When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

I’m sat writing this article on 11 June 2019. My weather app tells me it feels like six degrees celsius outside (42.8F). It’s pouring with rain and blowing a howling gale.

On British summer days like this I wish there was an element of truth when I say to people “If I had £1 for every time I’ve heard someone ask if we should call volunteering something different…”. If it were true then, after 25 years in volunteer management, my view wouldn’t be of rainy England but something like this…

View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day
View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day

Yes, we’re still we having the same old debate. If we called volunteering something else wouldn’t it make it more attractive to non-volunteers? Wouldn’t it sound cooler and sexier, like GamesMakers did at the 2012 Olympics?

My answer is no.

Consider the term social action. This gets bandied about all the time here in the UK, especially in regard to young people. In the report into full-time social action for young people that was published in February 2018, social action was defined as being:

“…distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights.”

As I noted at the time:

”Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s). Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment). Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.“

Calling volunteering something different doesn’t solve a problem, it creates new ones. Every time we come up with a different term for volunteering we have to spend time, effort and energy explaining what it is so people understand it.

Look at what the report mentioned above found:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”.

As I observed at the time:

“In other words, whilst they may of heard of it (social action), half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem (i.e. volunteering)?”

What then is holding us back from rebranding volunteering as an alternative to inventing new words for it?

I think part of the problem is that organisations can have a very traditional, almost purist, approach to what is and isn’t volunteering. This then reinforces a traditional, outdated view of volunteering which isn’t attractive to people. For example, if valid volunteering requires a regular, long-term commitment to low level tasks then count me out. I want something more dynamic, flexible and meaningful that I can dip in and out of.

This traditional mindset can also impede the ability of volunteer managers to influence others, further limiting our ability to reclaim the v-word. As Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling pointed out in their 2007 article:

”Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the “true” or “real” volunteer.”

That’s why I have always loved the late Ivan Scheier’s definition of volunteering – doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good. It’s a personal definition. It implies organisations should start with what people want to do, the passions and experience they want to bring. It means creating roles with them that both meet our needs and fit with their availabilities and interests. It means a volunteering experience they enjoy, they find fulfilling and rewarding, and that doesn’t conform to the stereotype of old fashioned models of giving time.

John Ramsey, the founding chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, once said:

“Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities.”

John was talking about the need to keep debating what volunteering is because society is always changing and so, therefore, is volunteering. But John always came back to and used the term ‘volunteering’. He didn’t go down the linguistic equivalent of the emperors new clothes, with terms like social action. We mustn’t either.

We have to reclaim and re-brand the word ‘volunteering’ so that its essence isn’t lost or diluted as others try to give it new names.

That’s why I run a workshop called ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’. It gives people space to think hard about their fundamental beliefs on volunteering and what that means for their practice as leaders of volunteer engagement.

Sadly, ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’ is one of the sessions I am asked to do least. What a shame! It’s exactly the kind of session we need to ensure we resist clinging to an outdated, purist doctrine of volunteering in a fast changing world. It’s exactly the kind of session we need to help us inject new vitality and energy into the v-word.

Whilst it would be nice to get booked to run my philosophy workshop more often (hint hint!) there are other steps we can take to ensure the word volunteering remains relevant and important. Here are just two ideas:

  • When you hear another word for volunteering being used (e.g. social action, community action, time giving, pro bono etc.) ask why the v-word isn’t being used. Challenge any spurious distinctions being used to justify not calling something volunteering.
  • Keep abreast of how society is changing and what that means for volunteering. Years ago people giving short term commitments weren’t seen as valid volunteers, that status was reserved for the long-term, high commitment people. Those times have changed (thank goodness). How might today’s orthodoxies need to shift for the future?

What else would you add? What do you think about the use of v-word?

Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think.

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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.

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.

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.

The pros and cons of passporting

The pros and cons of passporting

Late last year, The Daily Mail joined with Helpforce to launch a fresh call for people to volunteer within the NHS. Shortly afterwards Matt Hancock MP, the UK government’s Health Secretary, called for the introduction of a volunteer passport. He said:

“I want to make it easier to volunteer in the NHS. I want to introduce a volunteer passport so that the checks that it’s important people undergo can be done once and then somebody is approved and trained to work as a volunteer in any setting. At the moment if you have a background check it’s for a particular role. It should be based on the need for a particular person and then that could be taken across the NHS.”

What then, are some of the pros and cons of such a passporting scheme?

Potential benefits

The obvious one is that a volunteer passport could help to reduce bureaucracy and make it quicker and easier for people to start volunteering. Instead of it taking three-to-six months from submitting an application to a volunteer starting in their role, the aspiration is to get this down to one month.

