Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Reflections on The Big Hospital Experiment

Earlier this autumn, the BBC aired a show called The Big Hospital Experiment. In my view it should be essential watching for anyone leading volunteer engagement in any setting, especially healthcare.

The programme followed fourteen young people giving their time for four weeks as clinical volunteers on wards at the Royal Derby Hospital in England. The hospital has a long history of volunteer involvement but this was something new, volunteers undertaking clinical tasks alongside nursing staff and doctors in challenging departments like Accident and Emergency (A&E), Cancer, Renal, Paediatrics and the like.

The volunteers undertook a range of tasks, from monitoring patient’s blood pressure to feeding to intimate care (washing and toileting) to simply sitting and having a cup of tea with patients and their families. The roles were part of a pilot designed to assess if clinical volunteers could work effectively alongside medical staff too improve patient care and increase the capacity of medical professionals to do what their specialist training required them to focus on.

It is important to note that the show made no judgement about whether placing volunteers in these roles was ethically good or bad, both in regard to the responsibilities placed on the volunteers but also whether such roles should be undertaken by paid staff, not volunteers.

Almost all the young people were new to this kind of work. Little was said about the recruitment and selection process (were they chosen because they ere the best for the roles or because the producers though they’d make for good TV?) but we did get to see all fourteen of them doing two weeks of training before their first placement. They were also closely supervised throughout the pilot by ward sisters, the senior nurse who trained them, and executive nursing staff motioning the efficacy of the pilot.

Here are my reflections on the four episodes.


Episode one

It’s fair to say that nursing staff were cautious about the pilot, fearing that too much time would be taken up managing the volunteers, detracting from patient care. This wasn’t helped when cancer ward volunteer Will requested a different break schedule for his shifts so he could have more frequent cigarette breaks.

Very quickly, however, the nursing staff discovered that by investing some time in the volunteers they developed engaged, committed and productive people who were keen and able to help in meaningful ways. This demonstrates that if we get the right people in the right volunteer roles, train them properly, support, trust and encourage them to do a good job, they invariably will.

Episode two

This episode focused on the emotional impact of the work on the volunteers. What wasn’t really acknowledged was that everyone experiences challenges adjusting to the emotions faced in a hospital setting. On day one you have the same lack of experience and strategies for coping, whether you are a nurse, doctor or volunteer.

Similarly, how everyone copes when they do get onto a ward is different. For example:

  • Will (he of the cigarette breaks) came face-to-face with the reality of death as he cared for a patient. After initially struggling he persevered and adapted.
  • In comparison, Erik, who had led a sheltered and spoilt life before the programme, struggled more with his role. He made excuses for not turning up one morning because he couldn’t face being with the patients. He arrived four hours late for his shift, leaving the ward short-handed.
  • Finally, Aleshpa was placed on the children’s ward with a boy called Blake. She stayed two hours after her shift ended to check on the results of Blake’s MRI, such was her concern for him. So much for volunteers being unreliable!

On the Head and Neck ward the lead sister had already made her mind up about the clinical volunteers – the experiment was extended into subsequent weeks after what she judged as strong early success.

Episode three

Fittingly there were three key points for me:

  1. Patients and the families can respond differently (in a good way) when they engage with a volunteer rather than a paid nurse or doctor. This unsalaried credibility was a real asset for the wards involving volunteers.
  2. The senior executive nurse noted the importance of placing people into the right roles. Piotr had excelled in A&E but struggled with the increased interpersonal engagement with patients on another ward. Finn had struggled on the cancer ward but was very effective when placed on a ward treating older people.
  3. After Charlotte experienced three patient deaths during one shift on the renal ward I thought about how few of us are exposed to such experiences at such a young age. I’m pretty confident few of the nursing staff would have had such experiences at Charlotte’s age. So, yet again, a person’s ability to cope in roles such as those given to the volunteers is not down to their pay grade. It’s related to their competence, confidence and temperament, all of which can be screened for during recruitment and addressed in training.

Episode four

The final episode focused (in part) on how different volunteers responded to more challenging patients.

Mark had been admitted to A&E having been found unconscious in the town centre. He was homeless, an alcoholic and had taken an overdose. One volunteer was immediately compassionate towards Mark, whilst another privately remarked that people like him should take personal responsibility and sort themselves out. After spending more time with Mark, the latter volunteer’s views softened as their understanding and empathy for the patient grew.

The point was also repeated that patients can respond differently to volunteers than paid staff. Eric, a patient who has been bed bound during his hospital stay, got out of bed for the first time thanks to the efforts of two volunteers. None of the paid staff had managed this with Eric. The success of the volunteers was attributed by the nursing staff to the strength of the relationship the volunteers had with Eric because of the time they’d spent with him.

As the episode concluded we learnt that the hospital senior management had judged the pilot a success and were rolling it out on a permanent basis across the hospital. Furthermore, two of the volunteers, Piotr and Michael, had decided to join the NHS, as a nurse and paramedics respectively.


As I said at the start The Big Hospital Experiment is must watch TV for anyone working in volunteer engagement. It would help challenge the prejudices and stereotypes some paid staff hold about the competence and reliability of volunteers. Also, when was the last time a programme about volunteering and volunteer management got a four-part prime time series on the BBC?! To not watch it would be a missed opportunity.

Did you watch the show?

What did you think?

Leave a comment below – I’d love to read your thoughts and reflections.


See also, “Patients, volunteers and the NHS were all winners in the Big Hospital Experiment” in which the Chief Nursing Officer for England gives her views on the programme.

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

Three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers

It’s a little over two weeks until International Volunteer Managers Day (IVMDay) 2019. Aside from the surprise that another year has passed and the day has come around again so fast, I am also astounded to realise that this year mark’s the twentieth anniversary of the very first IVMDay!

Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of 'Change The Tune' alongside the radio
Image shows a radio playing music with the theme of ‘Change The Tune’ alongside the radio

Since its inception, IVMDay has been about education through celebration. Whilst Volunteer Managers are welcome to mark the day in whatever way they wish, the core purpose is about educating others about the essential role we have to play in effective volunteer engagement.

This year’s IVMDay theme is “Change The Tune”. As colleague DJ Cronin said when he proposed the idea:

“Time to be proactive instead of reactive & discover our power & harness it for good. Time to teach HR the dynamic science of leadership found in volunteer management. And time to stop whinging about our lot!”

Here on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog I’m doing my bit for IVMDay 2019 with a two part mini-series of articles.

In this first part, I briefly look at three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. I’m taking a step back from volunteer management to look at the wider organisational context in which volunteering takes place and three ways that organisation leaders can get things wrong, impeding the work of Volunteer Managers and limiting the potential of volunteer engagement.

In the second part (due out on 1 November) I will look at three solutions to the mistakes outlined below, giving ideas for how organisational leaders can create a more friendly volunteer culture.

So, here we go with part one – three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers.


Mistake number one – Not thinking strategically

Pieces on a chessboard
Pieces on a chessboard

This might be a bit controversial but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the question where volunteer management should sit in an organisation’s structure is to miss an important point. The location of a Volunteer Manager in a structure chart isn’t entirely irrelevant, but more important is whether they are involved at a strategic level in organisational leadership, management and planning.

Consider this from the 2014 “New Alchemy” report by nfpSynergy:

“It is no coincidence that charities doing particularly interesting work with volunteering also tend to boast meaningful senior roles in the field, where those leading volunteer development sit on a level with peers in Fundraising, Membership or Communications and are therefore better situated to champion their agenda and argue for joined-up strategy across these departments.”

Yes it’s talking a bit about hierarchy but the key point is a bigger one about strategic thinking. That’s why the first mistake I am highlighting here is the failure to think strategically:

  • failing to learn from the insights volunteers can provide as well as the talents and skills they bring to the organisation
  • forgetting to think about the role volunteers can play in fulfilling the mission until the last minute when all the other planning is done
  • not involving the volunteer management function in strategic planning

Which leads us to our second point.


Mistake number two – Focusing on fundraising not friendraising

A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle
A group of people in a circle putting their hands together in the middle of the circle

In the same report quoted above, the next paragraph says:

“Such organisations have been able to discern the benefits of a more integrated understanding of engagement across donor, member and volunteer co-ordination functions and may also have significant functions around external engagement more broadly; rightly seeing community volunteer engagement as knitted in with voluntary income, partnership-building and marketing objectives.”

Money is important, I get it. But it isn’t the only resource non-profits have at their disposal. If it were we’d be no different from for-profit organisations. Furthermore, an organisation’s current money donors aren’t the only source of individual donations. Volunteers can be some of the most generous donors, if asked – and asked in the right way!

NB. Donors could also be a great source of volunteers, if they were allowed the opportunity to give a bit of time.

Keeping donors, volunteers, members and others in separate silos fails to maximise the potential of all an organisation’s supporters, however they show that support or might wish to show it in future. This is a potentially serious mistake, limiting the resources an organisation has to achieve its aims.


Mistake number three – Forgetting that it takes a whole village to raise a child

Four cartoon hands with text below them saying "it takes a village to raise a child"
Four cartoon hands with text below them saying “it takes a village to raise a child”

It doesn’t matter how great your volunteer manager is, they can’t realise the full potential of effective volunteer engagement on their own. As the late great volunteer management expert Susan J Ellis used to say:

“Even the most effective Volunteer Manager cannot engage volunteers alone, it takes everyone’s attention”.

Expecting the volunteer manager to do it all on their own is akin to expecting the HR manager to be the sole person responsible for effective staff engagement, from recruitment to retention, discipline to reward, induction to performance management and everything else.

Organisations that do not devolve responsibility for volunteer engagement throughout the entire staff team, that do not support and train their staff to work well with volunteers and do not hold people to account for how effectively they work with volunteers, will never see the full benefits of volunteers in their work.


So there are three mistakes organisations make when engaging volunteers. Stay tuned for our next article on 1 November 2019 which will explore three solutions to these mistakes.

If you can’t wait that long, why not take a look at “From The Top Down – UK Edition”, the book Susan J Ellis and I wrote for senior leaders to help them understand the key role they play in creating a positive organisational context for effective volunteer engagement.

You can go your own way

You can go your own way

As a professional speaker and trainer I get asked lots of questions. One of the most popular is :

“Which organisations are doing really great work on adapting their volunteering offer to meet the realities of the modern world?”

I always struggle to answering this question. Not because I don’t think anyone is doing such great work but because:

  1. Despite my 25 years experience, I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what every Volunteer Involving Organisation on the planet is doing.
  2. When I engage in consultancy work with clients it’s professional to maintain confidentiality about that work, not blathering what those organisations are doing to the rest of the world.

There are, however, some more fundamental issues I have with that question:

  • Why are we leaders of volunteer engagement always looking to someone else to pave the way?
  • Why are we focusing our effort on borrowing what someone else is doing?
  • Why would what someone in a different organisation is doing work in our setting and context?
  • Why aren’t we coming up with our own innovations and solutions to the problems we face?

”The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because we – and the non-profit sector more broadly – are so risk averse? Risk is seen as a bad thing, something we must avoid at all costs. It isn’t. Risk is an inherent part of life. It’s how we manage risk that is important.

Read more of my thinking on this in my March 2018 article.

Perhaps we’re looking for answers elsewhere because so many workplace cultures create a fear of failure? Not achieving your target, not hitting a key performance indicator (KPI), not reaching a goal – they are all seen as failures, poor performance. But failure is how we learn, it’d fundamental to learning, improving and innovating.

Susan J Ellis and I addressed this subject in a 2017 article in e-volunteerism.com. The article is available for free and I encourage you to read it here.

”There is no losing in jiujitsu. You either win or you learn.”
Carlos Gracie Jr.”

Carlos Gracie Jr.
Carlos Gracie Jr.

Whether it is anxiety about risk, or a fear of failure, or something else holding us back, I want to encourage us to stop looking for solutions elsewhere and start to find them ourselves.

You have unique insights and experience that are well placed to solve the problems you face in a way nobody else can. Without your pioneering solutions to your volunteer engagement challenges we will be stuck in an endless cycle of casting around for someone else’s ideas to apply to our – often very different – situations.

Your solutions can inspire others to do the same and start a snowball of innovation in our field.

Go and make it happen!

“The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” – John McAfee

John McAfee
John McAfee


Because I know the title of this blog will have triggered an earworm for some of you, here is a link to the classic Fleetwood Mac track of the same title – You Can Go Your Own Way.

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.

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.