Three reasons why do I do this every day

FeaturedThree reasons why do I do this every day

“Why do I do this every day?” It’s a question I haven’t properly asked myself since the early days of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd back in spring 2011. It’s a good question to ask ourselves every now and again. Our friends at Realized Worth celebrated their tenth anniversary earlier this year by asking and answering that question. Inspired by their example, and as a way of reflecting as 2018 draws to a close, this post is my attempt to answer that question afresh.

But first, let’s address the potential elephant in the room.

An elephant. In a room.
An elephant. In a room.

I don’t do what I do for the money. Well, that’s not strictly true: I do need to pay the bills just like anyone else. But some people think that consultants are out to make a quick buck from non-profits, that we are laughing all the way to the bank to top up our already healthy account balances.

David Dickinson holding money with the caption, "Quids In!".
David Dickinson holding money with the caption, “Quids In!”.

Let me assure you this isn’t true, not for me anyway. My take home income as a consultant is about a third of what it was in my last proper job and, thanks to combined VAT, Corporation Tax & income tax, my annual taxes are a much higher proportion of my income than they ever were when I was in full-time employment.

I love what I do, but I’m not in it for the money anymore than I suspect that anyone works in volunteer management or non-profits world is. None of us are buying a super yacht and mooring it in Monaco harbour!

A super yacht at sea
A super yacht at sea

So, if it isn’t for the riches, why do I do it? Here are three main reasons:

1. I have a passion for volunteering
2018 marked three decades since I started volunteering. It was at school and at 14 years old that I got the bug. I’ve volunteered ever since.

Volunteering has helped me in so many ways. I’ve made friends, gained new skills and done things I’d probably never have done otherwise.

I want volunteering to be such a transformational experience for everyone.

No matter who you are, there should be an opportunity for you to do more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider good (credit to the late Ivan Scheier for my favourite definition of volunteering). You should have as much chance as anyone else of being exposed to experiences that will change your life as you change the life of others.

When I wake up in the morning that’s what drives me out from under the warm cosy duvet and gets me in front of the computer, or standing in front of a training group, or working with a consulting client. That belief that today I can help make it easier for someone to volunteer and make a difference for themselves, their community and the world.

A neon sign saying passion
A neon sign saying passion

2. It’s a lifestyle choice
I used to commute to London every day from Lincolnshire. When the trains worked it was a three hour round trip every day. When the trains didn’t work, I was stuck 100 miles from home with no alternative route back. For a third of the year I didn’t see my house in daylight. I did that for six years. I’d rather not do it again.

Of course I still travel. Recently I was training in North Wales. The ten hour round trip on the railway (with the associated stress of missed connections) and night away from my family was worth it to spend time with twenty-two brilliant people doing amazing work.

This time last year I had just finished a work trip to Australia and New Zealand. That’s a 20,000 mile commute, taking over two and a half days just to get there and back again. It was nine weeks away from home and family, eating alone and spending more time than is sensible in hotel rooms and airports.

But this morning my commute took me from my bedroom to my office at the foot of the stairs. This afternoon I get to take 45 mins away from my desk to walk the dog with nobody questioning my absence.

Being your own boss isn’t for everyone. The worry about where the money is coming from, being your own IT, marketing, communications, HR and finance department (to name just a few) comes with it’s challenges. But they are far outweighed by the flexibility, fun and enjoyment of doing what you love whilst still having time for the people you love.

My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby
My dog, a two year old cockapoo called Ruby

3. I want to engage and inspire people to bring about change
2018 also marks twenty-four years since I started paid work in the volunteering movement.

Volunteer management is my vocation and my career. Through my work I’ve formed friendships that have lasted longer than any others in my life. I’ve travelled to countries I never dreamt I’d go to and I’ve worked with and for some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

Volunteer management has seen some changes over those twenty-four years, some good and some not so good. But too little progress has been made. Many of the issues that concerned volunteer managers in 1998 still concern them today – risk, criminal record checks, whether we’re a profession, how to deal with problem behaviour, influencing senior management, whether we are the same as HR…the list goes on and on.

