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The Lords report on charities: what’s good, what’s bad and what’s missing when it comes to volunteering?

Last weekend the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities published their report, “Stronger charities for a stronger society” (NB. link opens a PDF). It’s a long read but thankfully the section focusing on volunteering runs to just a few pages (pp 62-68). NCVO have also helpfully summarised all the Lords’ recommendations in a document available online.

In this article, I want to share my initial thoughts on what the report says about volunteering. I’m not going to focus on the five associated recommendations which I broadly agree with. Rather, I want to highlight some of what I found to be good and bad in the report as well as note a few things that seem to be missing.

The good

Two really positive things struck me in the report.

First, paragraph 300, in which Karl Wilding of NCVO says:

“All the evidence from the volunteer managers we work with tells us that volunteers do not want to replace paid staff in the sense that they do not want to put people out of jobs, but they absolutely recognise that they can contribute something to a service over and above what the paid staff delivering that service do.”

As I have written elsewhere recently, we need to take a more intelligent and measured look at the issues labelled under the broad heading of ‘job substitution’. To have Karl, the volunteering lead at NCVO, take a similar line is very welcome. It shows strong leadership by NCVO on a difficult issue.

Second, I am heartened that the Lords heard evidence suggesting there is a need for a fresh vision and drive behind volunteering (paragraph 303). They quote Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA and chair of the Modern Employment Review set up by the Government:

“How we think about a society where being a volunteer has the same status as being an employee, and it is an important part of how people feel they are fulfilled, develop and grow in their lives, is a big opportunity. We still kind of think that the big thing in your life is your work, and you then might do a bit of volunteering on the side. It may be that in 30 years it is reversed.”

To know that some thoughtful and intelligent input into the future direction of volunteering has been considered is encouraging, even if the resulting recommendations are largely more immediate and practical in nature.

The bad

As I read the report’s volunteering section I began to sigh at the limited view of volunteering expressed by some of the charities who gave evidence to the Select Committee. Take paragraph 298 for example:

”Visionary argued that that an over-reliance on volunteers risked hindering the growth of a charity. Age UK Runnymede and Spelthorne noted that charities using volunteers to deliver services were at risk, as volunteers could not be compelled to work.”

First, why must volunteers limit the growth of a charity? The vast majority of charities are completely reliant on volunteers and continue to exist and grown quite well without paid staff. Many well established and large charities rely on a mainly volunteer workforce (for example, Samaritans and the National Trust), with paid staff in the minority. Almost every charity grew from an entirely volunteer run organisation.

Second, charities do not use volunteers. Volunteers are people. We do not use people. We use things.

Third, why must services be at risk if delivered through volunteers? Samaritans services are delivered through volunteers. Lifeboat crews are volunteers. Magistrates are volunteers. St John Ambulance provides first aid through volunteers. They all seem to manage OK. Why can’t other services?

Until these patronising and limiting views of volunteers are banished, we will forever limit the potential of volunteering to play it’s full role in transforming society for the better.

The missing

Three things struck me as missing from the report.

First, I saw no meaningful consideration of the potential of older people as volunteers. The report, like so much of volunteering, focuses on young people. This youth obsession risks blinding us to the opportunities and challenges of engaging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as volunteers.

Second, I can find no mention of the importance of local volunteering infrastructure. As I have outlined in another article, local Volunteer Centres are essential for supporting and nurturing effective volunteer involvement. I don’t expect the Lords to lobby for a return to the days when Volunteer Centres were better funded than now, but it would have been good to see their role and importance acknowledged.

Third, there seems to be no acknowledgement of volunteering as a strategic priority for the sector. Writing for Third Sector, the chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Pitkeathly said of the challenges charities face:

“Grant programmes are being reduced or eliminated, and contracts are increasingly prescriptive and short-term, stifling charities’ ability to innovate, cover costs and plan for the future.”

Whilst access to funding is rightly identified as part of the problem, where is the mention of volunteering in this strategic context? One of the unique aspects of charities is their ability to innovate, to experiment and to find new solutions through engaging volunteers. This ability to draw in talent and extend the limited budget in creative ways is a key distinctive between the voluntary sector and the public and private sector. It is how almost all charities started – volunteer effort, trying something new and finding creative solutions. To not acknowledge or encourage this aspect of volunteering is a significant weakness in any work that claims to understand and support the sector.

