Three highlights of 2021 and three things to watch in 2022

FeaturedThree highlights of 2021 and three things to watch in 2022

This is my last blog post for the year, so I thought I’d share my top three highlights from 2021 and muse on three volunteer engagement things to look out for in 2022. Ready?


2021 Highlight one — working with other consultants

I’ve been running Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd for over a decade now and have mainly worked solo. Despite occasional projects with other consultants, most of what I have done has been just me, working directly with clients to engage and inspire people to bring about change.

During the last year, however, I have had the pleasure of collaborating more with others. This has happened largely because a group of us working for ourselves connected during 2020 to support each other through those dark days of the first lockdowns.

Working with others this year has been great, providing new opportunities for me, as well as having a group of people who understand running a business that I can turn to when things get tough. After another year of not travelling or seeing people, another year of sitting at home every day, having regular connection with peers has helped my business and, more importantly, benefited my wellbeing and mental health.

You know who you are — thank you! It’s been a blast and I hope we get to do it again soon.

2021 Highlight two — conference connections

My second highlight is the two major UK conferences I attended this year, not as a speaker but as a delegate. Inevitably these were online and not in-person, but they both provided connection, inspiration, learning and laughs, despite the virtual distance between participants on Zoom.

Before the pandemic, so much of my life was spent with other people, at events and in workshops across the UK and around the world. I miss that connection and interaction with other people, making new connections and strengthening existing friendships. In different times this drove me in my work, but has been noticeable in its inevitable absence as the world has struggled with Covid-19.

So, a big thank you to the Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG) and the Association for Volunteer Managers (AVM) for your two conferences. You provided me with something I have missed so much, and I am truly grateful.

2021 Highlight three — number three

My third and final highlight is also about people, it is the wonderful team of volunteers at Engage.

I have been Editor-In-Chief at Engage for a little over two years now, and it’s one of the great pleasures of the role to work with people around the globe who generously give of their time to support and develop the profession of volunteer engagement through their work for Engage.

The volunteers on the editorial and social media teams are the beating heart of what we do, the engine through which great content is produced and shared with leaders of volunteer engagement around the world. Their generosity of spirit and dedication to the field inspire me every day, and I want to say a huge thank you to all of them. I can’t wait to see what we achieve together in the future.

Oh, and if you aren’t currently an Engage member, please consider it, maybe as a new year’s resolution or a Christmas present to yourself (or someone else, as we now have gift memberships available).

Find out more about becoming an Engage member on our website.


2022 Issue to watch one — A new vision for volunteering

The Vision For Volunteering initiative is due to report in the early spring of next year, and I am fascinated to see what will result from this work. Not just the positions it will take, but the resulting action that follows.

Announced back in June, Vision For Volunteering recently announced their first series of workshops, with more to come soon. This came soon after news of the welcome addition of Sport England to the existing partnership of NAVCA, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and the Association of Volunteer Managers.

“The purpose of the Vision for Volunteering is to set out the ambition for volunteering in England, over the next decade, with a clear and optimistic plan for the future.”

I was involved in a not dissimilar exercise back in 2008 when the Commission On The Future of Volunteering published its “Manifesto for Change” and associated documents. Sad to say, that little actually changed for the better as a result of that project, so I hope that Vision For Volunteering doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

I, for one, will be keeping a keen eye out for their final report and recommendations and, more importantly, what actually happens as a result.

2022 Issue to watch two — Warm words or actual action?

Alongside — but not directly related to — Vision for Volunteering, there is the Shaping The Future Of Volunteering chief executives group. Another initiative designed to capitalise on the attention volunteer received during the earl days of the global pandemic, this group brings together two dozen CEOs of charities to position volunteering to “play a transformative role in creating the kind of society we all want to live in”.

Clearly, a group of influential CEOs taking an interest in advocating for volunteering is a good thing. However, little has been heard about what is actually happening — what do they want, what role do we all have to play, how does it connect with other initiatives etc.? This worries me and brings to mind a phrase Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy used at the 2021 AVM conference:

“Beware of strangers carrying a basket of promises”

I hope 2022 results in some tangible recommendations, actions, and benefits from the Shaping The Future Of Volunteering initiative. We should all be keeping our eyes and ears wide open and asking questions about their progress, especially if you work in one of the member organisations.

