The freedom to never volunteer together

The freedom to never volunteer together

I recently read the brilliant book, “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. Combining insights from philosophy and psychology, the book is recommended for anyone interested in productivity and how we spend our time in the modern world. One chapter in particular really made me think about the future of volunteering and I wanted to share those thoughts with you.

If you’re not familiar with his book, Oliver argues against the typical approaches to time and productivity management, pointing out that we cannot possibly get everything done in the average human lifespan of four thousand weeks. He proposes that when we drop the pretence of getting everything done we open up new ways of thinking about how we spend our time, embracing rather than denying our limitations.

Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter called, ‘The Loneliness Of The Digital Nomad’, that challenged my thinking about the future of volunteering.

Oliver starts the chapter by pointing out that so much modern productivity thinking is geared towards helping each of us individually to take control of our time. Being in charge of our own schedule, doing things on our own terms, is often the goal. We can perhaps see that most clearly in the way work is being re-shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us wanting more control over when and where we work.

As Oliver explains, this flexibility and emphasis on us (not our teams, colleagues etc.) can lead to increased misalignment of our schedules, not only with those we work with, but potentially with our friends and families as well.

For example, if we know we work best in the evenings then, with our newfound workplace flexibility geared to our needs, we can now more easily do that. But, in the before-times, when we perhaps worked to a organisationally driven schedule, evenings might have been the time we used to socialise or spend time with family. Thus, in our pursuit for more control over our schedule to work when we want to, we may be impeding valuable social connections that the old ways of working made possible.

This could have significant implications, because having free time (away from work) isn’t much good if you can’t experience it with others.

“Having free time but not being able to use it with others isn’t just useless, it’s unpleasant.”

Oliver illustrates this with the way the former Soviet Union allocated shift patterns for workers in factories. For maximum efficiency, people were placed in colour coded shifts of four days on, one day off, often regardless of their connection to each other. So, two friends might be on totally different shift patterns meaning their days off work never aligned. This even happened to husbands and wives, even though it wasn’t supposed to! Needless to say this did not make for happy lives or relationships, even if it made for productive factories. Whist we may not be being forced into shift patterns, we are increasingly choosing the hours and places we work on our individual terms, and not so much in regard to others.

Oliver also highlights Swedish research that showed that when people took time off work they were happier, but when they took time off work with others, happiness increased even more. And this wasn’t just when friends and family took time off together. The effect was also seen when more people in Sweden were off work, regardless of how well they knew each other, people were happier. Even retired people were happier when others took time off work!

Simply put, taking control of our own schedules may result in more freedom to choose when and where we work, but this potentially makes it harder to forge connections, not only at work, but in our wider lives too. And, as volunteering doesn’t exist in a bubble, I think there are some potential implications for volunteering.

As more of us switch to working from home more often, working away from others on schedules that work for us but may be misaligned with others in our lives (colleagues, friends, family, other volunteers), might this not also have negative implications for how and when we volunteer? Could all this freedom about when, where and how we work mean we never get to volunteer together again?

We know that for many, volunteering is a social activity. Studies frequently state that one of the top motivations for people to volunteer is to meet people and make friends. We know this is especially true of 18-34 year olds, the age group most likely to say volunteering was important to them as a means of combatting social isolation in NCVO’s 2019 study, Time Well Spent.

As workplaces move increasingly to allow all of us to organise our time on our own terms, do we make it harder for that social, human connection to be realised in volunteering?

Away from concerns about the spread of Covid-19, is pushing more and more volunteering online, into roles that are increasingly done alone, on individual schedules and remotely, a good thing for volunteering? What about for our communities and wider society overall?

What about those who need the social connection volunteering provides: the young, the lonely, the isolated and many others? If we make it harder and harder to give them the human connection they thrive on because it’s cheaper for our organisations to close offices, work remotely and do more online, is that something we are comfortable with?

If we gain more personal freedom, but at the cost of never coming together to see or make new friends, of never coming together to volunteer, is that a world we want?

Of course there are many perspectives and nuances to these reflections. Changes in how we work might also create opportunities for volunteering, as I outlined in a blog post about employee volunteering earlier this year. Growth in online volunteering might help tackle challenges around inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

What I am asking, based on thinking prompted by Oliver’s book, is whether we are looking at all the angles? Whether, in our rush to re-shape our lives and communities after the pandemic, we are thinking about what we might lose as well as what we might gain, and whether we are happy with that trade off.

