Ten questions every VM should ask a potential employer

FeaturedTen 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.

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When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

Volunteer recognition is important, but is it negatively impacting our ability to attract new volunteers?

Volunteer recognition season is drawing to an end. Whilst New Zealand’s National Volunteer Week kicks off on Sunday (16th June 2019), we’ve already had similar weeks in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the UK (to name just a few).

Volunteers have been showered in praise and thanked for their work. Awards have been handed out as parties, lunches and receptions have been held. New pin badges are being worn and new certificates displayed with pride.

Such recognition efforts are to be encouraged, but are they working against us when it comes to other aspects of volunteer management, especially recruitment?

A few years ago my good friend Martin J Cowling told me that he had a habit of reading the local newspapers in places he visited around the world. If those newspapers featured any stories about volunteers they were usually recognition of deeply committed, often older people, selflessly giving huge amounts of time over a considerable number of years to good causes in their community.

Today I see Martin’s experience reflected in the daily Google Alerts I receive. These highlight mentions of the words volunteering, volunteer and volunteerism in the news. Here are just three examples:

All of these people have done wonderful volunteering and are rightly being celebrated. But just think for a minute about the message such stories may send to people outside of the volunteering bubble, including those who have never volunteered before:

  • Volunteering is mostly something done in retirement
  • Volunteering requires a long-term time commitment (20 years plus)
  • Volunteering requires me to give lots of time on a regular basis
  • People with a disability can’t volunteer (the Southend Hospital volunteer stopped because of sight loss)
  • Volunteer work isn’t very exciting (putting labels on files and running errands for paid staff)
  • Volunteers are mainly old people

Would these news stories attract young people? Or people who feel the pressure of time on their busy lives? Or those balancing work with family commitments or caring responsibilities?

What about people with disabilities? Or those for whom volunteering is seen as a route into work? Or students who need to fit volunteering around studies?

My fear is that in acknowledging and celebrating the super-volunteers1 we are turning off the very diversity of people we want – no need – if volunteer engagement is going to be sustainable when the likes of those people mentioned in these stories stop their volunteering.

What we need to do is balance the stories of long-term, deeply committed volunteers with more public recognition of volunteers who give a short amount of time, perhaps a one off commitment, and make a difference as a consequence.

As hypothetical example, let’s show how Finn, aged 16, used his social media skills on a short term project that developed a new recruitment campaign which has subsequently helped us engage twelve new young people from BAME backgrounds in our advocacy work.

If you have such stories already then put them forward to your communications teams and / or local media. Explain why the traditional stories don’t always help and give some new material for the media people to use.

If you don’t have these stories (perhaps because you don’t have those roles) then my advice is to start developing them! Jayne Cravens has some excellent examples and advice on these three pages of her website (which should be an essential resource for all Volunteer Managers!):

Perhaps if we get the message out that volunteering doesn’t require the next thirty years of your life, that it’s flexible, inclusive, impactful, fulfilling, tech-loving and doesn’t require you to sign away all your free time…perhaps if we do that, we’ll start to transform volunteer engagement for the better?

Maybe we can all commit to this changed approach for the volunteer recognition season 2020 – are you on board?

  1. See Einolf, Christopher J & Yung, Cheryl (2018). Super-volunteers: Who Are They and How Do We Get One? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47(4), 789-812

We need to talk about volunteer teams

We need to talk about volunteer teams

For the last few years, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd has offered an online introduction to volunteer management course. The feedback I get from those who take the course is that they find the section on effective volunteer teams really valuable. So, when the online course closed at the end of 2018 I started looking into how I might address this issue of volunteer teams in a different way. What I found surprised me and made me wonder if we might sometimes have the wrong approach to volunteer teams.

NCVO’s recent Time Well Spent report highlights that when people volunteer they rarely do so alone, frequently they meet and work with new people. Unsurprisingly, this can have a direct bearing on the volunteer’s experience – volunteer with people you get on with and all is well, volunteer with people you don’t get on with and dissatisfaction isn’t far away.

From a volunteer management perspective, whilst we always want people to have a great experience volunteering, we also need them to deliver for the organisation. This means that building teams of volunteers who can work together harmoniously and achieve great things is a balancing act and an important priority for any volunteer manager.