I have written before about the risk avoidance culture in many Volunteer Involving Organisations, a culture that creates barriers for people because paid staff view volunteers simply as well-meaning but incompetent simply because they are unpaid. Arguably, this culture is just as – if not more – prevalent in the NHS than the voluntary sector.

If this passport scheme tackles the excessive barriers many volunteers face, then it will be a very valuable tool in public sector volunteer engagement.

There is also the potential for such a passport to make it easier for volunteers to move between different volunteer roles more seamlessly. Instead of re-checking someone when they switch their volunteering to another department, the passport would credential the volunteer, enabling them to get started straight away.

Equally, if someone is doing a volunteer role in the NHS at one end of the country but moves house to the opposite end of the country, they should be able to move straight into a similar role near their new home without new checks and assessments being conducted. In fact, if this passport could be extended beyond the NHS it may well revolutionise the bureaucracy involved in all volunteer recruitment!

Potential challenges

First, who will conduct and pay for the initial volunteer screening and how will the quality of that process be assessed? Somebody has to do the first set of checks on a volunteer and conduct any induction training that the passport will cover. This work needs to be done to a standard that all NHS bodies and regulators will agree to if the passport is going to fulfil its purpose. There will be a cost to this that will need to be covered – volunteering is freely given but not cost-free after all – and the money for this will need to found from already over-stretched NHS budgets.

Second, will everyone who volunteers in the NHS be screened to the same level, regardless of role? If so, then I would suspect that level will be the highest one possible. But do we really need someone staffing the tea bar to have a full-suite of criminal record checks conducted when they will never get near a patient on an unsupervised one-to-one basis? And wouldn’t this contradict the rules bodies like the Disclosure and Barring Service have in place about not conducting volunteer checks on people who don’t need them? Similarly, might this not cut across the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which protects some people from having to disclose spent convictions when applying for some paid and volunteer roles?

Third, will a passport scheme on its own really address the ingrained cultural issues that regard volunteers as risky because they are unpaid? Might we not end up with well screened and trained volunteers working in the NHS who paid staff still look down upon and treat badly simply because they are volunteers? Tackling the operational barriers to volunteering such a culture creates is one thing, actually changing the culture in order to deliver a better volunteer experience is a whole other can of worms.

Fourth, technology has never been a strong point of the NHS. However good a passport scheme is, it needs to be built on sustainable, secure and reliable IT infrastructure, something the NHS isn’t known for. This is the institution that is only just phasing out fax machines and who still use outdated and un-secure versions of Microsoft Windows!

Finally, will there be any flexibility to allow for the importance of the human element of good volunteer management and screening? As one colleague from Australia commented when I shared this article on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd Facebook page:

“Volunteer Managers should still be allowed to make the reference check each time (if the role requires it). That chat to a previous Volunteer Manager can be vital to ensuring that the volunteer is in the right role for them and the organisation.”

Let me conclude by saying that I believe the Helpforce volunteer passport is a good idea and something worth supporting. It has real potential to make it easier for people to volunteer in and across the NHS. In fact, if it works, it may even set a model for a passport that could apply across other sectors as well.

It is worth the effort to try and overcome the challenges of these kinds of schemes so the benefits can be realised and I look forward to seeing how the plans develop over the coming months.

Three reasons why do I do this every day

Three 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.

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

More questions about the new Starbucks Service Fellows initiative

On the 12th October I published an article raising five questions about a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) pilot from Starbucks in the USA. By happy coincidence, this appeared two weeks after my American friend and colleague the amazing Meridian Swift had published another article challenging leaders of volunteers to be aware of and engage with corporate volunteering. Both articles shared common threads so it seemed sensible to work together to develop the thinking further.

Meridian and I got our thinking caps on and devised some further questions that we felt needed asking. These relate not just to the Starbucks pilot, but to employee volunteering more broadly as well. What follows is the product of our joint efforts to try and provide some answers.


HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME, IN MY OFFICE, IN MY TOWN, AND WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?

Meridian: It’s reasonable to think that since there are only 36 employees participating in 13 cities across the United States, it won’t really affect me at all. However, if you live in the areas served by this initiative, it might. The Points of Light (POL) network affiliates involved in this initial pairing are:

HandsOn Atlanta; HandsOn Bay Area; Boston Cares; HandsOn Broward, FL; Chicago Cares; VolunteerNow (Dallas); Volunteer Fairfax; Volunteer Houston; HandsOn Miami; HandsOn Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul); HandsOn Greater Phoenix; Seattle Works; and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

The affiliate organizations listed above act as clearinghouses for local volunteer programs. If your volunteer engagement program has a relationship with one of the above affiliates, it’s conceivable that your organization benefits downstream from this resource.

