Anatomy of an overseas trip

Anatomy of an overseas trip

This article will be a little different from my usual musings on volunteer management and leadership. I thought it might be interesting to give you a glimpse at what it is like doing an overseas work trip as a volunteer engagement consultant.

People often say how lucky I am to be able to travel with work, and I am. It’s a privilege to work with passionate Volunteer Managers around the world and to learn from their experiences. But travel overseas isn’t always the glamorous experience it might appear. So here is a warts and all summary of six nights away in the USA last month for the 2019 Points of Light conference.

16 June 2019

Arrive at Grantham railway station in Lincolnshire around 2pm for my train to London. Thanks to it being a weekend, first class is a cheap option so I won’t have an issue cramming my suitcase into limited the limited bag space down the back of the train. If only my flights were first class too!

Grantham station
Grantham station

London Kings Cross to Heathrow via the tube and Heathrow Express is blissfully uneventful. London is so much nicer at the weekend without all the commuters striving to be the first into the office (seriously people, what’s the rush?). The struggle comes in finding the Hotel Hoppa bus stop at Heathrow Terminal Three for the service to my hotel. The Hoppa service is a great idea but so confusing to understand for a UK resident and seasoned traveller like myself that I’m amazed foreign visitors, unfamiliar with the airport, can use it at all.

After waiting for 30 minutes the bus finally turns up and a short while later I am at my hotel and getting settled in for the night, knowing I have an early start in the morning.

17 June 2019

Alarm goes off at 450am. Another wait for the Hoppa bus back to terminal three, thankfully not half-an-hour this time.

The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3
The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3

Slightly worried to receive an email from American Airlines that my connection from Chicago to Minneapolis-St Paul has been brought forward. It was already a tight one hour and 45 mins, and that’s now been reduced by 20 minutes.

Breakfast and coffee at Heathrow before boarding a lovely new 787 Dreamliner to Chicago. I spent almost 17 hours on one of these from Perth (Australia) to London last year, so today’s eight hour flight time across the Atlantic will be a breeze.

Happily my flight leaves on time and, even better, looks likely to arrive 30-45 minutes early at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Unfortunately, as we are about 100ft off the ground the pilot has to go around because the plane landing before us hasn’t cleared the runway. That means another 30 minutes in the air and the hopes of making my tight connection take a blow.

As is typical at O’Hare, the border control queue is huge and takes ages to get through. I grab my suitcase and head for flight connections where they tell me I need to leave 45 minutes to get to my next flight as the usual train between terminals is closed for maintenance and I’ll have to re-clear security (TSA). With only 35 minutes until the connecting flight leaves, I reluctantly change my plans, re-checking myself and my bag to be put on standby for a 5pm flight (instead of my original 120pm departure) and confirmed on an 840pm fight. Endless additional hours at an airport await – such fun!

The replacement bus service (it isn’t just the UK that does these then) gets me to terminal three where I jump on the free wifi to: tell the person in Minneapolis who is picking me up that I’ll be later than planned; and advise my keynote co-presenter (the brilliant Beth Steinhorn) that I will miss that evening’s technical run through.

But what’s that airport tannoy announcement saying? Turns out my 120pm flight has been delayed to its original departure time of 145pm, about ten minutes from now. I rush to the gate and explain the situation to the gate agent – who puts me on the flight! Happy days. Much frantic messaging ensues before takeoff to rescind my earlier delay notifications.

After all that stress I arrive at Minneapolis-St Paul pretty on time. Sadly, my suitcase doesn’t, having been re-checked for one of the later flights. American Airlines make arrangements to get it back to me, hopefully that evening, and I head off to the hotel.

Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA
Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA

Checking in I explain the bag situation and ask them to take the bag in for me, even if it arrives in the middle of the night, so I don’t have to stay awake – no point making the jet lag worse. No time to rest though, as I head straight out for the technical run through with Beth and get first sight of the room where tomorrow morning we’ll be doing our keynote address to 750 people.