When I set up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd 2011 I didn’t just want to do the basic volunteer management work: how to recruit a volunteer, how to deal with problem behaviour. I also wanted to get stuck into bigger issues. I wanted the work of people-raising to be regarded as as important as fundraising. I wanted volunteering to be a strategic priority for organisations, not just a casual afterthought. I wanted to expand people’s horizons beyond the accepted wisdom of our field, challenging assumptions, tilting at windmills and encouraging new thinking.

I’ve made some progress but there is only so much one independent consultant trainer and writer can do. That’s why the one sentence description of what I do is ‘Engaging and inspiring people to bring about change’.

I want to help everyone in volunteer management step up to the plate and advocate for volunteering and our profession.

I want to inspire, enthuse and equip people to feel confident in speaking up for volunteering, not just for the sake of it but because of a shared passion for the power of people doing great things in the world.

The word 'change' spelt out in jigsaw pieces
The word ‘change’ spelt out in jigsaw pieces

Why do you do what you do every day?

What gives you your get up and go?

Share your thoughts and reflections in the comments below or on social media with the hashtag #WDIDTED.


If you’d like to know more about Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, what we do, our values and how we can help you then please check out our website.

We’d love to hear from you.

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Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

Why we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to volunteers and employment contracts

One of the enduring issues in volunteer management (at least in the UK) is the avoidance of volunteers working under a contract of employment. In fear of this, many organisations follow restrictive practices, increased bureaucracy, reduced scope for providing attractive benefits to potential volunteers, and allow wrong-headed thinking on the issue to predominate. In my view, it is time for this to stop.

Someone signing a contract
Someone signing a contract

Most conferences on volunteer management will feature a lawyer or other legal expert speaking on the issue. Whilst there are some good ones out there, most use the platform they are given to scare volunteer managers into submission. Whether ensuring nobody gets any possible benefit from giving time, or pontificating on what volunteers can and can’t do, Volunteer Managers are encouraged to put legal considerations before all else, rather than take a more considered and common sense approach, a situation not helped when boards and senior managers listen more to legal advisers than their own volunteer management experts.

A bit of background

The issue of whether a volunteer has a contract or not gained attention in the 1990s with a small number of high profile cases where volunteers successfully claimed they actually worked under a contract of employment. This entitled them to the same rights as any employee, enabling them to bring discrimination cases against the volunteer involving organisation.

Understanding this context is important because the creation of a contract of employment with volunteers is actually a risk issue. To my knowledge, in those 1990s cases, the volunteers who claimed employment rights were actually discriminated against by the organisations they volunteered for. Having no means of addressing this via their volunteer status, the individuals concerned had to claim under employment law as the legislation doesn’t cover volunteers. Yet if the organisations had treated these volunteers properly in the first place the contractual status of the volunteers would never have been an issue.

It’s all about risk

Rather than fixating on whether there is a possibility our volunteers might be entitled to contractual status as an employee, perhaps we should be focusing first on managing the risk that a volunteer feels so aggrieved with us that they want to claim employee status in the first place? In short, perhaps we need to practice risk management not risk avoidance!

Risk management involves four simple steps:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?

Risk avoidance takes the more nuclear option of not doing something just because a bad thing may happen (by the way, not all risk is bad). It is as naive as it is misguided – risk is an inherent part of life. If we wanted to avoid all risk we’d just shut up shop and stay in bed all day.