Starbucks has plans to increase their volunteering commitment next year and if successful, they could extend it into other countries as well. In support of this first pilot cohort, the Starbucks Foundation awarded POL a grant and a portion of that grant provides each of the Fellows with an hourly stipend – much like a national service placement awards their living stipend. These 36 Starbucks partners spend up to 20 hours each week at one of the placement sites listed above.

We must realize this initiative will grow and begin to prepare for future changes in how we cultivate and engage volunteers. We have become accustomed to corporate groups seeking one-time projects for team building and to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility) visibility, but the Starbucks Service Fellows are a whole new level of corporate participation.

SHOULD WE BE PREPARED FOR MORE OF THIS? IS THIS WHERE CORPORATE VOLUNTEERING IS GOING?

Meridian: Oh, my gosh, yes. Consider this direct quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light: “We believe this bold program, designed in partnership with Starbucks, will redefine corporate engagement and the private sector’s ability to support civic engagement.”

Others are already jumping on the bandwagon. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Indiana recently made news when the owner decided to pay his employees to volunteer while his store was closed for remodeling.

We are in a corporate volunteering pivotal time. No, I take that back. Due to societal shifts and social media, we are about to be hit by a tidal wave of corporate volunteer participation. The private sector is getting deeply involved, as I alluded to in my blog post in September. If volunteer engagement professionals do not get on top of this trend right now, corporations will become frustrated at our lack of preparation and ability to provide the level of engagement they are looking for in a partnership. The sad reality is, they will bypass us completely, and they have the talent and money to do it.

ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUSINESSES WHO ADMIRE STARBUCKS AND WANT TO BE LIKE THEM, SO THEY WILL ATTEMPT TO MODEL THIS INITIATIVE?

Rob: Almost certainly, yes. Here’s another quote from Natalye Paquin, President and CEO of Points of Light:

“Starbucks’ investment in the 13 communities served by this initiative will not only spark positive change through more than 17,000 hours of community service, but it also serves as a model for an employer-led capacity-building program that Starbucks and other corporate partners can scale globally in the future.”

It’s important to remember that this pilot seems to be driven primarily as a way to attract millennial employees. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper stated in their coverage of this story:

”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.”

Furthermore:

“According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, one-third of Millennials surveyed said that their companies’ volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a job, 39% said that it influenced their decision to interview, and 55% said that such policies played into their decision to accept an offer.”

Employers of all sizes and all sectors are facing the challenge of providing incentives to hire millennial staff. Baby boomers are ageing into retirement, leaving a shortage of labour thanks to the smaller cohort of Generation X. Competition for millennials will, therefore, increase and we shouldn’t be surprised to see businesses looking to volunteerism related options as a way of winning the recruitment battle.

In fact, the question isn’t really whether we’ll see more of these kinds of initiatives from corporations, but whether the public and non-profit sectors might follow suit as they try to pry some of that millennial talent away from the private sector.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE “SERVICE FELLOWS” DOING? A REGULAR VOLUNTEER’S JOB? A REGULAR EMPLOYEE’S JOB? OR SOMETHING THAT CAN’T REPLACE ANYONE ALREADY THERE?

Rob: Good question. Right now we don’t really know. However, as our colleague Jerome Tennille pointed out when commenting via social media on Rob’s blog post:

“This model of service is similar to AmeriCorps, and most non-profits are familiar with how to integrate them in. The difference here is that it’s funded by a private entity.”

If Jerome is right then we can expect to see Starbucks Service Fellows stepping into roles similar to those undertaken by AmeriCorps members.

Back in March 2010 our colleague Susan J Ellis wrote an article encouraging managers of volunteers to engage with the then emerging AmeriCorps programme to ensure the roles provided didn’t have negative effects. Chief amongst Susan’s concerns was organisations would hire AmeriCorps members to lead volunteer management, rather than making long-term, strategic investments in this important function.

We would echo Susan’s call today, eight years on. Leaders of volunteers have to engage to make this scheme a success for everyone, not just Starbucks. It is essential that volunteer managers at non-profits are part of the planning as these innovations in corporate giving develop. We need to make sure our voices are heard, influence these schemes for the good of our organisations and clients.

In fact, Susan’s concerns are perhaps more acute for the Starbucks model where placement will only be for six months. Imagine getting a new (and possibly relatively inexperienced) service fellow coming into the organisation twice a year – would your organisation benefit or suffer from that turnover in the leadership and management of volunteers? Please don’t just dismiss these schemes as not volunteering, burying your head in the sand in the hope they will go away. Get involved, speak up or it may be your job that service fellows take.

DID THEY CONSULT A VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT EXPERT? WHAT ARRANGEMENTS ARE IN PLACE WITH THE POL AFFILIATE NONPROFITS?

