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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Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hospice volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic

This article is a guest contribution from Rhiannon Wheeler, Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne, England. I found Rhiannon’s account of managing volunteers during the global pandemic insightful and inspiring – I hope you do too.


‘We couldn’t do it without you’ is a phrase you hear frequently in the third sector. At St Wilfrid’s Hospice Eastbourne, the past few months have proved more than ever that we really couldn’t have served our patients and community as we have done without our volunteers.

Looking back over the time between March and today, volunteers have played a key role in the COVID-19 response and I feel both proud and grateful to work for an organisation that has included them in our efforts every step of the way, and all for the better.

When the pandemic started

Back in the early days of the pandemic, a planning group was set up at St Wilfrid’s. Led by the Chief Executive and involving the leadership team and hospice managers, the Pandemic Planning Group (PPG) met daily at 9.30am to assess new guidance, review our provision and make fast decisions on next steps. Representatives from each department were involved to ensure clear communication of onward plans and that all risks and resources were considered. My inclusion in the PPG meant that I was able to contribute to decisions made about volunteering and work with key colleagues to action these quickly.

As the pandemic began to take hold, many volunteer roles were stood down as the hospice focussed on its core services. When volunteers over the age of seventy and those whose roles, at least temporarily, ceased to operate were sent home, there was a scene that I am sure feels familiar to many volunteer involving organisations: a mix of upset, some protest, and a degree of relief from those happy to have had the decision made for them.

Where possible, services were adapted so that volunteers could provide support over the telephone or video link. Albeit with depleted numbers, three volunteer roles continued to operate on the Inpatient Unit (IPU) in the hospice building: Hosts, Ward Clerks and Young Clinical Volunteers (YCVs). The question that was revisited in the PPG several times was: should we send these volunteers home?

Why we continued to work with volunteers in the hospice

Along with everybody else in the world, we were learning about a new disease and how it spreads. We were supporting very vulnerable patients, some with a positive COVID diagnosis and working tirelessly to ensure there was adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in place.

On the one hand, there was and remains to be, a potential risk associated with any face-to-face contact with others. Hosts provide meals, refreshments and companionship to patients on the IPU and welcome visitors. YCVs carry out all sorts of clinical support tasks where close contact with patients is part-and-parcel of the role. We knew that despite all our best efforts to protect people, we were exposing volunteers in both roles to risk (and the guidance wasn’t yet clear about whether volunteers in this context were considered key workers).

On the other hand, volunteers were telling us very clearly that they wanted to be there. They were aware of the risks and well informed about what had been put in place to protect and support people. Any volunteer that chose to step back from their role was supported to do so.

Standing down all volunteers would have had a knock-on effect on the IPU. The Nurses and Healthcare Assistants, already stretched, would have had to pick up the additional tasks that the volunteers usually do, and this would have impacted on the support provided to patients.

Ultimately, it felt right for us to continue to involve volunteers in the front-line pandemic response effort.

What we did

Careful language: It was important that we were inviting volunteers to make a decision that was right for them and not because they felt guilty or that they should be volunteering. All communication reiterated this.

Clear communication: The Chief Executive (CEO) sent weekly email and video updates to all volunteers throughout the pandemic period. One email very gently explained that if volunteers who had previously stepped back due to age or other factors wished to return, we would be willing to open a conversation with them about this. Voluntary Services hosted a virtual forum over Zoom so that volunteers could ask any questions they had about life at the hospice and what to expect.

Provide volunteers with all the facts: A thorough risk assessment for the hospice building was emailed to all employees and volunteers along with a Volunteering During Covid-19 information pack with FAQs.

Welcoming back the over 70s: We knew that many volunteers aged over seventy were itching to return once this was possible. We understood the additional risk factors but it felt overly paternalistic to have a blanket ban. Towards the end of May 2020 we began to discuss whether and how we could invite them to return and after a joint decision at the PPG, we quickly put a process in place to make this possible.

Create space for an open conversation about how people feel about volunteering: Acknowledging that each person’s risk factors are unique, an individual risk assessment checklist was devised. All new or returning volunteers are now required to complete an individual risk assessment over the phone with someone from Voluntary Services or their manager. Broad and honest conversations uncover how people feel about volunteering during this time based on their own context and balanced against current facts. The conversation also offers volunteers the opportunity to ask questions or share any concerns or anxieties they may have before reaching a decision about whether and how they will volunteer.

Continue to check in and support decisions to step back: All new or returning volunteers are met by their manager on their first shift and provided with an induction including training on PPE and infection control. Volunteers are always offered the chance to opt in or out of tasks and understand that they can step away at any point.

Working with COVID- 19 positive patients: Initially, only employed team members worked in the isolated rooms. However, the Hosts soon noticed that the Nurses and Healthcare Assistants were exhausted and wanted to help. Some suggested that they could support patients in isolated rooms and following conversations with the clinical director and at the PPG, this was agreed.

Host volunteer Gill was asked if it worries her working with patients in isolation:

“Not at all, it feels completely safe. Doing what we do is nothing like being a Nurse. As Hosts we work together in pairs, which helps as we are able to look after one another as well. There’s no time pressure; we have plenty of time to put PPE on and take it off without rushing and also have time with the patients when needed.”

Why it worked

Well established roles pre-pandemic: we have had volunteers operating on the IPU for many years now and embedded routines that were easy to adapt. The Hosts and YCVs were confident in their roles and well supported and valued by the clinical teams. It wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been working well already.

One team, one uniform: At the start of the pandemic, all employees and volunteers who entered the building were provided with scrubs and appropriate PPE. Volunteers and employees adapted to this together and feedback has been positive about the sense of comradery that this brought about.

Continuous review: Risk assessments and processes were continuously reviewed against the latest Government guidance and any changes communicated. We routinely questioned whether to introduce blanket polices about who can volunteer and how, but each time have returned to taking a flexible and personalised approach to this. Volunteering at its core, is about people choosing to contribute after all.

Strong leadership and communication: The PPG ensured that decisions were made as a team and different views about risk, process and policy were explored and discussed. From the top down, everybody was included in decisions and nothing was hidden from anyone.

I had a place at the table: All decisions had to be agreed and actioned quickly. As the Voluntary Services Development Manager, I was able to bring my knowledge and perspective to the discussion and I knew what was needed to progress plans.

Everybody had their eyes open: Our processes have been guided by the information available and what individual volunteers feel comfortable with for themselves and their situation. Clear, open and honest communication from the outset has helped to establish trust in the decisions made.

Making ourselves available: Volunteer managers and the Voluntary Services team are in regular contact with volunteers and invite open conversations at any point.

New models that can be replicated for different roles: Since introducing these processes for IPU volunteers, we have adapted the same process for inducting volunteers back into other roles and activities. Retail volunteers returned the same day shops in the UK were allowed to open and we have begun to re-initiate some volunteer community befriending visits as well as some other volunteer involving support functions.

Learning points

On the 18th June I received the phone call I had been dreading. Three volunteers who had been active in the hospice had tested positive for COVID-19; two hosts and one YCV.

Despite wearing appropriate PPE and following correct protocol, all three had spent some time with a patient who had a false-negative test result. A few days later, another volunteer who had been working in isolation rooms with patients who had a positive COVID diagnosis received a positive test result.

We couldn’t know for sure whether the volunteers caught the virus from the hospice or from elsewhere (two of them had returned to work around the same time) but of course we reported the incidents through the appropriate channels and reviewed our processes accordingly.

We knew that our processes were strong and for the three months up to this point we had managed to contain the spread. Until this point, no patient, volunteer or employee had caught the virus from the COVID-positive patients we had cared for.

This all happened in a very small window of time and coincided with the time that lockdown began easing and people started to go back to normal life. It led to a tightening up of visiting restrictions and some further work to cement a culture of strong adherence to physical distancing and infection control.

Regular contact was kept with the volunteers while they were recovering and all four wanted to return to their roles once they were well enough and had finished their period of self isolation.

On their return, there was a knock to confidence for these volunteers and some anxiety that they had done something wrong. Extra support and ongoing reassurance, regular breaks and shorter shifts soon got them back into the swing of things.

Dancing with doctors

Despite some ups and downs (I believe it’s called a corona-coaster!) and a mountain of work to keep things going, the whole experience of how we engaged with volunteers has been worthwhile and their contribution has been invaluable.

Feedback from the volunteers has been overwhelmingly positive. Managers helped to create a calm and supportive atmosphere and the small things made a big difference. The radio was always on and there was lots of singing and some occasional dancing with passing doctors. A previous feeling of ‘them and us’ has been replaced with a mutual respect for each other’s roles in one big team.

While acknowledging the insurmountable awfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have told us they look back on the past few months as a really positive time and feel that they were part of a unique and meaningful experience. The challenge now is to make sure we keep it going as we progress through this ‘new normal’.


Rhiannon Wheeler works as the Voluntary Services Development Manager at St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne. Previously working in education and youth work, Rhiannon has been involved in volunteering for over 20 years, either as a volunteer herself or in roles where she has supported others into volunteering or social action. You can contact Rhiannon via email.

St Wilfrid’s Hospice serves a population of 235,000 people covering an area of around 300 square miles. Expert teams help people to live well until the end of their lives and provide support to their family and friends. Care is provided both in the hospice and increasingly in people’s own homes.

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Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

Toxicity and six steps to tackle it

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


Helen’s story

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

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

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

The toxicity problem

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

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

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

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

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

Barry’s story

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

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

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

Tackling toxicity

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

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

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

2. Recruit to Keep Toxicity Out

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

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

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

3. Require Supervisor Training

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

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

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

4. Engage in proactive prevention

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

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

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

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

5. Reward appropriately.

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

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

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

Ensure your rewards have value by rewarding appropriately.

6. Remove the toxic person

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Recognising Racism in Volunteer Engagement

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sense of urgency

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

Defensiveness

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

Worship of the written word

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

Quantity over quality

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

Only one right way

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

Paternalism

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

How it shows up in volunteerism:

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

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

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

So, what can we do about it?

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

Consider, for example:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why involving volunteers may not be a good idea

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 – Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

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

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

2 – Volunteers may not give an immediate return on investment

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

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

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

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

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


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

In my response to this article I said:

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

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

What do you think?

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

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Albert Einstein said:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Screen shot of research findings mentioned in the article

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1: Rural Canadians and Internet Access

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

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

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

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

#2: Nova Scotia Strong

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

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

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

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

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

#3: America – It’s Right There

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

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

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

#4: Are you Bilingual? 

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

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

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

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


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

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

Three reasons why organisations will need volunteer engagement professionals after lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Jayne Cravens once said:

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

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

2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers

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

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


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

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

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

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

Prevention / Preparation

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

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

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

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

Responding to Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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