As the sun sets on 2019 I am in reflective mood, turning my thoughts back to the last twelve months as I prepare for the Christmas break.
In some respects, 2019 has been in tough year.
In February we lost one of the leaders in our field, Susan J Ellis.
Volunteer engagement professionals around the world lost an advocate and a friend, someone who was as fearless in her evangelism for what we do as she was in challenging us to grow and move forward.
Susan was also my mentor and my friend for more than twenty years. With her death I lost someone who was incredibly important to me.
Then, just a few weeks after Susan’s death, my mum died. Mum had been taken into hospital with suspected jaundice just after Valentine’s Day. It turned out to be cancer. She lasted just eight weeks before the disease took her. It was – and still is – a massive shock to me and my family.
Losing two people who shaped my life up until now – albeit in different ways – was a real kick in the guts. Needless to say that by late April I was ready for 2019 to be over!
This year has also had its challenges on the work front. If you ever thought the life of a consultant was one that led to riches, let me tell you now that you are very wrong! Hearing of my work trips to other countries may sound like I lead a glamorous life (and I am certainly very fortunate for), but the current climate for business means I’m squeezing the financial margins all the time. International work is simply a necessity when work at home is scarce.
Some of the recent challenges in the UK are:
The legacy of the years austerity and resulting tight budgets for things like training and development
Uncertainty and nervousness caused by Brexit
The low strategic priority many organisations give to volunteering, which means the idea of engaging a consultant to develop volunteer engagement is off many people’s radar
The sometimes extremely long decision making timeframes organisations go through when they do want help – the record so far is about eighteen months from enquiry to delivery!
Of course we all have challenges and I’m not looking for sympathy or a pity party. I’m simply being honest about the challenges of what I do as I look back on the year that’s gone.
Of course it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, far from it. Running a one-person volunteer management training and consultancy business for more than eight years has been a rollercoaster ride with many more ups than downs.
Whilst 2019 was the first time in five years that I didn’t visit my beloved Australia, I did go to Canada twice and the USA three times (albeit briefly – two visits to the States were barely forty-eight hours long!). It was an immense privilege to:
Co-present the opening volunteer engagement plenary and run workshops at the Points of Light conference in St Paul, Minnesota
Deliver the opening keynote address to the Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada / PAVRO conference in Ottawa
Work with an amazing team at this years “The Future is Now: Tech trends” hybrid conference, broadcast from Hamilton, Ontario
Make my first visit to South Dakota to present at a state-wide volunteer management conference in Sioux Falls
Work with the wonderful people at the Minnesota Historical Society again
Deliver workshops in Ontario for some fantastic clients (I just missed filming of The Handmaids Tale outside the training venue by a few hours!)
Whilst it always sounds like the majority of my time is spent overseas, the reality is that I mainly work in the UK. I’ve had some wonderful clients this year and met some amazing people doing excellent volunteer engagement work. I’ve been to Scotland and Northern Ireland (hint hint Wales!) and all across England. What I see and hear from the volunteer managers I meet is inspiring and invigorating, giving me huge pride to be a part of this amazing profession.
To all of my clients a huge thank you for hiring me in 2019. I hope you’ll have me back in 2020 (hint hint)!
To everyone I have met, trained and spoken with, thank you for your time, energy and commitment. I look forward to seeing what you achieve next year.
To anyone I didn’t work with in 2019, well bookings are open now for 2020 so get in touch and let’s make it happen!
Finally, this will be my last article of 2019 with the next one going live on 10 January 2020. Thank you to all of you have have visited my blog and read the articles I have published over the last twelve months. Your continued support is both humbling and very much appreciated.
I wish you all a restful and enjoyable holiday and look forward to engaging with you throughout 2020.
This article will be a little different from my usual musings on volunteer management and leadership. I thought it might be interesting to give you a glimpse at what it is like doing an overseas work trip as a volunteer engagement consultant.
People often say how lucky I am to be able to travel with work, and I am. It’s a privilege to work with passionate Volunteer Managers around the world and to learn from their experiences. But travel overseas isn’t always the glamorous experience it might appear. So here is a warts and all summary of six nights away in the USA last month for the 2019 Points of Light conference.
16 June 2019
Arrive at Grantham railway station in Lincolnshire around 2pm for my train to London. Thanks to it being a weekend, first class is a cheap option so I won’t have an issue cramming my suitcase into limited the limited bag space down the back of the train. If only my flights were first class too!
London Kings Cross to Heathrow via the tube and Heathrow Express is blissfully uneventful. London is so much nicer at the weekend without all the commuters striving to be the first into the office (seriously people, what’s the rush?). The struggle comes in finding the Hotel Hoppa bus stop at Heathrow Terminal Three for the service to my hotel. The Hoppa service is a great idea but so confusing to understand for a UK resident and seasoned traveller like myself that I’m amazed foreign visitors, unfamiliar with the airport, can use it at all.
After waiting for 30 minutes the bus finally turns up and a short while later I am at my hotel and getting settled in for the night, knowing I have an early start in the morning.
17 June 2019
Alarm goes off at 450am. Another wait for the Hoppa bus back to terminal three, thankfully not half-an-hour this time.
Slightly worried to receive an email from American Airlines that my connection from Chicago to Minneapolis-St Paul has been brought forward. It was already a tight one hour and 45 mins, and that’s now been reduced by 20 minutes.
Breakfast and coffee at Heathrow before boarding a lovely new 787 Dreamliner to Chicago. I spent almost 17 hours on one of these from Perth (Australia) to London last year, so today’s eight hour flight time across the Atlantic will be a breeze.
Happily my flight leaves on time and, even better, looks likely to arrive 30-45 minutes early at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Unfortunately, as we are about 100ft off the ground the pilot has to go around because the plane landing before us hasn’t cleared the runway. That means another 30 minutes in the air and the hopes of making my tight connection take a blow.
As is typical at O’Hare, the border control queue is huge and takes ages to get through. I grab my suitcase and head for flight connections where they tell me I need to leave 45 minutes to get to my next flight as the usual train between terminals is closed for maintenance and I’ll have to re-clear security (TSA). With only 35 minutes until the connecting flight leaves, I reluctantly change my plans, re-checking myself and my bag to be put on standby for a 5pm flight (instead of my original 120pm departure) and confirmed on an 840pm fight. Endless additional hours at an airport await – such fun!
The replacement bus service (it isn’t just the UK that does these then) gets me to terminal three where I jump on the free wifi to: tell the person in Minneapolis who is picking me up that I’ll be later than planned; and advise my keynote co-presenter (the brilliant Beth Steinhorn) that I will miss that evening’s technical run through.
But what’s that airport tannoy announcement saying? Turns out my 120pm flight has been delayed to its original departure time of 145pm, about ten minutes from now. I rush to the gate and explain the situation to the gate agent – who puts me on the flight! Happy days. Much frantic messaging ensues before takeoff to rescind my earlier delay notifications.
After all that stress I arrive at Minneapolis-St Paul pretty on time. Sadly, my suitcase doesn’t, having been re-checked for one of the later flights. American Airlines make arrangements to get it back to me, hopefully that evening, and I head off to the hotel.
Checking in I explain the bag situation and ask them to take the bag in for me, even if it arrives in the middle of the night, so I don’t have to stay awake – no point making the jet lag worse. No time to rest though, as I head straight out for the technical run through with Beth and get first sight of the room where tomorrow morning we’ll be doing our keynote address to 750 people.
I then connect with my friend Barry Altland for an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for some sleep. At this point I’ve been up for about 22 hours, it’s 9pm, I have no suitcase and I need to be up at 5am as we have a final technical run through at 7am ahead of the main session at 830am. All of which means I am delighted to see an email telling me my suitcase is due to arrive at 330am!
Please make the glamour of overseas travel stop!
18 June 2019
After a few hours of bad sleep I wake at 145am having dreamt my suitcase has arrived, but was empty. I check my email and see a message that my bag has indeed been delivered. I dash down to reception where I am re-united with my clean clothes and other essentials! I unpack at 2am and grab three more hours of sleep.