The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through
The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through

I then connect with my friend Barry Altland for an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for some sleep. At this point I’ve been up for about 22 hours, it’s 9pm, I have no suitcase and I need to be up at 5am as we have a final technical run through at 7am ahead of the main session at 830am. All of which means I am delighted to see an email telling me my suitcase is due to arrive at 330am!

Please make the glamour of overseas travel stop!

18 June 2019

After a few hours of bad sleep I wake at 145am having dreamt my suitcase has arrived, but was empty. I check my email and see a message that my bag has indeed been delivered. I dash down to reception where I am re-united with my clean clothes and other essentials! I unpack at 2am and grab three more hours of sleep.

My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference
My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference

After a final early morning tech run through, the keynote address kicks off on time and is a success. We showcase examples of volunteer managers as catalysts of change, featuring three stories on video and two in person thanks to our guest speakers, Jess and Joanne. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive, which is gratifying after six months of preparatory work to pull the session together.

Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
The opening pleanry in full swing
The opening pleanry in full swing
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh

After lunch at the food truck festival outside the venue I get to attend a session by the amazing Dana Litwin on dealing with volunteer problem behaviour, by way of cuddling penguins (or stabby footballs as Dana calls them) and a bit of singing (I said Dana was amazing).

Next up is meeting my friend Tony Goodrow, CEO of Better Impact, to discuss two possible work projects over a beer and dinner. Then straight to the Al!ve and Better Impact networking reception. I get to meet in person a few people I have known online for a while as well as re-connect with fellow blogger Meridian Swift.

Sleep comes easily when I finally reach my bed.

19 June 2019

Oooh, I get a lie-in this morning – until 6am!

Given the six hour time difference to the UK I spend breakfast dealing with email and social media before the three block walk back to the River Centre in downtown St Paul.

American conference centres are huge!
American conference centres are huge!

The morning is more sessions and networking following lunch at the food trucks again, catching up with fellow Volunteer Managers in the sunshine to the sounds of an esoteric DJ who the conference organisers have hired.

In the last session of the day I go from attendee to presenter, delivering (for the first time) my workshop, “All Volunteer Mangers Are Liars”. It seems to go across well with the 150 people in the room with yet more lovely feedback. I do like the willingness of American’s to be effusive with their praise if you do a good job.

Well branded podiums in all the rooms
Well branded podiums in all the rooms

That’s the formal programme done but it’s straight to the Intercontinental Hotel for a reception hosted for funders to which I have been invited. From there, Beth and I head out for dinner to reflect on yesterday’s keynote and discuss the thorny issue of payments for volunteers and how the rules and practices vary between the USA and UK.

Once again, I don’t struggle to sleep!

20 June 2019

Up at 6am again, clearing messages from back home before heading to the conference venue for my 830am “Philosophy Of Volunteering Workshop”. This is one of my favourite sessions to run. 150 of us have ninety minutes of fun, challenge and great conversation about the values and beliefs we have about volunteerism.

Over coffee I have a revelation in event catering as the snacks provided are maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. How have I lived for 45 years without these?!

Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!
Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!

Before we know it the 2019 Points of Life Conference concludes with a very American closing session featuring cheering, a singer, a TV news anchor, the brother of a former US President and the announcement that the 2020 conference will be in Washington DC. I’m left wondering how that style of closing event would go down at home.

The conference may be over, but work isn’t. I catch up with fellow Energize Inc. Associate Betsy McFarland who I had the privilege of seeing present a workshop earlier in the week. Betsy heads off for her flight home and I get stuck into work I need to catch up on after three days at the conference.

Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week
Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week

I treat myself to dinner at a restaurant I like in St Paul which happens to be next to the park where the city’s jazz festival is kicking off. Despite the wet weather a big crown has turned out for a rather good latin jazz band.

21 June 2019

Rising early again means I have the best part of a day until I fly home. So getting to experience the St Paul legend that is Mickey’s Diner for a late breakfast with Meridian Swift is a welcome distraction from hours of boredom before meeting my lift back to the airport.

