised on Vostel for people to help upcycle old textiles into bags, and invited me along for an initial chat where I was shown the Haus and the task, and then we worked out what time commitment I could give and for how long – I chose four hours every Wednesday for ten weeks, and filled in their volunteer registration form (with a bit of translation help from Google Lens). They were the only project to ask me to report my hours and how much I had done, but also the project where I gained the most skills, thanks to one-on-one support from the project officer.

A commitment of a different kind came in June when I applied to be a volunteer with the Special Olympics National Games – a week-long competitive event for 4,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, supported by 2,000 volunteers. I had a role in Volunteer Management, which required training, a uniform and a commitment to a number of shifts that week, but which also gave me the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, practise my German, and dance at the Athletes Disco under the Brandenburg Gate.

Between these commitments, I also joined Clean River Project for a litterpick on the Landwehrkanal where I was put in a double kayak with a pharmacist named Nina, who gave me an informal tour of Berlin neighbourhoods as we paddled along and pulled bottles, plastic and an Oktoberfest Mickey Mouse from the water. (The latter won the Best Piece of Litter competition, judged by a volunteer clapometer…).

And I took on a stint volunteering to give out finish tokens at parkrun at Hasenheide Park. As I take part in the runs, I already knew the task and that these events rely on parkrunners volunteering themselves – a mutual-aid community.

What did I learn from all of this?

Taking part in every single one of these opportunities felt frictionless. There were no barriers. When I was asked to do more admin in order to volunteer, it was after I had a clear idea of what I would be doing and it was in return for support, skills-development or feeling part of a team; sometimes all three.

Almost every opportunity was based around the activity, rather than a volunteer role. In most cases I wasn’t asked to ‘become a volunteer’ for any organisation; I was supported and welcomed to undertake a task, at that moment, for the duration that I had committed to. I felt free to try new things and to step away from those that weren’t for me. But I could also commit to those that felt right. My time in Berlin was limited, and therefore precious. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on interviews, inductions, and getting started on something I didn’t know if I would enjoy and want to continue.

But this is always true for a lot of us. Time is a scarce resource for those of us who fit volunteering around other commitments and we need to maximise our use of it. Since I’ve been back in Edinburgh I’ve decided to step down from a voluntary Committee role I’ve been doing for thirteen years, and try some new voluntary activities, inspired by the things I did in Berlin. Many projects I contacted asked me to go through time-swallowing admin, including reference checking, lengthy handbooks and in-person inductions before I had a chance to try out the activity and decide if it’s something I want to do. It has taken ten weeks from starting to look, to be actively volunteering anywhere new – almost the length of my whole career break.

All of this is fuelling the fire of things I’ve been thinking about recently, as we’ve been implementing the Sustrans’ Five-Year Volunteering Strategy. How do we move to a more person-centred human approach for volunteering that removes friction and makes the most of people’s time? One that recognises a person’s unique strengths, interests and needs, and gives them choice and flexibility from the start? And how do we do that in a way that continues to take account of important volunteer processes, such as safeguarding and data collection, but that feels appropriate to an individual’s involvement?

I’ve been really pleased to see all of this referenced in the Systems map in the Scottish Government’s new Volunteering Action Plan – ‘fit’, ‘less bureaucracy’ and ‘accessible opportunities’ all feature in the system. Martin J Cowling talks about the same in his recent Engage article, suggesting we may need to “repackage elements of our volunteering to give people ‘taster’ experiences of volunteering in more supervised environments with fewer checks”. I’m excited to bring this all together in my own work with volunteers, and aim to give more people the same fulfilling volunteering experience that I had in Berlin.


Laura White is the Network Engagement Coordinator (Volunteering) for Sustrans, and has been volunteering since she was 18. Laura can be contacted through Twitter, through LinkedIn or via email.


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I’m sorry, what did you say?

I’m sorry, what did you say?

I enjoyed writing this article because, after what seems like ages, I once again get to question Government plans for volunteering.

I’m not being party political. All the parties get plenty wrong on volunteering. Some even get some things right, sometimes. It’s just that I used to enjoy writing articles highlighting the apparent default ignorance of politicians about what makes for successful volunteer engagement.

So, I was eager to put finger to keyboard last week when reports started coming through in The Huffington Post that the new UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (and deputy Prime Minister), Therese Coffey, had announced a “Call For One Million NHS Volunteers This Winter” (NB. This only applies to the NHS in England). The story then even got a mention on Have I Got News For You!

I went to the UK Government website to verify the announcement and found that it is indeed correct:

”As part of the plan, Dr Coffey will also call on the public to take part in a ‘national endeavour’ to support the health and social care system, calling on the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again. This will include a push for more volunteering across the NHS and social care.”

I have four immediate questions.


1—Why a million?

Seriously?!

That’s a lot of people.

Where did the figure come from?

Is it just there because it sounds big and so make for a good press release, or has there been a proper consultation and engagement across the NHS that has led to one million volunteer vacancies being identified?

I’m guessing the former.


2—What will a million volunteers do?

Assuming some thought has gone into this, what exactly are these volunteers going to do to help? Answer telephones? Triage patients? Make cups of tea? Take blood samples? Give injections? Drive ambulances?

I mean, volunteers can do all those things (if the right people are recruited, screened, trained and placed), but should they be doing them?

When public sector pay is lagging far behind inflation, when strikes are commonplace and more threatened, is this really a good time to be recruiting a million volunteers into the health & social care sectors? Don’t we risk accusations of volunteers undermining paid roles and strike-breaking?

That’s not a good look for volunteering and could damage us all.


3—Is there time to get them all recruited, screened, trained and placed?

To quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming.

How are a million people going to be found, their paperwork processed, interviews conducted, references taken up, criminal record checks done, training delivered and placement secured, all in the next few weeks?

And we are talking weeks, not months. It took RVS months to mobilise 400,000 NHS Volunteer Responders during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Government seems to want a million volunteers up and running by the new year! That’s a tall order, even if some of them have been active before.

Volunteer Managers in the NHS do a brilliant job, but they are often under-resourced, like the rest of us.

Is there a massive investment in volunteer management capacity coming to meet this million volunteer ambition, and soon?

I think we all know the answer to that one.


4—Are there enough people able and willing to help?

To quote the Huffington Post article I referenced earlier:

“The government hopes that the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS will come forward again.”

Do they now? Let’s look at some data.

Six million fewer people volunteered in the second lockdown in late 2020 than in the first lockdown that spring. The numbers dropped again in the third lockdown in early 2021. Oh, and of the 750,000 NHS Volunteer Responders recruited, over 300,000 were never given anything to do — not a particularly positive experience, as I can personally attest.

This suggests that it’s highly unlikely that there are a million people just sitting around with time to give to the NHS when the government wants them to.


It appears that the days of poorly thought through announcements about volunteering are back, announcements that completely fail to consider the practicalities and realities of effective volunteering engagement.

Politicians and officials really must do better. If they are going to come up with such ideas, however well-intentioned, they really ought to talk to the experts first — for example, Volunteer Engagement Professionals and Volunteer Centres.

They also need to invest for the long term too, so short-term ambitions like this are a little more manageable. As I said, back in 2020:

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

I made similar points at the start of this year too, when I argued why volunteering infrastructure needs to be supported by all of us, not just those working in it.

But it isn’t just government that have to buck up their ideas.

I’m going to say it — our sector must also do better. So much of the post-lockdown narrative about volunteering has built this myth that there are millions of people who loved helping so much in the spring of 2020 that they are desperate to come forward and volunteer again. This narrative was being peddled just this week at the Labour Party Conference.

As if nothing has changed in the last two years to affect their availability and interests.

As if we were all still sat at home, furloughed on 80% pay, bored with Netflix and looking for something to fill our time.

As if, in a cost-of-living crisis, people can just find the time to volunteers and forget about making enough money to pay the bills.

In England, we have a Vision for Volunteering through to 2032. We need to use this to have a sensible, well-informed and realistic conversation that helps ministers and officials to understand how volunteers can help, and what is actually needed to make this happen.

