Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

FeaturedToxicity and six steps to tackle it

Guest writer Martin J Cowling muses on the problems with toxic volunteer behaviour and suggests some actions to prevent and resolve it.


Helen’s story

Upon retirement Helen (names have been changed) joined a hospital quilt making group to sew quilts for terminally ill children. Helen was looking forward to making some new friends in retirement and making a difference in the community. The group leader said “we are a small group but we work hard and we value loyalty”.

Those words echoed in Helen’s head as she struggled to cope when group members screamed at her for “poor stitching”. Where people sat at the quilting mornings was controlled and “loyal” volunteers got access to the better materials. Even what participants brought for the shared morning tea was scrutinised and belittled. One volunteer got banned for telling a joke that the leader did not approve of. Screeds of abuse between members filled the group’s Facebook wall. The hospital management could not be persuaded to see the issue, with one manager saying “What’s a couple of spats between friends in the ‘merry team of vollies’”.

Helen quit after six weeks, saying she saw turnover of fifteen people in that time. Fifteen people who may never volunteer again after such a horrific experience.

The toxicity problem

A few years ago, I audited several dozen volunteer committees across the country for a major charity, spending multiple hours learning how this organisation worked and where their strengths and weaknesses were. After my first week, I said to the client “I feel like I have been walking with saints. What I saw were volunteers generously giving their time, working together for the benefit of the community”. He grinned and said “Wait for next week.“

Sure enough, my next groups were dysfunctional horrors full of backbiting individuals.

The difference between the success of the positive groups and the failures of the toxic ones was stark. The groups with positive culture raised more funds, achieved more and found it easier to recruit and retain volunteers. The dysfunctional groups were barely holding it together, were far less successful and could not attract new members.

In our marketing and discussions, we focus on the positives of volunteering: How it changes lives, makes people happy and gives individuals and groups purpose. All of which can be true. What we talk less about, are the toxic volunteers, volunteer leaders or toxic groups which are not poster children for volunteering but which are more common than we realise. This toxicity can consume and burn out volunteers, destroy organisational reputations and drive donors, clients and community support away.

By toxic, we are seeing a simultaneous combination of three things: narcissism, bullying and incompetence. Alone each of these is worrisome but the situation is manageable. Combined and you have a horrible toxicity which saps an organisation and sadly, the introduction of such a toxic personality can have the effect of undermining that entire culture.

Barry’s story

Every Friday at 10am without fail, 82 year old Barry (names have been changed) would stride into the charity office ready for his shift helping to pack mailings. Barry had been involved in the charity from day one and had worked hard to advocate with the government and community to get funds, building and support. Inwardly, the staff would recoil when they saw him coming, guiltily hoping that he would not turn up that week.

Barry had an opinion on everything and everybody. He worked hard during his four hours as did his mouth with random tirades directed at everyone and anyone who passed by his desk (yes he had a reserved desk for his Friday shifts): clients, fellow volunteers, guests and employees. He belittled the women, mocked the men, muttered about foreigners, Asians and gays. His greatest vitriol was reserved for the CEO and management team who were never good enough.

The result was that the volunteers who had come in on a Friday, rarely returned and the ones that did were equally negative. The paid staff would do all they can to be scheduled out of the office or take their work to a local coffee shop. There were some Fridays when there would be no paid staff in the building! Barry was aware that no-one would go near him which made him even angrier about the “snobs in the organisation who didn’t value him”. The fear that Barry engendered made it impossible for anyone to successfully challenge his behaviour.

Tackling toxicity

As leaders of volunteers, here are six steps to tackle the Barry’s in our groups, teams or organisations. They rarely self-improve and despite their unhappiness and or anger, they often won’t leave of their accord.

1. Raise Up an Inspirational Culture
Too many NGOs pay lip service to their internal culture. Having and living out your mission and values must be core for your organisation. Leaders of volunteers need to ensure that the culture is safe, inspiring and rewarding. Volunteers who contribute positively to the culture need to be rewarded positively. Allowing poor behaviour sends a message that such behaviour is okay.

This can be tough. I was told one day by a senior volunteer that I was creating unrealistic expectations for the volunteers by setting standards. I was in a new role and this volunteer with three other colleagues ruled the roost. Those four ended up resigning simultaneously when I called out their bullying behaviour. The decision was cheered on by the remaining seventy but the process was not easy.

2. Recruit to Keep Toxicity Out

More than half of the volunteer advertisements, I see something along the lines of “are you lonely?” or “Do you want to be happy or happier?” “Do you need to make friends?” and promote volunteering as a solution. Pause a second. While loneliness is a major issue in society, what sort of people will your volunteer program attract if you target lonely, friendless, unhappy individuals? If people are lonely and friendless, there may be a reason for that. Staff an entire organisation with them and…

When recruiting for volunteers, focus less on skills and more on values. Ask questions of volunteers in the recruitment process about their values and how they work with other people. I used to run group interviews to watch how people interacted with each other.

Ask questions of your volunteer’s references about the values, ability to work with others and reasons for leaving. Never over promise to a volunteer and don’t bait and switch, offering a more attractive role and then changing it for a less interesting one having recruited them!

3. Require Supervisor Training

Too often organisations place or “dump” volunteers with people who have never been trained to work with volunteers, whether they are paid staff or other volunteers. If the supervisor is great, no problems. If they are poor, this can have the effect of creating unhappy volunteers. It can also mean the supervisors do not understand what to do if faced with a “difficult” volunteer.

It’s amazing we train people in accounts systems, fire drills, but never tell them about how to work with volunteers.

Offer flexible proactive positive training to equip your staff to work effectively with volunteers. I was able to get the CEO to mandate such training on a couple of occasions.

4. Engage in proactive prevention

By nipping negativity in the bud, you can avoid an unhappy long-term volunteer. This is a step that few organisations engage in.

Check in with volunteers and their supervisors about the volunteer’s experiences, one month and three months after they have started, and then annually. I recruited a specialist team of volunteers with appropriate skills whose specific job was this follow up.

Find out if the experience is working for them and what issues may be emerging. This might be the time a volunteer may want to or need to move to another role or even leave the organisation. This is the time to tackle any difficult behavioural issues or get feedback from the volunteer about how things can be improved for them.

The team and I were able to implement changes to our marketing, recruitment, PDs and training as a result of this feedback which improved our culture and further raised volunteer satisfaction.

5. Reward appropriately.

I have lost count of the number of organisations that have rewarded their worst volunteers with a “volunteer of the month” or “a volunteer of the year” award! This is done with a hope that such a volunteer, having got a reward, may behave better!

Such rewards send a very poor message, fail to tackle the real issue and annoy the volunteers who do deserve such an award!

