Thursday, 27 August 2015

What's in a word? Revisited

In November 2013 I wrote a blog post entitled “What’s in a word?” looking at the language we use regarding volunteering. I specifically picked out issues concerning microvolunteering and internships, the latter being especially critical.

As I said at the time:

First, by colluding with the idea that internship sounds more professional than volunteering we collude with the devaluing of volunteering, subordinating it to a lower class status below real work (i.e. paid) and internships. Second, we open up a can of worms such as that created by the recent debates on unpaid internships which - and let’s not ignore this at all - risk fundamentally undermining the concepts of volunteering many of us hold so dear.

This blog post built upon some writing I’d done earlier that year.

In June 2013, Jo Swinson MP commented in a parliamentary debate on interns that:

“…basically, if someone is offering their time of their own free will and they can come and go as they please, they are a volunteer, but if they are required to perform specific tasks and can be disciplined if duties are not performed as agreed, they are a worker.”

As I said in my blog for Third Sector a couple of months later:

“So a volunteer shouldn’t do specific tasks or be held to account if they don’t do a good job? Really? Is that actually how we want to think about volunteers: people doing meaningless work that makes no contribution of any value to society whatsoever? So much for volunteers making a difference.”

Why this brief history lesson? Because the issue of the language we use to describe volunteering has arisen once more and this time through a term that many leaders and managers of volunteers seem to have been happy to adopt: ‘skilled volunteering’.

The term ‘skilled volunteering’ has been around for a short while now and generally refers to people using their professional skills to help a good cause[1]. It is in effect what many people have usually referred to as pro bono:

“Professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. Unlike traditional volunteerism, it is service that uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them”. (Source - Wikipedia).

I’ve always had an issue with using language that omits the word volunteer to describe volunteering that requires particular skills or competence. Why draw a distinction between employees using their professional skills pro bono and someone who may be a retired professional from the same field using exactly the same skills who is only seen as a volunteer?

On the face of it then ‘skilled volunteering’ is not a bad term because at it least recognises that the people who use their considerable skills and expertise to further a good cause are indeed volunteers.

Yet for that step forwards, the term ‘skilled volunteering’ creates a huge jump backwards.

You see, as it becomes more common to refer to employee volunteers using professional skills as skilled volunteers, so we increasingly imply that all other volunteers are unskilled - nice-to-have, non-essential contributors who don’t do anything of real value in the organisation. It’s bad enough that so many people already hold this erroneous and misleading view of volunteers without introducing new terminology that perpetuates that belief further.

So, leaders and managers of volunteers please unite against the term ‘skilled volunteering’ as a means of distinguishing between different forms of giving time. All volunteering requires some skill and competence, all volunteering is ‘skilled volunteering’ in some way.

If you feel you have to use the word skilled at all when describing volunteering, then consider the compromise term of ‘skills-based volunteering’ which Corey Diamond of Realized Worth helpfully explains on their website:

skills·based·vol·un·teer·ing /skilz/bāst/välənˈtir·ēng/ verb

Any time someone uses their abilities, talents, networks and resources to get a volunteering commitment completed.

This may or may not include pro bono volunteering, which takes a skill that is used every day in your job and applies it to work to address a complex social or environmental cause.

Points of Light suggests that skills-based volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes, including[2]:

  • Individual volunteers, corporate paid/unpaid volunteers, loaned executives, interns
  • Projects completed in a day; short, medium or longterm projects
  • Activities performed during working hours or on individual time
  • Planned in advance or spontaneous projects such as disaster response
  • Application of all types of skills and talents from professional experience to hobbies
  • Content from nonprofit infrastructure efficiency effort to direct “in the field” projects
  • Local impact to national and international

Language is important. Let’s not use it carelessly and devalue volunteering, but with thought and clarity to shine a light on the contribution of all those who give their time to good causes.


  1. Both Reach and Career Volunteer have helpful definitions of skilled volunteering on their websites.  ↩

  2. Note that whilst Realized Worth do specialise in CSR and employee volunteering they do make clear that skills-based volunteering is not limited to this area of work.  ↩

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Five tips for recruiting volunteers

Regular readers will know I mainly use this blog to look at topical or important issues facing the volunteering field. Every now and again I like to throw in a more practical, how to, post so here are five top tips when it comes to recruiting volunteers.

1. Target

A big mistake people make is to recruit by indicating that anyone could do the role you want volunteers for. This is sometimes called warm-body recruitment because the message put out is that anyone can volunteer, so long as they are alive.

It’s a technique that can work but is only really appropriate for roles where really the only criteria for being a good volunteer is you have a pulse. For any other roles, target, target, target.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • What do you want the volunteer to do? It’s a question that’s often ignored or very little time gets spent on it. Make sure you give proper attention to the work you want volunteers to do so you can answer the next question.

  • Who would be the ideal volunteer for this role? If you need a driver, then you want people who can drive and who probably have a clean licence. Maybe they also need access to a car. If the driving is to collect furniture for a charity shop then the person probably also needs to be fit and healthy to cope with the lifting. Get as a specific as possible. Avoid saying, anyone can do it. That may be the case but if you segment that broad audience into categories you will be better placed to answer the final question.

  • Where are you likely to find them? Avoid the old staples like advertising in doctors’ surgeries and libraries unless you think the ideal volunteer is likely to be found there. To continue our driver example, why would you want a driver who’s at the doctors or think you’ll find drivers hanging out at the library? Where might you find fit and healthy drivers? If you need them during the day, where might they be?

2. Ask

Once you’ve got your target group identified, do not forget to actually ask them. Sounds stupid I know but 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.

Don’t just recruit a couple of times a year. I may see that recruitment call but not be available then. Three months later when I can give you some time you’re not asking and I’ve forgotten you ever did.

3. Sell

Please, no adverts for volunteers that say, “Help! We need volunteers”, or “Help! We urgently need volunteers”. That is all too common an approach and it stands out from all others forms of advertising which explain how buying a product will make us fitter, happier, healthier, more attractive etc..

Sell your volunteer opportunity like a business would sell its products. Focus on the benefits of someone volunteering, not the features. When we buy something we don’t just look at what it can do but how it will help us. Same with volunteering - show people how volunteering will meet their needs not just tell them what they will do or how desperate your are for help.

Oh and please don’t say “Make A Difference” when recruiting. Everyone says that. Why would I make more of a difference with your volunteer programme than someone else’s? If you want to say your volunteers will make a difference then say what difference they will make and how it will be of benefit to them.

4. Respond

At this point nobody has actually become a volunteer. All you’ve done it clarify what needs doing, who would be the ideal person to do that and communicated your offer to them. Hopefully people will respond. Hopefully the ‘right’ people will respond, saving you countless hours wading through unsuitable applications.

What happens when they do?

Do they get a speedy response (including outside usual working hours) thanking them for their interest in volunteering, explaining the next steps and being clear about timeframes? Or do they hear nothing as their enquiry vanishes into an over-full inbox until someone get rounds to responding, maybe a week or two down the line? Do they get a friendly voice on the phone or might a disinterested colleague answer who doesn’t even know about the organisation’s need for volunteers?

Far too many times potential volunteers get the disinterested colleague or the wait for days for an email reply. Volunteer Managers then claim nobody wants to volunteer or it’s getting harder to recruit.

Put simply, if you are going to ask for some of people’s precious spare time make absolutely sure you have the capacity to provide great customer service[1] to them when they do get in touch. Make use of simple tools like out of office email and voicemail messages so people instantly know when you’ll reply. Check out volunteer management software that can automatically email people who apply with a welcome message - we recommend Better Impact.

5. Scale of engagement

The days of people signing up to regular, long-term volunteering on day one are pretty much gone. People don’t thrill to that kind of commitment anymore. This is often misinterpreted as the days of long-term, committed volunteering being over.

I disagree.

We can get people to make the kind of regular commitments we want but we have to be patient and plan for it. We 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. We then start them at the easy end and, as we get to know them, we try and encourage them up the scale. It may take weeks, months or even years but some of the volunteers will climb the scale to give you the committed service you desire.

By the way, this approach can also be great if your volunteers have to be DBS / criminal record checked before they start volunteering. If you have some quick, easy, time limited opportunities available they can get stuck into those whilst the result of the check is awaited.

So, there you have it, five quick tips on recruiting volunteers.

If you’d like to get better at volunteer recruitment then Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help. Get in touch today for more information.

Now it’s over to you. What are your top tips? Please share them below.


  1. For more thoughts on customer service and volunteer management take a look at my previous blogs on the topic. You might also want to read more of my writing on recruitment.  ↩

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The implications of the Olive Cooke case are so much bigger than fundraising

On 20 May 2015 a story broke in the British newspaper The Daily Mail that has been making big waves for UK based charities. It was the tale of Olive Cooke, a volunteer who sold poppies for the Royal British Legion for 76 years but who killed herself, apparently in part due to feeling hounded by charities asking her for money.