That’s why I’m excited to be be hosting the next AVM Book Club meeting at 430pm on 28th June 2022 where we will be discussing the concepts and ideas presented in “Four Thousand Weeks”. There are more details available and you can book your free place (for AVM members only) here.

If you’re not an AVM member, or you can’t join us in June, or you just want to get your thoughts out now, then please leave a comment below.


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Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

Are Volunteers Our Most Valuable Stakeholders?

Since 2019 I have had the honour of serving as Editor-In-Chief of Engage, an online journal written for volunteer engagement leaders around the world who want to be informed and challenged about volunteering trends and issues.

Whilst Engage is a subscription journal, we do publish some free content and, since 2013, I have co-written these Points of View articles, first with the late Susan J Ellis and then more recently with the marvellous Erin Spink.

What follows is the Points of View Erin and I published back in October 2021. It asks questions about the value your organisation places on volunteers compared to other supporters. It is just a relevant now as it was seven months ago.

Finally, please check out our other Points of View articles as well as consider becoming a member of Engage.


The global pandemic – along with raised consciousness on diversity, equity and inclusion – has forced many organisations to refocus, change directions and reflect on a range of issues. For example, some are re-evaluating how they serve their community, from both a procedural and ethical lens. Others are tweaking volunteer engagement to make it more accessible online. And still others are undergoing a wholesale review of the place and value of volunteers within their work.

Whatever such rethinking involves and must take into account (which includes fluctuating funding environments for many), new lines are being drawn in the sand around who and what is essential versus who and what is nice-to-have in mission-driven organisations.

When we talk about who and what is essential, we know that for any organization that engages volunteers such discussions can be challenging for leaders of volunteer engagement. When those conversations happen, the relative value of volunteers compared to other stakeholders is often a thorny topic.

Consider: your organization is going through an exercise in prioritising stakeholders (e.g. donors, clients, board members, paid staff, the public, funders, government, etc.) from most to least valuable. Are volunteers on the list? And, if so, where do they sit on this list and why do they sit there?

What seems to be a simple question actually reveals a host of unspoken, hidden assumptions and biases that aren’t discussed nearly enough or with the rigour and critical thinking needed. For many volunteers, their main ‘currency’ of time has been largely put on hold during the pandemic. Instead, we’ve heard a lot of anecdotal stories from peers that the major shift in volunteer engagement strategy was to say to volunteers, “Since you can’t give your time, please give us your money.”

There’s a lot to unpack within the ‘give money instead of time’ mantra. However, the core of it boils down to the perception of value contributed from a particular stakeholder group, in this case, volunteers. In many organisations, money is valued more than time and so financial donors sit above volunteers in the stakeholder pecking order. Clouding the conversation, however, is the historical practice of correlating volunteer time to an hourly currency amount, despite excellent work in evolving the understanding of how we assign value to volunteer time (see articles by Jayne Cravens, Sue Carter Kahl and Meridian Swift on this topic and how to articulate volunteer value).

The seemingly quick switch of many organisations to a ‘give money instead of time’ message to volunteers demonstrates how much farther we need to go in order to change perceptions by key decision makers and influencers on the value of volunteers and why we include them as part of our organisations. To be clear, we’re not saying it is/was wrong to ask volunteers for money during the pandemic or, indeed, at any time. Research has shown that volunteers are often more generous money donors than non-volunteers, if asked in the right way. No, the issue we have is the seemingly automatic distillation that volunteers’ value is the one-dimensional construct of time.

By equating volunteer value to time alone, we discount the many other important contributions that volunteers make and spotlight the fragility of any real change in the broader understanding of volunteer value.

We have been saying for some time now in these Points of View articles that the changes and challenges of the past year have presented great opportunities to move beyond the ‘tried and true’ and seek to effect innovative and lasting change in volunteer engagement. This ‘time vs. money’ issue is another example. Volunteer impact is not one-dimensional. Whether it’s the number of hours or a currency value assigned to that time, these overly simplistic valuations miss the mark. In discussions about stakeholders and the contributions they make, this is dangerous. Because when time is not an option – like during the pandemic – then volunteers fall to the bottom of the stakeholder value ladder.

How does volunteer value measure up in comparison to other stakeholders?

Volunteer contributions can (and should) be considered from multiple dimensions. For stakeholders and organizations, there is ideally an equitable benefit for both parties, as well as costs.

What is unique about volunteers as a stakeholder group is that they can, and often do, receive fewer of the benefits while at the same time more of the costs compared to other stakeholders. For example, have you ever heard of a program or structure being named after a volunteer? Probably not. But we bet you’ve come across something like that named after a cash donor in the past. Regardless of whether a volunteer was instrumental in developing or running a core aspect of your organization’s mission, they rarely get the credit in the way a cash donor might.