Often, our first step to forming a good volunteers team is recruiting the right people onto it, people with the experience you need to get the job done. Yet it seems this focus on the individuals who we form into a team may not be the best approach.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant

In a 2013 Huffington post article by Adam Grant, Wharton Business School professor and author of the excellent book, Originals, Grant makes the following observations:

”In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.”

”A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1 percent. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.”

“The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anaesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.”

Grant continues:

“In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past.”

“Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In ‘Leading Teams’, he argues that in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability — whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.”

Grant’s observations got me thinking about volunteer recruitment and retention, how they relate to teams and what we may need to do differently.

Recruitment

As noted earlier, many of us recruit talented and experience individuals and form them into a volunteer team to achieve a particular goal. They go through Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing – and hopefully stay together long enough to get the job done.

Yet, if Grant is correct and group experience is key, should we be reframing our volunteer recruitment efforts? Should we instead seeking out established teams of people, teams who would bring the right skills and collaborative talents to bear on the issue we want tackling? We might find them in businesses, the public sector or other civil society organisations. They could, for example, be a group of friends who have had success in running events for their community and could use that collective experience to help with your next event.

However we find them, Adam Grant’s observations seems to suggest that we should be making more of an effort to seek out existing teams and bring their collective experience to bear on our missions, rather than trying to form new teams from experienced but unconnected individuals.

Retention

In his Huffington post article, Grant remarks that:

“Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”

This presents a big challenge for us in volunteer management. We know people are giving less time and wanting to engage in shorter term, more project oriented roles (at least initially). The Time Well Spent report makes this case very well. So, how do we keep our teams driving the bus together for long enough to have real impact on our work?

I think the principles that would work are the same as those that would work for individual volunteers.

You’ll notice I said earlier that short term, project roles may be attractive ‘at least initially’. That’s because I don’t believe we can’t find volunteers who will give us a long-term commitment, I just think we’ll struggle to find people who will sign up to such a role on day one.

Instead, we have to find ways to keep people interested and engaged, delivering enjoyable volunteering experiences and allowing them the flexibility to come and go as suits them.

Give me such a role I’ll probably increase my commitment over time because I enjoy my volunteering with you and am not made to feel guilty if I need to take a break.

I’m convinced that just as this will work for individuals, so it’ll work for teams. To expand on Adam Grant’s analogy, we want to get the right group of people on the bus, have them drive to together for a while, not worry when they all get off for a bit, but welcome them all back on further down the road.

A red double-decker London bus
A red double-decker London bus

Of course of none of this will be easy. Shifting to group recruitment and retention strategies will present come challenges. We’ll have to try new approaches. Which means risk and the possibility of failure. Yet from such failure will come new ideas and approaches that will work better and better until we get it right.

So, over to you:

  • Have you tried recruiting existing teams to work on volunteer projects?
  • What worked well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Are group retention strategies something you’re currently trying?
  • Would you be willing to share any success or lessons learnt?

I look forward to reading your comments.

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

I am really pleased to give my latest blog post over to guest contributor, Carol Carbine. I’ve know Carol for many years and you are in for a real treat with her first ever article. Oh, and in case you were wondering, part two will be published here in late September.


Ok, before I start, there are hundreds of articles out there about the psychology of superheroes: what superheroes can teach us about marketing; what your kids can learn from superheroes; leadership lessons from superheroes; what superheroes can teach us about investment strategy; the list is endless.

So you may be asking yourself why I feel the need to talk about volunteer management and superheroes. Simple answer, why not? I mean let’s look at it from the perspective of the individuals we are trying to recruit into volunteering – who hasn’t wanted to feel like a superhero at some stage in their life (even if you were only 6 years old)?

There are some brilliant volunteer managers but many of us still worry about being too demanding, asking too much of our volunteers and managing too rigorously. After all, we’re not paying these people are we so we shouldn’t expect too much? Sadly this means that all too often the results of our recruitment efforts don’t meet our aspirations and we end up with volunteers that are OK, but not brilliant. More sidekick then superhero.

So let’s time travel back to 2012. If I’m honest like many, I didn’t know what to expect from the London Olympics volunteer programme. At the time we heard about teething troubles recruiting (and retaining) great volunteering specialists, the fact that McDonalds were being brought in to manage volunteer recruitment and induction, plus the tens of thousands of people who pre-registered their interest and didn’t get a reply – yes, I was one of them. And, if we are really honest, loads of us thought that Danny Boyle seemed a bit of an odd choice to direct the opening ceremony.

How wrong were we!