2022 Issue to watch three — the return of in-person?

I’m writing this at a time when Covid-19 infection rates are high and causing concern across most of the UK. Big questions are being asked about the Westminster government’s plans and whether we are sleepwalking into another Christmas of lockdowns and disruption.

Like all of you, I hope we aren’t. I hope the end of 2021 will be a pandemic turning point for the UK, a moment we can mark a turnaround to something more like regular life returning on a sustainable basis as next year progresses. And with that comes my final issue to watch for 2022 — a return to in-person.

It is my sincere hope that as the next twelve months progress we can safely resume more in-person events, trainings, meetings, conferences and gatherings, giving us all a chance to re-connect.

Don’t get me wrong, technology has its place, and we should continue with the likes of Zoom where necessary, not least to minimise the harm we inflict on the environment. But humans are social creatures, not designed to sit alone connecting on screens, so I hope that, when it is safe to do so, we can regain the benefits of gathering in-person.

I already have some in-person event bookings for early 2022, and I hope that more will follow. I guess we’ll wait and see.


So, there are my highlights of the year and predictions for the next twelve months. What are yours? Leave a comment below or on the social media platform where you saw this blog post promoted. I’m interested to read your thoughts.


Before we go

Please note: Because of the fortnightly posting schedule and when my time off for Christmas is taking place, the next post on this blog will be on 21 January. See you then!


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Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Advocacy for Volunteer Involvement: The Role of Funders

Twenty years ago this month, Susan J Ellis published a Hot Topic article about advocating for volunteer involvement, focusing specifically on the role funders can play. It’s such a great read and still so relevant I am republishing it below as a ‘guest’ post.

Please read Susan’s thoughts and leave a comment to add to the discussion.


No matter how long I work in this field, I simply will never understand why so few of our attempts at educating decision-makers seem to stick. We are constantly repeating our advocacy efforts whenever new executives come on board — too often starting again at square one. I actually discussed this in 1999 in my August Hot Topic. This issue is once again “hot” because of a recent rash of inexplicable budget cuts, reorganising decisions, and other actions severely limiting or even eliminating volunteer program resources that — to those of us in the field — seemed to be successful and effective. In almost every case, the changes have been done rapidly and with no apparent thoughtfulness or sense of consequence.

There are a number of key misconceptions that continue to fuel ignorant decision-making. We have to find ways to emphasise the following:

Volunteer Involvement Is NOT:

  • Free
  • A second choice
  • An alternative to adequate paid staffing
  • Simply a part of fundraising or development
  • Exactly like paid personnel management, or completely separate from it
  • Basically a problem of recruitment, not of organisational competence
  • Dying, old-fashioned, or unattractive to skilled people
  • A low-level management function that anyone can do
  • Something the paid staff welcomes or is capable of supporting
  • A responsibility that can be done as an “add on” to the job of an already-overworked employee
  • Extremely hard to control, measure, or hold to high standards
  • Self-evidently good PR, no matter how volunteers are treated
  • Inherently risky
  • Synonymous with the “nonprofit” or “voluntary” sector (or NGOs)
  • Always labeled “volunteering”
  • “Uniquely American”

But It IS:

  • Universal and international
  • A specialty management area
  • As effective as the thought and effort put into it
  • Too often under-utilised and undervalued
  • A way to expand the talents and skills available to an organisation
  • Access to perspectives specifically different from those of paid staff
  • Intimately related to:
    • Fundraising
    • PR / Visibility
    • Outreach
    • Client development
  • Something Executive Directors and the Board need to consider
  • A part of the resource mix
  • A way to dream and experiment with new service ideas
  • A way to demonstrate an organisation matters to the community

Over time, I have come to believe that funders have an obligation to force executives to make better decisions about volunteers. If foundations, major donors, and government agencies insisted on appropriate integration of volunteers in service planning and delivery, I predict we’d see immediate attention to volunteer management issues.

Jane Leighty Justis is crusading on this very topic in the foundation world, as she explained in an interview in e-Volunteerism last year. I agree with her advocacy and propose that, collectively, we find ways to get funders to:

  1. REQUIRE all grant proposals to include a section on how volunteers will be involved in the new project.
  2. ENCOURAGE requests to fund the position of volunteer services manager.
  3. EXPECT reports on the degree of volunteer involvement achieved (quantity) and its impact (quality).
  4. REJECT proposals from organisations unwilling to consider how the right volunteers might expand the success of their programs.