Someone lying in bed
Someone lying in bed

How then would risk management look when it comes to the issue of volunteers and employment contracts? Let’s consider those four steps again:

  1. What is the likelihood that this risk will occur?
    Twenty-three million people volunteer every year. There have been perhaps half a dozen cases of volunteers successfully claiming employment rights in the last thirty years. The implication therefore is that the risk is very low. So low it isn’t really worth considering.However, if your organisation; fails to invest properly in volunteer management; allows volunteers to be treated poorly by paid staff and other volunteers (including trustees); doesn’t have sensible policies in place around volunteer engagement; actively discriminates against volunteers etc.; then your risk is higher. But a volunteer still has to feel so aggrieved they want to seek legal recourse rather than just walk away.Either way you look at it the risk is still pretty low. Sadly, few organisations seem to look at this step in the risk management process, jumping first to the next step…
  2. How severe would it be if that risk did occur?
    The worst case scenario is that a volunteer takes you to an employment tribunal claiming employment rights, wins, then returns to tribunal with a discrimination case, and wins again. Aside from the resulting fines and sanctions possible under employment law, there is the potential for reputational risk and associated impacts on fundraising, future volunteer recruitment and negative media coverage. This is why many people rightly think the risk is pretty severe.Unfortunately, this is where the risk management process not only starts but also stops for many people. The risk is severe so they do everything they can to avoid it. But that fails to acknowledge the next step…
  3. What could we do to minimise the risk occurring?
    Considering the statistics alone, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk. Assuming six successful claims for employment rights happened in one year (and 23 million people volunteered that year) the percentage chance of you facing such a successful claim would be 0.00000026%! The only way to reduce that risk further would be to stop volunteer involvement altogether, a drastic solution to a minuscule problem.Instead, let’s focus on the other issues we raised in step one.Your organisation can minimise the risk of a volunteer claiming employment rights by; investing properly in volunteer management, perhaps employing someone who takes a sensible approach to these issues and has experience in the field; not allowing volunteers to be poorly treated, disciplining staff who do, and educating everyone about how to work well with volunteers; establish clear and well thought through policies around volunteer engagement that are regularly reviewed and consistently implemented; never discriminate against a volunteer.

    With the exception of the last point there will be a cost associated with all of these actions. That cost is an investment to manage risk, enabling volunteers to make a transformative difference to your work whilst reducing the potential of the serious liability identified at step two.

  4. What is the retained risk we are left with?
    The formula for working this out is pretty simple: we know the worst case scenario is bad; we also know the likelihood of the risk happening is very low; and we’ve identified sensible and implementable steps to reduce that likelihood further. I’d see the retained risk as low to medium as a result, although you may view it a bit differently depending on your circumstances and your personal and organisational attitude to risk.So we have a low to medium retained risk. With that in mind, how sensible does it seem to avoid involving volunteers in some roles (or altogether)? Or limiting access to things that might help with volunteer recruitment (such as access to training and skills development not directly related to their role) just because there is a vague chance it might cause a problem down the road? Pretty silly really isn’t it?

In summary

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence it’d be this: Instead of focusing first on contracts and what creates them, let’s concentrate on treating volunteers well in the first place. Do that and the contract issues become less of a priority, not something to be ignored but certainly not something to be obsessed about. The result? Our work will be more enjoyable, and we will create a more impactful and fulfilling experience for our volunteers.

Useful resources

For some useful resources on risk management for leaders and managers of volunteers, take a look at a recent issue of Energize Inc’s Book Buzz newsletter.


Please note that I and Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd are not legal experts. We are sharing our experience of over twenty-four years in volunteer management and, as usual, challenging accepted wisdom. Please do take legal advice if you are in anyway unsure about the legal position in your organisation.

Make volunteer management great

Make volunteer management great

In June this year I was lucky enough to visit Australia to attend their National Volunteering Conference. As anyone who has made the journey ‘down under’ will know, the flight is the epitome of long haul.

Exhausted, having cleared immigration and customs, I relaxed into my taxi – the first comfortable seat I’d sat in for almost 24 hours – but rather than having a snooze I was shocked to see this giant billboard which loomed into view as we left the airport.

