Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

FeaturedThree thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

Developing good role descriptions is a lost art

The demands to constantly find new volunteers leave Volunteer Managers little time to think clearly and carefully, before recruitment starts, about the actual work those volunteers will be doing.

“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.” – McCurley, Lynch and Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

New research might help

I was interested to read an article from Stanford Business School in the USA, “Beware of Workplace Policies That Kill Motivation”. It draws on recent research that highlights how subtle changes in the language of employment contracts can have a powerful psychological effect and influence on a range of ways employees behave. Significantly, to quote the article:

“The research found that designing a contract to specifically curb an employee’s counterproductive behaviors can, ultimately, exacerbate counterproductive behaviors”.

Although the article focuses on paid staff and the language of contracts, the lessons are equally applicable to volunteer management.

What’s wrong with volunteer role descriptions?

Role descriptions for volunteers are typically controlling documents, instructing volunteers what to do and not do, giving little scope for the volunteer to bring their own skills, talents, experience and ideas to the work. As one volunteer once said to me, “The problem with volunteer management is that it has become all about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Such a controlling approach to volunteer management is often driven by misconceptions of volunteers being well meaning but unreliable amateurs, people who need controlling if we are to avoid problem behaviour and poor performance. Yet, the research highlighted by Stanford suggests approaching volunteer roles like this this actually risks making problem behaviour and poor performance more likely.

Three ways forward

How then, can we construct and articulate roles for volunteers that address anxieties about the competence and reliability of volunteers but also empowering them to be creative, autonomous and successful?

To answer that question I have copied three key quotes from the article and outlined my thoughts about the application of these to volunteer management.

1 – Mindset shift

“From management’s perspective, contracts are too often used merely as a way to exercise control over the workforce. But management could also use contracts to motivate employees. Our research explains how employers can achieve both ends with the same tool.”

My thoughts: A mindset shift is needed. We need to challenge the belief we and others may hold about volunteer competence and risk. Competence does not relate to how much someone gets paid. Volunteers, properly recruited and trained, present no more of a risk that paid staff and so do not need to be controlled more than anyone else. In fact, as motivation is such a key part of volunteer management, we must find ways to make our volunteer roles more meaningful and motivating, and that means being less controlling.

2 – Be more vague (sometimes)

“Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

My thoughts: If we want to retain volunteers, if we want them to achieve more, generate new ideas, be more motivated and work well with others, then we need to use more general language in our role descriptions. This could mean suggesting tasks they could do rather than telling them exactly what to do. It could also mean focusing more on the results we want them to achieve and less on the specific tasks we want them to perform.

3 – When to not be so vague

“Typically, contracts contain both “control” and “coordination” clauses. Control clauses tell you what you can and can’t do at work, while coordination clauses help you align expectations. In other words, coordination clauses let workers know what employers want, while control clauses tell them how to do it and, quite often, what not to do.

“An example of a control clause run amok can be found in a 2003 Department of Defense employment contract for pastry bakers. The 26-page document specifies the number of chocolate chips each cookie should contain, but nowhere does it mention that the cookies should taste good.”

“The key is to remember that greater specificity can be helpful in coordination clauses by making sure both sides are on the same page, but it can backfire in control clauses by dampening an employee’s feelings of autonomy.”

My thoughts: If we are going to use more general language, then we should do so with control clauses. Being too prescriptive when telling people what we want them to do reduces autonomy and motivation. On the other hand, being specific in the language we use in co-ordination clauses can enhance motivation & clarify agreement between the volunteer and their manager about what the volunteer is expected to achieve.

In other words, making the results we want volunteers to achieve really tangible and being less prescriptive when explaining the tasks we want volunteers to perform would both be good steps to take.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your reflections on this point and the article that inspired it. Please leave a comment below.

Can we help?

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation develop meaningful and motivating roles for your volunteers then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

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Look after number one

Look after number one

I’ve been working in volunteer leadership and management for almost 24 years. That’s more than half of my life spent in the service of volunteers and those who organise them. It’s not just a series of jobs but a career, a vocation.

Over the last few months I’ve been working with Adrian Murtagh of Just Smart Thinking, a fellow traveller – himself an experienced volunteering professional of over 20 years, a qualified nurse, counsellor and life coach – exploring how we can work together to develop new opportunities and ideas.

We both love seeing the light bulbs go on as people gain new insights into how to involve volunteers to change the world, one donated minute at a time.