In business, some use the “triple bottomline” of people, profit and planet to measure positive and negative impacts. Perhaps the same should be true in our for-impact sector, too – and for all stakeholders.

Volunteer contributions and the involvement of volunteers form a virtuous cycle. Unlike a monetary donation which has a set value, the value of time and heart is unlimited. Due to the nature of their voluntary involvement with your organization, volunteers can advocate and influence a wide sphere with an authenticity unparalleled by other stakeholders, with the exception of participants. We have both seen examples over the years of how volunteers can bring something to an organisation that truly no other category of worker or supporter can bring.

Often volunteers are involved with projects and programs that are deeply embedded in the work of your organization. As a result, it can be argued that they more deeply impact (and are impacted by) the work of your organization. While some volunteer roles are of a more transactional and short-term nature, the ripple effect of the exposure to your mission is far more powerful than the transaction of writing a cheque or making an online donation. Most volunteers – no matter whether their involvement is in-person, episodic or virtual – go through some level of orientation to an organization. This awareness-raising and exposure heightens the emotional and educational aspects of becoming involved with an organization, and impacts a volunteer more than other stakeholders.

Stakeholder Value Education

The pandemic brought into stark relief a continued need for more education, advocacy and compelling evidence of the multiple bottom-lines that volunteers impact, as well as the more intangible qualitative contributions that volunteers uniquely add. This isn’t just about scoring points with colleagues by getting volunteers further up the stakeholder value list; it’s about ensuring that our organisations make the most of a multi-faceted, highly valuable resource without simply dismissing it as less valuable than a one-dimensional financial donation.

To get you started, consider the following:

  • What networks do volunteers give your organisation access to that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach?
  • What is the ‘opportunity cost’ to the volunteer of giving time to your organisation? What are they giving up to support you? How might this be used to show the value of what they bring to your cause?
  • How do volunteers contribute in unique ways from paid staff and other supporters? Do they, for example, bring a lived experience of your cause, or appear to clients as more reliable / committed etc. because they aren’t paid to be there? How does that help progress your mission through volunteer engagement?

We’d love to hear what you are already doing on this issue, how you get on if you’re just starting and what you think more broadly of the position we’ve taken in this Points of View.

Please leave us a comment and let’s get the conversation started.


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Bored? Join a Board!

Bored? Join a Board!

For this blog post I am pleased to welcome guest writer, Claire Haggarty. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claire for a few years and serve with her on the Executive Board of the Heritage Volunteering Group. Claire share her personal reflections as a volunteer engagement professional taking on a new role as a trustee. Enjoy.


After working in a range of volunteer management roles across many heritage sites, I wondered if my experience of working across teams with different specialisms and (sometimes) competing interests put me in a unique position to support an organisation as a trustee. I’m pleased to report it did, and here’s why.

How I came to Trusteeship

In 2020, my job was made redundant. My employer, a museum, and national visitor attraction, suffered huge financial losses from being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that would have been their peak visitor season. Unfortunately, they had to make the hard decision to re-structure to ensure long-term survival.

My personal circumstances, and impending motherhood, didn’t make it possible for me to return to the workplace immediately, but I wanted to do something valuable with my time (beyond being a mother) as many friends had advised me to retain something adult or professional for myself during that period at home. I already volunteered for our local Good Neighbour scheme, so wanted to find something that allowed a deeper level of engagement than ad hoc volunteering allowed. So, the idea of trusteeship, began to evolve.

I did some research by looking at role descriptions and responsibilities of a trustee, particularly thinking about the daily activities of a trustee. I wanted to know what it would look like if I chose to do it, the sorts of activities I might be involved in, and what to expect in terms of commitment. Likewise, I researched some activities and legal responsibilities involved with trusteeship (see links and resources at the end) and read up on experiences of those who had been trustees. Fortunately, I had some in my circle who were trustees, so I was able to reach out to them for a conversation. Soon enough, I saw an advertisement for a trustee at a small museum about forty minutes away from my home. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to lend my skills and knowledge to a growing organisation, so I applied, was interviewed, and accepted. I am now a proud trustee of Lowewood Museum in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

Surprises and Expectations

To my surprise, my experience of trusteeship hasn’t been that different to my experiences in the workplace. I work with Trustees who have different specialist skills sets and champion their professional skill area in the same way that I worked across varying teams in the organisation. I still use the same negotiating and influencing skills that I developed in my paid role to champion best practice volunteer management at a board level.