The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340
The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340

My flight to Philadelphia passes uneventfully and I easily make my connection to a British Airways flight to London, even having time for a quick meal before the scheduled departure at 10pm. All of which means I’ve spent 15 hours awake before I even get on the plane that will take me back to the UK. There is nothing more glamorous than sitting in hotels and airports on your own waiting to go home (disengage sarcasm mode).

22 June 2019

BA do their thing and get us into Terminal Five at Heathrow nicely ahead of schedule. The connections to Kings Cross go smoothly, too smoothly in fact as I end up with over an hour to kill before my train home.

I finally make it back home about 2pm, six days from when I left. By the time I go to bed I have been awake more than 36 hours and have just the Sunday to recover before I drive to Liverpool on Monday to run some training for a client. This trip may be over, but the next is about to begin.


Movies watched in flight on this trip:

  • Flags Of Our Fathers – very good
  • Fighting With My Family – amusing
  • Captain Marvel – best Marvel movie so far, imho
  • Bumblebee – meh
  • Widows – excellent
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Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why should leaders of volunteer engagement put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and share their views, opinions, insights and thoughts on anything and everything volunteering?

One of my aims when I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011 was to write more and, since then, I have lost count of how many articles I’ve written. It must be coming close to 170 for my own blog, where I now publish one piece every two weeks. There is also a monthly column I write for Third Sector online which has been running since the early days of my freelance career. And, of course, the quarterly Points Of View feature I have co-authored since 2013 for e-volunteerism.com, first with the late Susan J Ellis and more recently with the wonderful Erin Spink.

On top of all that are guest posts for others, commissioned writing for clients and two books: “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis; and “The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook” for the Directory of Social Change, both the third edition and the forthcoming fourth edition with Dr Eddy Hogg, Mike Locke and Rick Lynch.

But why do I write and, more importantly, why should you?

Four reasons why I write

  1. To contribute to and build up the field. The vast majority of what I write is done voluntarily – I don’t earn a penny for 99% of my written work. Why? Because I am passionate about volunteering and the essential work of those who lead and manage volunteers. When I started in the field I benefited from the freely available writing of leaders like Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Jayne Cravens, Ivan Scheier and Linda Graff. Now I can share the insights and experience I have developed during my twenty-five years of experience and contribute to the field myself. “Pay it forward” in action.
  2. From personal experience, I know how busy the day-to-day life of a volunteer manager can be. It can feel like an isolating role, with demands mounting up daily from volunteers, colleagues, managers, prospective volunteers and organisational leaders. Consequently, it can be hard to carve out thinking time during the day – time to reflect on some of the big issues facing volunteerism. And if we do manage to carve out the time, what are the big issues? Through my writing I hope to provide food for thought for colleagues, musing on issues relevant to you in your busy professional lives. My aim is that what I say leads to actions that help volunteers to have a more rewarding experience whilst they make important contributions to organisations’ missions and society’s needs.
  3. Whilst things have improved more recently, I think we have a shortage of independent people in the UK who speak out when issues come up that affect volunteering and volunteer management. Volunteer Managers have traditionally relied on our peak bodies (NCVO, Volunteer Now, WCVA and Volunteer Scotland) and professional associations (AVM, Heritage Volunteering Group, AVSM, NAVSM etc.) to speak for us. And they do, but they can’t always take the line that’s needed or speak out on every issue. As an independent writer, I believe I have a voice that is free from the potential constraints of political influence, funding or inter-agency politics.
  4. Whilst my main motivation for writing is to give back to and build up our field, I also do it because it is great marketing for me and my work. I hope those of you who read what I write like it, feel challenged or inspired by it and so might consider hiring me to work with you as a consultant, a trainer or a speaker. Of course, what I write will continue to be freely available, even if you do’t hire me, but some have, and for that I am grateful.If you’d be interesting in getting in touch about how I can help you in your work then just drop me an email.