It is my opinion that an organisation seeking gifts of cash while refusing donations of talent is not a good steward of resources. Since “money talks,” funders have a strong effect on the ways that agencies operate. If volunteer involvement becomes more integrated with organisational development, and is rewarded with more funds, then executives and other staff will seek education in how to do it the right way.

So the question this month is:

How might we reach funders and advocate for greater attention to volunteer involvement?


Susan’s original article can be found on the Energize website, along with all her monthly hot topics from 1997 to 2017. Energize was Susan’s business and is now a part of Adisa and led by the brilliant Betsy McFarland.

You can also access The Susan J Ellis archive, an online repository of Susan’s writing and resources she collected over her forty plus years working in volunteer engagement. The archive includes a list of free books available to download.

Subsequent to Susan’ writing this post, the Leighty Foundation did further work on funding volunteer involvement and published, “The Funder’s Guide To Investing In Volunteer Engagement”. You can find out more about this on their website.


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The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

The trouble with criminal record checks on volunteers

It is an issue that simply won’t go away. Whenever volunteering gets mentioned, it seems the issue of criminal record checks isn’t far away. For twenty-seven years they have been a part of my professional life, so I want to use this article to share some history and insights that, I hope, will help fellow leaders of volunteer engagement effectively screen volunteers who will be working with vulnerable people. Let’s dive in.

Whether they are DBS checks in England and Wales, PVG checks in Scotland, ANI checks in Northern Ireland or something else entirely depending on where in the world you are, criminal record checks (CRCs) will feature in discussions on volunteering at conference panel sessions; networking, learning, and development events for leaders of volunteer engagement; in the press; and on social media.

Yet, there was a time criminal record checks were almost impossible to do on volunteers here in the UK.

Back in the mid-1990s, I worked for Barnardo’s, supporting the involvement of volunteers who worked with vulnerable children and young people. We were one of the few organisations that could do CRCs, but the vast majority of volunteer involving organisations couldn’t. Instead, they applied several screening techniques to manage the risk to their clients from involving ‘unsuitable’ volunteers.

Within the context of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975) these included:

Application forms

When looking at a prospective volunteer, Volunteer Managers would pay close attention to the information supplied, looking for inconsistencies, gaps in employment records etc. and following these up with questions at interview (see below). They also checked the information supplied by the volunteer against other documents, such as…

References

Considerable care was taken to secure at least two good quality references. Usually, this involved one professional reference and one personal reference. The evidence from programmes like Big Brothers and Sisters in the USA indicates that personal referees are much more likely to reveal details of someone’s past that might prevent them from volunteering than previous employers fearful of litigation.

Canadian screening expert Linda Graff (now retired) often argued that references are a hugely under-used tool in screening, and her book “Beyond Police Checks” is still an essential read on volunteer screening and comes highly recommended.

Interviews

Ideally done by two people, interviews (whether you call them that or used softer language) were an essential screening tool. They provided the main opportunity to query information provided on application forms and in references, testing their validity and looking for anything that might flag up unsuitability to work with vulnerable people.

Supervision

Ongoing regular supervision to check on the volunteer, what they were doing, what they were struggling with, what support they needed etc. and to a formally or informally address issues that arose.

Formal reviews

Whether annually or more frequent, formal check points in addition to ongoing supervision were important to review the volunteers’ place and role within the organisation and to flag issues that might have arisen.

User and volunteer feedback

Looking for the views and opinions of service users and other volunteers, both on the whole scope of volunteer engagement and on the work of other volunteers. This was sometimes formally enshrined in whistle-blower policies.

Above all organisations — whether they had access to criminal record checks or not — employed a suite of tools to screen people wanting to volunteer with vulnerable people. They didn’t do one thing, they employed an ongoing process that continued when recruitment and onboarding finished. Critically, they spent time considering all these tools in the round to look for clues as to somebody not being a suitable volunteer.

To illustrate this point, I was once cross-checking the information provided in the criminal record check and volunteer application forms of a potential volunteer at Barnardo’s. All looked good at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that on one form the surname was Brown and on the other Browne. The dates of birth were also out by a day. We followed up with the person concerned and heard nothing more from them. Now, they might have been totally innocent and never responded because they’d changed their minds about volunteering. But, what if they had been deliberately trying to sneak through the system with misinformation, hoping nobody would spot it? Without that close attention to detail cross-referencing the two forms, we might never have spotted a potential risk to the vulnerable young people we served.

That’s how things used to be.