A museum of local history, Lowewood Museum recently had its application to National Lottery Heritage Fund for “Your Museum, Your Heritage” approved. The project will involve updating our museum interpretation with volunteers from under-represented communities in the parts of the borough experiencing inequality. Volunteering will be a large part of this project, and my involvement will likely increase as the projects unfolds. I am part of a working group planning our first Annual General Meeting, and I’m gaining experience with budgets and financial planning that I could have never hoped to gain in a junior or middle management role.

I was concerned by the financial responsibility of being a trustee before I started, but this has turned out to be less of a concern, partly because we have another highly skilled and excellent trustee on the board who knows his stuff, but not everyone can be so lucky. It is imperative that you read up on these responsibilities and understand the different business structures that exist and how they affect your individual financial commitment should something go wrong.

What Makes Volunteer Managers Ideal Trustees

In my experience of volunteer management, I have found the job “Volunteer Manager” is conceptualised differently across organisations. For a start, the job title differs. We are everything from volunteer co-ordinators to community engagement or duty managers, but there has been one commonality across all these professional experiences; my work has involved me working across departments supporting various teams with different specialisms. In my view, this is what makes us ideal candidates for trusteeship: there are very few people that have worked across an organisation the way we do. Critically, we already have a developed understanding of the way different parts of the business work and how these departments interact. Many of us have been involved in strategic or business planning and have some understanding of financial planning (which is a joint responsibility of all trustees, so not something you would have to do alone). We have written policy documents, volunteer handbooks and likely at some pint been involved in a problem resolution process. We are policymakers, peacemakers, strategists, negotiators, and accountants!

In short, as Volunteer Managers we are multi-skilled professionals with a high-level overview of the complex organisations we work for, and this makes us ideal candidates for a leadership role like trusteeship.

Why You Should Do It

So often volunteer management is not respected as a professional skill set in and of itself, but a part of a job, or an admin/recruitment role that sits within another department. Many of our colleagues fail to realise the broad range of skills a good volunteer manager can develop and the varied strands of work we are able to deliver. If, as volunteer managers, we want to be heard, and we want to not have to fight every time we need to achieve something strategic or something meaningful, then we need to have a seat at the table. This means more of us applying for trustee positions and gaining a voice at the board level. Without this, we will continue to struggle to influence change.


Resources

Directory for Social Change and OSCR (the Scottish Charity Regulator) have excellent video content on YouTube and are good places to start your research as they will give you references to other resources to look up or ways to structure your research. NB. If using OSCR, please be aware that of different laws and regulations in Scotland that mean not all the information will be relevant to charities elsewhere in the UK.

Charity trustee: what’s involved (CC3a) — Perhaps the most useful resource is the gov.uk website. Be sure to download and read The Essential Trustee and Being a Trustee documents.

Getting on Board have great information for aspiring Trustees and a community for young trustees or those from diverse backgrounds


About Claire

Taking time out from her career to raise a young family, Claire Haggarty is involved in several volunteer management projects, from being Membership Officer for the Heritage Volunteering Group, a specialist support network supporting volunteering in the UK, to being an active volunteer in her local community, often co-ordinating the local good neighbour scheme in her hometown.

In 2016 Claire received a highly commended in the London Volunteers in Museums Awards in the Supporting, Managing and Encouraging Others category for her work with volunteers on the award-winning Painted Hall Project at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

For Claire, volunteering was a way to build confidence back and return to the workplace after a long-term illness, giving her an understanding of the varied reasons why people get involved and choose to volunteer.


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Is employer supported volunteering changing?

Is employer supported volunteering changing?

Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) has been around for well over thirty years. It’s gone through some changes in that time, but nothing radical. Which makes me wonder: now we’re coming out of the pandemic, could we be about to see real and significant future change in employee volunteering?

I don’t have any answers, but I do have thoughts, so here are three areas I want to look at in this article:

  1. How the pandemic has changed our working lives, and so may change ESV
  2. The opportunities of millennial recruitment
  3. Employee volunteering as direct action

Throughout this post, I’ll pose some questions, and it’d be great to hear your thoughts on these, so please consider leaving a comment at the end of the article.

How the pandemic has changed our working lives and so may change ESV

I live in Grantham, a small market town in Lincolnshire, England. We have a population of about 44,500. We’re located on the A1, the main road linking London and Edinburgh. Furthermore, we are a stop on the East Coast Main Line, the railway connecting London to Leeds, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. We have the A52 running through town, the main road connecting the agricultural fenlands to the road transport network, and cities like Nottingham.

I mention all those connections because they directly relate to the expansion of Grantham. Hundreds of houses have been built, with more to come because living here is an attractive proposition. The cost of living is much lower than in the South East, and the transport connections make it possible to commute to London in a little over an hour. The urban centres of Leeds, York, Lincoln, Peterborough, and Nottingham are all within an hour by road or rail.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, these changes were having a significant effect in the local community. People were moving here but not spending most of their time here. They mainly spent Monday to Friday at work in one of those towns and cities mentioned above. They would leave Grantham early in the morning and return late at night. Weekends were when they actually lived here, and those days were taken up with the usual leisure activities and family commitments. This left very little time for volunteering. For these people, employee volunteering may have been the only way they could get involved, and that was most likely taking place in the communities where they worked, not in Grantham where they lived.

Those who did live here during the week were largely retirees. An ageing population, not all of whom volunteered but, those who did, were slowly dwindling in number. This left local Volunteer Involving Organisations with a problem — fewer ‘traditional volunteers’ and a growing population unavailable to volunteer when the organisations needed them.

Then along comes Covid-19.

Fast-forward to today. With a widespread vaccination roll-out, offices are re-opening, but commuter numbers are not even close to where they were two years ago. This means more and more people working from home, living and working in Grantham — they don’t just sleep and spend weekends here any more. And working from home perhaps affords a greater flexibility in their lives than before. In short, unlike before the pandemic, they could now volunteer here in Grantham, potentially on any day of the week.

Are the employers of those staff working from home in Grantham looking at the opportunities and challenges this presents for employee volunteering? For example:

  • Supporting their staff to get involved with smaller, community-based nonprofits, rather than the big name charities, as might have been the case before.
  • Shifting their focus away from ESV as a team building activity that brings employees together, to a more skills-based approach in communities across the country, not just where large offices are located.
  • Exploring the practicalities of employee volunteering from home, from capturing data on what their volunteers do, to monitoring paid time off to volunteer, to facilitating links between employee volunteer and local organisations.
  • Helping local Volunteer Involving Organisations to create opportunities that accommodate the talents of professional, skilled workers who may be looking to volunteer in significantly different ways than these organisations are used to.

Of course, Grantham is not the only community in the country (or the world) that could tell a similar story of how the pandemic has affected local life. How have such changes influenced your community, and what might that mean for employee volunteering as a result?

The opportunities of millennial recruitment

In 2018, Meridian Swift and I wrote about a new ‘volunteering initiative’ from Starbucks in the USA. You can find the links to our two articles below:

The motivation behind this initiative was to try to attract more millennials to make Starbucks their employe of choice. As The Guardian newspaper reported at the time:

”18-34 years old are quickly becoming the largest group of employees in the workplace. Business owners, both big and small, are trying to come up with innovative benefits to attract the best and the brightest people of this generation to their company as well as keeping existing employees happy and motivated.”

Back in 2018 I was seeing this kind of issue borne out in the USA more than the UK. I still don’t think it’s a big feature of ESV here four years later, either. But it may well become so.

As the UK faces labour shortages brought about by Brexit and the pandemic, employers are all too aware of the need to recruit the best people into their workforce. With the huge baby boomer cohort continuing to retire in vast numbers, and a comparatively small Generation X population, this places the focus squarely on recruitment of the larger Millennial generation.

How might UK employees factor ESV into their offer to Millennials? Might we see more initiatives like Starbucks tried in 2018, initiatives which might challenge our understanding of volunteering? Might employers need to embrace the issues illustrated earlier by my story from Grantham, giving Millennials time and space to engage in local causes that matter to them where they live, not just where the corporate offices are located?

How might Volunteer Involving Organisations get on the front foot with these issues? Are we prepared to be flexible on our concept of volunteering? Can we actively promote employee volunteering opportunities to businesses as a way of addressing their Millennial recruitment challenges? What might we need to change to create more ESV opportunities for our employees, potentially making us more attractive to Millennials who want to work in our sector?

Employee volunteering as direct action

For a few years now, the traditional team challenge approach to ESV has been declining. Fewer groups of employees have been setting out to, for example, paint the local community centre or clean a canal towpath.

In place of these team challenges, employee volunteering has morphed into something where individuals or groups of employees use their professional skills to help nonprofits on a project basis. This could be, for example, developing a new marketing plan or designing and building a website.

A third approach to employee volunteering is starting to gain traction now, too. If employees can take paid time off work to paint a wall or help organise an event, why can’t they also take time off to take part in a protest march or some other form of direct action? It’s rarely referred to as volunteering but, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then perhaps it’s a duck!


We may not think of Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion protestors as volunteers, but they are, they certainly fit the accepted definitions of a volunteer. So, what if employees want to choose this form of service as their employee volunteering? Or volunteering for a candidate for political office? Are employers willing to allow this? Would your employer? Would you?

My colleague Jerome Tennille has written more insightfully and eloquently on this evolution of ESV than I possibly can, and I really encourage you to read his thoughts on the issue from his June 2020 blog post.

Jerome also brought my attention to this May 2021 story from the USA about the company Peloton allowing staff time off for, “voting, volunteering for a candidate, participating in peaceful and lawful demonstrations, or any other time devoted to civic participation.”

So, there are my thoughts on how we might see Employer Supported Volunteering changing in the future. Now it’s over to you?

What do you think?

What other issues can you see driving change in this area?

Do you agree with some of my observations or see things differently?

Leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation started.


See also my 2019 blog post, ”Are we ready for the future of Employer Supported Volunteering?”


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Aiming for the wrong target

Aiming for the wrong target

Back In July, Third Sector magazine ran an article with the title, “Turning Covid-19 volunteers in to long-term volunteers” (the article sits behind a paywall so may not be available to all). When I read that headline for the first time, I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands, summoning up the will to read on.

I passionately believe that the premise of the headline is the wrong approach to be taking.

Rather than seeking to bend these people to our will — our desire for regular, long-term volunteers, either because we genuinely need them or we just can’t our won’t change the volunteer model we’re comfortable with — shouldn’t our initial response be to learn from what has happened during the pandemic and consider what changes we might need to make as a result?

‘Covid-19 volunteers’ are people across the UK who helped out their friends, neighbourhoods, and communities as the economic drivers that dictate how we live our lives were stripped away through furlough, lockdown, and social distancing. With no employment and commuting to do, they stepped up to help when the world turned upside down because it was the right and responsible thing to do. They did so in a highly flexible, often informal ways, encountering little bureaucracy — no forms, risk assessments and ad nauseam paperwork. That’s a million miles away from what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘volunteer’. In fact, I’d bet that many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ would never even see themselves as volunteers.

If we believe the narrative, many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ hadn’t volunteered before. Which begs the question: if they didn’t want to engage with the stereotypical, formal concept of volunteering before Covid-19, why would they suddenly have a change of heart when their experience since March 2020 has been so radically different from what many Volunteer Involving Organisations offer?

If all many of these ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ had to do to get involved was respond to a social media post or WhatsApp message, why would they choose to engage with the endless bureaucracy many Volunteer Involving Organisations require?

To me, it’s misguided to assume that because people have volunteered during the pandemic they will be automatically interested in doing so in future, especially on our terms and not theirs. Because the truth is, if we want to engage these people as volunteers in future, we have to change and in significant ways.

Thankfully, the leaders of volunteer engagement interviewed for the Third Sector article didn’t engage with the premise of the question either and focused on some of those changes that are needed.

Marie McNeil, head of volunteering at The Charity for Civil Servants, nailed it when Third Sector quoted her as saying, “Remember to keep the volunteer voice at the heart of your strategy.” If any organisation is entertaining the idea of embracing volunteering post-pandemic, then they need to start not with themselves, but with the people they seek to engage. Forget our desire for long-term volunteers — how do people want to serve our cause, what works for them, and how can we incorporate that into our plans for the future?

I’m sure Third Sector meant well with their headline, and some may think I am over-reacting to eight words at the top of their article. But, as I have written many times before, language is important. What language coveys matters. And there will be people — probably some board members and senior leadership colleagues — who saw that headline and are even now going to their Volunteer Managers and demanding something be done to convert ‘Covid-19 volunteers’ into long-term, regular givers of time, in total ignorance of the futility of such an approach.

The challenges of the last eighteen months have been immense. More are sure to come. But the opportunities we face in volunteer engagement are equally exciting and significant. If we are to seize them, organisations need to start from the right place, with a sound understanding of reality and a real desire to change, not as naive belief that the volunteers of 2020 are just waiting to do our bidding in future.

Perhaps a better headline would have been “Turning organisations into something Covid-19 volunteers want to get involved with”?


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What didn’t work will make us stronger

What didn’t work will make us stronger

Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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We need leadership that values more than money

We need leadership that values more than money

Five years ago, I read an article about a report from the fundraising think tank, Rogare. The headline finding of the report was that fundraisers should be rewarded not for performance against short-term metrics (such as income targets) but longer-term measures (such as donor satisfaction).

As the report put it:

“If you can focus on donor satisfaction, the money will surely follow.”

The Rogare report also found that the majority of the fundraisers surveyed have “problematic relationships with senior colleagues” which often manifested as a short-term approach that demanded immediate returns on investment.

The message was clear – fundraisers don’t have the support, buy-in, or understanding of their colleagues and superiors: from trustees, chief executives and finance directors; and from the likes of communications staff and campaigners at a peer level to be able to implement practical relationship fundraising.

This will sound very familiar to many leaders of volunteer engagement. Their performance is often measured against the wrong metrics like how many volunteers they have, how many they recruit and how many hours they give. They know that if you give volunteers a great experience (volunteer satisfaction) they will probably want to give more time, and maybe even money, in future. They certainly experience very little buy-in or understanding from colleagues and superiors, the very same people highlighted by Rogare in regard to fundraisers.

This similarity suggests to me that some of those who hold key senior roles in nonprofit organisations don’t really understand the factors that make fundraising and people raising successful. Why else would fundraisers and volunteer managers have such similar experiences?

Of course this isn’t true of every CEO, senior management team or board. There are many out there who ‘get it’. But there still seems to be a significant number who don’t, and I wonder what steps are being taken to rectify this? Volunteering is still undervalued and hidden in many organisations.

This quote sums up part of the problem:

“Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients.”
– Professor Clayton Christensen. Harvard Business School

As we look to a post-pandemic world where we will have to see new models of doing things, we also need to be looking at new models of for-impact leadership that value people over cash. Leadership that will nurture and sustain relationships, rather than finding ways to maximise the value of the next transaction with a person.

Until such leadership emerges in those places where it is currently absent I fear we will fail to live up to our potential to change our society for the better, at the time we are perhaps most needed.


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One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“I look back in pride at our profession. At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?


What do you think?


What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


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Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

Fantastic volunteers and how to find them – five volunteer recruitment tips

As we approach the end of the year we’re getting into that period when (in normal times) we usually see a rise in the number of people interested in volunteering, individuals giving a little of their time during the holidays to support a good cause. But, when January rolls around, we may never see some of these people again. Normal life (whatever that is these days) resumes and seasonal good intentions wane, replaced with doomed gym memberships and the resumption of the daily grind. So, how can we reach out and find fantastic volunteers throughout the year, even in a pandemic affected world?

Here are five quick tips.


1 – Target

A common mistake people make when recruiting volunteers is suggesting that anyone is suitable for the vacant role. This approach is often driven by a fear that nobody will come forward. It’s a technique that can work for certain positions, typically those that require no specific skills or experience, just a warm body. For roles where some kind of existing competence is required, however, we should target, target, target.

Ask these questions:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? What exactly will it involve? What does the person need to know or be able to do before they start?
  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? What skills, experience, abilities etc. do they need? For example, if you want someone to code then say that. Get as a specific as possible.
  • Where are you likely to find them? Given what you need, where might you find those people in your community? Again, be specific and avoid generalisations.

2 – Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, go and ask them! Research consistently shows that people who don’t volunteer feel like they haven’t been asked to give time. Ask, ask, ask. Keeping asking. And when you’re done, ask some more.

3- Sell

More than just asking, however, you need to sell your volunteer opportunities like a business would sell its products – focus on the benefits of someone volunteering with you, not the features. When we buy something we don’t just look at what it can do but how it will help us. For example, all kettles boil water but some do it faster than others, some have built in water filters and some work with apps etc..

It’s the same with volunteering – show people how volunteering with you will meet their needs. Don’t just tell them what they will do or how desperate you are for help. Show them how you’ll boil water in a way that is better suited to their needs than the other kettles on the market.

4 – Respond

If you are going to ask for someone’s precious spare time then make sure you are ready to respond and provide great customer service to them when they get in touch.

Don’t imply an urgency to your need and then take weeks to respond. That happened to me earlier this year when I tried to volunteer in my community and it’s not only annoying but gives a poor impression of volunteering generally. Remember, we want people to volunteer, not put them off!

Make use of simple tools like out-of-office email and voicemail messages so people instantly know when they should expect to hear from you – then keep that promise!

5 – Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up to regular, long-term volunteering on day one are in the past. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment anymore. Would you commit to two days a week for the next five years right now?

We can, however, get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want, but we have to be patient and plan for it.

Offer a scale of engagement, with regular, committed, long-term volunteering at one end and shorter term, bite-sized, easy to access opportunities at the other. Figure out where someone will start on that scale and how they might move along it (in both directions!) as you get to know them. It may take time but some of the volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire, even if it involves taking some steps back at times.


Despite what some may think, volunteer recruitment isn’t easy. Volunteers don’t grow trees.

There isn’t a ready supply of them in cold storage waiting to be defrosted and deployed at a moments notice on the whims of your colleagues.

Effective recruitment takes time and effort.

I hope these five tips help.

What tips would you add? Share your wisdom and experience with a comment below.


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Where next for volunteer rights?

Where next for volunteer rights?

Ten years ago I was working as a Director at Volunteering England and one of my responsibilities was to provide the secretariat for the Volunteer Rights Inquiry (VRI). It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since this important and groundbreaking piece of work was done and I can’t help but wonder if much has actually changed in ten years?

I suspect not. Otherwise, why would the the UK government have felt it necessary last year to consult on changes to the Equality Act, putting volunteers on an equal footing with employees when it comes to sexual harassment? NCVO provided a briefing on the changes and engaged with the sector before producing their consultation response.

As was clear from the NCVO documents, volunteer rights remains an emotive issue and one that seemingly won’t go away. We may not have the high profile cases we had ten or so years ago, but I’m sure the problems still exist, whether it’s from poor management, serious abuse and harassment, or a whole range of other experiences in between.

Disappointingly the 3R Promise that resulted from the work of the VRI (see details below) seems to have been largely forgotten. The list of signatories is still there on the NCVO website but the momentum has been lost, as has the Call to Action progress group who were tasked with keeping this issue live.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for Volunteer Involving Organisations to get their houses in order. The Inquiry was clear that in the majority of cases it wasn’t Volunteer Managers who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers. It was other paid staff (often in management and senior leadership positions) and trustees (volunteers themselves!) who were at fault. Poor treatment of volunteers isn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management practice or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers.

I never tire of saying it – effective volunteer engagement is an issue everyone needs to take responsibility for in a Volunteer Involving Organisation, not just the Volunteer Manager.

There were plenty of voices during the VRI process calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That path wasn’t taken. Instead VIOs were given a chance to take responsibility and improve their practice against the principles of the 3R promise:

Ten years on, how does your organisation measure up? Do you do all of these things consistently? Was your organisation a signatory to the promise back in the day? If it was then it made a public commitment to do all these things, so feel free to use that leverage to get it back on the agenda with senior management!

Given the UK government’s stated approach to the Equality Act as a means of securing protection for volunteers against sexual discrimination, perhaps the 3R Promise, self-policing approach has had it’s day? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn’t solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then, do we believe that legislation will stop the poor treatment of volunteers?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. With everything the UK government has on right now, would this time be found?

Thirdly, I believe legislation could be counter-productive. Legislative requirements will only make volunteer engagement more bureaucratic and employment-like. This is at odds with a more frictionless approach to volunteering during the pandemic and risks driving people away from volunteering.

Legislation would also increase risks and costs for Volunteer Involving Organisations as they have to comply with any new legal requirements – do we really want to be placing more of a burden on these organisations given the Covid-19 driven challenges the face today?

So, what is the way forward?

There is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body, as is the will for such an approach – self-regulation of fundraising only came about because government threatened statutory regulation if fundraisers didn’t get their house in order.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn, except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years. Furthermore, a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit. Finally, in my experience, the Commission’s knowledge of volunteering is pretty woeful.

How about NCVO (and its sister bodies across the UK), the Association of Volunteer Managers, or some other sector infrastructure body? Most sector infrastructure bodies represent organisations not volunteers, which puts them in a potentially difficult position: would they side with individual volunteers against their member organisations, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ their own members for poor practice? And, as noted with the Charity Commission, what about all the Volunteer Involving Organisations who aren’t in the voluntary sector, who polices their practice?

Do we need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry? Updating the report might give it some more contemporary clout but the core of the original Inquiry’s work is probably still valid. The priority must instead be what we do about the issues it raised, not rehashing the same old issues, especially given that the resulting 3R Promise has been largely forgotten.

A few years ago I wrote that what we need is somebody to step up and start a debate about how to proceed. Somebody who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than reply on a legislative sticking plaster imposed on us by others for when things go wrong. I don’t see a body with the will and credibility to provide such leadership today. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope so.

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with.


What do you think is the way forward? Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who might take the lead on this issue.


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