We both love seeing lives changed, the lives of volunteers and those they serve.

Volunteering is good for you

Studies abound on the benefits volunteers get from helping others. Just a quick Google search will reveal that volunteering will help you get a job, fight loneliness, make you live longer, make you happier, improve physical and mental health, stave off depression, fight the effects of dementia, and even give you a better sex life!

Is volunteer management good for you?

What you won’t find are studies about the health and wellbeing benefits people get from managing volunteers.  You won’t find studies around the benefits strong self-resilience can bring to you in the management role – improving your quality of life inside and outside of the work environment. Adrian often talks of the powerful me, we and us concept, but what happens when the “me” is not being supported, guided or ignored?

You see, leading and managing volunteers is great. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, we don’t talk about it. We’re often so focused on our volunteers that we don’t take the time to focus on ourselves. You won’t find many (any?) conference workshops dedicated to helping Volunteer Managers look after themselves. Nor will you easily discover hints and tips to resiliently deal with the challenges that arise in the human-focused systems and environments in which we work and live.

All our literature, all our training courses, all our conferences: they all focus on how we can support others. Very few tackle the subject of looking after ourselves.

Looking after number one is a bit selfish though, isn’t it?

Adrian and I don’t believe so. We work in a sector, a profession, that is about altruism, service, putting others first, helping people. All the more reason to make sure we are OK because our work matters. It really matters. If we’re not on our A-game that can have serious consequences for others. If we don’t look after number one, how can we effectively look after everyone else?

Through our wealth of knowledge and years of experience, Adrian and I believe it’s time this changed.

Help us to help you

We are exploring how we can help leaders and manager of volunteers – you! – to look after number one, how to take care of your own wellbeing so you can better support your volunteers.

To help us in this process we want to get your input. We’ve designed a short wellbeing survey that you can complete online. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete and your participation will help Adrian and I to develop some tools and resources that will really help you and others working in volunteer management.

Free prize inside

As an incentive to take part were giving away five copies of my book, co-written with Susan J Ellis, From The Top Down. Simply fill in your name and contact details at the end of the survey (this is optional) and we’ll enter you into the draw (UK respondents only).

Please complete our survey before 13 April 2018.

Thank you in advance for your support.

Risk – learn to love it

Risk – learn to love it

Risk is everywhere. From dawn to dusk we live with risk all around us. Consider – 450 people in the USA die from falling out of their beds each year and more than 1,000 people die every year in the UK after falling down stairs?

How do you respond to that information? Will you now avoid going to bed or using stairs? I doubt it. Instead, armed with that knowledge, you’ll adapt to the risks you face and respond accordingly.

“The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen” – The Oxford English Dictionary definition of risk

Likewise, if you know electricity and water don’t mix then you don’t sit in the bath with an electric fire on the edge of the tub. If you know what a car does when it hits a human body, then you’re likely to wait for the crossing to be clear rather than just wandering into traffic. This is risk management.

Risk avoidance, not management

Yet that isn’t how risk plays out when it comes volunteering. All too often I see organisations practice risk avoidance, not risk management. To continue our examples, they avoid bed, avoid stairs, avoid baths (no wonder these organisations stink!) and avoiding crossing roads, never seeing the possibilities on the other side of the street.

A story from New Zealand

I saw a wonderful – but maddening – illustration of this in New Zealand last year.

A lady I met volunteers with two environmental organisations, located on opposite sides of a road. One organisation is community run, the other is a local government run. In the community organisation, volunteers use all the machinery and equipment (there are no paid staff), but only once they have been properly recruited and trained. In the local government project volunteers are not allowed to use the machines and equipment because it is deemed too risky – only the paid staff can use it. It doesn’t matter if they are trained and qualified to use the kit from the organisation across the road (and many people volunteer for both groups), because they are unpaid their use of the machinery is too much of a risk.

Three lessons this story teaches us

  1. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because they are volunteers. If someone does not get paid it does not mean they are less competent. Pay, and how much someone is paid, is not a determinant of competence.
  2. Organisations often assume volunteers are a risk because of ignorance about good volunteer management practice. Competent Volunteer Managers recruit the right people for the role, equip them with the training, skills and tools to do the job properly and safely, and regularly check in to make sure everything was going OK. They manage risk.
  3. Organisations miss out on a huge pool of talent, ideas and resources to fulfil their missions if they practice risk avoidance. Not allowing volunteers to do something because there might be a risk is not the same as being cautious and taking steps to minimise that risk.