Universally when you talk to people who became ‘Games Makers’ (they never think of themselves as ‘only a volunteer’) the immense passion, pride and sense of having been part of something extra special shines through, even six years later.

A while ago I had the opportunity to talk in detail to some of the Pandemonium Drummers who featured at the 2012 opening ceremony about the rigorous recruitment process they went through. This process led to a genuine pride that they were the best of the best – the high expectations, absolute secrecy, attendance at an extremely high percentage of practise / rehearsals or you didn’t get to perform on the day, and so on.

Ok so back to superheroes, think of your favourite superhero what is it that makes them super? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • A high level of passion for the cause that inspires them to take action
  • Great skills and talents
  • A clear vision of what needs to be done
  • A clear identity – who they are, what they stand for and usually a natty costume!
  • A willingness to tackle challenges head on, learn from their mistakes and keep going till the job is done

Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want people like this as volunteers?

Before anyone starts complaining about my high standards radically reducing the pool of available people, being elitist or not being inclusive, remember that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes from Ant Man to Ego (who’s a living planet) and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds including an ex-convict, an orphaned college student and a millionaire philanthropist. They also include a green one, a blue one, a blind one, a deaf one, a couple of wheelchair users, one who appears to have been genetically imprinted by a cat and a living tree!

So next time you’re recruiting you might just want to raise the bar and consider what super talents your superheroes need to have. Or then again you might just want to do it the same way you have always done it and settle for sidekicks.

PS. According to the Oxford English dictionary in 1899 when the word ‘superhero’ first appeared it meant ‘an exceptionally skilful or successful person’.


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to contact Carol direct, here are her details:

Website: www.carolcarbine.consulting

Email: carolcarbine@icloud.com

Twitter: @carolcarbine

All Volunteer Managers are liars

All Volunteer Managers are liars

Yes, you heard me right, all volunteer managers are liars.

OK, not all of them. But those who I hear saying that people don’t want to volunteer, they are liars. They perhaps don’t realise they are lying, but they are.

People today do want to volunteer. They just don’t want to volunteer to do the things we are offering them.

Look at the latest data from NCVO. It highlights two key things.

First, one of the most common reasons why people volunteer is because they had time (28% of respondents).

Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer
Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer

Second, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering is people having other things to do with their spare time (35% of former volunteers and 36% of those who have volunteered once a month).



Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering
Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering

Why this contradiction? Simple. Plenty of people do have time to give, they’d just rather spend their spare time doing anything other than volunteering1. They would rather spend their precious leisure hours with their family, seeing a movie, going on a city break, reading a book, going out for a meal, watching their favourite sports team – anything but volunteering.

Our job as leaders of volunteer engagement is to try and market volunteering to people in such a way that they want to spend some of their spare time volunteering with us.

Which brings us back to the idea of all volunteer managers being liars.

I don’t really think they are at all. It’s a headline that got your attention. And it isn’t original. I stole it from Seth Godin and his excellent book, “All Marketers Are Liars”. I’ll let Seth explain:

“I wasn’t being completely truthful with you when I named this book. Marketers aren’t liars. They are just storytellers. I was trying to go to the edges. No one would hate a book called All Marketers Are Storytellers. No one would disagree with it. No one would challenge me on it. No one would talk about it.”

Seth Godin
Seth Godin

Seth goes on to explain why stories are so powerful in marketing:

“All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better – and look cooler – than $20 no names. . . and believing it makes it true.”

In other words, as recruiters of volunteers, we need to get a lot better at telling compelling stories that make people believe that volunteering is great and make them want to give us some of their spare time. Over to Seth again:

“Marketing is about taking something people may or may not want and telling a story to turn that something into a thing people definitely want.”

Here are two things I think leaders and managers of volunteers can learn about volunteer recruitment from “All Marketers Are Liars”.

1 – Don’t try to change someone’s world-view

You do not have the time or resources to convince someone who firmly believes they don’t have time to volunteer that, in fact, they do. A much better approach is to identify a population with a certain worldview and frame your story in terms of that worldview.

Consider this example. A divorced father sees his children for a weekend every two weeks. He thinks he doesn’t have time to volunteer because of the demands of his job and his desire to spend his spare time with his children. This dad also wants to do interesting and exciting things with his kids when he has them.