Then, in 1997, the Police Act came into force. Part five of the Act provided the legislative basis for wider access to criminal record checks via the Criminal Records Bureau (which later became the DBS in England and Wales). The CRB, followed by its successors across the UK, set out guidance and codes of practice on checking volunteers that explained who could be checked and at what level. These documents were seen as important to ensure that checking was only done where appropriate & necessary (keeping checks on volunteers free) and to set them within the proper context as just one tool within the wider screening systems organisations should use.

Yet despite this guidance, and almost twenty-five years since the CRC bodies we know and love (?) today came into existence in the UK, the advice and approach of some (many?) organisations is that all volunteers should undergo a criminal record check, regardless of the role they will be doing.

Aside from the fact that this isn’t allowed under CRC guidelines, these organisations behave as if a clearance from the DBS / PVG / ANI schemes is a guarantee that volunteers pose no risk to clients.

The old-school approach of employing a wide range of screening techniques, cross-referencing the information prospective volunteers supply to spot irregularities and possible causes for concern, has been replaced with too much faith being placed in CRCs. Today, the narrative and day-today practice around screening seems to be fixated with CRCs, almost always excluding any other screening method or combination thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, criminal record checks can be an important screening tool, and we should have access to them, but their value is only realised if they are used as part of a comprehensive screening process, not if they are the only screening process.

Of course, there are organisations out there doing great work screening volunteers well and effectively safeguarding vulnerable people with sensible use of all the screening tools they have, including CRCs. But too often I think some organisations remain reliant on CRCs, excluding everything else. Indeed, as I said in the first version of this article that I wrote back in 2012, I fear we’ve lost many of the skills and subtle understanding needed to properly safeguard vulnerable people because we’ve become too reliant on a single CRC that is out of date as soon as it is conducted.

So, in summary, the trouble with CRB checks is that: we have become worryingly reliant upon them; we gain a false sense of safety by conducting them; and consequently, we are less safe because of them.


What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

Have you got tips or stories to share on effective volunteer screening that goes beyond CRCs?

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experiences of criminal record checking, whether you agree with me or not.


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The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

The Risk of Excellence: Owning Harm and Accepting our Role in the Future of Volunteerism

I’m thrilled to welcome Breauna Dorelus as guest blogger this week. Breauna has written a really insightful, thought-provoking and challenging article that I hope will get you reflecting on how you do what you do, and how our profession needs to change.

Over to Breauna.


Once upon a time, my compassion demanded more of me. It cornered me into making a decision that was a personal one but would redefine the way I viewed my role as a volunteer engager and as a connected member of this world.

See, I had come at a crossroads with constantly deciding if I wanted to uphold my professional role as a volunteer manager, or advocate for the community I was serving that often looked like me.

I made the decision that I didn’t want to have to choose between the two, between bringing harmful corporate transactional groups in with their photo ops and matching t-shirts, just to feel empty later because the volunteer opportunity we set up for them stroked their ego more than served our community, and just saying no.

I didn’t want to have the number of volunteer hours and individual bodies recruited to be the litmus test of what success, impact, and growth looked like.

Between managing a volunteer program or creating a movement.

I decided that I didn’t want to do either or. I wanted to bring a holistic community-centered approach to my heart work. I wanted to see myself in this work. This meant that I had to be willing to stand alongside my community and hold nonprofits and volunteer programs accountable for the harm I experienced as a practitioner while also being a community member.

It pushed me to go on a personal journey of internalized oppression and root out those parts of me that white supremacy culture kept bound and motionless.

I had to conclude that volunteerism was worth cherishing. That my love for service compelled me to say enough is enough.

I decided to tell the truth.

I’ve thought a lot about the role of the volunteer engager and have pondered on the 2021 theme for International Volunteer Managers Day “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary.” My heart and the sheer well-being of my community is calling me to push the space we inhibit beyond the “best practices” and beyond “but it doesn’t make sense” to what must be.

As a Black woman, who’s now dedicated my life to uprooting oppression in volunteerism and keeping it community-centered, I am openly asking you to go beyond kind and go beyond your perceived limitations.

I’m asking you to stop just talking about justice and equity, but instead do the work and hone into stepping up and latching onto what the world tangibly needs from us. This requires risk and sacrifice. I am taking a deep breath and believing that if you’ve made it this far you believe that harm hurts our mission. If it hurts our mission, you want to recognize and stop the harm.