After a final early morning tech run through, the keynote address kicks off on time and is a success. We showcase examples of volunteer managers as catalysts of change, featuring three stories on video and two in person thanks to our guest speakers, Jess and Joanne. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive, which is gratifying after six months of preparatory work to pull the session together.
After lunch at the food truck festival outside the venue I get to attend a session by the amazing Dana Litwin on dealing with volunteer problem behaviour, by way of cuddling penguins (or stabby footballs as Dana calls them) and a bit of singing (I said Dana was amazing).
Next up is meeting my friend Tony Goodrow, CEO of Better Impact, to discuss two possible work projects over a beer and dinner. Then straight to the Al!ve and Better Impact networking reception. I get to meet in person a few people I have known online for a while as well as re-connect with fellow blogger Meridian Swift.
Sleep comes easily when I finally reach my bed.
19 June 2019
Oooh, I get a lie-in this morning – until 6am!
Given the six hour time difference to the UK I spend breakfast dealing with email and social media before the three block walk back to the River Centre in downtown St Paul.
The morning is more sessions and networking following lunch at the food trucks again, catching up with fellow Volunteer Managers in the sunshine to the sounds of an esoteric DJ who the conference organisers have hired.
In the last session of the day I go from attendee to presenter, delivering (for the first time) my workshop, “All Volunteer Mangers Are Liars”. It seems to go across well with the 150 people in the room with yet more lovely feedback. I do like the willingness of American’s to be effusive with their praise if you do a good job.
That’s the formal programme done but it’s straight to the Intercontinental Hotel for a reception hosted for funders to which I have been invited. From there, Beth and I head out for dinner to reflect on yesterday’s keynote and discuss the thorny issue of payments for volunteers and how the rules and practices vary between the USA and UK.
Once again, I don’t struggle to sleep!
20 June 2019
Up at 6am again, clearing messages from back home before heading to the conference venue for my 830am “Philosophy Of Volunteering Workshop”. This is one of my favourite sessions to run. 150 of us have ninety minutes of fun, challenge and great conversation about the values and beliefs we have about volunteerism.
Over coffee I have a revelation in event catering as the snacks provided are maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. How have I lived for 45 years without these?!
Before we know it the 2019 Points of Life Conference concludes with a very American closing session featuring cheering, a singer, a TV news anchor, the brother of a former US President and the announcement that the 2020 conference will be in Washington DC. I’m left wondering how that style of closing event would go down at home.
The conference may be over, but work isn’t. I catch up with fellow Energize Inc. Associate Betsy McFarland who I had the privilege of seeing present a workshop earlier in the week. Betsy heads off for her flight home and I get stuck into work I need to catch up on after three days at the conference.
I treat myself to dinner at a restaurant I like in St Paul which happens to be next to the park where the city’s jazz festival is kicking off. Despite the wet weather a big crown has turned out for a rather good latin jazz band.
21 June 2019
Rising early again means I have the best part of a day until I fly home. So getting to experience the St Paul legend that is Mickey’s Diner for a late breakfast with Meridian Swift is a welcome distraction from hours of boredom before meeting my lift back to the airport.
My flight to Philadelphia passes uneventfully and I easily make my connection to a British Airways flight to London, even having time for a quick meal before the scheduled departure at 10pm. All of which means I’ve spent 15 hours awake before I even get on the plane that will take me back to the UK. There is nothing more glamorous than sitting in hotels and airports on your own waiting to go home (disengage sarcasm mode).
22 June 2019
BA do their thing and get us into Terminal Five at Heathrow nicely ahead of schedule. The connections to Kings Cross go smoothly, too smoothly in fact as I end up with over an hour to kill before my train home.
I finally make it back home about 2pm, six days from when I left. By the time I go to bed I have been awake more than 36 hours and have just the Sunday to recover before I drive to Liverpool on Monday to run some training for a client. This trip may be over, but the next is about to begin.
“The low levels of participation in employer-supported volunteering (ESV) reflects a wider lack of awareness of this kind of volunteering. As well as scope to increase awareness, the fact that around a third of volunteers who participated in employer-supported volunteering in the last year felt their employers did not actively encourage it suggests there is more that could be done to promote it.”