It’s time for a reality check, and for sensible heads in government to prevail.

One can only hope.


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Three possible implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering

Three possible implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering

We all know that inflation is rising and the cost of living is escalating. But what might this mean for volunteering?

In late July, I hosted the monthly Voluntary Voice Live Chat for the Association of Volunteer Managers (NB. You need to be a member of Voluntary Voice to access this link – membership is, however, free). Our theme was the implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering. Those present shared their views and experiences in an open discussion about what it all might mean and what volunteer engagement professionals need to be thinking about.

In this article I want to summarise three particular areas we discussed on the live chat and invite you to contribute your own thoughts by adding a comment at the end.


Rates of volunteering

We all know that volunteering rates took a dive during the first eighteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Successive lockdowns stopped many people from doing the volunteering they once did and, sadly, not everyone who stopped giving time has got back involved again.

As I write this, we are still waiting on publication of the 2021-22 Community Life Survey data for England which will give us the best indication yet of whether volunteering rates have shown any significant recovery since the lockdowns ended.

What I am aware of, however, is colleagues reporting that some people are scaling back their volunteering, or stopping altogether, as the cost of living rises.

This might be because, for example: they can’t afford to be out of pocket when volunteering and their organisations don’t pay expenses; or the rate of reimbursements is too low to cover the actual costs incurred; or there is a culture of not claiming that shames anyone who asks for financial support (I’ll come back to this later); or it takes too long to get their expenses reimbursed.

Alternatively, people may be having to reduce or stop their volunteering in order to prioritise paid work so they can pay the rising bills. Maybe they are taking on more hours at work, or a second, third or fourth job just to make ends meet, and so volunteering gets squeezed out.

Add this to the aforementioned potential for volunteering rates to be slow to recover post-lockdowns, and we might be facing a perfect storm of fewer volunteers just as demand may be rising sharply for the support our organisations provide.

The cost of volunteering from home

One of the interesting aspects of the Voluntary Voice live chat was a potential reluctance from some volunteers to work from home.

The lockdowns saw more and more volunteering take place remotely due to social distancing and shielding requirements, so it’s not uncommon these days for volunteers to be giving their time from the comfort of where they live. But, as winter approaches (at leat for those of us in the northern hemisphere), many are getting anxious about the cost of heating and lighting their homes as energy bills go up and up and up.

The Voluntary Voice Live Chat discussion speculated that either volunteers are going to want to claim some reimbursement for the cost of volunteering from home, or could instead insist on volunteering in an office where they can stay warm at the Volunteer Involving Organisation’s expense.

This raises a few questions:

  • Do / should we help cover these costs for home based volunteers?
  • How will our finance teams respond if, in these challenging times, we request additional funds to enable volunteering to happen?
  • How might we make that argument in a way that sees volunteering as an investment, not an additional (rising) cost?
  • Is there a recruitment opportunity for us to engage volunteers by providing somewhere warm for people to come, as per the current conversations happening about warm banks this winter? (And yes, it is ridiculous in 21st Century Britain that we even have to think that?
  • Will some of us miss this opportunity because our organisation got rid of it’s offices after the lockdowns because it thought it didn’t need them anymore?

Reimbursing expenses is more important than ever

At a time when costs are going up and organisations facing growing pressure on their budgets, not least because demand for service may well be increasing too, asking for more money for volunteer expenses in the annual budgeting process may seem foolhardy.

Which is why it is vital to remember that reimbursing volunteers for the costs they incur through volunteering isn’t just a financial issue, it is an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access issue as well. Put simply, we can’t claim that EDI is a priority if at the same time exclude volunteers who can’t afford to be out of pocket when they give their time.

That’s why organisations and finance teams need to be properly budgeting for volunteer expenses when costs are going up across the board, not cutting budgets, as they may be tempted to do. This means it is vital that Volunteer Engagement Professionals work hard to lobby for proper investment and support in volunteering in these challenging times.