I also want you to believe my voice and that this stems from a place of conviction and love for humanity. A love for the connection we uniquely have to this work.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to our profession embracing as we continue towards the future of volunteerism:

The nonprofit sector should not operate like we have a monopoly on service and volunteer managers are the gatekeepers of help. We never have and we never will. Serving one another has always been around and it’s always belonged to the community. We embody the help and helper simultaneously but, unfortunately, our sector has formalized serving and put up barriers to keep the privileged in the position of the giver and the community the constant given to.

Oftentimes this type of formalization chokes out the very organic and sacred flow between one another. It’s a necessity to learn from and partner with the storytellers, the community historians, and grassroots movements that oftentimes don’t even have a formal status. We must be willing to co-partner and give up power instead of using the relationships to extract for our own best interest.

What would it look like to collaborate and construct volunteer opportunities that directly benefit the communities’ goals? To build a coalition of volunteer engagers who work to re-establish volunteer protocol around applications and orientations so that barriers are broken for communities looking to volunteer with your organization?

We must be okay with not knowing the answers but recognizing that they are out there even if they don’t look like the traditional forms of learning we’re used to or from the types of people we’ve deemed acceptable to learn from.

Our personal journey to justice will affect our professional one. We understand that most volunteer managers are white and don’t have the same lived experience as those they mostly serve. Their lives are more aligned with their volunteer base, so oftentimes, it’s easier to lean towards our default and ask “how would I like to experience volunteerism” and use that to construct the experience.

Dedicating yourself to justice is bringing in and considering multiple voices and seeing them as worthy and experienced enough to glean from. And that work will not be confined to your professional nine-to-five. This is a practice, a constant relearning. The volunteers you interact with should not be expected to think differently about service if you aren’t leading the way and implementing the awakening in yourself.

For most individuals, your volunteer program and their connection with you may be the only opportunity they have to rethink what it looks like to serve well. Are you open to being their accountability partner or are you more focused on their feelings and making sure every condition is nice, dainty, cuddly, and entertaining? Are you willing to be a student of the cause?

Embrace that the future of volunteerism may not be anything like you’ve ever seen before. And that’s okay. A while ago I wrote down a brief version of how I see the future of volunteerism, with justice and community at the center and I’d love to share it with you.

The future of volunteerism will not be dependent on four walls. It will not have loyalty to an organization but allegiance to a cause. It will call out paternalism and will center the community, not the white hero. The traditional role of the giver and recipient will blur, will be unrecognizable. People will serve because they want to see justice win, and not just because it feels good to give. This sector needs to be challenged to continue looking at all ALL aspects of volunteer engagement through the lens of belonging, anti-racism, and justice and should continue to move the needle against the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The motivation will come from a place of unrest, perseverance, and radical love. It won’t be posted for likes. It will be a long game, not a transactional action. It will be seized by those who are willing to suffer and sacrifice and give up their traditional harmful mindsets and physical comforts for the sake of growth, change, and impact. It will be a lifestyle.

It will be woven into daily life. It will be the tool used to revolt against power and supremacy. When people meet, it will be common to ask their name and the cause they’re connected to. It will turn into what it was always supposed to be. The future of volunteerism is risky, radical, and inconvenient. Because justice will be served.

My type of excellence implies risk. I hope this isn’t a moment you feel like bowing out but a moment you feel invigorated to start on or continue the important work of uprooting harm from the inside out.. It’s worth it for the people. For all of our liberation.


Breauna Dorelus is the Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause, a consultancy dedicated to dismantling harmful volunteer practices implemented by nonprofits and volunteers towards Black and brown communities. Breauna believes in community inclusion in all aspects of the volunteer process, and has dedicated her work to ensuring that service is centered around co-liberation and not harmful charity.She believes that best practices may not be the best for all and that we must look at service through the lens of community-centered support in order to create a more just future.

Connect with Breauna on LinkedIn and on Instagram.

Join the community of volunteer leaders, volunteers and community members dedicated to rooting out oppression in volunteerism and creating a more just future of service.


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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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Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Co-creating racial equity in volunteer engagement

Our friends at the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) have recently published the latest report from their inclusive volunteering project. Whilst the report has it’s origin in the ongoing racial tensions in the USA, the findings have lessons for all of us engaging volunteers, and so we are pleased to share the following update from MAVA on our blog.