That was the conclusion of NCVO’s Time Well Spent report, released back in January. Despite more than twenty years of attention being given to ESV in the UK it remains a marginal way for people to get involved in volunteering. Why?
First, nobody seems to have successfully sold the concept of ESV into the small and medium sized business community (SMEs). Many have tried, but ESV persists in being something large employers embrace more than SMEs, perhaps because the absence of some paid staff during the working day may be less acutely felt amongst a larger staff team.
Second, many volunteer involving organisations still get hung up on whether ESV is really volunteering. The thinking goes that if the volunteer is taking time out of their typical working day, and so being paid by the employer for that time, then they aren’t really a volunteer. Whether or not you agree with this thinking (and I firmly disagree), from an employers perspective it must be frustrating to see good causes spurning the offer of help simply because of some definitional minutiae.
Next, I think some non-profits only engage in ESV because they see it as a route to getting a donation from the employer. This creates a tension between corporate fundraising and volunteer engagement functions, tension that holds the organisation back from making the most of the opportunities presented by potential – and consequently frustrated – corporate supporters.
Finally, ESV is still seen by non-profits as either traditional team challenge activities or initiatives that deploy the professional skills of their staff into the community. Both present problems. Team challenges frequently suck up non-profit time with little positive return. Sure the employees have a great time, but sometimes the organisation, for example, gets a poorly painted room and has to hire in professional painters to fix the work done by the volunteers. Skills-based volunteering can also be challenging, especially if skilled employee volunteers are seen as a threat by paid staff who may resent volunteers doing similar work to them ‘for free’.
Yet, new ways of doing ESV are developing that most non-profits aren’t even aware of, let alone embracing. In fact, I think the non-profit sector are increasingly falling behind the thinking of businesses when it comes to this form of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Consider the recent pilot in the USA by Starbucks and their charitable arm, The Starbucks Foundation. This is something Meridian Swift and I explored in two articles last year – you can find the first one here and the second one here.
This Starbucks pilot is one example of where employers are heading. They know that millennials want to work for employers who are truly engaged in the community, not those who just pay lip service to their warm, fuzzy CSR statements (I read somewhere that more than 50% of Millennials accept a job based upon a company’s involvement with causes). So, in an increasingly competitive marketplace for recruiting millennial talent, these businesses are developing innovative approaches to make them the employer of choice amongst young people.
What Starbucks have done is the tip of the iceberg, more will follow and, whilst these initiatives are mainly stateside, it won’t be long before they migrate to this side of the Atlantic.
Just like paid time off to volunteer during the working day, many non-profits see these innovations as ‘not volunteering’ and will steer clear. But that isn’t going to stop businesses exploring these ideas. They simply can’t afford to ignore what the the millennial workforce wants and, if we won’t get on board, they’ll simply do it without us.
As we saw at the start of this article, ESV appears to remain a marginal way for people to volunteer. In a changing landscape for CSR volunteering, finding a solution will require non-profits, fundraising departments and Volunteer Managers to embrace very different thinking about the employer / non-profit relationship of the future.
What do you think?
Note: I am aware that ESV happens in a wide variety of ways, not just paid time off work, and with employers in the private, public and voluntary sector. However, as the point of this article is not to explore the wider variety of ESV activity but to question why it isn’t making a big difference to volunteering rates, I have not explored this breadth of activity. Hence the use of the term employers and what may seem like an assumption that the supply of volunteers is only from private sector employers.
Diversity is one of those areas that many leaders of volunteers want to give more attention to but it is sometime hard to find practical advice on how to achieve real diversity amongst our volunteer teams. Helpfully, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) has a new resource to help.
MAVA’s Inclusive Volunteerism Task Force was set up to to explore barriers to volunteer engagement within diverse communities and identify successful strategies for overcoming these barriers. They published their report, “Engaging Volunteers from Diverse and Immigrant Communities: 8 Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Volunteer Program,” in March 2018. The executive summary is available for free to all whilst the full report costs USD$20 (but is free to MAVA members). Both documentscan be accessed here .