In one client organisation, they gave a toxic volunteer a very generous gift in a very public ceremony. They hoped that the volunteer would leave after being so well rewarded. Spoiler alert: she didn’t and in fact behaved worse now she felt vindicated by her awards. This was when I was called in to “fix the problem!”

Ensure your rewards have value by rewarding appropriately.

6. Remove the toxic person

Michael (names have been changed) was a highly qualified retiree who was volunteering in a telephone customer service. He handled the role with aplomb, charming clients calling in with enquiries and solving their issues quickly and well. He was well loved, well respected and highly trusted. Then one day he arrived drunk. The other volunteers watched appalled as he shouted of his achievements and why he was better than all of them. Then he abused clients and hung up on them. Not knowing what to do, the volunteers resolved to say nothing and hide the issue from the management. It was only on the third occasion of Michael drunkenly abusing others, that a supervisor found out.

If people consistently or regularly exhibit poor behaviour, then this means taking action. There must be documented paths for volunteers and employees to raise concerns about inappropriate behaviour and see it dealt with.

The manager of volunteers must be prepared to have the difficult conversation with the volunteer. I have spoken to so many coordinators who declare that they have taken what seems to be an “easier” route. Many have said “I simply stop rostering the difficult people and then ignore all of their calls and emails”. This avoidance does not help anybody.

A series of conversations must be initiated with the volunteer. In some cases, the volunteer will work out there is an issue and resign. For others, there will be opportunities to work with them for change or improvement. In the case of Michael, he revealed a deep loneliness that had turned to alcoholism. Volunteering for him, he saw as one means of being less lonely. Unfortunately, his addiction was still hard to control. In this situation, the organisation was able to support him with counselling whilst suspending him for a period.

Finally, some volunteers must be suspended or removed. Engage in the process safely, respectfully and legally because such a volunteer will make life hell for you if you relieve them. You will be amazed, however, how many other volunteers will cheer your decision!

Ensuring a safe positive workplace takes time, investment, and work. The results are worth it. The risk of a poor culture is never worth it.


Martin J Cowling is a knowledgeable and popular international author, trainer and consultant from Australia. He possesses over 30 years of management experience with NGOs, government and corporates.

Martin works with organisations globally on volunteering, leadership, governance and change and has worked in partnership with Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd on projects in the UK and Australia.

Martin volunteers personally to tackle homelessness and poverty. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.

Recognising Racism in Volunteer Engagement

I recently read and shared an excellent article by Lisa Joyslin, Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). It was a challenging and thought provoking read on the systemic racism that is pervasive in so much accepted good volunteer engagement practice. I asked Lisa if I could share her work as a guest post on this blog and she agreed. So, here it is. Be prepared to be challenged, to feel uncomfortable and to be inspired to act.


In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, followed by protests and riots across the nation calling for racial justice, many people are experiencing discomfort. Discomfort at the unfairness and injustice experienced in the Black community. Discomfort in our own actions, or lack thereof. Discomfort regarding how to move forward.

Discomfort is a vital part of growth and change. Systems and structures across the nation – from law enforcement to education and everything in between – need to change. They need to be centered around equity.

But for nonprofit leaders and, in particular, volunteer engagement leaders, discomfort should not be something we only feel about other systems.

Volunteerism needs to change, too. Small tweaks to our already-existing structures are not enough. Big, overarching change is needed. Why? Because volunteerism is built on systemic racism.

That’s not comfortable. But it’s true.

How do we know that systemic racism is embedded in volunteerism? Because modern volunteerism – the formal structures and processes by which most organizations engage volunteers – is built upon multiple characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Consider the following characteristics, originally developed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in 2001 and outlined by Okun in her essay white supremacy culture, and how they are embedded in volunteer engagement:

Sense of urgency

Okun describes this characteristic as a “continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to be inclusive,” and a practice that “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Acting upon demands of organizational leaders or program directors who need ‘more volunteers now’, forcing quick recruitment instead of thoughtful outreach
  • Recruitment goals that call for an increase of volunteers over a course of months or one year when building authentic relationships with new communities takes much longer than that

Defensiveness

This characteristic appears when “the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Strict risk management practices centered on protecting the organization and its power/reputation, not on bringing out the best in each individual. Examples include rigid background check rules, requiring multiple references, paperwork not easily completed by a non-native English speaker, etc.

Worship of the written word

Okun describes this characteristic as “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist,” and “the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information is shared”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Insisting on a written application as the first step to volunteering
  • Heavy reliance on written rules and regulations, as outlined in volunteer handbooks, policies, performance reviews, etc.
  • Expecting written memorandums of understanding to define partnerships

Quantity over quality

This characteristic appears when “all resources of an organization are directed toward producing measurable goals,” and “little or no value is attached to process”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Individual and department goals are centered on measurable outcomes such as volunteer recruitment, retention and evaluation
  • Volunteers who ‘don’t work out’ are seen as a waste of time instead of a learning opportunity for both the volunteer and the organization
  • Building new relationships and growing trust are not recognized as successful until volunteer numbers increase

Only one right way

Okun describes this characteristic as “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • The volunteer engagement field is filled with ‘best practices’ that are held up as the one right way to do volunteerism
  • Most programs have one pathway to becoming a volunteer (perhaps with an abbreviated pathway for episodic volunteers that eliminates a few steps)

Paternalism

This characteristic is described as, “those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interest of those without power”.

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • Nonprofit and volunteer engagement leaders make decisions about the volunteer program without consulting community members and those who receive services from the organization
  • Those with money are provided special treatment as volunteers; i.e. creating a customized volunteer opportunity for a funder’s employee group. For more examples see Sue Carter Kahl’s recent blog post Power, Privilege, and Volunteerism
  • Prioritizing the feelings or reactions of donors instead of the community when making decisions about programming, volunteer services and messaging.

Any given volunteer program may not be guilty of all the white supremacy culture characteristics listed above. But chances are good that you recognize at least a few that are prevalent in your organization and those you work with.

It has been said about other systems in our society, but it’s also true here: Volunteerism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it was designed. It works well for those with privilege. It pushes away those without.

So, what can we do about it?

Here’s what I think. Start with the idea that there is only one right way to do things. Throw it out the window. In Vu Le’s recent blog post on Nonprofit AF, he discusses how lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice in the nonprofit sector. You can’t imagine new possibilities if you believe you’ve found the one right way. And when it comes to volunteerism, there are so many ways.

Consider, for example:

  • Neighbors helping neighbors within a community. People don’t often call this volunteerism, but it has the same spirit of care and compassion.
  • Protestors. Those going to a protest probably didn’t say they were heading out to ‘volunteer’. Yet, they gave of their time for a cause they were passionate about.
  • Community organizing. Again, grassroots efforts aren’t often labeled as ‘volunteerism’. They are simply people coming together to make things better.