The smart volunteer recruiter tells the dad a (true) story about how their organisation’s family volunteering scheme is a great way to have fun and spend time with your children doing something meaningful. This message will likely resonate more with the father – increasing the chances of him signing up to volunteer with his children – than a message asking him to spare a few hours he doesn’t think he has.

2 – Make the most of influencers

“You have no chance of successfully converting large numbers of people to your point of view if you try to do it directly. But if you rely on the nearly universal worldview that people like being in sync with their peers, you are likely to find those who believe your story will share…with their peers. If your story is easy to spread, and if those you converted believe it’s worth spreading, it will.”

This observation from Seth Godin is really important. It’s a validation, at least in part, of the power of word of mouth advertising, one of the most effective forms of volunteer recruitment. It suggests a belief that I have long held about how to influence people to volunteer: instead of encouraging people to volunteer through stories about and images of people in the public eye – typically celebrities – we need to show potential volunteers that people just like them volunteer.

Let’s go back to our divorced dad. A message from a celebrity dad in a similar situation isn’t likely to win him over to volunteering. But if we can show the dad someone like him, someone he can identify with, someone who probably faces the same pressures he does, someone who despite all that still manages to find time to volunteer and has a good time doing so, then that might go some way to convincing our dad to think about volunteering.

Instead of turning to people in the public eye, let’s turn to our existing volunteers. Let’s get them to share their volunteering stories with their friends and families. Maybe see if some of them are willing to be featured in your organisations bigger marketing efforts? It can’t hurt to try and chances are it’ll be more effective than another poster campaign saying, “Help! We need volunteers”.

Front cover of "All Marketers Are Liars"
Front cover of “All Marketers Are Liars”

So all volunteer managers aren’t liars. But we are wrong if we think people today don’t want to volunteer. To get them involved we need to create opportunities that match people’s interests and availabilities. We need to provide a great volunteer experience. We need to tell stories about those great experiences we have available in a way that resonates with the people we want to recruit.

All of this can be a big challenge for us but it is also an amazing opportunity.

Let’s get started.

  1. In fact, the top barrier to volunteering is work commitments (59% and 61% respectively) which is another way of saying people have other things to do with their spare time.

Two reasons why another pledge to volunteer won’t transform volunteering

Two reasons why another pledge to volunteer won’t transform volunteering

2018 was just two days old when the almost inevitable pledge to volunteer was issued. This time, the International Voluntary Service (IVS) launched a volunteer pledge, calling on the public to say they will volunteer this year. As Civil Society Media reported:

“IVS is running the campaign, with a budget of £20,000. The campaign aims to combat the decline in volunteering after figures published last year by the Office for National Statistics that show that volunteering levels have declined by 15 percent over a decade.”

A number of high profile charities are supporting the pledge, including Oxfam, Royal Voluntary Service, PDSA, Leonard Cheshire, Volunteer Scotland and Sense Scotland. Knowing these organisations, I am sure the pledge is well intentioned – they would not support it otherwise. But it isn’t what we need if we want to see a transformation of volunteering in 2018.

Here are just two reasons why.

  1. Pledges do not necessarily result in action. The great British public are ever generous with their time and money, but both of those resources are harder and harder to spare. So, when asked to consider volunteering, many people say yes and then struggle to turn their good intentions into action.In the coming weeks we will no doubt hear how many people have responded to this pledge and, on one level, that will be a good thing. But past experience teaches that the number of those who actually go on and give their time will be far lower.

Which brings me to my second point…

  1. Asking people to give time isn’t the answer. Many already do, we are a generous nation with volunteering written into the fabric of our society, however invisible that may be on a day-to-day basis. What we need is a shift in the attitude and approach of Volunteer Involving Organisations.A shift that doesn’t blame the public for not volunteering, recognising instead that people don’t want to give some of their precious time to do what so many organisations are offering.A shift which recognises the experience people have and what they achieve is more important than how many people volunteer and how many hours are given.

    A shift that sees volunteer involving organisations creating new, different roles that meet the availabilities, interests, skills and passions of today’s volunteers.

    A shift that sees proper investment in volunteer engagement, not merely platitudes and lip-service from sector leaders, politicians and funders.

In conclusion, I commend IVS and their partners for giving volunteering some attention as 2018 gets underway, but call on everyone in the sector to use this year to recognise that change will not come from campaigns like this.

If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation change to meet the demands of 21st Century volunteers then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

Participation branding – three takeaways for leaders of volunteers

89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered. Of those who do notice advertising, more and more people then take steps to actively block it. In other words, most of those adverts for volunteers you’re putting out are being ignored by people.

When you think about the amount of advertising organisations do for volunteers, and how much that costs, it’s shocking to think how little impact you’re apparently having in getting people to want to volunteer.

So, when I read this article from nfpSynergy, ”Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z”, the term ‘participation branding’ caught my eye. That lead me to this article, ”Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”.

Here’s what I took away from these two articles and the little bit of additional research I did online.


Creative innovation network Iris believe that the most potent and efficient brands in the world today are being built with people, not for them. A new breed of brand is not just surviving, but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are getting their market to do their marketing. These are what Iris calls Participation Brands.

These brands are thriving by activating the power of people to build their brand and creating content and conversations that people want to actively participate in.

Ben Essen, executive planning director at Iris, says:

“Brands no longer influence people. People do. With the Participation Brand Index we wanted to understand more deeply why people are choosing to get involved with certain brands and what the secret is for those brands who manage to get their market to do their marketing.”

“It’s become ever easier for consumers to shortcut the media-driven decision making process and access beliefs, behaviours and new ideas directly from other people. Communities can now live on their own terms and agendas without the need for organisations telling them what to do and what to buy. Participation Brands are those who have responded to this change by designing content and experiences that positively disrupt the networked lives we now live.”

The brands who top the Iris The Participation Brand Index study are those seen to not just have a positioning, but a passionate purpose at their heart. They are the ones felt not to just respond to culture but actively shape it. They are the brands creating content, conversations and experiences that people want to get involved in.

For example, the number one brand globally was Apple, who excelled against all these aspects. The number one brand amongst a millennial audience was Netflix, for whom there is a stronger sense of anticipation in ‘what the brand is going to do next’ than any other brand in the study.

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).


I’m a big fan of taking ideas from outside our field and applying them to our work. For example, see my article about how organisations can adapt their approach to volunteer recruitment in light of what’s called influencer marketing.

So what does participation branding mean for those of us leading, managing and recruiting volunteers? Here are my topthree thoughts.

Get your market to do your marketing

Word of mouth has always been an effective way of recruiting volunteers. I am more likely to support a cause if someone I know and trust asks me than if I see a poster or leaflet saying I should get involved.

Remember the quote from earlier, “Brands no longer influence people. People do”? Put simply, participation branding is just a fancy new term for word of mouth. It recognises that a personal ask is more powerful than an impersonal advert.

How can we get more of our volunteers to talk to people they know about volunteering with us? Here are two simple tips to get started:

  • Ask your volunteers to ask their friends and family if they consider volunteering. You’d be surprised how few organisations actually do this.
  • Help volunteers to ask others. For example, tell them what your current recruitment needs are, give them some information about that, and perhaps create a hashtag they can use on social media when talking about volunteering.

Be passionate about your purpose

According to Iris, the brands who top theThe Participation Brand Index are those that have a passionate purpose at their heart. That may be hard for some corporates to find but it shouldn’t be an issue for non-profits who, by their very nature, are driven by a passionate purpose.

Yet so many volunteer recruitment messages don’t really address they purpose. They talk in a dry way about what the organisation wants people to do, but not why.

Review your recruitment messages. Do they sell the cause before they sell the organisation or role? Do they inspire people to action by showing how they can change the world with you?

Measure return on involvement

I love the phrase Iris use, “The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).”But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most helpful definition I found online was from this article:

”Return on investment to me is something lucrative that you put into a company with the purpose of getting more value back, than the money you put in.”

”Return on involvement is some engagement that you put into a company and you get more value back, because you engaged in the company.”

In volunteering we’ve traditionally tried to measure the return on investment for volunteering in a purely financial sense. Whilst this can be helpful when arguing for more financial resources to support volunteer engagement, speaking about volunteers in financial terms can cause problems.

With return on involvement we could start to look at how building relationships with volunteers brings a return for us in ways that benefit our organisation. For example, if we invest time in our volunteers, do they have a better experience and so are more predisposed to talking to others about our organisation, making recruitment easier and cheaper?

Return on involvement is a new concept to me and one I want to look into further so I can develop my thinking on this. I’d love to hear your ideas and any suggestions you might have for how it could apply to our work as leaders of volunteers.


Over to you. What do you think about participation branding and how it might apply to volunteering. Share your thoughts below.