The MAVA report provides approachable steps that all leaders of volunteers can take to make progress on engaging a volunteer team that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. While a small part of the report is focused on Minnesota, the majority of it can be applied in other settings and I found the content highly relevant for a UK setting.
I was especially struck by the first strategy, “Shift Your Language”. MAVA make the point that the term “volunteer” is not universally understood and many communities don’t label the time they give as volunteering. This is a point I have made on numerous occasions – just because people don’t volunteer with us doesn’t mean they don’t volunteer. See my article from 2016 for more of my thinking on this.
MAVA suggest a few of ideas for tackling the issue of terminology. Here are my two favourites:
Consider using words beyond “volunteer.” “Help” is one good option, but other broader terms – like “support,” “benefit,” or “give,” are also possibilities. For example, say how people can volunteer, say how they can help – simple but potentially very effective.
When recruiting volunteers from diverse communities, focus on how the volunteers can assist their community instead of how they will help your organisation. Talk about how a volunteer can help by giving their time to their community through your organisation, or how they can organise a clothing drive for their community. The organisation is implied – it’s a part of the process – but it’s not the focus.
Of course, as MAVA note, changing our language isn’t enough on it’s own to realise a more diverse volunteer team.
From the fundamental importance of building relationships with different communities, to the importance of organisational culture and an understanding of socio-economic barriers to volunteering, the MAVA report contains lots of useful advice and food for thought. I especially liked this point about offering volunteers flexibility:
“Let’s make it okay for volunteers to have other priorities.”
Yes, volunteering for you may not be the be all and end all of someone’s life. They have other things going on, potentially including volunteering with other organisations.
The report concludes with a helpful “Inclusive Volunteerism Action Plan” to help readers implement real change. They encourage a focus on a couple of specific actions for each strategy, recognising that leaders of volunteers are busy people and achievable action plans are more likely to be implemented.
“With each step you’ll make progress toward a more inclusive volunteer program. The important thing is to keep taking those steps.”
As you can tell, I am a fan of this report from MAVA. In fact, I am a fan of MAVA’s work in general. They are one of the more active volunteer management associations I have come across and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a couple of occasions now, including attending their conference earlier this month. So watch out for another article next month which will highlight some recent work from MAVA exploring the status of volunteer management in organisations in comparison with HR, fundraising and delivery roles.
In July this year leaders of volunteers from across North America will gather in Minnesota for a significant event.
The National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be the first time in almost a decade that volunteer mobilisation and support will be the total focus of a major conference in the USA. As in the UK, many conferences address general non-profit issues, with volunteering just one of several tracks. At this Summit, leaders of volunteer engagement will be front and centre.
Plenaries and small group discussions will allow participants to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect our profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers we engage.
Over one hundred workshops are on offer throughout the Summit, presented by leaders and practitioners in the field. In addition, it’s the first time in years that many of the thought-leaders, authors, and trainers in our field will all be together in one place. From established personalities like Susan J Ellis, Greg Baldwin, Betty Stallings, Tony Goodrow and Sarah-Jane Rehnborg to newer leaders like Liza Dyer, Jerome Tennille, Betsy McFarland, Elisa Kosarin, Meridian Swift and Tobi Johnson, the Summit is going to be an inspiring and educational event.
I am super excited to be attending the Summit. I’ll be taking part in a pre-event affinity group for writers and bloggers, as well as delivering three of my favourite sessions during the main programme:
Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers, Wednesday, July 26: 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
The Philosophy of Volunteering, Thursday, July 27: 2:15 pm – 3:45 pm
Customer Service and Volunteering, Friday, July 28: 8:30 am – 10:00 am
Plans are also afoot for a fringe session over breakfast on the Thursday – watch this space!
As I don’t fly back to the UK until the day after the Summit finishes, I will be joining others who want to stay after the closing session as we continue to meet so that the Summit truly moves our field forward. More details on this after-Summit event will be announced so if your travel schedule permits, please consider joining in.
If you’re going to be at the Summit I’d love to hear from you. Maybe leave a comment below or just come and say ‘hi’ when we are in Minnesota in July.