There are far more people of color engaged in the three activities above than there are in formal volunteerism with a nonprofit organization. Communities of color are volunteering. Communities experiencing poverty are volunteering. Immigrant communities are volunteering. They’re just not doing it with formal programs.

And the reason why should be pretty clear by the characteristics listed above. Formal volunteerism has built up countless barriers to keep people of color away.

So let’s learn from these other ways of supporting communities. Let’s learn from the people of color who are giving of themselves every day to make this world better. Let’s have hard conversations but, more importantly, let’s take action that we never thought possible.

I can’t tell you what that looks like. It’s going to look different for each organization and each community. No right way means more work. But it’s the only way volunteerism has a chance of becoming equitable. And if volunteerism – a field that prides itself on helping others and making the world better – isn’t about equity…then, honestly, THAT should be the source of our discomfort.


Lisa Joyslin is the Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). Her work is focused on learning how to address systemic inequities in volunteer engagement systems to better engage communities of color as volunteers at nonprofit and government organizations. Lisa has worked in the field of volunteer engagement for nearly fifteen years, including four years as the Volunteer Services Officer for the Red Cross Minnesota Region and positions at multiple volunteer centers. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lisa is a white woman. While MAVA’s work is done in partnership with communities of color, it is vital that you also read the viewpoints of those with lived experience as people of color. We recommend the following as a starting point:

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) connects, educates, strengthens and advocates for volunteer engagement leaders and their organizations to positively impact communities. Learn more about MAVA and our Inclusive Volunteerism Program here.

We’ll be exploring racial equity and volunteerism further at MAVA’s Virtual Conference this November on Re-Defining Volunteerism. Join us!

Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

A couple of years ago I read Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals. In the book, Grant – a highly respected organisational psychologist – explores how non-conformists change the world, using a wide range of stories, research and insights to challenge accepted wisdom about creativity and originality. In an early chapter he argues that it is more effective to influence change by pointing out the flaws in an argument, not the strengths. This got me thinking.

Over the last few weeks on this blog I have been exploring how, in these changed times, leaders of volunteers are going to have to engage in some tricky conversations.

We are going to have to navigate objections related to paid staff job security and ensuring safe volunteer engagement practice is applied and followed by everyone.

We are going to have to educate colleagues and bosses about why we can’t just magic volunteers into existence to meet the needs of clients as incomes fall.

In short, we are going to have to step up our influencing and advocacy around volunteering.

So, what can we learn from Adam Grant’s idea to help us with this? What if we argued why involving volunteers might not be a great idea? What might such a proposition look like? Here’s my three-point take on how it might look:


1 – Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

Until someone invents the instant volunteer (just add water, microwave for two minutes and stir!), involving volunteers effectively takes time. You’ve got to develop the right roles, identify the target audience, create engaging recruitment materials, go out and find people, interview them, select them, induct them, train them and support them. And you won’t get them to make a regular, long-term commitment on day one. You’ll have to cultivate a relationship with them, deepening their commitment and giving them flexibility in how they volunteer. There is no quick fix to your problems to be found here.

The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll probably gain a supporter for life. But it’s going to take time.

2 – Volunteers may not give an immediate return on investment

For all the reasons listed above, it’s going to take a while before you see the benefits of volunteers getting involved in your work. Fundraising volunteers have to build relationships with others to bring the income in. Service delivery volunteers need time to settle into their roles to truly make a difference. You’ve got to be patient and committed to see the benefits that will come in time.

Done properly though, the return on involvement and return on investment can be huge.

3 – We will have to give up some power and control

Volunteers don’t want to be told what to do all the time. They don’t want to be micromanaged. They are intelligent, skilled and passionate people. They want to unleash their talents for the good of your mission, not work as mindless servants to the paid staff. So you’re going to have to relinquish some control, trusting the volunteers to do their best and not squeezing out their creativity and enthusiasm.

When you get this right, will you have some amazing new ideas and effective people working with you.


As we continue to come out of lockdown, organisations must look carefully at how they involve and deploy volunteers. Covid-19 has accelerated the changes in volunteering that we always knew were coming. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect the same results. We have to change. This was clearly laid out recently in an article from Civil Society magazine, “Coronavirus crisis shows charities need to change approach to volunteering, leaders say.

In my response to this article I said:

”What’s crucial is that this isn’t just dismissed as something for Volunteer Managers to act on. The points Karl, Paul and Tiger make are all important, but can only be addressed if everyone in an organisation is willing to take volunteer engagement seriously, including at a strategic level. This isn’t some quick fix a Volunteer Manager can address on their own. It takes a whole organisation to make this happen.”

The key to effective change around volunteer engagement is how we can help our colleagues embrace this change in mindset. Adam Grant’s idea of arguing against an idea might enable us to spot how we might better argue for that idea, increasing the chances we will successfully influence others.

What do you think?

How would you pitch why involving volunteers isn’t a good idea in your organisation? How might that help you make a better case for volunteer involvement?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How Covid-19 may change our views on job substitution for ever

Four weeks ago I published a guest post (of sorts) from the late Susan J Ellis. It was a slightly edited version of her 2009 Hot Topic, “When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers”.

Reading Susan’s eleven year old article got me thinking about a piece on job substitution that I wrote for Third Sector magazine in February 2017. In this article I want to revisit those thoughts with a particular eye to our pandemic affected world, not least because the idea of volunteers doing what was once paid work seems to be the main thrust of calls for furloughed charity workers to volunteer for their employing organisations.


Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term ‘job substitution’ itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that, in reality, is both impractical and unrealistic.

Far better terms to use are job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement may seem subtle but they are important:

  • Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.
  • Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles due to funding changes, so deploys volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of it’s clients (remember that in most cases charities exist for the benefit of their clients, not their employee and volunteers).

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, then concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihood, two serious errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made:

  1. Volunteers are a free or cost saving option
  2. It is easy to recruit people who will take on those paid roles and do it for no pay

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a preferable way to doing things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase, “Volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff”. It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low status activity next to paid work

I’ve worked in organisations where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who they believe is there just because they are paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement or complement or displace or replace paid staff, they brought something that paid staff could not.

I accept that these issues of who does what for the mission aren’t easy to discuss and resolve – if they were we would have stopped debating them years ago. Yet engaging intelligently and thoughtfully with these issues is essential as we emerge from the early phases of Covid-19, because the way we always did things before the virus simply won’t cut it anymore.

Not everyone who volunteered for us in the past will do so again.

Paid staff are, sadly, going to be be laid off.

Money may be in short supply as unemployment and financial hardship reduces charitable donations.

Mission driven organisations will have to rethink how they fulfil their goals with a different mix of human talent and skill than they did before.

As Albert Einstein said:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”.