“Mrs Cooke, from the Fishponds area of Bristol, dedicated 76 years of her life to raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies. She also supported numerous charities and at one point received 267 charity letters in one month asking for cash, leading to suggestions the hounding for money pushed her to take her own life.”

Olive Cooke, 92, who jumped to her death into Avon Gorge after suffering long term issues with depression, an inquest heard today 

Mrs Cooke’s family have been reported as saying that “the amount of contact from charities was starting to escalate and get slightly out of control, and the phone calls were beginning to get intrusive, but there is no blame or suggestion that this was a reason for her death” but this has not stopped the media and politicians from arguing hard that fundraising self-regulation is not working. Queue lots of hand-wringing, discussion, debate and promised action within bodies such the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB), Institute of Fundraising (IoF) and occasional contribution from NCVO, ACEVO and the like.

Fundraising does indeed have some lessons to learn from this case. Self-regulation isn’t perfect, improvements do need to be made but, frankly, nobody within the system has ever claimed it to be perfect. Having spent six years as a member of the IoF Standards Committee I have seen the development of fundraising self-regulation from the inside. I can personally testify that issues which at first appear simple and obvious are rarely so and that those calling for quick and easy solutions simply reveal their ignorance of the fundraising world.

But this blog is not a defence of fundraising and attempts by fundraisers to self-regulate. No, my fear is that by following the tragic death of Mrs Cooke with a myopic focus on fundraising, the voluntary sector (third sector, civil society or whatever you want to call it) will miss some key lessons that should be learnt.

Lessons that speak to the fundamental nature of professional [1] charities in the 21st century.

Lessons that arguably have a more profound impact on public trust than whether the mechanics of fundraising self-regulation are completely effective (if that were even an achievable or realistic goal).

You see in all the reporting and subsequent discussion & debate about the implications of Mrs Cooke’s death, nobody in the sector seems to be placing any value on the 76 years of committed volunteering service she gave to the Royal British Legion. These many years of service get barely a passing reference in the developing narrative about what lessons can be learnt.

I believe this speaks volumes about the current state of British professional charities. Charities where the donated hour of a volunteer is given subordinate status to the donated pound of a donor.

Look at the language there.

Donor is someone who gives money. Giving is the act of giving money. Time doesn’t factor. Giving time doesn’t count. Who cares if Mrs Cooke had 76 years service as a volunteer, so long as she upped her donations by a few pounds a week [2].

Charities have all kinds of resources at their disposal to achieve their missions. The moment any mission driven, non-profit organisation sees money as the main or sole driver of them bringing about social change is the moment it becomes no different to a for-profit corporation.

Businesses have to have money to grow, to develop, to produce, to serve etc.. Charities do not. Sure, money is nice and it allows us to do things we might not otherwise do, but it is not all there is.

21st century professional charities have to accept that people are getting less and less tolerant of being asked to give more and more money when they have less and less to spare. They have to develop and strengthen alternative ways of resourcing their work, letting go of outdated orthodoxies that money is all they need.

Volunteering is one such alternative resources and I would of course argue needs to taken far more seriously. In fact that is a regular theme of my blogging as frequent visitors to this blog and my writing for Third Sector online will know. But it needs to go further than that. An attitude shift across the sector is needed, not just amongst fundraisers.

For example, if senior managers push fundraisers to generate more and more income because those managers have no concept of how anything can be achieved unless it is paid for by cold hard cash, then it is unsurprising if the public feel might hounded for donations.

If staff are wasteful with money (as sadly they can be) then that contributes to the need to generate more and more income.

If staff refuse to consider working with any / more volunteers, insisting that only paid people can do anything meaningful in a charity, then they also contribute to pressure to raise more funds.

Fundraisers alone cannot be held responsible nor can they be the only ones expected to learn from this. If they are then I fear the sector will learn little from the sad death of Olive Cooke.


  1. I stress professional here because when we talk about ‘the sector’ we tend to be talking about the small but high profile minority of charities who have fundraised incomes and paid staff. The vast majority of good causes have little or no income and operate solely through volunteer effort.  ↩

  2. I should point out that the Royal British Legion whom Mrs Cooke volunteered for has not be accused of being one of the charities who pursued her for donations. No link between her volunteering for them and them pursuing her for money is drawn or implied.  ↩