Meridian: I have reached out to Starbucks press and a few of the local affiliate organizations who are recipients of the Starbucks Service Fellows, but haven’t yet had a lot of luck in connecting.

I realize that this is a new program and they may not have enough good information to share at this point but what I have gathered is Starbucks and Points of Light are striving to change the way corporations think about employee engagement and the use of their human capital/resources to support strengthening nonprofits and communities. Since Points of Light is the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, they are experts in volunteerism, so my guess is there was a good deal of consulting between these two giants in their respective sectors.

Since this is a joint partnership between Starbucks and Points of Light, it naturally follows that Points of Light would choose affiliate partners across the country. There are more than 200 volunteer mobilizing organizations or affiliates, which share a common mission, goals and approach. The affiliates may pair Starbucks Fellows with local non-profit partners, but that is yet unclear.

IS THIS ONE OF THOSE LOFTY, NOT THOUGHT OUT EDICTS FROM ABOVE THAT WILL MAKE A VOLUNTEER MANAGER’S LIFE A LIVING HELL BECAUSE NO INPUT WAS ASKED FOR?

Rob: As we’ve already noted, Starbucks are doing this because they want an advantage when recruiting millennial employees. Points of Light are doing it because they have affiliates who will “benefit from focused volunteer efforts that align with Starbucks’ global social impact priorities, with a focus on opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.”

Whether we agree with those motivations or not (and who are we to judge?), that’s what we know.

Boards and senior managers will rush to engage with corporations with the volunteer management professionals likely to be the last to know what they’ve been signed up for.

This is especially true with CSR programmes where the impetus comes from fundraising colleagues – in the hope the corporate will make cash donations – or communications colleagues looking for a public relations coup.

For schemes like this to be a success the volunteer manager cannot just be the poor schmuck who gets responsibility for making it work dumped on them. That may not have been the case in the Starbucks example, but we can see it happening in future, to the detriment of all involved. Non-profits need their leader of volunteer engagement involved from the get-go and we need to be making this case now, before it’s too late.

WILL VOLUNTEERING BE ON-SITE OR IS IT PROJECT BASED OFF-SITE?

Meridian: We have no evidence at this time. Whether the service fellows will follow a prescribed national plan or will be allowed to meet local needs remains unclear. It appears they will volunteer in the areas that align with Starbuck’s philanthropic priorities, which include opportunity youth, refugees, veterans and military families, hunger, environment and disaster recovery.

Hurricane Michael recently devastated the areas around Mexico Beach in Florida and according to the Starbucks press release, a Starbucks shift supervisor from Florida will work on hurricane preparedness and hurricane relief with HandsOn Broward. Their involvement may be according to local needs but we just don’t know yet.

WHAT ROLE SHOULD BODIES LIKE POINTS OF LIGHT HAVE IN FUTURE, REPRESENTING NON-PROFITS AND VOLUNTEER MANAGERS?

Rob: The role of a broker in corporate volunteering can be a really important one, as Dr. Joanne Cook and Dr. Jon Burchell highlighted in their 2015 paper, “Employer Supported Volunteering: Realising The Potential” (summary article available here):

”The challenge is finding what people in the business will engage with, and the skills that the charities want, identifying this is the challenge and that’s where the brokerage comes in.”

In the Starbucks initiative, POL played a brokerage role between the company and their own local affiliates, matching needs and priorities between both parties. Yet as schemes like this develop and spread the importance of brokers will grow, with a neutral party necessary to help match corporates and non-profits in a fair manner. Key to this will be supporting non-profits to assert their needs rather than just capitulating to whatever business requests. As in any volunteering relationship, mutual benefit is essential, so brokers will need to ensure a level playing field as both parties negotiate the details of corporate volunteering relationships.

We also think brokers and intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure the volunteer management voice is heard in non-profits. As noted before, all too often the desire to work with business is driven by the lure of a cash donation, marginalizing the input of a volunteer engagement professional in favour of corporate fundraising priorities. This mustn’t happen! If volunteer managers are left out of the planning loop then they will struggle to deliver on what their bosses and corporate partners want and need, weakening the relationship limiting the potential for success.

IF WE WERE VOLUNTEER MANAGERS ON THE RECEIVING END OF THIS, WHAT WOULD WE LIKE TO KNOW?

Rob: OK, over to you. This is your chance to collaborate with us on this article and move the debate forward. Imagine your organisation is looking to get involved in something like the Starbucks / Points of Light initiative. What questions would you have; for the corporation; for your board and senior managers; for other paid staff colleagues in your organisation (e.g. HR, fundraising); and perhaps for your existing volunteers and those coming from the business?

Leave a comment in the comments section below with the things you’d like to know and add your voice to the debate.

We look forward to reading your thoughts.

Rob and Meridian