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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How much is morning tea worth?

How much is morning tea worth?

This unusual year has led many of us to question the norms we’ve lived under for so long. Before 2020 I often heard leaders of volunteer engagement say that their volunteers, especially the older ones, would never embrace technology. Then along comes Covid-19 and guess what?

It turns out that as we all rushed to change how we worked, volunteers of all ages were just as quick to adapt, embracing Zoom, Teams and a multitude of digital platforms. The old orthodoxy was well and truly challenged, which begged the question: perhaps the issue was never the reluctance of volunteers to use technology but some Volunteer Managers projecting their own resistance to new ways of working onto their volunteers? (feel free to debate this in the comments below).

It’s not just in volunteer management that these norms are being queried. I’ve heard variations on the following two questions being asked of trainers and event organisers over recent months:

  1. How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?
  2. Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online events and training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

Let’s look at both in a bit more detail.

How much does it cost for you to deliver the training online?

The implication behind the question is often that online training should be a lower cost than in-person training. Charging by the hour, however, it costs the same to deliver content online as it does in-person – a two hour workshop in a meeting room still takes two hours to deliver over Zoom.

Actually, you could argue that preparation for online delivery takes longer, because of the need to consider alternative ways of engaging people in the content. Similarly the investment in a high quality delivery platform (like a pro-Zoom account) costs money that the trainer needs to re-coup. In which case the question is, why doesn’t online delivery cost more?

And that’s all just considering cost. The value the training delivers to a client may be even greater if the issues they face are more acute than ever. Speedy online delivery might help resolve the issues and so carry greater value to the client. Look at it that way and again the question is, why online delivery doesn’t cost more?

Finally, please remember that if this training would have been done face-to-face in ‘normal’ times, online delivery at the same price is delivering the client a saving. Why? Because they’re not having to pay for the trainer’s travel expenses, hotel accommodation etc..

Why is this online event charging people to attend – shouldn’t online training be free, especially in these difficult financial times?

I’ll start by saying I have some sympathy with this question. Many organisations are facing rapidly shrinking budgets, spending freezes and potential staff cuts. Sadly, this often hits training and development budgets first and makes the cost attending an event harder to justify, a ridiculous argument if you consider training to be an investment in the skills and capabilities of an organisation’s most value asset (especially in challenging times), its people.

With that said, I think the driver behind this question is a belief that online training carries less value than getting a group of people into a room. Because online delivery is valued less it should, therefore, cost less. Take that argument to it’s logical conclusion and it would mean we place no value at all on free training, which is perhaps why (in my experience) about 50% of people who book onto free courses never turn up for them.

Despite months of new ways of working, are we still clinging to a belief that the old way of doing training is always better than the new, online approaches? Why is that? Are we once again confusing cost and value?

I’d also point out the following about objections to there being a cost to online training and events:

  • If you would have attended the event in ‘normal’ times and been happy to pay, bear in mind that you would also have had to spend money on travel to and from the event, perhaps a hotel as well, and maybe even meals whilst you were away. So, even if you pay to attend the online version, you still save money on the other costs.
  • Bear in mind that the organisers still have to put effort and money into an online event. They may not have venue and catering costs to meet, but they will have to invest in an online delivery platform, a booking system, and spend time figuring out how to make things work for attendees so they still get a great experience etc.. The desire to save money by attending an online event has to be balanced against the organisers not only covering their costs but making a profit. With other funding becoming scare, events may be an important source of income that enables them to keep operating, helping all of us in the future. Do we really want our infrastructure organisations and professional associations to go bust at a time when we need them most?
  • Remember that the people who deliver training content and facilitate workshops are often freelancers. They pay their mortgages and feed their families from the income they earn. They don’t have a regular salary and often can’t access the government schemes that have supported employees during the pandemic. Charging for their work isn’t a choice, its a necessity for survival.

In writing this article I hope that the next time we see an online event or training we’ll all think twice about what’s going on behind it and why a fee might have to be charged to attend. I also hope it’ll spark some thinking that will help us all start to consider the best way to mix online and in-person events and training when the pandemic is behind us and we can all get back in a room together.

On which note, I’ll conclude with this thought.

If we’re happy to pay an event fee and travel costs to go to a conference in-person, but want online events to be free, then what is it about the in-person offering that we value so much we’re happy to pay for it? Assuming the content and value delivered is the same offline as online, there can only be one answer – the thing we value most is morning tea! That’s a lot of money we seem to be willing to spend for a cuppa and biscuit!


Disagree with me? Great! Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Changed your way of thinking as a result of what I’ve written? Tell me why by leaving a comment below.

Want to ask a question? Guess what? Leave a comment below.


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