Are we as leaders of volunteer engagement ready to lead this debate in our organisations? Are we ready to challenge old orthodoxies that may not fit the new world we live in?

I hope so, because our leadership is needed now more than ever.

O Canada: Four Uniquely Canadian Things about Volunteerism and Volunteer Engagement during COVID-19

In this special bonus post, we welcome our Canadian colleague Jessica Pang-Parks who shares her insights into volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The whole world is on the same COVID-19 car ride right now, wondering, “are we there yet?” and waiting for restrictions to lift. 

In Canada, as in most of the Western world, COVID-19 has impacted volunteerism and volunteer engagement. On May 1, 2020, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada took a poll (during a Zoom call) of fifty leaders of volunteers from across the country. No surprise, none of us said that our volunteer programs were running “business as usual”. Forty-six percent of us said that volunteering at our organizations was “shut down until further notice”.

Screen shot of research findings mentioned in the article

Indeed, many of us have had hours reduced, been furloughed, or been laid off completely. Many of those who remain employed full-time at their organizations have had to take on new responsibilities, sometimes even stepping in to be on the front lines. 

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of Imagine Canada, non-profits have been included in the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidyprogram, and organizations that serve the most vulnerable can access the $350 million Emergency Community Support Fund. As well, many paid leaders of volunteers who have been laid off or furloughed have access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

In his interview with the CBC, Imagine Canada’s CEO Bruce MacDonald said that charities in Canada are being “profoundly affected by drops in revenue, by a need to change and adapt their services, by not having access to volunteers – many of whom delivered those services.” As a volunteer engagement professional, I’m glad to see that the main advocacy body for non-profits in Canada recognizes the importance and power of volunteers.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also recognizes the importance and power of volunteers. He has a particular interest in youth development through volunteerism. His father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, created Katimavik (a national youth volunteer program) in the 1970s. The younger Trudeau was a Katimavik participant as a teen and served as the organization’s chair in the early 2000s. 

As part of Canada’s COVID-19 response, Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Student Service Grant on April 22, 2020. “Students helping in the fight against COVID-19 this summer will soon be eligible for $1,000 to $5,000” depending on their volunteer hours. What does that mean? I have so many questions!

While we grapple with these questions as Canadian volunteer engagement professionals, like in other countries, some jurisdictions are reopening faster than others. And now that you have some context, let’s look at four uniquely Canadian things that affect volunteerism and volunteer engagement during COVID-19.

#1: Rural Canadians and Internet Access

Virtual volunteering isn’t new, and we must be mindful of virtual volunteering as many people “don’t know how to effectively use these tools… [or] simply lack access.” In Canada, rural residents make up over 39% of our population, and over 40% of those people don’t have broadband internet access. 

Our large rural population is a uniquely Canadian quality. Only 19% of Americans29% of Aussies14% of Kiwis, and 17% of people in the UK live in rural communities. One-third of Canadians live in communities that have “weak or no link to population centres” including indigenous communities and northern fly-in communities. 

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared high-speed internet a basic service and aimed to provide “100 percent of Canadians access to reliable, world-class mobile and fixed Internet services”. This was reflected in Canada’s 2019 budget, which committed to universal high-speed internet for all Canadians, no matter their location, by 2030. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there is new pressure on the government to implement internet infrastructure more quickly.

Canadian charities have moved much of their programming online. While some see this as a temporary measure, others see value in making online programming permanent and plan to continue to expand online offerings. When universal high-speed internet comes to Canada, our sector should be ready to respond and leverage the resources. Volunteer engagement professionals will need to continue to innovate and keep our tech skills sharp. We are in a unique position to combine technical skills with soft skills to help our organizations move their missions forward. Keep learning, and as you learn, think about how to engage volunteers with new technology solutions that emerge. 

#2: Nova Scotia Strong

Canada’s deadliest mass shooting happened in mid-April, during the COVID-19 lockdown. It happened in Nova Scotia, one of our country’s least-populated provinces with very tight-knit communities. Very quickly, volunteers organized to fundraiseshow support, and provide space for people to grieve while being physically distant. 

Much of this was driven by grassroots community organizers, first through Facebook, and more recently, working through a local law firm to establish charitable status so they can establish permanent memorials and financial supports for affected families. Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy reminds me of We Love Willowdale, which was born in a similar manner, out of tragedy after the horrific van attack in April 2019

As these organizations professionalize, they will require volunteer engagement support. This is a great opportunity for leaders of volunteers to step up and support the grassroots. We want these organizations to make volunteer engagement a strategic priority in their infancies, so a culture of volunteer engagement is inherent to their operations. Full disclosure: I live in Willowdale and have provided the We Love Willowdale leaders volunteer engagement consulting on a voluntary basis. 

What these tragedies, and the circumstances of COVID-19 have done, is get more Canadians involved with informal and/or grassroots volunteering. As Rob Jackson says, “At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?” 

Moving forward, what can professionalized Canadian non-profits learn from the grassroots organizations formed rapidly from tragedy? Perhaps less paperwork and bureaucracy? Perhaps more urgency and emotion? My personal hope is that the learning goes both ways: that “professionalized” leaders of volunteers listen to ideas from leaders of volunteers who were, until a day ago, accountants or farm hands, and that the grassroots leaders of volunteers seek our advice, experiences, and learn from our mistakes. 

#3: America – It’s Right There

The United States is our neighbour. Approximately two-thirds of Canadians live within 100km of the US border, which also happens to be the world’s “longest undefended border”. 

Right now, the biggest factor influencing the future of volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada is COVID-19. While this border is closed except for essential goods and services until at least June 21, as of May 19,  US still has the world’s largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. A famous cross-border couple, Justin and Hailey Bieber, are spending the lockdown in Waterloo, Ontario. 

So, if there is a second, or third, or fourth spike in the Canadian curve because Americans start travelling to Canada, we may be in lockdown for longer than we thought we’d be. Volunteers who were hoping to return to giving their time in-person may need to wait longer. There may be an even greater demand for volunteer engagement professionals to step into front-line healthcare duties. Whatever happens, we can’t ignore the US, because it is right there

#4: Are you Bilingual? 

As non-profit programming moves online, organizations will struggle with being truly bilingual. Canada has two official languages: English and French. National organizations, as well as organizations serving the National Capital Region or other jurisdictions where both official languages are frequently used (e.g. New BrunswickSaint Boniface in Manitoba) will require even more volunteers and employees with bilingualism than usual.

For predominantly Anglophone organizations, excluding Francophones from programming means losing out on approximately 22% of the Canadian population. Organizations with bilingual resources were either already prepared to engage in either or both official languages, or, can easily pivot to do so. 