Four reasons why you should write

  1. Writing things down makes you think about what you want to say. Whether it is sharing an insight you have, a response to a news story, or something you feel passionate about, the process of getting what’s in your brain down into written form forces you to have an opinion. Not enough people working in volunteer leadership and management roles share their opinions about the strategic and operational issues we all face.I am not urging you to go write a book – although perhaps you might! But what about replying a blog post (like this one – hint hint) or to an article in an online magazine, or making a social media post?
  2. Which leads me to my second reason more people in the volunteerism field (you!) should write. Once you have an opinion and you share, it gives an opportunity for others to engage in debate over your views. Such debate forces us all to think, to sharpen our understanding, challenge our perspectives and advance the theory of volunteer leadership and management (and ultimately the practice, for there is nothing as practical as a good theory). My own views on working with volunteers have developed significantly (and continue to do so) from reading and discussing the thoughts and insights of others. I haven’t always agreed with them but I have always learnt something. What could you help others learn and think about today?
  3. And so to my third reason why you should write – I want to know what you think. So do others. It isn’t just the ‘leaders’ in volunteerism from whom we can learn. All of us have something to share. That’s why I started UKVPMs over twenty years ago: as a forum for people in the trenches of volunteer management to ask questions, share tips and ideas and advance our collective knowledge. That’s why I got involved in co-editing the free Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet eBook (link opens a PDF download), in which forty people from across the field of volunteer management around the globe (contributions come from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and the USA) share what they have learned about making your organisation attractive to volunteers. You have fabulous treasures of knowledge others could benefit from, so please share.
  4. My final reason for encouraging you to write is that it has never been easier to share your ideas and insights. Blogging, social media and new technologies have revolutionised the provision of – and access to – information on volunteerism. It’s no longer necessary to write a book or dissertation to get your voice heard, so there is no longer an excuse for not having the time to comment.

Susan J Ellis wrote that the internet means no volunteer manager should ever feel isolated again. This is true, but the more people write and contribute to the ever-growing library of knowledge online, the richer we all become.


This article is an edited and updated version of one that originally appeared on my old blog site on 25 July 2011. You can access all the articles I published before switching to WordPress in November 2016 here on the old blog site.

If you have an idea for an article on volunteering matters and you’d like to suggest is as a guest post on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog then I’d love to hear from you. Just get in touch here.

When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

Volunteer recognition is important, but is it negatively impacting our ability to attract new volunteers?

Volunteer recognition season is drawing to an end. Whilst New Zealand’s National Volunteer Week kicks off on Sunday (16th June 2019), we’ve already had similar weeks in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the UK (to name just a few).

Volunteers have been showered in praise and thanked for their work. Awards have been handed out as parties, lunches and receptions have been held. New pin badges are being worn and new certificates displayed with pride.

Such recognition efforts are to be encouraged, but are they working against us when it comes to other aspects of volunteer management, especially recruitment?

A few years ago my good friend Martin J Cowling told me that he had a habit of reading the local newspapers in places he visited around the world. If those newspapers featured any stories about volunteers they were usually recognition of deeply committed, often older people, selflessly giving huge amounts of time over a considerable number of years to good causes in their community.

Today I see Martin’s experience reflected in the daily Google Alerts I receive. These highlight mentions of the words volunteering, volunteer and volunteerism in the news. Here are just three examples:

All of these people have done wonderful volunteering and are rightly being celebrated. But just think for a minute about the message such stories may send to people outside of the volunteering bubble, including those who have never volunteered before:

  • Volunteering is mostly something done in retirement
  • Volunteering requires a long-term time commitment (20 years plus)
  • Volunteering requires me to give lots of time on a regular basis
  • People with a disability can’t volunteer (the Southend Hospital volunteer stopped because of sight loss)
  • Volunteer work isn’t very exciting (putting labels on files and running errands for paid staff)
  • Volunteers are mainly old people

Would these news stories attract young people? Or people who feel the pressure of time on their busy lives? Or those balancing work with family commitments or caring responsibilities?

What about people with disabilities? Or those for whom volunteering is seen as a route into work? Or students who need to fit volunteering around studies?