The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) has been conducting research and education on race equity in volunteerism for the past five years. Through our research we’ve learned that making small tweaks to problematic systems will not solve the issue of structural racism in volunteerism; instead we need to work with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities to co-create new systems that are rooted in equity.

MAVA was able to convene the necessary voices – community members and volunteers who identify as BIPOC – to learn more about systemic inequities in volunteer engagement and imagine new systems of volunteerism. We asked listening session participants about the barriers they perceived or experienced with regard to formal volunteer opportunities. Below are the barriers most frequently discussed throughout the listening sessions:

  • Formal systems, including forms, logging hours, background checks, and lengthy processes.
  • Time commitment and schedule.
  • A lack of compensation and incentives.
  • An unwelcoming environment.
  • Lack of trust in the organisation.
  • Not being invited to participate.
  • Prioritising the organisation over people.

MAVA was fortunate in that listening session participants not only shared with us their experiences, but also their ideas for advancing equity in volunteerism. Here is what we heard:

  • Create different ways of volunteering, which may include different pathways for different people, removing barriers, and/or compensating volunteers.
  • Prioritise leadership of people of colour at organisations engaging volunteers.
  • Build trust between nonprofit organisations and communities of colour.
  • Foster a welcoming environment and culture within the organisation and volunteer program.
  • Value people over organisation – put the community’s needs first.
  • Understand systemic barriers – tear down and re-build when necessary.

MAVA analysed the information provided through these listening sessions, reflected on our racial equity work in volunteerism over the past five years, and developed ideas for next steps to help you take action on the ideas communicated through these listening sessions.


At the organisational level

Advocate for equitable hiring practices at your organisation: Inform leadership of the importance of representation at both the staff and volunteer levels.

Promote an inclusive organisational culture by making equity, diversity and inclusion education a priority for you and your volunteers; speak up when you encounter biased or racist practices.


At the volunteer program level

Listen to voices from people of colour: Convene listening sessions of people of colour volunteers at your organisation and potential volunteers within new communities you would like to engage; compensate participants and let them know how you use the information they provide.

Review policies and systems with an equity lens, including your volunteer application, handbook, background check policies, onboarding system, training practices, and recognition.

Educate volunteers on race equity topics. Build antiracism into your new volunteer orientation and present additional trainings on a variety of race equity topics.

Build relationships in communities of colour: Reach out to culturally-led organisations in your area, be present at community and cultural events, and do the long-term work to build authentic partnerships based on mutual trust.


At the individual level

Prioritise your own equity education: If you have a budget for professional development, devote a significant portion to equity; spend time educating yourself through articles, books, movies, podcasts, and other resources.

Network with others doing work on race equity in volunteerism. Reach out to volunteer engagement colleagues at other organisations to help and support one another. Influence other groups or organisations you’re involved with.

Consider equity when encountering any volunteer systems, whether as a staff, volunteer, or community member, and challenge groups to prioritise equity in volunteerism.


These potential action steps are not designed to be prescriptive, but rather to offer volunteer engagement leaders ideas for how to use the information in this report to begin making change toward racial equity in volunteerism.

Find more information and download the full report here.

For further information contact DEI Program Manager Brittany Clausen.


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What is excellence?

What is excellence?

The 2021 International Volunteer Managers Day theme is, “What is excellence? — pushing us beyond the ordinary”. This is a great question for our profession to engage with and one that’s long overdue for attention. Here’s why.

Volunteer management as a paid professional role has been around for about fifty years. For more than half of those I have occasionally asked fellow leaders of volunteer engagement to define what makes someone a good leader of volunteers. For example:

  • Is it our ability to engage with and relate to people as individuals?
  • Is it our ability set policies and procedure that support and safeguard volunteers?
  • Is it our advocacy for volunteering within our organisations?

Rarely do I get a clear answer and even rarer still do I hear any consensus from those I ask.

This means that five decades in, our profession still struggles to define and agree on what constitutes ‘good’ in our work. Given that excellence is, “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”, it would seem that we don’t actually have a benchmark of good against which excellent can be defined.

This is why an article Seth Godin wrote for the Tom Peters blog in 2010 resonated with me when I looked at this question of, “What is excellence?”.

Here’s what Seth says, along with my brief reflections on his observations:

“Excellence means that you’re indispensable. At least right now, in this moment, there’s no one else I would choose but you. You, the excellent one, are so surprising, so delightful, so over-the-top and, yes, so human that there really isn’t anyone else I’d rather dance with.”