Not only that but, as participants in the Voluntary Voice live chat pointed out, we need to do all we can to make sure volunteer expenses are reimbursed quickly, so people aren’t waiting weeks to get their money back. And we need to guard against any existing or developing culture of volunteers not claiming expenses.

To me, a culture of not claiming is worse than an organisation not offering expenses in the first place. It carries a real risk of two-tier volunteering, of excluding those who can’t afford not claim and being shamed or looked down on by those who can be out of pocket. I’ve seen it happen and it created a poisonous atmosphere that helped nobody.

Whatever the issues you face in your setting, I suspect volunteer expenses is going to be as defining topic of volunteer management in the months ahead.


So there you have it, three possible implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering. Now it’s over to you.

What do you think might happen to volunteering as the cost of living challenges grow in the coming months?

How are you preparing?

What conversations are you having with colleagues and volunteers to plan ahead?

Let’s get the conversation going by leaving comments below.


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Five tips for recruiting volunteers

Five tips for recruiting volunteers

Regular readers of this blog will know that I mainly write thought leadership articles on important and timely issues for volunteer engagement professionals. Every now and again, however, I like to throw in a more practical, how-to, post.

Buried away on my old blog site, I found an article from 2015 exploring five top tips for recruiting volunteers. When I re-read it, I felt it needed editing to improve it (everything can be improved!) and it deserved a new lease of life on the current blog. So, here it is, and I hope you find it helpful.

1. Target

A common mistake people make when recruiting volunteers is implying that anyone could do the role you require filled.

It’s a technique that can work, but is only really appropriate for roles where the only criteria for being a good volunteer is you have a pulse, here why it is often called warm body recruitment!

For any other roles, I always recommend you target, target, target.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? It’s a question that’s frequently ignored, or very little time gets spent on it. Make sure you give proper attention to the things you want volunteers to do so you can answer the next question.
  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? If you need a driver, then you want people who can drive and who probably have a clean licence. Maybe they also require access to a car. If the driving is to collect furniture for a charity shop, then the person likely needs to be fit and healthy to cope with the lifting. Get as a specific as possible. Avoid saying anyone can do it. That may be the case for some roles, but if you segment that broad audience into categories, you will be better placed to answer the final question.
  • Where are you likely to find them? Avoid the clichés like advertising in doctors’ surgeries and libraries unless you think the ideal volunteer is likely to be found there. To continue our driver example, why would you want a driver who’s at the doctors? What leads you to think you’ll find drivers hanging out at the library? Where might you find fit and healthy drivers? If you need them during the day, where might they be?

2. Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, do not forget to actually ask them to volunteer. Sounds stupid, I know, but 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.

Don’t just recruit a couple of times a year. A potential volunteer may see that recruitment ask but not be available when it’s made. Three months later, that person can give you some time, but you’re not asking any more, and they’ve forgotten you ever did.

3. Sell

Please, no adverts for volunteers that say, “Help! We need volunteers”, or “Help! We urgently need volunteers”. That approach stands out (in the wrong way!) from all other forms of advertising by selling what you need, not by explain how a product (in this case, volunteering) will make the buyer fitter, happier, healthier, more attractive etc.

Sell your volunteer opportunities like a business would sell its products. Focus on the benefits of someone volunteering, not the features. When we buy something, we don’t just look at what it can do, but how it will help us. Same with volunteering — show people how volunteering will meet their needs, don’t simply tell them what they will do or how desperate you are for help.

Oh, and please don’t generically say ‘make a difference’ when recruiting. Everyone says that. Why would I make more of a difference with your organisation than another one? If you want to say your volunteers will make a difference, then say what difference they will make, and how it will be of benefit to them.

4. Respond

At this point, nobody has actually become a volunteer. All you’ve done is clarify what requires doing, who would be the ideal person to do that, and then communicated your offer to them. Hopefully, people will respond. Hopefully, the ‘right’ people will respond, saving you countless hours wading through unsuitable applications.

What happens when they do?

Do they get a speedy response (including outside usual working hours) thanking them for their interest in volunteering, explaining the next steps and being clear about timeframes? Or do they hear nothing as their enquiry vanishes into an over-full inbox until someone get rounds to responding, maybe a week or two down the line? Do they get a friendly voice on the phone or a disinterested, over-worked colleague who doesn’t even know about the organisation’s need for volunteers?

Far too many times potential volunteers get the disinterested colleague, or they wait for days for an email reply. Volunteer Managers then claim nobody wants to volunteer, or it’s getting harder to recruit.

Put simply, if you are going to ask for some of people’s precious spare time, make sure you have the capacity to provide great customer service to them when they do get in touch. Make use of simple tools like out-of-office email and voicemail messages, so people instantly know when you’ll reply, and when that might be. Check out volunteer management software that can automatically email people who apply with a welcome message.

5. Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up for regular, long-term volunteering on day one are pretty much gone. That was true before the pandemic and is even more true now. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment any more. This is often misinterpreted as the days of long-term, committed volunteering being over.

I disagree.

We can get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want, but we have to be patient and plan for it. We need to offer a scale of engagement, with regular, committed, long-term volunteering at one end, and shorter term, flexible, bite-sized, easy to access opportunities at the other. Then we then start them at the easy end and, as we get to know them, we try to encourage them to move up the scale. It may take weeks, months, or even years, but some volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire.

By the way, this approach can also be great if your volunteers have to be criminal record checked before they start volunteering. If you have some quick, easy, time-limited opportunities available then they can get stuck into those whilst the result of the check is pending.

So, there you have it, five quick tips on recruiting volunteers. 

If you’d like to get better at volunteer recruitment, then Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help. Get in touch today for more information.

Now it’s over to you. What are your top tips? Please share them below.


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Marketing to Generation Z

Marketing to Generation Z

Earlier this year, I happened across a report from the CM Group entitled, “Marketing to Gen Z: A Fresh Approach to Reach a New Generation of Consumers”. Whilst aimed at the commercial sector, it’s a free and easy read with insights that leaders of volunteer engagement will find useful.

With that in mind, if you want to engage more young people — Pew Research define Generation Z as those born between 1997 and 2012 — then here are my top four takeaways from the report.

Takeaway one – Act now

If we intend to engage Gen Z, then we must act now.

As the report states:

“Marketers who aren’t evolving their strategies to engage this younger generation are already falling behind.”

The body of research into Gen Z is growing fast. We need to learn from, understand and engage with these young people if we want to effectively engage them in our organisations.

Takeaway two – Understand them

We have to understand Gen Z as a distinct group, rather than assuming they are just younger Millennials. According to the CM Group report, Generation Z:

  • are more practical and ambitious than emotional and idealistic
  • are less optimistic than millennials when it comes to issues like climate change, and gender & racial equality
  • are more cautious than Millennials when it comes to embracing new technology
  • are focused on education and success, and they use technology to get what they want
  • are most receptive to value-oriented messages and engagement tactics (a boon for non-profits)
  • more than any other generation, they expect personalised communications and seamless experiences across all online and in-person channels

Is this news to you? Some of it was to me, and I have Gen Z children!

We have to find ways to genuinely understand how Gen Z are different from other generations — what drives them, scares them and inspires them — if we want to have any success at connecting with them.

Takeaway three – Know how to engage with them

The report points out that Gen Z are more likely to use YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Twitch than Millennials. Unsurprisingly, therefore, video is a key format to reach Gen Z.

Like Millennials, Gen Z prefer engaging via social media and are more likely to trust the information they receive there but, unlike older generations, they are more open to using chatbots.

Unlike Millennials, Gen Z are more likely to seek the recommendations of online influencers they trust. They are, however, turned off by a lack of transparency and authenticity.

Are we embracing the social media Gen Z are using? Are we being truly authentic in how we use social media? Have we started using chatbots as a way to engage with people? If not, we appear to have some work to do if we want to connect with Generation Z online.

Takeaway four – Volunteering gets phygital

Gen Z uses technology to suit their convenience, but they’re comfortable taking what they want and leaving what they don’t need. They like in-person social interaction, and they aren’t afraid to ditch technology for a better experience In Real Life (IRL).

This chimes with the findings of NCVO’s 2019 Time Well Spent reportwhich found that it was young people who most valued volunteering as a way of combating social isolation. In other words, Gen Z might not thrill to doing online volunteering quite as much as we think. They may actually want to volunteer IRL and with others more than on their own through computers and mobile devices.

One word used in the report is phygital, the merger of physical and digital worlds to provide Gen Z with a seamless experience. What would phygital volunteering looking like, allowing Gen Z to get involved online and IRL in a way that suits them (not just us)?


Those are my four top takeaways from the CM Group report. I encourage you to read it and perhaps share your reflections in the comments below.

Similarly, if you’ve done any other reading on Gen Z, or are already working to engage them in your organisation — especially if you have examples of phygital volunteering — then please share your suggested resources, thoughts, experiences, and lessons learnt by leaving a comment below.


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Aiming for the wrong target

Aiming for the wrong target

Back In July, Third Sector magazine ran an article with the title, “Turning Covid-19 volunteers in to long-term volunteers” (the article sits behind a paywall so may not be available to all). When I read that headline for the first time, I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands, summoning up the will to read on.

I passionately believe that the premise of the headline is the wrong approach to be taking.

Rather than seeking to bend these people to our will — our desire for regular, long-term volunteers, either because we genuinely need them or we just can’t our won’t change the volunteer model we’re comfortable with — shouldn’t our initial response be to learn from what has happened during the pandemic and consider what changes we might need to make as a result?

‘Covid-19 volunteers’ are people across the UK who helped out their friends, neighbourhoods, and communities as the economic drivers that dictate how we live our lives were stripped away through furlough, lockdown, and social distancing. With no employment and commuting to do, they stepped up to help when the world turned upside down because it was the right and responsible thing to do. They did so in a highly flexible, often informal ways, encountering little bureaucracy — no forms, risk assessments and ad nauseam paperwork. That’s a million miles away from what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘volunteer’. In fact, I’d bet that many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ would never even see themselves as volunteers.

If we believe the narrative, many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ hadn’t volunteered before. Which begs the question: if they didn’t want to engage with the stereotypical, formal concept of volunteering before Covid-19, why would they suddenly have a change of heart when their experience since March 2020 has been so radically different from what many Volunteer Involving Organisations offer?

If all many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ had to do to get involved was respond to a social media post or WhatsApp message, why would they choose to engage with the endless bureaucracy many Volunteer Involving Organisations require?

To me, it’s misguided to assume that because people have volunteered during the pandemic they will be automatically interested in doing so in future, especially on our terms and not theirs. Because the truth is, if we want to engage these people as volunteers in future, we have to change and in significant ways.

Thankfully, the leaders of volunteer engagement interviewed for the Third Sector article didn’t engage with the premise of the question either and focused on some of those changes that are needed.

Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants, nailed it when Third Sector quoted her as saying, “Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy.” If any organisation is entertaining the idea of embracing volunteering post-pandemic, then they need to start not with themselves, but with the people they seek to engage. Forget our desire for long-term volunteers — how do people want to serve our cause, what works for them, and how can we incorporate that into our plans for the future?

I’m sure Third Sector meant well with their headline, and some may think I am over-reacting to eight words at the top of their article. But, as I have written many times before, language is important. What language coveys matters. And there will be people — probably some board members and senior leadership colleagues — who saw that headline and are even now going to their Volunteer Managers and demanding something be done to convert ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ into long-term, regular givers of time, in total ignorance of the futility of such an approach.

The challenges of the last eighteen months have been immense. More are sure to come. But the opportunities we face in volunteer engagement are equally exciting and significant. If we are to seize them, organisations need to start from the right place, with a sound understanding of reality and a real desire to change, not as naive belief that the volunteers of 2020 are just waiting to do our bidding in future.

Perhaps a better headline would have been “Turning organisations into something Covid-19 volunteers want to get involved with”?


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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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Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

“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.