My fear is that in acknowledging and celebrating the super-volunteers1 we are turning off the very diversity of people we want – no need – if volunteer engagement is going to be sustainable when the likes of those people mentioned in these stories stop their volunteering.

What we need to do is balance the stories of long-term, deeply committed volunteers with more public recognition of volunteers who give a short amount of time, perhaps a one off commitment, and make a difference as a consequence.

As hypothetical example, let’s show how Finn, aged 16, used his social media skills on a short term project that developed a new recruitment campaign which has subsequently helped us engage twelve new young people from BAME backgrounds in our advocacy work.

If you have such stories already then put them forward to your communications teams and / or local media. Explain why the traditional stories don’t always help and give some new material for the media people to use.

If you don’t have these stories (perhaps because you don’t have those roles) then my advice is to start developing them! Jayne Cravens has some excellent examples and advice on these three pages of her website (which should be an essential resource for all Volunteer Managers!):

Perhaps if we get the message out that volunteering doesn’t require the next thirty years of your life, that it’s flexible, inclusive, impactful, fulfilling, tech-loving and doesn’t require you to sign away all your free time…perhaps if we do that, we’ll start to transform volunteer engagement for the better?

Maybe we can all commit to this changed approach for the volunteer recognition season 2020 – are you on board?

  1. See Einolf, Christopher J & Yung, Cheryl (2018). Super-volunteers: Who Are They and How Do We Get One? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47(4), 789-812

Where are you putting your effort today?

Where are you putting your effort today?

Long time readers of this blog and my Third Sector online articles will know I am fan of Seth Godin. I’ve based articles on Seth’s work (e.g. about volunteer managers being liars and on exit, voice and loyalty) and quoted him in articles too. This time I’m going a step further.

Back in December 2018, Seth posted a short article to his daily blog. It made me think and challenged me in equal measure. I’m going to quote the whole of that post here because I hope it’ll get you thinking too.

Ready? Here’s Seth…

Nobody dabbles at dentistry

There are some jobs that are only done by accredited professionals.

And then there are most jobs, jobs that some people do for fun, now and then, perhaps in front of the bathroom mirror.

It’s difficult to find your footing when you’re a logo designer, a comedian or a project manager. Because these are gigs that many people think they can do, at least a little bit.

If you’re doing one of these non-dentist jobs, the best approach is to be extraordinarily good at it. So much better than an amateur that there’s really no room for discussion. You don’t have to justify yourself. Your work justifies you.

The alternative is to simply whine about the fact that everyone thinks that they can do what you do.

The thing is, it might be true.

In other words, there are some jobs that are only done by accredited professionals. Doctors. Lawyers. Accountants. Dentists.

Most jobs aren’t like that, including the role of Volunteer Manager.

If some people think they could do a little bit of some jobs – like logo designer, comedian or project manager – wouldn’t many more people think they could be be a volunteer manager? After all, having coffee with someone and asking them to give some time to a good cause isn’t exactly rocket science, is it?

I’ve had many experiences where someone asks what I do and I tell them I lead and manage volunteers. I then get told all about volunteering and how easy it must be to work with volunteers because that person was once a volunteer. In those moments it’s almost as if I have wasted the last 25 years of my life dedicated to this work, because the person I’m talking to clearly thinks they could do it just as well with no prior experience.

If, therefore, most people think they could do what we do then, according to Seth, Volunteer Managers have two choices about the way we approach our non-dentistry job.

We can be exceptionally good at it, our work justifying us, our roles and our contributions to our organisations & communities.

Or we can whinge that nobody understands what we do.

Where are you putting your effort today?

No Volunteers Week

No Volunteers Week

I’ve been reflecting recently on why so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management. I haven’t come up with a simple solution (sorry!) but I do think I’ve decided on an important cause.