Are you and your organisation indispensable in the sense that you are the first choice for volunteers? The experience you offer and the relationship you have with your volunteers is so delightfully human that you are their preference.

In our for-impact space that may sit a little uncomfortably with some as it might be construed as setting us above other organisations. I think that misses the point. This isn’t about competition — winning isn’t the point — it’s the taking part, the striving to be excellent so that we connect with people that matters.

“Excellence isn’t about meeting the spec, it’s about setting the spec. It defines what the consumer sees as quality right this minute, and tomorrow, if you’re good, you’ll reset that expectation again.”

Excellence in volunteer management isn’t about meeting someone else’s spec. It’s not about meeting some external standard, helpful as they may be (e.g., Investing in Volunteers or CCVA). Excellence is defining the spec — setting the standard — based on your knowledge of and relationship with volunteers and the community you serve. It’s about striving for excellence in your interactions with volunteers, meeting that every day, and pushing the standard ever higher in future.

“The surefire way to achieve excellence, then, is not to create a written spec and match it. The surefire way is to be human. To be artistic: to make a connection with the customer and to somehow change them for the better.”

Excellence in volunteer management is not about policies, procedures, forms, volunteer agreements and the like. Excellence is about connection, human connection that brings someone into a relationship with our organisation such that they can change the world, and themselves, for the better.

“To be excellent means you must be an artist. The art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. Artists do things that have never been done before. They dig deep to create passion. They connect by changing things for the better.”

I honestly can’t think of a better way of answering the question, ‘What is excellence?’, than by saying, “We connect by changing things for the better”.

It’s a powerful way of describing that leaders of volunteer engagement strive to do every day so that those we serve can change the world with their passion.

To sum up then, what is excellence in volunteer engagement? It means we must be an artist. We practice daily the art of connection, the art of being human, the art of making a difference. We do things that have never been done before. We dig deep to create passion. We connect by changing things for the better.

That’s excellence in volunteer engagement right there.

Do you agree?


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The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

The question every volunteer engagement professional dreads (and how to answer it)

On the 4th July this year I racked up 27 years working in volunteer engagement. Whilst I love being a part of this wonderful profession I dislike still having to answer the question we all dread, the one that comes when you meet someone for the first time, and they ask…

“So, what do you do for a living?”.

You just know that an awkward conversation lies ahead.

If you take the direct approach and respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” (or any of the other multitude of titles you could have) you might get one or more of the following responses (all of which I’ve experienced!):

  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “Do you get paid to do that?” A particular doozy when I was applying for my first mortgage application!
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer.”
  • “Oh, I was once a volunteer…,” usually followed by a long story about their volunteering. I once had someone blether on about how they volunteered once a few years ago as if that one experience made them an expert in a subject I’ve dedicated my whole professional life to!
  • A blank stare.
  • The person asking looks at you quizzically and then moves on to someone who they suspect might do that they might actually understand.

The other approach to answering the dreaded question is to fudge it and just say, “I’m in HR”. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called (read that article and reflect on why it’s still so relevant 15 years later!) then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone outside the profession?

A few years ago I read a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain it to others. What struck me was this line:

“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”

I like this approach. Instead of trying to get someone to grasp what we do by sharing our vague and confusing job titles or explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question instead, “Have you ever volunteered?”.

The chances are good that they have been a volunteer at some point and it’s very possible that they were engaged and supported by a Volunteer Manager. This gives us an excellent opportunity to relate what we do to that unknown peer who helped this person give time to a good cause.

Of course, you could be the Volunteer Manager who supported the person asking another Volunteer Manager what they do for a living. This highlights one reason behind our collective responsibility to give everyone a great volunteering experience — helping volunteers understand the importance of what our profession does to enable people to change the world for the better. Remember, you never know who your volunteers are talking to.

So, next time someone asks you what you do for a living, give this approach a try. Then come back here and let me know how it went.


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What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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My career journey

My career journey

I’m always fascinated by how people got into the wonderful world of leading and managing volunteers. No careers advisor suggests it and no child ever says they want to be a Volunteer Manager when they group up — well my youngest son did when he was little, but that’s because I’m his dad!

So, how do we get into this work? Here’s my story.

