Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Reflections on a conference

I recently attended the excellent Strategic People Conference in London. Organised by Agenda Consulting who run the regular Volunteer Counts benchmarking study, the conference brought together HR and Volunteering Managers for a day of workshops and keynote addresses that inspired and challenged in equal measure.

In this blog post I want to share four reactions to the day. I also invite you to comment and add your thoughts, in particular from any readers who were at the conference.

1/ The number of Volunteer Managers in attendance

I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people at the event who were leading volunteering at a wide range of organisations. In fact, during the afternoon workshops, the session on volunteering was in the main plenary room because there were so many of the conference attendees who wanted to be at the session (it was delivered in a very enjoyable way by Dan O’Driscoll from Oxfam).

For a conference mainly sold as being about Human Resources Management it was great to see so many Volunteer Managers in attendance on the day. It goes to show that, done well, a ‘mainstream’ sector conference can be done well and provide good content for those in the volunteering movement rather than simply bolting on unsatisfactory workshops to a programme more geared towards other management disciplines.

2/ What this may mean for HR / volunteering synergies

The presence of so many Volunteer Managers at an HR conference did give me pause to think that perhaps this is a sign of ever closer integration between HR and Volunteer Management in some organisations. Such integration is often dismissed out of hand as bad for volunteer management yet, if done well, it can work. Some organisations even go as far as to put an experienced volunteering person in charge of the overall people function, reinforcing Steve McCurley’s accurate assessment that:

“We shouldn’t treat our volunteers like our paid staff, we should treat our paid staff like our volunteers”.

Yet it is also important to note that volunteering and human resources don’t always play well together. Here’s what Susan Ellis and I have to say on the issue in the UK Edition of the book, From The Top Down:

It is useful to consider the connection between the volunteer manager and the agency’s head of human resources or personnel (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource!). There are both similarities and differences between these two functions. Structurally, as already noted, both recruit and place workers into your organisation. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify expectations of paid and volunteer personnel. But think carefully if you are leaning toward placing the volunteer office within the human resources department. Here are some cautions:

  • No matter how good the intentions, volunteers will always be given lower priority than employees - perhaps little attention at all.
  • Human resources staff take job descriptions designed by others in the organisation and try to fill those slots with the best people who are then completely delegated to each department or team. The volunteer manager, on the other hand, ought to be more proactively suggesting ways volunteers can support the work to be done, be much more creative in finding people with expertise or the potential to become an expert, and find placements for people who unexpectedly offer useful talents (the human resources folks can’t hire anyone without an allocated salary).
  • The volunteer manager may also be much more involved in a range of day-to-day organisational activities and supervise some volunteers directly.

As one final illustration of how HR and volunteer management can differ, I often note that not many HR departments have responsibility for people aged 5 or 95, focusing as they do on people of working age (16–70). Yet such extremes of age are often commonplace for Volunteer Managers and throw up a different set of challenges from those faced by HR colleagues.

3/ The language used around volunteering

Two things frustrated me about the language that was sometimes used in regard to volunteering on the day.

First, the phrase ‘use volunteers’ was heard on a number of occasions from a variety of people. This is a real bugbear of mine and I outlined my thoughts about it in a blog post in 2011. Some people think I can be a bit over the top with this one, that policing the word ‘use’ is not the most important issue the Volunteer Management profession faces. And I agree, it isn’t, but language is important and repeated and frequent talk of ‘using volunteers’ puts them on a par with disposable assets like staplers and office furniture. As the Twitter hashtag for this issue says, [#weusethingsnotpeople](

Second, on a couple of occasions when presenters were discussing time given by professionals using their skills to assist an organisation they used the term ‘probono’. On one level I have no issue with this. Probono is a long established term. However, probono is volunteering, so why don’t we call it that? It seems that whenever some people talk about what they see as more meaningful volunteering they refuse to use the v-word as if that’s only suitable for envelope stuffing and tea making roles.

The more we allow and endorse a different language for certain kinds of volunteering the more we allow the often inaccurate stereotypes of ‘volunteering’ being nice but non-essential work that makes little or no meaningful contribution to an organisation’s mission.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the appalling term, skilled volunteering.

4/ Our obsession with processes and risk avoidance

In the morning I attended a fascinating workshop all about a Hospice community volunteer initiative. The scheme has volunteers out in the community, supporting those affected by illness, doing a wide variety of tasks some of which could be quite challenging. The presenters were keen to stress that the scheme ran in a very light touch way, recruiting and screening for the right people as volunteers and trusting them to make intelligent decisions about the wide array of situations they might face.

Whilst the scheme was interesting, what I found fascinating was the reaction from many of the other Volunteer Managers in the room. It seemed that the default setting of many Volunteer Managers was not to respond by saying something like,

“Oh, that’s interesting, how could I make that work in my organisation?”

Instead the response was,

“We can’t possible do that due to Health & Safety, risk, because paid staff should do those tasks not volunteers etc.”.