Leaders of volunteers need to speak out

Of course, not every organisation thinks this way, but many do. I passionately believe that if we lead and manage volunteers then need to advocate more forcefully to overcome such ignorance and prejudice towards volunteers.

An example from Australia

Last year I had a workshop participant explain that her organisation wouldn’t let volunteers do a certain role because they can’t get insurance for it. I urged her to go back to the organisation and explain that insurance is not risk management. Insurance provides a pay out if risk management fails.

I urged them to go back and lobby for some proper risk management to take place, asking questions like:

  • How big a risk would it be for a volunteer to do that role?
  • What might happen if things go wrong?
  • How likely is that?
  • What could they do to reduce the likelihood?
  • Are they comfortable with the retained, net risk?

The point being that the organisation could probably secure insurance cover if it could demonstrate good risk management. Not doing so actually revealed a resistance to engaging volunteers – insurance was just the excuse.

Would you make such an argument in your organisation?

Risk is something to embrace

Looking back history we can see the huge societal changes that have come about because volunteers took a risk. For example, one hundred years ago women in the UK gained the right to vote because many people took huge risks volunteering to fight for that right. Today, volunteers serve in risky situations and save lives doing so – look at lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and volunteer firefighters across the globe, to name just three examples.

We need to learn to love risk, to embrace it as a marker of the potential for the world to be changed.

We need to help our organisation rediscover their pioneering, life changing, world shaking possibilities.

The potential of those who give time to transform the world is too great for us to stay silent.

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

Volunteer Management Progress report 2018 – how we can help

The 2018 Volunteer Management Progress Report (VMPR) is full of insights about volunteer leadership and management.

Now in its third year, the VMPR is the only tool that explores global trends and issues that leaders and managers of volunteers face.

Key findings

The four most striking findings from the 2018 report are:

  1. The satisfaction of Volunteer Managers and their intent to stay in the profession directly relates to how engaged their co-workers are in supporting volunteer engagement.
  2. Those who lead and manage volunteers are spending less time doing so, often because they have other responsibilities beyond their volunteer management duties.
  3. Almost 10% of respondents have no budget for volunteer management and 21% don’t know if they have such a budget!
  4. Diversity is an issue, both amongst those who lead and manage volunteers and amongst volunteers.

”Volunteer Retention is a Challenge on the Rise – Anecdotally, leaders of volunteers increasingly note the challenge of maintaining volunteer involvement over longer periods of time and point out that volunteers increasingly appear to prefer short-term, episodic assignments.”

Challenges

According to the report, the top five challenges leaders of volunteers face are:

  1. Recruitment: Finding enough volunteers & the right volunteers for specific roles
  2. Respect and “Buy-In”: Lack of executive support /understanding & co-worker resistance to volunteer involvement
  3. Retention: Fulfilling commitments to service & volunteers “aging out”
  4. Roles & Matching: Designing impactful roles & meeting volunteer interests
  5. Time: Splitting time between competing priorities & not enough paid staff

If the findings and challenges from VMPR 2018 ring true for you then we can help.

How we can help you

Since 2011, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd have been engaging and inspiring people to bring about change, delivering expert support that is passionate about the potential of people. Our consultancy and training services are aimed at helping you give people a great volunteer experience, make the most of the valuable time they give you and, above all, achieve your goals.

We have training courses and workshops directly related to the top challenges from VMPR 2018. Here are just five examples:

  1. ‘Understanding and Engaging 21st Century Volunteers’ will help you recruit and retain volunteers in our ever-changing world
  2. ‘From The Top Down for Volunteer Managers’ will help you influence peers and senior managers to lobby effectively for volunteer engagement
  3. ’Developing Meaningful Roles For Volunteers’ will help you create great volunteer roles that will attract and keep volunteers
  4. ‘Time and Productivity Management for Volunteer Managers’ will help you manage yourself and your work for maximum impact
  5. ‘Measuring Volunteering’ will help you build a case for more support as well as provide more meaningful recognition to your volunteers

Learn more and get in touch

For more details download a copy of our training information, testimonials and rates or get in touch to discuss your needs and how we can help through our consulting services. We’d love to hear from you and help you reach even greater success in delivering roles that make a difference for your volunteers, your organisation and it’s clients.

A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.

Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well-meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s not just people working in non-profits that believe this nonsense either.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. Whether in libraries, policing or other settings, volunteers as incompetent amateurs is a common position of unions and others.

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff – who are seen as essential – and the volunteers – who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking. Anytime we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

Here are three reasons why.

“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.” – GK Chesterton


The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional, on the other hand, suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

Over the last few years I have asked two questions when I train groups: how many of you have worked with incompetent volunteers?; how many of you have worked with incompetent paid staff? More hands go up in response to the second question. Every time. Everywhere I work in the world.

“When you love something so much that you’d do it without pay, you end up pretty good at it. So good that, at times, you can outclass the professionals.” – Charles Chu


Second, labelling volunteers as well-meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. Have any of the critics of volunteers in libraries ever considered that there might be very well trained, highly competent professional librarians who want to volunteer to help run these library services? Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practising librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and / or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, the assumption is that managers will take anyone they can find and throw them in at the deep end, untrained, to work in a library. If we did that then, of course, professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent leader of volunteers ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

“While professional has many reasons for doing something (money, prestige, power), an amateur has only one —the “genuine fire and reality” of pure, unbridled passion. You can always trust an amateur.” – Charles Chu


Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No nonprofit organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

“None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother — and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.” – GK Chesterton


We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well-meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead, we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful – and at worst negligent – behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on my old blog site back in February 2015. Quotations are from this article by Charles Chu.)

Who is our enemy?

Who is our enemy?

I often find writing hard. Sometimes the words flow freely and easily, sometimes there is a topic I want to address but I just can’t find the right way into it, and other times I just sit and stare at a blinking cursor wondering what I can say that will be helpful to others.

This is commonly called writer’s block. American author Anne Lamott has some helpful words of advice when we encounter it:

“Writer’s block isn’t a block. When your wife locks you out of the house you don’t have a problem with the door! The problem is acceptance. Accept you are empty.”

When I feel empty like that – empty of inspiration, empty of energy, empty of words – I read, often books and articles that have nothing to do with volunteering, like the Originals book I reviewed in my last posting.

Two of the places I go for inspiration are For The Interested by Josh Spector and the weekly newsletter from Charles Chu. In his recent article, “Feeling Lost? Maybe You Need An Enemy”, Charles explores how having an adversary to focus on can be a uniting force. That got me thinking. Who is our enemy, the nemesis of leaders and managers of volunteers?

  • Is it governments, who consistently fail to understand volunteering and what is needed to make it happen?
  • Is it fundraisers, who are so focused on getting in the cash they fail to see the potential of people?
  • Is it CEOs and senior managers, who consistently ignore us, cut our posts first when times get tough and take advantage of volunteers?

Whoever we may consider our enemy to be – and perhaps this is the first time you’ve even considered that person or institution to be an enemy – Charles Chu has a challenge for us in this quote from the late Umberto Eco:

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”

Charles continues:

“This enemy I am fighting  – the enemies we all fight  –  could they…simply be fake enemies that we’ve “invented” to satisfy our own needs? However scary it is, we should also pause and ask ourselves, “Does this enemy that I fight truly exist? And, if not, then what is it that I’ve been doing this all for?”

Are CEOs, fundraisers and governments really the enemy of leaders of volunteers? Have we invented them as adversaries so we have a common cause to unite behind? Are we rallying against a group, body or individual in order to demonstrate our own worth (as Umberto Eco put it)? Is this all just a convenient way for us to blame others for our frustrations rather than do something about them ourselves? What if we stopped viewing them as enemies? What if we stopped blaming others for our lack of progress, whether personally or as a profession, and started viewing them as potential allies?

Back to Charles Chu again:

“Those we make enemies out of are, in the end, still people. Deep down, they suffer from many of the same fears and worries. If we take the time to see the world as they do, it becomes a whole lot harder to hate them.”

Just spend a few moments reflecting on the following questions, either in regard to your personally and what you are trying to achieve as a manager of volunteers, or as our wider profession:

  • Who do we see as our enemy?
  • Why are they our enemy?
  • Have we invented that enemy or are they real?
  • How can I see the world as my enemy does and how might that help me achieve my goal?
  • What might I be avoiding doing because I’m blaming someone else for my challenges?
  • What action would help me take control of the situation and move forward instead of blaming someone else?

I hope that through tackling my writers block I’ve produced something that’s got you thinking. I also hope it inspires you write too, in the form of a response by leaving a comment below.

I’d love to know what you think.