As a young child I wanted to be a pilot, specifically a fighter pilot. Growing up in the 1980s, I guess you can blame Top Gun for that one. All through senior school that was the plan — finish school, go to university and join the Royal Air Force. My late and much missed mum even decided that I’d have an advantage if I could ride a horse so signed me up for riding lessons — I’m still not sure if I understand that one.

My plan was on track until I got to university. I was studying physics and modern acoustics and, after a year or two, I decided it wasn’t for me. I’d focused on other things than academic work and my worldview had started to change, as it so often does at that age in that kind of environment.

My third year at university was supposed to be a placement year. Poor grades meant getting anything in physics was impossible, so I landed a job at the university, running a scheme placing students as classroom assistants in local schools. The purpose was to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged children towards higher education. The work was volunteer management, although I didn’t know it and nobody called it that.

I learnt more in six months than in the previous two years of my degree and enjoyed the experience significantly more. I dropped out of university and carried on with the Volunteer Manager role, contributing to work CSV (now Volunteering Matters) were doing on student tutoring and mentoring.

CSV's book, "Learning Together", on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter - my first published writing for our field.
CSV’s book, “Learning Together”, on the value of student tutoring in schools. I wrote a chapter – my first published writing for our field.

After that one-year contract finished I spent the summer of 1995 unemployed before getting a job at the student union working as an advisor in the student support service. Part of my role was to recruit and manage a team of volunteer student advisors — volunteer management again. That contract lasted nine months after which I moved to London.

By this time I knew I wanted to do more work with volunteers and applied for a few jobs, not getting any of them. So out of necessity I moved into recruitment with Hays Accountancy Personnel for a few weeks. I hated it. I had a long commute across London during a long hot summer of frequent tube strikes and my boss thought I was good at cold calling, the part of the job I hated the most.

One day, completely out of the blue, I got a call from Barnardo’s. I’d applied for a job with them, supporting volunteer engagement across children’s services in London and the South East, but hadn’t been successful. The call was to tell me the person who had been appointed had decided not to take up the post and would I like it after all? I jumped at it.

I spent two and a half wonderful and formative years at Barnardo’s and will always think fondly of them for the opportunity they gave me. Through that work I attended the first National Volunteering Conference at UMIST in Manchester, hosted by the National Centre for Volunteering. I joined the National Volunteering Forum, members of whom are friends of mine more than twenty years later.

Barnardo’s also paid for me to attend the first-ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management where I met the head of volunteering for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Cutting a long story short, six months later I was working for RNIB, supporting volunteer engagement across all external relations work (fundraising, communications, marketing etc.) throughout the UK.

I loved it at RNIB. I got to work with some brilliant people, made many friends and had some wonderful opportunities. Not only that, but I took part in projects around business process improvement and customer service management, attended some great in-house leadership training and got to ‘act up’ as Head of Fundraising Strategy for nine months. They even let me take my first steps into freelance work, running a side-gig delivering training for the Directory of Social Change.

After six years at RNIB I moved on, taking up a role managing a team of nine regional officers at Volunteering England (VE). Our team supported the local Volunteer Centre network across England, specifically around our development agenda, Building on Success, which became the main thrust of the Westminster government’s ChangeUp initiative to modernise the capacity of the third sector.

I’d been at VE a little over a year when I applied for and was appointed into the role of Director of Development and Innovation (as it was eventually called). I now had a place on the Senior Management Team, oversight of all our externally funded work (Sport England, Department of Health etc.), lead responsibility for our grant making work and a team of about eighteen staff. During this time I also led VE’s merger with Student Volunteering England, temporarily took charge of our policy & public affairs work and worked on a variety of interesting projects.

Sadly, the 2010 general election led to VE’s strategic funding from Westminster being cut. In 2011, I was made redundant. The organisation merged into NCVO two years later when the funding was scrapped altogether.

In 2011 work was hard to come by. The effects of the 2008 global financial crisis were still being felt and the coalition government in Whitehall was slashing funding for the charity sector. So, I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd. We opened for business in April 2011, and I have loved every minute of it.

I’ve worked across the UK with a wide range of interesting and amazing clients.

I’ve spoken and trained at countless events, conference, and workshops.

I’ve been across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA.

I’ve co-written three books and published over 200 articles on my blog.

I remain as passionate about the profession of leading volunteer engagement as I did in 1994 when I took that first job at University.

After all that looking back, I can’t wait to see what the future brings!


What’s your story in volunteer management? How did you find yourself in this amazing field? Please post a comment to join the conversation.


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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash