Look Back to Look Ahead

FeaturedLook 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 – 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

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.

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

Ten top tips for making your organisation attractive to volunteers

In 2007 I was involved in the publication of a free eBook, ‘Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet’ (NB. link opens a PDF file), a grassroots guide to getting and keeping volunteers. What makes it different from most books on volunteer engagement is that it’s not written by consultants or known experts (although some are in there) but by leaders of volunteer engagement across the globe who share their practical experiences and tips for success. The eBook inspired a training workshop I run and this article, in which I want to share with you my top ten tips for being attractive to volunteers.

1 – Provide enjoyable volunteering

People volunteer in their discretionary leisure time. With the unrelenting pressures people feel in modern life, they want to spend their precious spare time enjoying themselves.

Making volunteering enjoyable is critical if you want to attract and keep volunteers. You see you’re not competing with other volunteer involving organisations when recruiting volunteers. You’re competing with all the leisure activities that people could spend their spare time doing – going to the cinema, having a meal with friends, watching a sports event etc..

So, make your volunteering rewarding and enjoyable. Really understand what drives your volunteers, their passions and interests. Or, in the words of a famous kids TV show from my childhood, they’ll go and do something less boring instead.

2 – Give great customer service

Do you remember the days where if you bought something mail order you usually had to wait 28 days for delivery? In today’s internet enabled age we now expect next day delivery at a minimum. Expectations have changed.

Yet I still hear volunteers frustrated that they don’t get responses quickly (or at all!) from organisations they are trying to volunteer with. What makes it worse is that sometimes these organisations have said they urgently or desperately need volunteers!


To make our organisations attractive we have to acknowledge that people’s customer service expectations are high and have to meet them – being a charity or voluntary group is no excuse. As one of the authors in the Magnet eBook pointed out, magnets can repulse as well as attract.


One suggestion is to have a team of volunteers whose role is to help respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers, even if it is just to give them a clear idea of how long a proper response will take. Another idea is to simply put an out-of-office message on your volunteer recruitment email account so that anyone enquiring gets told how long to expect to wait for a response, perhaps with links to videos they can watch or material they can read about your organisation whilst they await a response.

3 – Say thank you

Certificates, parties, awards, Volunteers’ Week events – they are all well and good, but nothing beats regularly and sincerely thanking people for their time and the contribution they make to your cause.

A word of warning: if volunteers tell you they don’t want to be thanked, try not doing it and see how attractive that makes you! What they are perhaps implying is that they want to be thanked personally, not in the generic way many organisations approach volunteer recognition.

A second word of warning: don’t do it so the organisation can tick the recognition box for another year – make sure the thank you is genuine.

4 – Provide volunteer roles that are meaningful

Imagine for a moment that you’re heading off this evening for a meal out. You get to the restaurant and order, anticipating the satisfaction of good food. Then it arrives and, well let’s just say you are underwhelmed. You leave the restaurant poorer than when you went in, probably still hungry and very likely vowing never to go back.

Opportunities are to volunteering as food is to eating out. When people volunteer they want to do something that enables them to have the satisfaction of making a difference whilst not having their time wasted. Otherwise they’ll go somewhere else, somewhere that offers them that satisfaction and sense of fulfilment.

So ask yourself, do the opportunities you have on offer make the most of people’s time (however much they have to give) and enable them to make (and see that they’ve made) a difference to your cause? Being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions is critical to being attractive to volunteers.

5 – Be flexible

According to both the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation and the Third Sector Research Centre, 31% of the UK’s adult population provide almost 90% of the volunteer hours given, with 8% providing over half the volunteer hours. In other words we are reliant on a small (and diminishing!) pool of volunteers who commit large amounts of time – the living embodiment of ‘ask a busy person’.

Yet, as anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers recently will tell you, few people thrill to this kind of commitment anymore – the old fashioned notion of long term, open ended volunteer commitments on which so many organisations still rely. If you can’t fit that kind of commitment into your life why should anyone else?

The key is flexibility, having a range of opportunities with varying commitments on offer. For example, can you provide taster sessions, allowing potential volunteers to ‘try before they buy’?

Remember too that people’s interests, motivations and availability will change over time and adapt accordingly.

I believe that attractive organisations will successfully keep volunteers if they’re prepared to let them go. If volunteers see our willingness to accommodate their changing priorities and take a break from volunteering, they will be more likely to come back to us in future when their circumstances change and they have time to give once more.

6 – Let’s talk about expenses

Providing out-of-pocket expenses to volunteers isn’t just an admin issue, it’s a key part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Without expense provision, only those who can afford to be out of pocket will volunteer.

As economic hardship in society continues to grow and deepen, more and more people need their expenses covered if they are to volunteer. We need to budget for volunteer expenses every year and explain to decision makes why these funds are important. If you don’t get the budget, ask for it again next year. Keep asking until you get it.

It’s also important to guard against a culture of volunteers not claiming expenses. Where that happens, those who need to claim are often frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome. Instead, make everyone claim. Then, if some really don’t want the money, ask them to donate it back to the organisation (ideally with gift aid added). That way everyone claims expenses, aiding DEI, and those who don’t want the funds get the warm glow of becoming a financial donor as well as a volunteer.

7 – Word and world of mouth

Surveys of volunteering consistently tell us that word of mouth is the most common form of volunteer recruitment. This shouldn’t surprise us, personal recommendation is marketing nirvana. Most businesses would love it if their customers would go and tell everyone how much they love the company’s products.

Yet we often shy away from word of mouth recruitment, almost as if we’re embarrassed about it. This is a mistake. It’s time to re-embrace word of mouth, especially given the potential of social media to develop new and exciting ways to reach our friends. As Erik Qualman once said, social media enables word of mouth to become world of mouth!

Look to maximise the potential of the power of personal recommendation to make your organisation more attractive. Do your volunteers know that you want them to help recruit others? Do you give them resources to do this such leaflets, flyers etc.? Simple things that can make a world of difference.

8 – Embrace groups

We live in a world where it’s easy for people to feel socially isolated. Loneliness is a growing problem.

Volunteering provides a way for people to connect with others – to volunteer with friends and family, to meet new people, or even make new business contacts.

According to the 2019 Time Well Spent report, 68% of all volunteers agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated. This was especially true for those aged 18-34.


Look at your organisation and opportunities. What could you do to provide a group or family with a chance to volunteer together? Give it a go and see who else you can attract.

9- Lead, don’t manage

Management guru Peter Drucker once said:

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”.

Sadly that is sometimes true of volunteer management, especially as things have become more formalised, risk averse and process driven.

People who volunteer want to make a difference and don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to use their skills and expertise to help you but they don’t want to be mired in processes and paperwork. As John Seeley Brown wisely commented:

“Processes don’t work, people do”.

To be attractive we need more leaders of volunteer engagement not more volunteer managers. Leaders simplify, they empower, they inspire and they keep us focused on where we want to go. In short, leaders attract and we need more of them in volunteering.

10 – Be passionate about the work of volunteers

One contributor to the Magnet eBook asked, “are you excited about the opportunities you are offering to volunteers and the difference they will make?” What a great question! If you’re not excited about what you want people to do for you, chances are they aren’t going to be that excited either.

Be passionate about the work of volunteers in your organisation and that enthusiasm will attract people to you.


What would your top tips be?

Would you add anything to my top ten?

Leave a comment below to add to the conversation.


If you’d like help making applying these ten top tips to your organisation then please get in touch. I’d love to help you engage and inspire more people to bring about change.


You can find out more about the breadth and depth of volunteer management practice in The Complete Volunteer Management handbook. Co-authored by me, this definitive UK text on volunteer engagement is available now from The Directory of Social Change.

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.