Clive Palmer political post - Make Australia Great
Clive Palmer political post – Make Australia Great

The poster – featuring Clive Palmer, leader of the nationalistic United Australia party – also included some wording my jet lag addled brain has since forgotten. Something along the lines of, “Keep Australia for Australians”. It was all clearly positioned so every international visitor to Sydney would see it as they left the airport. Welcome to Australia!

Of course, such nationalism is growing around the world and it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the Australian poster came from.

Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election - Make America Great Again
Trump campiagn slogan from the 2016 US presidentisl election – Make America Great Again

The problem with both these slogans is that they imply Australia and America aren’t great and need to be made so. I’ve been to both countries on many occasions and, in my view, both are already great. I’ve always been impressed, amazed and inspired by the people I’ve met, the landscapes I’ve seen, and the cultures created by bring diverse people together as both countries have.

What has all this got to do with volunteer engagement leadership?

Well, as I reflected on the Make Australia Great billboard over the following days I started thinking about our quest for volunteer management to be a profession. It’s a topic that comes up at conferences, trainings and events around the world – when will volunteer management truly become a profession? When will Volunteer Managers be professionals just like our fundraising, Human Resources, Programme Management and other non-profit colleagues.?

Back in 2014 I wrote an article called, “Is our destination clear?” which suggested that we may not be entirely sure about what we mean when we talk about volunteer management being a profession. I stand by the points I made in that article (please do give it a read) but the Australian poster got me wondering if our mindset doesn’t play a big role in the professional standing of our field.

Australia doesn’t need to be made great, it already is.

America doesn’t need to be made great again, it already is.

Volunteer management doesn’t need to be made into a profession, it already is. Why? Because volunteer managers are professionals.

If we go around indicating we aren’t a profession then by extension aren’t we also going around implying we aren’t professionals? If that’s the case then no wonder our job equity with other non-profit professions suffers.

How can we take a more confident attitude towards our status as a profession? How we can advocate for the professional status of our field and for us individually?

Well International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) is a little over a week away (5th November) and provides a perfect opportunity. This year’s theme is Time For Change. Perhaps one the big changes we can all make is to stop being so nice. I don’t mean we all become mean, rude and grumpy, but that we should use IVMDay to take a stand for our work as volunteer engagement professionals. We should commit to asserting our professional status every day, rather than unintentionally undermining it by asking when we will be seen as a profession. That way we will become the change we want to see.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Five questions about the new Starbucks ‘volunteering’ initiative

Just a few weeks ago my attention was drawn to a headline in The Guardian newspaper, ”Paying employees to volunteer could be key to keeping millennial staff”.

The article reported on Starbucks who, in the USA, have partnered with the Points of Light Foundation to create an initiative designed to attract millennials to work at the coffee chain. As The Guardian reports:

“18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

In response to such challenges, Starbucks is running a six-month pilot program where thirty-six employees in thirteen US cities will continue to get full pay while working at selected non-profit organisations for half the work week. These so called ‘service fellows’ will put in twenty hours at their Starbucks store and then another twenty hours at a local Points of Light affiliate. This non-profit will be doing work that aligns with Starbucks’ social impact priorities. According to The Guardian, the stated goal of the pilot is to accumulate a total of 17,000 hours work before the end of February 2019.

Having pondered this scheme for a few weeks, here are five questions I have about it.

Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices
Millenials sat round a table looking at their mobile devices

1 – Is this really volunteering?

There are some people who do not consider any time given by any employee during the normal working day to be volunteering. The argument is that they are being paid by their employer and, as financial benefit is excluded from the definition of volunteering, such activity can’t be volunteering.

It’s not a viewpoint I agree with. If you are an employee, then your employer pays you for the time you take as holiday (it is sometimes explicitly called paid leave) but you wouldn’t consider yourself to be at work on the beach with a drink in your hand. Why should volunteering been seen differently?