A problem of influence

But first, what do I mean when I say so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management? Here are some examples of situations many of us might struggle to change:

  • Volunteering isn’t given strategic consideration in the same way as other resourcing issues are at a senior level. Fundraising strategy, people strategy, risk strategy – all get top management attention. Volunteering typically gets delegated down to the Volunteer Manager.
  • Volunteers are seen as nice-to-have but non-essential in the fulfilment of the organisation’s vision and mission. They are viewed this way by board members, senior management, managers, paid staff…and sometimes even the volunteers themselves!
  • The budget for volunteer engagement is one of the first to be cut because: volunteers are free and; well, volunteers are easy to recruit and manage aren’t they, so we don’t need volunteer managers do we? – anyone can do it!
  • Volunteer management roles are graded lower than other comparable roles, often as co-ordinators or administrators and not as management, at least not senior management.
  • Volunteers are viewed as second-class citizens, not invited to team meetings, not trusted with certain roles or access to information etc..

So what may be a significant cause of all this? What I want to focus on here is a lack of understanding, appreciation and awareness of the essential role volunteers play in our society1.

The problem

Volunteering is woven into the fabric of life in the UK yet is largely invisible day-to-day. It’s something we seem embarrassed to talk about with each other. When was the last time someone you know waxed lyrical at a party about the volunteering they do?

Volunteering seems to have a cultural stigma of Victorian noblesse-oblige, the well-off doing charity to the less well off. It’s still seen as older ladies doing good for others. That’s very 19th Century and not in keeping with our 21st century modern world, so we brush it under the carpet.

With the exception of those few post-Olympic weeks in late 2012, volunteering doesn’t get much public attention or celebration. Even the honours system introduced a lower-status gong for volunteers (the British Empire Medal), placing volunteers below the level of others who get the more well-known MBEs, OBEs etc..

When volunteers do get coverage in the media they are mostly talked about in the context of austerity and public funding cuts. The undertone of these stories is that volunteers are well-meaning but incompetent amateurs who councils, hospitals and others involve as a way to save money and put people out of jobs.

In light of all this, it’s no surprise that Volunteer Managers struggle to influence and effect change in our organisations. Instead of being formally taught about working with volunteers, most of the people employed in the voluntary sector know little about volunteering. Worse, their perceptions of volunteers are the same as those held by wider society which, as we have seen, are not exactly positive. And that’s true if you work on volunteer engagement in the public or private sector too.

A solution?

What is needed is nothing short of a change in the way volunteers are regarded in UK society. Perhaps if volunteers were seen as essential to so much of what we take for granted, then their status may go up. Consequently, we might find ourselves pushing against doors that are at least unlocked rather than slammed in our faces.

Of course, such a change isn’t going to be quick or easy. It’s going to take focus and effort, so here’s a suggestion of how we might start. I want to breathe new life into an old idea we used to discuss at Volunteering England. With UK Volunteers’ Week around the corner (1-7 June) I’d like to suggest a thought experiment – National No Volunteers Week.

Call to action

It’s a really simple concept. I’d like you to leave a comment on this blog post, or on social media, about how society would be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped volunteering. For example, without volunteers there would be:

  • No magistrates, so the criminal justice system grinds to a halt.
  • No Samaritans, no ear to turn to in desperate times, so depression, isolation and suicide rates increase.
  • No meals-on-wheels, so older people become more socially isolated and may even die alone and hungry.
  • No sports groups or teams, so the health of the nation suffers.
  • No first aiders, so major sporting and social events are cancelled.
  • No lifeboats, so people at trouble off our coasts die.
  • The closure of libraries, museums and other cultural institutions.

The list could go on and on, which is why I want you to build it with me.

Let’s get started now – how would society be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped giving time? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and / or on social media with the hashtag #novolunteersweek

Together, let’s paint a picture of how essential volunteers are to daily life and take a first step to changing the culture of volunteering in our country and our organisations.

  1. When I say ‘our’ here I am talking about the UK, although readers from outside the UK may see these same issues reflected in your own country.

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

My top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in 2016 I wrote an article recommending some productivity tools and resources. My intention was to help Volunteer Management professionals with the daily challenge of getting stuff done. Now, almost three years on, I’m revisiting the theme with the same aim, this time sharing five top tips to help you get more productive at work.