Volunteers who are bilingual will be in even higher demand, and bilingual volunteer engagement professionals will be much more employable. This means that Canadian leaders of volunteers should brush up on their French, collect better data on language preferences and capabilities, and be mindful of the benefits and limitations of translation technology

Franco-Canadiens are proud (so proud that there is still a strong separatist movement). We Anglophones may feel it is cute when benevoles mis-conjugate a verb. But to some Franco-Canadiens, mispronunciation can feel like a personal insult. As leaders of volunteers, we are in the business of stewarding relationships, and if we can’t literally speak the same language as volunteers and other supporters, then we can’t do our work effectively. 


Are you a Canadian leader of volunteers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted us uniquely. Are you a leader of volunteers from outside Canada who has noticed similar trends? What actions are you, your colleagues, and your government taking to support volunteerisim and volunteer engagement under these circumstances?

Reach out to me through my blog: www.learnwithjpp.com

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!

More change will come as lockdown life slowly, cautiously, comes to an end. We face an unprecedented economic downturn following the government bailouts, employment protection schemes and the ongoing costs of protecting people from Covid-19. For some, life may well get harder before it gets better. Some commentators even think the loss of GDP in the UK could result in more deaths than those caused by the virus.

Looking back to the global financial crisis a little over ten years ago, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) looked at the impacts on nonprofits and volunteer managers and there are some useful lessons for us to learn:

  • Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
  • Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
  • Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
  • There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources

As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?

What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.

1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something

It is wonderful to see reports of a million people coming forward to volunteer during the pandemic but we must not equate an interest in volunteering with actual volunteering.

On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.

Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.

In both cases, my interest in volunteering has not resulted in me actually volunteering. Instead, it is has caused frustration and annoyance. I’m not alone either. Recently a UK tabloid newspaper called the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme a shambles,not exactly the kind of press that encourages people to volunteer.

As Jayne Cravens once said:

”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”

Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed

To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.

Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.

We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!

If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?

Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back

For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.

As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.

We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.


Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.

In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers

What follows is a slightly edited article that was originally written by Susan J. Ellis and published on the Energize Inc website as the Hot Topic for December 2009. The original version is also available as an audio file.

The context for Susan’s hot topic was the global financial crisis which was impacting nonprofits and communities around the world. In today’s Covid-19 affected society, her thoughts and advice are as relevant as ever. Times are tough and many predict that an unprecedented economic shock is just around the corner. Let Susan’s words from eleven years ago inform and inspire you to act on her timeless wisdom and insight so that volunteer engagement might come out of the current situation stronger, not weaker.


Can an organization turn to volunteers to fill gaps when budgets are cut and employees laid off?

This ancient question has been resurfacing quite a bit recently, for obvious economic reasons. For many paid staff, it is fearfully voiced as, “Will my organization do this?” Even in the best of times, employees are often wary of new volunteer projects because of questions of job security, so it’s hard to deny the threat when budgets are in real danger.

I suspect that most readers here, being immersed in the dogma of our volunteer management profession, have a visceral negative reaction to even a hint of the “replacement” question. My stomach tightens, too. But we have to let our brains keep working and find a way to respond with care and concern when our organizations are struggling for their lives. Economic crisis is a teachable moment and has the potential to educate everyone about smart, motivating engagement of volunteers.

I see three levels of action: prevention/preparation; responding to hard times; and emergency mode.

Prevention / Preparation

Here is what I always give as my best advice: Plan for volunteers when times are good if you want their help in times of crisis. Crisis is the worst time for an organization to begin to involve volunteers. This reinforces the notion that volunteers are a temporary band-aid and is sure to be met with staff resistance to volunteer help just when they themselves are coping with an increased workload. Further, it is hard to sound sincere to the public about welcoming their help when recruiting in desperation.

If an organization already has an established volunteer corps and a solid volunteer management process, it is legitimate to assess how this group of loyal supporters can best be deployed to respond to an economic emergency. Top management ought to know already that volunteers are cost-effective but are never a “free” resource.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual to see organizations lay off their director of volunteer involvement in the first round of staff cuts. The theory is that there are already volunteers in place and there will be few immediate consequences from this vacancy. Then, often without seeing the irony, the same organizations also announce that they are seeking more volunteers!

Clearly it is my position that the more critical volunteers are to an organization, the more important the position of the person who leads the volunteer program. Not only will such a manager work to expand the volunteer corps, but current volunteers can feel unsupported and taken for granted if they lose their staff liaison.

Responding to Hard Times

In general, it is next to impossible to fill a gap left by a full-time employee with a single, qualified and available volunteer. Instead it would require an intricate schedule of several volunteers, each giving a certain number of hours per week and each bringing the organization a different set of qualifications. Take all the concerns of “job sharing” and multiply them several fold!

The best way to handle the real problem of forced lay-offs is to reassess the job descriptions of the entire staff, both those who have left and those remaining. This means doing a task analysis of the way things really work in the organization, not just what was put on paper in the distant past. Scrutinize the various tasks that each employee is/was doing and identify the following sorts of things:

  • What is someone doing once a week or periodically, rather than daily or on an inflexible schedule?
  • What is someone doing that really does not require his or her specialized training? (For example, a caseworker may spend a lot of time away from clients finding referral information – telephone calls, Internet searches – or a librarian might be diverted from core work by changing the book displays and bulletin boards.)
  • What is someone doing that might be done more effectively by someone else with more specialized training in that skill?

Once you have identified such tasks, you are ready to rewrite all the staff job descriptions. First be sure these contain all the tasks that require daily attention, special training, etc., adding the similar critical responsibilities that had been assigned to the laid-off staff members. Next, remove the periodic or less technical responsibilities. You end up with the remaining employees now tasked primarily with the most vital, daily functions. The remaining activities then become the basis for legitimate volunteer position descriptions. You will be asking volunteers to handle important work that can be done on a once-a-week basis or that makes use of special talents for which the volunteers have been recruited.

Now turn to the current assignments that volunteers are filling and ask this major question: Are these the most essential things we need right now? Weigh the list of tasks you’ve just culled from the employees against what volunteers are doing and make choices. Of course include volunteers in this deliberation. You can assume that they want to be of the greatest help and will be proud to be seen as part of keeping the organization afloat.

This approach to the unfortunate need to trim the budget is therefore good management of both paid and volunteer staff. The organization is paying for the best utilization of its employees and will attract volunteers in its support. It is also more likely to avoid the mistake of recruiting volunteers mainly for clerical roles at a time when increasing numbers of people are seeking more challenging ways to serve the causes in which they believe. Not to mention giving unemployed people a way to keep their professional skills alive while doing something worthwhile for others. (Another finding in the MAVA study was that 52% of the respondents said they were interviewing new volunteers with stronger work skills and 54% said these applicants were more likely to be unemployed.)

Emergency Mode

For some organizations, the financial choices have come down to eliminating services (even closing the doors altogether) or turning to volunteer help as a stopgap measure. In that sort of crisis, your mission comes first. Volunteers as well as paid staff understand and respect that. It is legitimate to share information about the emergency situation with current and potential volunteers and to ask for their help. You are likely to get it.

Again, the first task is to reassess the job descriptions of the employees, being even more deliberate in making sure primary, daily services are assigned to paid staff. Then look at what, where, and how volunteers are doing now. Are they familiar enough with the work of a unit or area that they might take on additional responsibilities? Would they be willing to increase their volunteer time for, say, two months? Can they help you to recruit more emergency volunteers (with the skills you need most) and train them on-the-job? This is also a legitimate question to pose to board members, especially those with corporate ties.

Of course this is not a great situation! The key is honest and open communication about the plans to hold things together until new funding can be found. Solicit everyone’s ideas for how to operate in the crisis. Set a timeline for reassessing how things are going and, perhaps, for when to throw in the towel. Volunteers are a vital part of transitioning to a more effective, fully-funded organization but they cannot be expected to carry the load indefinitely.

Most important, always remember that volunteers are your most effective advocates for funding your work. Especially in a crisis, make sure you are asking volunteers to be spokespeople with legislators, donors, and other funders. Raising more money and having great volunteers are mutually compatible goals.

And, to repeat: The best way to gain expanded volunteer support in lean times is to have incorporated volunteers as a welcome resource in the first place.

  • Are you facing pressure to recruit more volunteers because funding has been cut? How are you responding?
  • How are you realigning volunteer position descriptions to be sure they are meeting the most pressing needs today?
  • What else are you experiencing about “paid vs. volunteer” thinking in your organization?

Look Back to Look Ahead

A few words of introduction

I have thought long and hard about publishing this article but, in the end, I decided to take the Duke of Wellington’s advice, “Publish or be damned”.

From the outset I want to be clear that this piece is not about allocating blame or directing criticism towards people or institutions. We don’t have time for finger pointing right now. Instead, it’s a mix of my getting stuff me off my chest, having a rant and, in doing so, attempting to help consider the lessons to be learnt for volunteer engagement when Coronavirus / Covid-19 (C19) starts fading into memory.

Please take what follows in that spirit of reflection and learning and, if you add your thoughts with a comment, apply that same spirit to what what you contribute. Thank you.


Like all of us I’m watching the news every day with a mix of emotions.

I’m worried about my family and loved ones, including older relatives who are housebound for twelve weeks.

I’m worried for friends around the world, for their health, for their livelihoods and for some who are in awful circumstances with seriously ill loved ones in hospital who they can’t see because of C19 restrictions.

I’m worried about my business and my friends who run small businesses because our income for the foreseeable future has dried up, but the costs remain.

I’m concerned about the voluntary sector I love and how it will weather this storm.

I’m inspired by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people signed up to volunteer to support the NHS as Volunteer Responders in less than twenty-four hours.

I’m in awe of our health care workers who are battling C19 every day.

I’m full of gratitude for the key workers who are keeping our country running.

I’m hopeful that when we get out of this situation we will celebrate the people who really make our country run every day, not the celebrities, reality TV personalities and super-rich who we seem to have become obsessed with.

I look forward to the outpouring of national relief and celebration that will be felt someday (hopefully soon). I think we’re going to party like they did at the end of WW2.

I’m professionally frustrated too, at government, Volunteer Involving Organisations and Volunteer Managers (a group in which I include myself). Here’s why.

Government

For the last ten years the UK government in Westminster has not treated the voluntary and community sector as a genuine strategic partner. The sector’s role and voice has been diminished in government policy and practice. The Compact was scrapped. The Office for Civil Society has been downgraded over and over again, as well as being pushed from pillar-to-post across different departments.

Perhaps as a result, charities seem to be at the back of the queue for C19 financial help. As I write this Government are yet to announce meaningful economic support for the voluntary sector. NCVO and others estimate charities in England will lose more than £4billion of income in the next twelve weeks. Organisations that help the most vulnerable and marginalised in society could potentially be closing their doors soon and forever.

Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts to funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on on bare bones resources that diminish year on year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best but capacity is much reduced.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Involving Organisations

For as long as I can remember CEOs, board of trustees, Executive Directors and senior managers of Volunteer Involving Organisations all around the world have paid too little attention to the strategic importance of, and need to invest in, effective volunteer engagement. Many of us have argued long and hard for this to change, with very little success.

Yes, government are currently letting the sector down in the UK. But the neglect shown towards volunteering by so many organisations over so many years needs acknowledging too. It has left us woefully under-prepared for what we now face and that’s on us, not government.

Whilst charities rightly highlight the sudden and dramatic decline in fundraising income over the last few weeks, they also fail to acknowledge that they could have taken steps long ago that might have softened this blow. With a more integrated approach to supporters, all those volunteers who have had to stop giving time because they need to self-isolate might have been open to being asked to donate money instead of time. Many of these volunteers are, of course, worried about the impact of C19 on their finances, but a strong relationship with the organisation (thanks to a well supported leader of volunteers) might well have helped. What these volunteers might have given wouldn’t fill the £4bn hole in funding, but it would be of some help. Similarly, a more integrated supporter approach would enable charities to ask their financial donors if they’d consider stepping up to fill the gaps in service left by volunteers having to step back at this time.

Instead of taking such a holistic view of all their supporters, organisations have kept them firmly in the donor and volunteer camps, where never the twain shall meet. Our siloed approach that puts the donated pound ahead of the donated hour means we aren’t able to deploy all our resources effectively at a time of great need.

In too many cases, volunteers are still seen as nice-to-have add ons, not core assets and members of the team. Here’s one illustration of this.

I ran a Twitter poll between 20 and 27 March which asked if respondents organisations included volunteer engagement in their continuity / emergency management plan. 54% of respondents said their organisation did, 16% of didn’t and 19% said their organisation does now, which suggests – however well intentioned – that the inclusion of volunteering is a C19 related afterthought.

So, whilst the 54% figure is good news, we can also imply that before all this kicked off, more than third of organisations had no mention of volunteering in their continuity / emergency management plans. I find that shocking.

At a time when we need our volunteers more than ever, many Volunteer Managers face barriers to engaging, supporting and communicating with volunteers that are created by their organisations. Now they have to work from home, these Volunteer Managers can’t easily access their volunteer data which sits in spreadsheets on computers in an office they can no longer go to. Why? Because their organisations have refused to spend just a few hundred pounds on a proper volunteer management system, one that is cloud-based and allows volunteer management to be done from home, as well as enabling volunteers to stay in touch, organise their work, update their data, undergo training etc.. It may have been a risk to have yet another IT system in place, especially when it’s only for volunteers, but that risk pales in insignificance against the risk that organisations are now struggling to mobilise, mange and safeguard their volunteers.