But I digress slight. Getting back to the Starbucks pilot, it is interesting to note that the money being used to pay for the time spent working at non-profits will come from the Starbucks Foundation rather than direct from the company. Does this make a difference?

Similarly, when it comes to defining what they do as volunteering, if the millennial Starbucks employees participate of their own free will (and perhaps even choose the non-profit they will work with), does this exercise of free will help classify what they do as volunteering?

Will participating non-profits make a meaningful distinction between this scheme and, for example, a business releasing employees for a couple of hours a week to perhaps help kids who are struggling to read? Or will they just gratefully grab 20 hours a week of someone’s time that they don’t have to pay a salary for?

Definitions of volunteering are notoriously unhelpful and vague. So is this volunteering or not, and does it matter?

2 – Who is creating and funding the 20 hour a week roles for these millennial Starbucks staff?

My second question is for those Points of Light affiliated non-profits who take part in this scheme. You are getting 20 hours a week of time from a (hopefully) enthusiastic young person. You’re not having to pay for that time. But how are you funding the creation of the roles these people will do?

Who is paying for the time your staff will have to spend identifying the work, creating the role, providing equipment like a desk, computer etc. and of course providing day-to-day management of the ‘service fellow’?

Where is that time and money coming from?

What mission-focused work might not get done because your colleagues are focused instead on giving Starbucks some good PR?

3 – What are the implications for volunteer management in the host organisations?

As I just mentioned, the Starbucks ‘service fellows’ are going to need management support. I can’t see many HR departments falling over themselves to step up to that job. Nor can I imagine most current managers are going to thrill to the idea of having another person to line-manage, especially a millennial part-timer. Inevitably, whether we think this scheme is volunteering or not, it’s the Volunteer Managers who are going to be asked to step in.

If Volunteer Managers get involved in this work, do they have the time and resources to take on this extra responsibility? Remember, most people who lead volunteering are not employed full-time in that role. Most are lucky if they get a few hours a week to focus on volunteering because their main job responsibilities come first. What will not get done if they now manage Starbucks ‘service fellows’? Will support for other volunteers suffer?

Finally, whether it is the Volunteer Manager or someone else who ends up managing the ‘service fellows’, will Points of Light be vetting the participating affiliates to make sure they have good volunteer management practices, especially for engaging millennials? After all, we don’t want to put people off volunteering by giving them a bad experience!

Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it
Scissors cutting a piece of paper with the word jobs on it

4 – What are the implications for volunteering and paid jobs in non-profits if initiatives like this supply volunteers who work 20 hours a week?

Let’s say this scheme is a success. Starbucks are happy, their employees are happy and the non-profits they work with are happy. The scheme is extended. Great! But would it be?

I can see many non-profits stampeding to avail themselves of 20 hours a week of ‘free labour’. They would prefer these ‘service fellows’ to those annoying regular volunteers who: sometimes don’t turn up; gripe if their expenses don’t get paid; moan when nobody thanks them for coming; and are a huge risk because they don’t get paid and so can’t be trusted or relied upon.

Would non-profits start to think differently about their paid workforce too? After all, if they can have people work there for twenty hours a week for six months (or maybe more in future) and someone else pays their salary, doesn’t that mean more money for the mission rather than those blasted admin costs and overheads that the media and public always complain about?

Whether employee or volunteer, if I was at the participating non-profits I’d be worried.

5 – It’s all about Starbucks, isn’t it?

Isn’t the emphasis and implied benefit here all about Starbucks and their ability to attract and retain millennials? As my other questions suggest, the impact on non-profits might actually be harmful – job losses, increased costs, volunteer turnover etc..

Remember, the goal by which the pilot’s success will be measured is whether seventeen thousand hours of time is spent by ‘service fellows’ in partner non-profits. Nothing is said about the impact those millennials will have on the missions of those organisations. Sigh.

So, what do you think?

Have you got an opinion on any of these questions?

Have you got additional questions you’d like to ask?

Engage in the debate by leaving a comment on this article or the your social media network you found this story on, using the hashtag #questionsforstarbucks

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Three ways to increase volunteer engagement

Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?

What is volunteer engagement?

My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword(subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):

“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”

How can we increase volunteer engagement?

My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:

“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:

  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
  • The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”

In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?

Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager

In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.

Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:

  1. Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
  2. Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
  3. Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).

Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?

Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.

Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership

In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:

  • Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
  • 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
  • When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.

In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!

This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.

Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:

  1. We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
  2. We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.

Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work

Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.

This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:

So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.


Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:

All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

I am really pleased to give my latest blog post over to guest contributor, Carol Carbine. I’ve know Carol for many years and you are in for a real treat with her first ever article. Oh, and in case you were wondering, part two will be published here in late September.


Ok, before I start, there are hundreds of articles out there about the psychology of superheroes: what superheroes can teach us about marketing; what your kids can learn from superheroes; leadership lessons from superheroes; what superheroes can teach us about investment strategy; the list is endless.

So you may be asking yourself why I feel the need to talk about volunteer management and superheroes. Simple answer, why not? I mean let’s look at it from the perspective of the individuals we are trying to recruit into volunteering – who hasn’t wanted to feel like a superhero at some stage in their life (even if you were only 6 years old)?

There are some brilliant volunteer managers but many of us still worry about being too demanding, asking too much of our volunteers and managing too rigorously. After all, we’re not paying these people are we so we shouldn’t expect too much? Sadly this means that all too often the results of our recruitment efforts don’t meet our aspirations and we end up with volunteers that are OK, but not brilliant. More sidekick then superhero.

So let’s time travel back to 2012. If I’m honest like many, I didn’t know what to expect from the London Olympics volunteer programme. At the time we heard about teething troubles recruiting (and retaining) great volunteering specialists, the fact that McDonalds were being brought in to manage volunteer recruitment and induction, plus the tens of thousands of people who pre-registered their interest and didn’t get a reply – yes, I was one of them. And, if we are really honest, loads of us thought that Danny Boyle seemed a bit of an odd choice to direct the opening ceremony.

How wrong were we!

Universally when you talk to people who became ‘Games Makers’ (they never think of themselves as ‘only a volunteer’) the immense passion, pride and sense of having been part of something extra special shines through, even six years later.

A while ago I had the opportunity to talk in detail to some of the Pandemonium Drummers who featured at the 2012 opening ceremony about the rigorous recruitment process they went through. This process led to a genuine pride that they were the best of the best – the high expectations, absolute secrecy, attendance at an extremely high percentage of practise / rehearsals or you didn’t get to perform on the day, and so on.

Ok so back to superheroes, think of your favourite superhero what is it that makes them super? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • A high level of passion for the cause that inspires them to take action
  • Great skills and talents
  • A clear vision of what needs to be done
  • A clear identity – who they are, what they stand for and usually a natty costume!
  • A willingness to tackle challenges head on, learn from their mistakes and keep going till the job is done

Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want people like this as volunteers?

Before anyone starts complaining about my high standards radically reducing the pool of available people, being elitist or not being inclusive, remember that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes from Ant Man to Ego (who’s a living planet) and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds including an ex-convict, an orphaned college student and a millionaire philanthropist. They also include a green one, a blue one, a blind one, a deaf one, a couple of wheelchair users, one who appears to have been genetically imprinted by a cat and a living tree!

So next time you’re recruiting you might just want to raise the bar and consider what super talents your superheroes need to have. Or then again you might just want to do it the same way you have always done it and settle for sidekicks.

PS. According to the Oxford English dictionary in 1899 when the word ‘superhero’ first appeared it meant ‘an exceptionally skilful or successful person’.


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to contact Carol direct, here are her details:

Website: www.carolcarbine.consulting

Email: carolcarbine@icloud.com

Twitter: @carolcarbine