A final thought

I said earlier that I wasn’t going to look at the report’s recommendations. Sorry, I lied. I want to single out just one, recommendation 28 at paragraph 311:

”Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base. We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”

Whilst on one level is totally agree with this I do have a worry. It’s the same worry I get whenever I see anything that places an emphasis on external funding for volunteer engagement – why do so many organisations seek external funding for volunteer involvement rather than pay for it themselves? I know resources are tight but organisations could choose to prioritise funding for volunteer involvement rather than leave this to the vagaries of external funders. Failing to do so indicates just how little importance those organisation place on their volunteers.

Over to you

Those are my thoughts on the good, the bad and the missing from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, at least as it relates to volunteering. Now it’s over to you. What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Our time is now – seize the moment

Many volunteer managers I meet are frustrated. They see huge potential in the work of volunteers, potential that is held back because senior managers don’t support volunteering as enthusiastically as they do fundraising. That may be about to change!

Yesterday, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive at NCVO, issued a new year letter to the sector in which he called for fresh thinking about the role volunteering can play as we deal with the challenges British society faces.

I was heartened to read Sir Stuart’s letter as it echoed much of what I passionately believe. For example:

  • Volunteering is not a magic solution to all our ills but it can and does play a key role. This should be maximised rather than dismissed in the sector’s relentless pursuit of money as the only resource worth having.
  • Just because volunteers don’t get paid doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing meaningful, important and significant work. What we pay someone is not a measure of their competence.
  • The debates about job substitution need to move on. Society has and is changing and new ways of thinking and doing are needed.
  • We are underplaying the ways in which volunteering can benefit and enrich the lives of all of us, from innovating new solutions, to improving our nation’s health to creating the kind of society we want to live in.
  • None of this happens without investment in and support for effective leadership and management of volunteers and volunteering.

In all our diversity, Volunteer Managers need to be front and centre in responding to Sir Stuart’s call to be bold for volunteering. We need to make our voices heard and help shape the debate. If we don’t, it will be shaped for us, potentially by those who do not have the knowledge, skills and experience we do. Or worse, this moment will pass and nothing will change.

Everyone of us needs to take action. Here are just things you could do:

  • Share Sir Stuart’s letter widely within your organisation, especially amongst senior managers and your board.
  • Write a comment in response to Sir Stuart’s letter on the NCVO website. Say what you think about his ideas and make the case for Volunteer Managers to be heard and included.
  • Share the article with your volunteers and listen to what they think.
  • Contact your professional association of volunteer managers (e.g. AVM, AVSM, NAVSM, HVG etc.) and encourage them to respond to Sir Stuart’s call to action.
  • Bring up this issue at your local Volunteer Managers networking group. Don’t have one, start one! Share the results of the discussion with the likes of NCVO and your professional association.
  • Read up on the issues Sir Stuart raises so you can play an informed role in any discussions on the role of volunteers in public services and wider society. A list of my previous blog posts on relevant topics can be found at the end of this article.

You could do one, more or another action. But please do something.

We have a wonderful opportunity here to position volunteering as central to the success of our organisations, our sector and our society. Let’s make the most of it!


Previous articles I have written that might help you think through some of the issues Sir Stuart raises

Is Giving Tuesday good for volunteering?

Is Giving Tuesday good for volunteering?

Two years ago the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) imported the American concept of #GivingTuesday to the UK. The concept has got bigger each year but does #GivingTuesday do anything positive for volunteering or is it another example of charities preferring gifts of money to gifts of time?

Next week #GivingTuesday will once more be marked in the UK. Originally conceived in the USA, #GivingTuesday is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving and the popular shopping events, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The idea is simple – #GivingTuesday starts the charitable season, when many people consider some kind of support for good causes1.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) describe #GivingTuesday like this:

Whether you bake good stuff, make good stuff, donate good stuff, tweet good stuff or even say good stuff ‐ whatever you do, we want you to do good stuff for charity this #GivingTuesday. You’ll be joining thousands of people in the UK in committing to doing good stuff all on the same day, including some of the UK’s biggest brands, charities and celebrities.