I’m also aware of leaders of volunteer engagement being excluded from organisational emergency planning meetings, Volunteer Managers being laid off and furloughed, and other examples of our profession being sidelined by their employers who clearly don’t grasp how important volunteer effort is right now.

The long and short of it is that too many in organisational leadership have neglected strategic volunteer engagement for too long. As a result, their organisations are weaker and less able to help the people the serve at the time they are needed most.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.

Volunteer Managers

We may not like to acknowledge it but we Volunteer Managers have to shoulder some responsibility here as well.

For too long we’ve been too timid in making a robust argument to our organisations about why they need to take volunteering more seriously as a strategic priority and invest accordingly. Look at this article I wrote over three years ago – we had a golden opportunity and we didn’t seize it.

We haven’t been vocal enough in challenging the growing risk-avoidance culture we work in and the associated escalating bureaucracy that makes it harder for people to volunteer, not easier. If we’re honest, we’ve sometimes been complicit in adding to this bureaucracy and the barriers it creates for people wanting to volunteer.

We’ve been slow on the uptake of technology in our work. Perhaps because we have projected our anxieties about technology onto our volunteers, claiming they won’t like using tech so we don’t have to? Consequently, some of us are now scrabbling to pivot to online and virtual volunteering when we could have been doing this years ago.

That may also be why we haven’t embraced online volunteer management systems or pushed our organisations to invest in them. As a result, we can’t act fast enough when needs change, or respond in a way that meets people’s expectations. Consider my recent experience:

  • On 24th March I signed up to be an NHS Volunteer Responder. It took less than ten minutes on my iPhone and I received an instant email response. I was approved to get started in 30 hours.
  • I also applied to volunteer with a local organisation in urgent need of volunteers. On 19th March I downloaded a PDF application form that I had to fill in and email back. I didn’t hear anything until 22 March. This article was published on 3 April and, at that point, I had still heard nothing . Remember, their need was urgent.

We’ve spent too much time navel gazing about what is and isn’t volunteering. At times like this what matters is how we get help to those who need it, not what we call that help. Does it really matter if we draw a distinction between informal, unpaid community help and ‘proper’ volunteering?

We’ve failed to engage seriously and intelligently in the debates about job displacement & replacement, falling into line with the idea that volunteers must never ever do what paid staff do or did. So we’re now slow to respond in mobilising volunteers to fill the gaps left by staff who are off sick or being furloughed. We also risk being stuck in now meaningless existential debates about whether volunteers should be involved in public services when the NHS and social care system needs help like never before.

It didn’t have to be like this. We can’t let it be like this in future.


As I said at the start, this article isn’t about allocating blame, pointing fingers and criticising. It’s me (selfishly) having a good old rant and (less selfishly) trying to highlight some of the issues that C19 has revealed which we must do something about in future.

Because, if we don’t change we won’t be ready for whatever comes next, whether that’s a more mundane day-to-day reality or another pandemic, disaster or significant societal change.

Because, if we don’t change, we will have squandered a major opportunity to do better, to be better.

That would be unforgivable.

Coronavirus / Covid-19 – volunteer engagement resources and thoughts

Coronavirus / Covid-19 is dominating news and societies across the planet right now. It’s a worrying time. There seems to be no end in sight to the doom and gloom being spread faster than the virus itself thanks to social media and twenty-four hour news.

In this article I want to share some resources that may be of interest and help to you in your work leading volunteer engagement in these troubling times. I also want to share some thoughts with you about what all this might mean for volunteering in the coming months and years and, of course, get your thoughts in response.

Resources

I’ve seen lots of good stuff being shared online recently. Energize have started pulling this together into one central resource of advice for people leading volunteer engagement. From the public health resources of different countries, to those published by Volunteer Centres, professional associations and peak bodies, to guidance for specific sectors (libraries, animal welfare etc.) this is a great one-stop-shop for volunteerism related information.

Energize are also updating this resource as new material is made available. As they say on their site:

”If you have sample communications, tips, trainings, or other resources you are using, please share them through our Coronavirus Response form. If you have seen resources from others that you find helpful, let us know so we can share those too. We would love any and all suggestions.”

Please share this Energize information widely and submit your own resources so that it can become an ever more valuable resource for our profession.

In England, NCVO are working hard to support their members and the wider sector. The are also engaging with government and others around a co-ordinated volunteer response to the current situation. For more information, check out this blog post from their CEO, Karl Wilding.

With volunteering a devolved responsibility in the UK different information and resources may be available from the national peak bodies: WCVA (Cymru); Volunteer Now (N Ireland); and Volunteer Scotland.

If you are now working from home and it’s something you are not used to, Seth Godin’s company, Akimbo, are providing a virtual co-working space for one month – and it is free! I’ve signed up and created a message board around volunteer engagement so if you join, please connect with me and others there.

Finally, if you are starting to develop more online / virtual volunteering roles and looking for inspiration, please read this excellent article from Jayne Cravens.

Thoughts on volunteer efforts

It’s been great to see volunteers stepping up to the plate in the efforts to contain the virus and support those affected. In the UK we have more formal volunteering responses like British Red Cross community reserve volunteers and more informal informal volunteering responses like Covid-19 Mututal Aid, a group of volunteers supporting local community groups organising mutual aid throughout the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK.

Organisations are also facing immediate volunteer challenges too. My local Foodbank is struggling as most of their existing volunteers are 70+ and so now self-isolating. They urgently need ‘younger’ volunteers to help support the vulnerable in our community. I’m sure that’s happening elsewhere too.

What’s going on in your country and community? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media and share volunteer efforts around the virus where you are in the world.

For me, these more informal efforts are what stand out in the volunteer response to Coronavirus / Covid-19. They are a brilliant illustration of the volunteering spirit that is alive and well in society. They are also a reminder that people don’t always need organisations in order to mobilise volunteer effort to address community need. Our smartphones and social media networks enable people to self-organise in a way that bypasses the bureaucracy, risk-aversion and under-resourcing of volunteer engagement in traditional organisations.

There is also a dark side to the use of social media and technology in the current situation. Last weekend I saw people in my local community naming someone who has allegedly contracted Covid-19. No evidence was provided in support of this, just hearsay and rumour. The overall tone was as if the community had discovered a paedophile in its midst and was determined to out them, vigilante style.

I’m sure these people see themselves as doing something good, ‘volunteering’ to keep others safe by identifying people to avoid? Whether the target of their ire felt the same way is doubtful. It’s a reminder that not all volunteering is ‘good’ volunteering and we need to be mindful of the impact of people’s efforts on others.