Has our profession has become so obsessed by systems and processes, rules and regulations that we fail to spot any potential in new ideas? More worryingly, do we fail to spot the potential in volunteers? As one person who gave evidence to the Volunteer Rights Inquiry said - “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Obviously the rules and regulations, systems and processes are there for a reason and I don’t advocate scrapping them all. But when they dominate, when they stop us doing things that could benefit clients because of some often ill-defined and seldom realised risk, when they hold us back from even considering something new, then those processes become a serious barrier to our work. We are surely about enabling the community to make a difference, not telling them how they can’t make a difference because, to misquote Little Britain, “process says no”.

So there you have it, my four observations on the Strategic People Conference. If you were there then please add your own comments below. If you weren’t there but want to add your thoughts then please feel very welcome to do so.

Over to you.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Why how we think about volunteer diversity might need to change

Certain groups of people are under-represented in formal volunteering. We all know that right?

Quite rightly we are often called to open up our organisations to these under-represented groups. We are challenged to broaden the diversity of our volunteer teams and to tackle any practical barriers to the engagement of a wide pool of volunteers. Barriers like expenses so people aren’t financially disadvantaged through giving their time, or adaptations to premises or ways of working that can remove physical barriers to some people getting involved.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Diversity is good. We should strive for it in our volunteer teams. But I worry that by doing so we may be inadvertently disregarding the great volunteer work people in these under-represented groups already do.

Take disabled people as an example. They are generally under-represented in formal, ‘mainstream’ volunteering. The associated assumption made all too often is that disabled people therefore do not volunteer. This is wrong. They do. A lot. They are involved in advocacy, self-help support networks, campaigns for disability rights and lots more. What they do flies under the radar of many people because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the (for want of a better phrase) establishment’s neat definitions of volunteering.

Consider another example. The UK’s Labour government of the early noughties had a goal of one million more people volunteering. That goal could have been met when roughly that number of people marched through London in 2003 to protest (as volunteers) against the imminent invasion of Iraq. But that wasn’t the kind of volunteering that the government wanted to see, so it didn’t get counted.

To me, this kind of discrimination is far more subtle, far more common and far more insidious than not providing ramps into a building or only making opportunities available at times that suit certain types of people.

Often without realising it we effectively say to these so called under-represented groups, “what you already do isn’t valid so come and do what we want you to do instead”.

So yes, let’s see what we can do to remove the very real barriers to diverse involvement of volunteers in our organisations. But let’s also take a moment to reflect and see if there are less obvious barriers created by our personal and / or organisational beliefs about volunteering. They are perhaps the barriers we need to challenge first.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Three questions to ask about your learning plans for 2016

In this guest post for the start of 2016 our friend and colleague Sue Jones shares her thoughts about learning and development for Volunteer Managers. Sue challenges some assumptions we might make about learning and poses some questions to help us reflect on how we can make the most of our learning opportunities throughout 2016.


Now we are back into the swing of a new year, it’s not unusual for us to focus on some of those thoughts and ideas we may have been musing over regarding changes we might want to make, courses we want to take and how we might embark on 2016 in a way that enables us to feel revitalised and focused.

One step we might be considering is to embark on a learning programme, or to at least be thinking about what workshops or conferences we might want to attend this year. Thankfully, the field of Volunteer Management has come a long way from the days of limited training options and few opportunities to learn and connect to others. There are in fact, lots of ways to access learning and development, including online, which is definitely something to be celebrated. Unfortunately though, this doesn’t necessarily translate into participation for everyone, or that we will receive the type of learning intervention that we really need.

Some of the biggest issues I see around learning relate to the assumptions we make, collectively and individually about what it is, and how to go about it.

For example:

  1. Learning is simply about acquiring knowledge.
  2. Learning means training, and training means attending courses in a classroom, often requiring travel to London or another major city.
  3. Learning is expensive and takes up valuable time which we cannot afford.
  4. Learning is just about getting a certificate to prove you can do a job.
  5. Learning is something that should be paid for or provided by the organisation and I know they won’t.

These are just some of the messages I regularly hear from individuals and organisations when discussing learning and development opportunities. And there’s a tone of negativity and resignation, which if followed, can be damaging.

It’s important for us all to recognise that learning is not a luxury add-on, only to be afforded and enjoyed during the good times. It’s actually essential to our growth and development as individuals and organisations; and we have a duty to our volunteers, our client groups and communities to remain invested in ourselves and our work, so we can deliver the best at all times.

Throughout my years of designing and delivering training and working with Volunteer Managers and organisations, the most successful and satisfied individuals I have worked with are those who have taken a lead on their own learning and development. And, the most successful and thriving organisations understand the true value and impact of supporting their workforce to learn. I would argue that we need to take this approach more than ever before and to challenge our assumptions about learning because they are in fact holding us back.

So, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I really think about the role of learning?
  2. How important is it for me today, this week, this year? 
  3. And, what assumptions might I be making about what learning needs to look like and what my manager or organisation thinks about it?


If you’re interested in finding out more about learning opportunities in volunteer management, check out our website for information on the training available from Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd.

Sue and I also tutor an online introduction to volunteer management course. This takes six weeks and is great value compared to traditional classroom based training. The next course starts on Monday 15th February and you can book your place now on the course website.