Tip #1 – Headphones

Volunteer Managers are always getting interrupted when they are at work.

Interrupted by paid staff colleagues asking for twenty volunteers for that event tomorrow. You know, the one that’s been in planning for the last year but only now do they remember they need volunteers!

Interrupted by volunteers who want a chat, or their expenses signed off, or have a complaint about another volunteer.

Interrupted by senior management who need someone to collect the lunch order for the SMT meeting and, well, you can get a volunteer to do that, right?

You get the idea.

Any interruption draws your attention away from your work, attention that takes time to regain.

Here’s my tip (and it works really well in open plan offices).

Buy the biggest pair of over-ear headphones you can find. They don’t have to be flashy noise cancellers, they don’t event have to be expensive. They just have to be big. Put them on when you don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t have to play music or anything, just put them on.

Why? People will be reluctant to walk up and remove your headphones whilst you’re wearing them, reducing the interruptions you experience.

Simple and effective.

A pair of large, over-ear headphones
A pair of large, over-ear headphones

Tip #2 – Walk this way

Steve Jobs used to hold his meetings walking around the Apple campus in California. He was mobile most of the time he was at work, rarely sat at a desk.

We don’t have to be sedentary all the time either. Perhaps you can’t hold your meetings walking around the local park (although have you ever suggested it?) but you can get up and go for a brief stroll when you need to reset your attention, refocus you energy or just reset your brain.

Every afternoon that I work from home I take an hour to walk my dog. I try not to listen to podcasts or music. I just walk. The clear headspace it gives me recharges my energy and often helps me solve problems I’ve been mulling over. On one walk I even wrote the first draft of a blog post, dictating it into my iPhone after inspiration struck.

Your walk doesn’t have to be an hour. It could just be a stroll to the sandwich shop at lunch, or five minutes round the block between meetings. Whatever you can manage, give it a go and see if it helps you.

Someone walking
Someone walking

Tip #3 – Stop

Every now and again, just stop. Pause for a minute between the phone call that just ended and turning to your email. Take a few deep breaths between the last meeting and the next one. Give your brain time and space to catch up and reset, ready for the next task.

Go home at a sensible time every night. Nobody has ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at work” when lying on their deathbed. You get paid the same whether you do your contracted hours or you work extra hours a week. I know you’re a Volunteer Manager and dedicated to your volunteers, but you won’t help them if you don’t look after yourself. There is more to life that volunteer management – there, I said it!

Oh, and make sure you take all of your annual leave / holiday allowance. However you want to spend that time away from work is fine, but make sure you spend it away from work. Email off, voicemail on. No sneaking a peek at your messages. They can wait. Life won’t.

A pause button
A pause button

Tip #4 – Know yourself

One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done to be more productive was monitoring my attention over a given day. I know I’m a morning person and am especially productive in the morning. I know I’m not productive after lunch. I know my afternoon dog walk will give me an energy boost, enough to get another hour of good work out of me late in the day. So I schedule my work around these attention rhythms.

I’m lucky of course. I work for myself, often at home. But you can structure your day in an office environment too. When I commuted to London, I’d start work on the train at 715am. By 9am I’d got 90mins of work done. I left at 4pm. Colleagues perhaps wondered why I was leaving early, but they didn’t see that solid block of work time on my morning train, done whilst many of them were just waking up.

Don’t let other people dictate when you are most productive. Know what works for you and try to structure your day accordingly.

Socrates
Socrates

Tip#5 – Notification

My last tip usually results in gasps of astonishment when I say it in productivity training for leaders of volunteer engagement. It’s easy to say, but hard for many to do.

Turn off notifications on your computer, smartphone and tablet!

Shocking right?

You don’t need these machines pinging at you every time someone tweets, emails, texts or otherwise interacts with you. Don’t let the device manage your attention, take control and manage the device. You’ll be amazed how much more focus you have and how much more you get done.

Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone
Notification bubbles next to a mobile phone

So there you have it, my top five productivity tips for leaders of volunteer engagement.