Volunteering is one way that people can support #GivingTuesday. Others include: donating money, clothes or food; tweeting; and, apparently, simply saying nice things about charities! Yet I believe the emphasis is on people giving money. Why? Consider this statement on the #GivingTuesday UK website:

We [CAF] brought #GivingTuesday to the UK two years ago and last year we raised £6,000 a minute for UK charities and broke the world record for most amount of money donated online in 24 hours!

Despite all the ways to give, the celebration is of donated money.

I don’t find this emphasis surprising. I frequently come across the word ‘giving’ in the non-profit world to only describe people giving money. When I hear of someone making a gift to an organisation it is usually a gift of money. Why? Because in my view many non-profits value donated money far more than donated time.

This isn’t an article railing against what I believe is a misguided, cash obsessed approach to non-profit management. I’ve written about that before – see this blog post from 2012 for an example. No, my purpose for writing this article is to discover what you are doing to make the most of #GivingTuesday when it comes to volunteering? For example:

  • How have you harnessed the potential of the day over the last two years to get more people to give you their time?
  • Did your efforts connect with those of your fundraising department or are you both working in isolation from each other?
  • What lessons have you learned?
  • Was the effort worth it?
  • What plans do you have for this year?
  • How are you planning to measure success?

I’d love to hear from you. I am genuinely interested in learning how people are making the most of #GivingTuesday when it comes to volunteering. I hope it isn’t just a concept that is being used by charities to ask the public to part with more of their cash.


See also Susan J Ellis’ November Hot Topic article, “What Volunteer Recruiters Can Learn from #GivingTuesday”. If #GivingTuesday is a new concept to you, or you never knew it included volunteering, then Susan’s article could help you consider how to get the most from #GivingTuesday in 2017.

  1. Of course the timing doesn’t exactly work for the UK coming, as it does, just a few days after the annual Children In Need fundraising campaign. IS there a risk that we are over-asking the ever generous but increasingly fiscally challenged British public? The topic for another blog post perhaps?

Six ideas from online dating to help with volunteer recruitment

One of the things I’ve noticed in the last few of years is the increasing use of dating as an analogy when people talk about volunteer recruitment and retention. So, when in 2012 I found myself back in the single life once again, I thought that I might have an opportunity to use this change in circumstances to write my own blog on dating and volunteering.

After being with my ex-partner for nearly twenty years, getting back into the dating game was a daunting prospect, not least because one of the common ways to meet new people these days is through online dating sites. Not only did they not exist the last time I was single, the internet didn’t even exist, at least in a form accessible to the general public in the always-connected way it does now. So my take on dating and volunteering is to look at six things I think online dating sites can teach those of us recruiting, engaging and leading volunteers.


Sites get to know people first and then using processes to match up people

When you sign up for dating sites you are prompted to tell them all about yourself. For the bigger sites this includes quite extensive questioning about your interests, tastes, preferences in a partner and so on. For me there are three takeaways for volunteer management arising from this extensive questioning by the site:

  1. Dating sites use a process to help learn about the individual. They then use that knowledge to help match the person to others. Critically, the process supports the person, helping to learn about them and their motivations. Sadly, many people who are volunteering encounter bureaucratic, impersonal processes that seem to ignore the individual, partly because their purpose is to cover the organisations backside if things go wrong. How much more attractive volunteering would be if we focused on getting to know the potential volunteer and their reasons for giving their time more than whether they’ve filled our forms in correctly.
  2. People are not averse to filling in forms because they expect the payoff at the end of it will be worth it. Those who use dating sites have a bigger purpose and if we view the process as an inconvenience then they will put up with it because they hope the results of doing it will be worth the time spent. Is that the experience volunteers have of giving their time to your organisation, or do they just give up when faced with your processes and go off and do something less boring instead?
  3. The whole process can be done easily online. If you can’t finish the form on a dating site in one sitting — and some are rather long — you can save them and come back later. It is a seamless, joined up and easy process. It might almost be said that filling these forms in is a pleasure (see my last point about payoff) — would that this were true for volunteer applications!

Selling yourself online

One of the most difficult things about online dating is writing a pithy personal advert. Aside from the fact that we Brits are not the best at speaking about or promoting ourselves, many people really seem to struggle with this task. In fact, cast your eyes over many such personal adverts on dating sites and you’ll notice that many follow the same format, make the same kinds of points and don’t really stand out.

One that caught my eye back in 2012 — out of professional rather than personal interest! — started, as many of these statements do, by saying that the lady concerned had no idea what to write about herself. Her solution? She gave it to a friend to write instead! A brave move but an inspired one.

Sadly, many volunteer recruitment adverts — both online and offline — resort to the the same formula, making them hard to stand out to prospective volunteers. What’s more, they invariably advertise the volunteer opportunity by stating what the organisation seeks to gain from someone volunteering, not what the volunteer might gain. Imagine that on a dating site — how going out with someone would make their life better but no regard given to your experience, feelings or interests. Or going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves. Both those scenarios sound like a shortcut to lifelong solitude.

So, how can we write more engaging and distinctive personal adverts for our organisations and our volunteering opportunities? How can we come across as engaging, interesting and worthy of someone’s precious time? Would you be brave enough to hand this task over to someone else — an existing volunteer perhaps — and see what they write about you?


The power of pictures

When I was single I never responded to an online dating profile that contained no pictures. It’s not that looks were everything to me in a potential date — they’re not — but they are a crucial element of the wider ‘sell’ of someone’s profile. If I couldn’t see the person then all the words in the world won’t make a difference because I felt like I was missing a key element of the wider picture, of who they are.

Pinterest and Instagram show the value in volunteer recruitment of visual storytelling. By uploading images of happy volunteers enjoying their work, organisations are seeing interest from others who ‘want some of what they’re having’.

So when we recruit volunteers, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the imagery we use. Do we show engaging images, images that show that real people volunteer here and have a great time doing so? Or do we rely on lots of text or, heaven forbid, job descriptions to try and hook people in? Even worse, do we use attractive images to hook people in that bear no relation to the reality they actually experience volunteering with us?


Levels of engagement

One thing dating websites understand is that you don’t want to rush into a date with a total stranger without having built some rapport first. Making first contact with someone and instantly asking them out for a meal risks coming across online as desperate or making people run in fear that you may be some complete nutter.

Dating sites get round this by providing different ways to engage with people. You can simply ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ a profile to signify your interest. Or you give a digital ‘wink’, although personally I found this a bit creepy — would you wink at a stranger in a bar as your first contact? Then you can email and/or instant message with someone, developing that rapport to the point that you both might feel comfortable to meet face-to-face for a date.

There’s a definite parallel with volunteer recruitment here. Often our recruitment efforts come across like asking someone to marry us the first time we meet. We ask for a long term intensive commitment from day one. Then we wonder why people run for the hills! Instead, could we provide a scale of engagement, giving people easy, no/low commitment ways to try us out, see if they like us, build rapport and perhaps move to a point in the future where they feel comfortable making a longer term commitment? It may take longer to get people to make the commitment we want, but investing that time early in the relationship with our volunteers will yield dividends later on.


Not knowing where you stand if people don’t reply

One of the most frustrating experiences I had with dating sites was finding someone you really like the look and sound of, plucking up the courage to drop them a line a say hello, and then never hearing back from them. Did they get my message? Did they not like my profile?

The same applies to volunteering. Someone plucks up the courage to get in touch and enquire about volunteering with you. And they hear nothing back. Did you get their email or voicemail? Were they not suitable? Why not? What could they have done that might have caught your attention?

Too many organisations seem to think that it is totally acceptable to respond to people within a few days or weeks — or even never — after their enquiry. Yet we live in an immediate world. People expect a reply, even just a holding reply, within a few hours at most. 28 days delivery might have met consumer expectations twenty years ago but next day delivery is the benchmark now.

How can you ensure you respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers? Can you use email ‘out of office’ messages to provide instant holding replies? Perhaps you could involve volunteers to help you manage the prospective volunteer enquiries?


Advice on how to get the most of the experience

One thing I liked after being on a certain dating site for a couple of weeks was that they sent me an email giving me suggestions for how to get the most from my membership. OK, it was a template, impersonal email but the advice was really good and helped me to find my feet in this new online world I had entered.

Do we, should we, or could we do something similar for volunteers? Do we help people new to our organisations to find their feet, settle in and feel at home? Or do we just drop them in at the deep end, let them get on with it and then get frustrated when they don’t do what we want them to?


So there you have it, my thoughts on what volunteer managers can learn from dating websites. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts, preferably about what leaders of volunteers can learn, how have you dealt with these issues, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’m not single anymore and no, I didn’t find my now wife online.

Where should leadership of volunteering sit in an organisation?

One of the most common questions people ask me is where the volunteer management function should be located within an organisational structure. It’s a great question to ask, but giving a simple and concise answer isn’t easy – it’s a complex issue.

It is a question that Susan J Ellis and I seek to answer directly in our book, “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, which is aimed at Chief Executives and senior managers to help them think through how they create an effective strategy and culture of volunteer involvement.

Here’s how we address the question in chapter five.


Organisational Placement

Whatever management option you choose, to whom will the person in charge of volunteers report? This decision has an impact on your entire ‘chain of command’ and sends a message to all employees and volunteers. In a later chapter, we will consider more fully the question of supervising the leader of volunteers, but for now, recognise that where you place the head of this initiative implies and affects where – even whether – volunteers themselves are integrated into the organisation.

There is no ‘correct’ place for the volunteer manager on the organisational chart. Each setting is different, and parameters such as staff size and the job functions of other staff members will affect your decision. However, be aware that whoever supervises the volunteer manager must truly understand what makes that position unique1.

For example, if you place the volunteer programme under the public relations department, will the director of public relations be able to assist the volunteer manager in his or her responsibilities related to the agency’s daily service delivery? Generally, a public relations department does not contribute to in-house operations or activities. Conversely, if the volunteer manager is placed under, for example, the casework supervisor, will that person be supportive of volunteer-related public outreach efforts? Again, the casework supervisor would normally have few or no responsibilities requiring external work in the community, such as public speaking.

It is useful to consider the connection between the volunteer manager and the agency’s head of human resources or personnel (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). There are both similarities and differences between these two functions. Structurally, as already noted, both recruit workers and place them into your organisation. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify the expectations for paid and volunteer personnel. But think carefully if you are leaning towards placing the volunteer office within the human resources department. Here are some cautions:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers will always be given lower priority than employees—perhaps little attention at all.
  • Human resources staff take job descriptions designed by others in the organisation and try to fill those slots with the best people, who are then completely delegated to each department or team. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactively suggesting ways volunteers can support the work to be done, be much more creative in finding people with expertise or the potential to become experts, and find placements for people who unexpectedly offer useful talents (the human resources folks can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary).
  • The volunteer manager may also be much more involved in a range of day-to-day organisational activities and supervise some volunteers directly.

Some organisations place the volunteer office under the supporter-development or fundraising department. Again, there is overlap (especially if the department involves special events or fundraising volunteers), but fundraising staff commonly have no direct service or programme responsibilities, so who can support the volunteer manager in recruiting and placing volunteers for service-delivery roles? Also, putting volunteer resources into fundraising may imply an agenda to ask for money as well as time, with an emphasis on the former.

In reality, the volunteer manager is a separate, independent department head, in that she or he has responsibilities substantially different from, though linked to, all other departments and is responsible for a large cadre of workers, albeit volunteers. Ideally, the volunteer manager should answer directly to you or another senior manager. This also sends a message to the volunteers. It says that they have a direct line to the top decision makers. It conveys a similar message to all employees: volunteers are a subject of daily interest to senior management, much as paid staff are in most organisations with employees. When you consider that the volunteer component is the organisation’s non-salaried personnel department and that you, as chief executive, are responsible for the deployment of all human resources, the decision to place the volunteer manager directly under you is more than justifiable.

If you are the executive of a very large organisation, the volunteer manager may have to report to you through a deputy chief executive or some other senior manager. Again, recognise the messages you send to everyone through your choice of where to place the volunteer programme. Consider the other departments answering to the same senior manager and assess whether there is an evident rationale for placing the volunteer programme alongside these other teams—or whether the placement implies that volunteers are a ‘miscellaneous’ organisation function.


If you’d like to read more about how to embed a culture and structure to support effective volunteer engagement then you can buy a copy of From The Top Down – UK Edition from Amazon. It makes a perfect Christmas present for your CEO, Director, board chair or line manager!

  1. Something we cover in chapter four of the book.