After the recent suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack here in the UK the mantra was “Be Kind”. For many, that’s being carried through into the challenges we now face. For a worrying number though, those words have been forgotten with panic buying, hoarding and outing of those infected. Let’s try and keep volunteering efforts on the positive side of that divide.

What might the current situation mean for volunteering longer-term?

When this is all over, where might we stand with volunteering? Here are some thoughts?

  • Sadly there may be fewer older volunteers around – people who until now have been regular, committed individuals upon whom some organisations have been heavily reliant, for example in charity retail. That’s going to have implications for getting back to business-as-usual in future.
  • More positively, there may be a much greater awareness of the power of volunteering in our society thanks to the efforts of people across the globe to help and support those struggling with the virus. This may mean more people want to volunteer to help their communities in future, supporting others as Coronavirus / Covid-19 fades from the news headlines.
  • Will organisations capitalise on this interest and invest in finding ways to engage this potential influx people? Or will volunteering drop off the strategic priority list again, especially as fundraising efforts ramp up to fill budgetary shortfalls?
  • If organisations respond positively, will they adapt their volunteering offers to suit these new volunteers? I can see these ‘virus volunteers’ coming to an established organisation and facing a barrage of bureaucracy. If they’ve had a great, paperwork lite (or free) experience volunteering during the pandemic, then in future they may well just walk away when faced with the usual administrative trappings of volunteer management. Perhaps they will give up on volunteering, or perhaps they will start new organisations to address social needs in the way they want, just like they are doing right now!?
  • So perhaps we will see a swing away from formal volunteering as people realise how much difference they can make if they do things themselves without needing an organisation to facilitate that?
  • Or might we see a swing towards formal volunteering if people get frustrated that more informal efforts don’t make much of an impact?
  • Will we all be more willing to embrace virtual volunteering and remote working by volunteers given how we’re all going to be forced to do more at a distance over the coming weeks and months?
  • Will the involvement of volunteers in public services become more socially acceptable if volunteer efforts play a big part in holding the health and social care sector together in the next few months?

All of these are questions for tomorrow given many are so busy with today. But we must make time to think about these issues and prepare for when Coronavirus / Covid-19 is a thing of the past so that we are ready to lead volunteer engagement into the future. What is a challenge now will present opportunities in the future and we must be ready to seize them.

What do you think the volunteering legacy of Coronavirus / Covid-19 might be? Leave a comment below or post a response to where you found this article on social media.

This will all go away at some point and I hope we will come out of the current situation a more caring, considerate and thoughtful society and planet. In the meantime, we can all do our best to model such behaviours in the way we respond to the tough times and the work we do with our amazing volunteers. And in every situation, however bad, we can – we must! – find a reason to smile. Last weekend, as the new was gloomier by the minute, this picture I saw on Facebook made me chuckle, I hope it does the same for you…

Stay safe everyone.

The software unicorn

What is the best volunteer management software? It’s a good question. That’s why Jayne Cravens and I tried to help people answer it back in 2012. As we said at the time:

”The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organisations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organisations. We also wanted to get a sense of what organisations were thinking about volunteer management software.”

As our work confirmed, the answer to the question ‘What is the best volunteer management software?’ isn’t an easy one.

So, my interest was piqued when our friends at VolunteerPro in the USA (shout out to Tobi Johnson!) tackled the subject of volunteer management software topic in a recent blog post, “Software for Volunteer Management: What We Want Now”. As Tobi explains:

”If we were building something from scratch, how would it look and feel? What would it accomplish for us? How would it make our lives easier, not more challenging? How could it help us save time?”

The list of requirements that VolunteerPro crowdsourced from their members illustrates a problem. There is no magical software unicorn that can do everything that the globally diverse community of volunteer engagement professionals wants.

A small child holding a pink toy unicorn
A small child holding a pink toy unicorn

As Jayne and I said in 2012:

“…how organisations involve volunteers, what information they need about those volunteers, and what kinds of activities those volunteers do varies hugely among organisations. Also, different people like different features; a software loved by one organisation may be loathed by another.”

And as Tobi says in her article:

”…no software platform, whatever its purpose, is perfect”

Tobi’s article did, however, prompt three thoughts about the subject of volunteer management software that I think are important to consider.

First, leaders of volunteer engagement are frustrated at data entry. I get this. Nobody likes to have to sit there and plug data into any system. But even if we could have all the fancy software features people want to see, the value of those features would only be as good as the data inputted. So, rather than being a frustration to avoid, perhaps data entry should be seen as a top priority?

So, as VolunteerPro say, we should look at automation of data entry – I love the suggested idea that when a volunteer arrives on-site, their phone reminds them to start and stop logging their hours – or even does it for them! But let’s also remember that, as volunteer engagement professionals, we should be able to find support for data entry from volunteers rather than have to do it all ourselves. Odd as it may seem, there are people out there that love data entry, so let’s go find them and get them to volunteer.

Two people at a computer doing data entry
Two people at a computer doing data entry

Second, the list people came up with for VolunteerPro is very ‘now’ oriented: email and text (SMS) communications; integration with existing donor software etc.; live chat support; an online volunteer community forum etc.. I understand why that is – we are busy with the now, delivering for our volunteers so they can deliver for our clients. But the world is changing around us and what we need now isn’t necessarily what we will need in five, ten or twenty years time.

Where is the forward thinking about what volunteer management software might need to do for us? For example:

  • Being able to observe the data on where volunteers are as they work out in the community (handy for health and safety / lone working monitoring etc.)
  • Integrating AI / machine learning into recruitment and screening of potential volunteers
  • Application of bots in managing ongoing communications with volunteers, especially around frequently asked questions
  • Automated expense submission, process logging and electronic payment
  • Delivery and monitoring of induction training via video
  • Social media communication integration

(NB. This list isn’t actually that futuristic, it’s all stuff that is possible today! – see CHASbot in this example).

Good software providers will be doing this future-focused thinking already. If we want their products to help our profession, then leaders of volunteer engagement need to be a part of those conversations now.

Third, and finally, I was surprised to see so many suggestions for volunteers to be given more control over their data. For example, updating profiles, logging hours, submitting impact reporting data, managing shift allocations. All of these are great ideas and some volunteer engagement software has these functions already. But I always hear Volunteer Managers saying that their volunteers won’t use it because it’s too much hassle or the volunteers are too old or too young or…insert alternative excuse here!

Maybe things are changing. Maybe the growing demands of volunteers to be in control of their volunteering are finally getting through. Maybe our tendency to project our own IT anxieties onto our volunteers is finally reducing. Whatever the reason, it’s an encouraging sign that more leaders of volunteer engagement are awakening to the potential of giving volunteers control.


What do you think? Have you got thoughts and ideas about the future of volunteer management software? Leave a comment below or on social media where you’ve seen this article posted.