What would you add to the list?

Leave a comment below to add your tips.


I want to acknowledge Josh Spector’s article, “How To Free Up Two Hours Of Your Day” as the inspiration for this blog post. Josh curates an excellent weekly newsletter called For The Interested and I highly recommend subscribing for free, which you can do right here.

Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?

“The low levels of participation in employer-supported volunteering (ESV) reflects a wider lack of awareness of this kind of volunteering. As well as scope to increase awareness, the fact that around a third of volunteers who participated in employer-supported volunteering in the last year felt their employers did not actively encourage it suggests there is more that could be done to promote it.”

That was the conclusion of NCVO’s Time Well Spent report, released back in January. Despite more than twenty years of attention being given to ESV in the UK it remains a marginal way for people to get involved in volunteering. Why?

First, nobody seems to have successfully sold the concept of ESV into the small and medium sized business community (SMEs). Many have tried, but ESV persists in being something large employers embrace more than SMEs, perhaps because the absence of some paid staff during the working day may be less acutely felt amongst a larger staff team.

Second, many volunteer involving organisations still get hung up on whether ESV is really volunteering. The thinking goes that if the volunteer is taking time out of their typical working day, and so being paid by the employer for that time, then they aren’t really a volunteer. Whether or not you agree with this thinking (and I firmly disagree), from an employers perspective it must be frustrating to see good causes spurning the offer of help simply because of some definitional minutiae.

Next, I think some non-profits only engage in ESV because they see it as a route to getting a donation from the employer. This creates a tension between corporate fundraising and volunteer engagement functions, tension that holds the organisation back from making the most of the opportunities presented by potential – and consequently frustrated – corporate supporters.

Finally, ESV is still seen by non-profits as either traditional team challenge activities or initiatives that deploy the professional skills of their staff into the community. Both present problems. Team challenges frequently suck up non-profit time with little positive return. Sure the employees have a great time, but sometimes the organisation, for example, gets a poorly painted room and has to hire in professional painters to fix the work done by the volunteers. Skills-based volunteering can also be challenging, especially if skilled employee volunteers are seen as a threat by paid staff who may resent volunteers doing similar work to them ‘for free’.

Yet, new ways of doing ESV are developing that most non-profits aren’t even aware of, let alone embracing. In fact, I think the non-profit sector are increasingly falling behind the thinking of businesses when it comes to this form of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Consider the recent pilot in the USA by Starbucks and their charitable arm, The Starbucks Foundation. This is something Meridian Swift and I explored in two articles last year – you can find the first one here and the second one here.

This Starbucks pilot is one example of where employers are heading. They know that millennials want to work for employers who are truly engaged in the community, not those who just pay lip service to their warm, fuzzy CSR statements (I read somewhere that more than 50% of Millennials accept a job based upon a company’s involvement with causes). So, in an increasingly competitive marketplace for recruiting millennial talent, these businesses are developing innovative approaches to make them the employer of choice amongst young people.

What Starbucks have done is the tip of the iceberg, more will follow and, whilst these initiatives are mainly stateside, it won’t be long before they migrate to this side of the Atlantic.

Just like paid time off to volunteer during the working day, many non-profits see these innovations as ‘not volunteering’ and will steer clear. But that isn’t going to stop businesses exploring these ideas. They simply can’t afford to ignore what the the millennial workforce wants and, if we won’t get on board, they’ll simply do it without us.

As we saw at the start of this article, ESV appears to remain a marginal way for people to volunteer. In a changing landscape for CSR volunteering, finding a solution will require non-profits, fundraising departments and Volunteer Managers to embrace very different thinking about the employer / non-profit relationship of the future.

What do you think?


Note: I am aware that ESV happens in a wide variety of ways, not just paid time off work, and with employers in the private, public and voluntary sector. However, as the point of this article is not to explore the wider variety of ESV activity but to question why it isn’t making a big difference to volunteering rates, I have not explored this breadth of activity. Hence the use of the term employers and what may seem like an assumption that the supply of volunteers is only from private sector employers.