Monday, 20 June 2016

Influencer marketing and volunteer recruitment

I am a regular reader of the Buffer Blog. Produced by social media scheduling company Buffer, the blog regularly shares practical, inspiring content about social media, a key marketing tool in our 21st century world.

Social media is a topic I train and write on regularly. It’s a subject I find many people who lead and manage volunteers can be uncertain about or even afraid of. Yet, whilst it won’t completely replace more traditional ways to promote volunteering in our organisations, it is an increasingly important way to reach out to people, and not just those under the age of 30 - some of the biggest growth in social networks like Facebook is from those aged 50 and above.

So I want to share with you an excellent recent Buffer blog post by Ash Read on Influencer Marketing.

Ash starts the blog post by arguing that marketing is essentially about the spread of ideas. In volunteering terms this means we want to spread that idea that people should volunteer for a given cause or organisation. This is what Ash says [with some contextualising for volunteering from me]:

“Success in marketing often comes down to one simple concept: getting your ideas [that people should volunteer with you] to spread. Traditionally, mass-media adverting is the go-to way to spread ideas. Here’s how it works (in theory): you buy some ads, put those ads in front of your audience [potential volunteers], and that’s how your idea spreads. The problem with this approach is that we live in a time where choice is abundant and time is sparse. Consumers [potential volunteers] are spoiled for choice when it comes to what to spend their money [time in our context] on and have too little time to consume content and engage with adverts. What this means is that most advertising is just ignored.”

Just read that last line again.

Most advertising is ignored!

That means those recruitment posters and leaflets you lovingly crafted to. It means that swanky new TV or radio campaign your organisation has spent a small fortune on to get people to volunteer or donate money. They aren’t simply dismissed but ignored altogether.

So what do we do instead?

As Ash’s points out, we’re more likely to buy a product if it’s recommended by a friend than pushed at us by an advert. In volunteering parlance that’s word of mouth.

We’ve always known that word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of volunteer recruitment. Simply put, if I have a great volunteering experience then I want to tell others about that. So I share enthusiastically with friends and family and encourage them to get involved so they can enjoy the volunteering experience too.

Social media, as Erik Qualman puts it in his book Socialnomics, is word of mouth on digital steroids. Or, another way he puts it: word of mouth to world of mouth.

Think of it like this: when I share my great volunteering experience with friends and family, that includes posting about it on social media. My friends (all around the world!) see this. Some will like or react to it. Some will share it. Either way word spreads about how great volunteering with that organisation is without the organisation doing anything other than delivering a great experience and perhaps encouraging me to tell my friends.

Now you may be sceptical about the idea that anyone - especially a stranger who might happen across my social media post via a friend who shared it - would respond to my enthusiastic posting by enquiring to volunteer at the same organisation. But why not? As Ash points out in his article, “92% of consumers trust recommendations from other people—even if they don’t know them personally—over promotional content that comes directly from brands.”

Just think for a minute about when you’ve bought something online. You probably read a review online, for example from someone on Amazon or TripAdvisor who also bought that book or CD or booked that hotel or ate at that restaurant. Did their review sway you to go ahead with your purchase or not? The answer is probably yes. Did you personally know them? The answer is probably no. So if our online buying decisions are influenced by someone we don’t know why wouldn’t someone trust my enthusiastic review of volunteering and want to get involved themselves?

Back to Ash’s blog post - what then is influencer marketing? Simply put, it’s word of mouth but focused through someone who will be an influencer to that audience. So if you want to more young people to volunteer with your organisation you find someone who has influence within this group to share your volunteer recruitment message on social media. That doesn’t have to be a member of One Direction but someone who has influence within their peer group, for example another young person. As Ash puts it, “influencers act as a mutual friend connecting your brand with your target consumers”.

Ash’s post goes on to explain more about influencer marketing in his blog post which I encourage you to read and reflect on. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this topic and how we can apply the concepts of influencer marketing to volunteer management.

Over to you.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Have we got our national standards right?

For UK Volunteers’ Week, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled “What makes some people more likely to volunteer than others?” Within that piece, which mainly looked at volunteer motivation, Justin Davis Smith (former CEO of Volunteering England) made a really vital point. To quote directly from the article:

Ultimately, “it’s about constructing a really worthwhile, meaningful opportunity for people where they can make a difference,” Davis Smith says. “Don’t do that in isolation, do that with volunteers. They can help co-produce and co-construct the experience they engage in. Make it meaningful, make it attractive, make it worthwhile.”

That got me thinking. Do the national standards we have for working with volunteers encourage such an approach? Do they emphasise the importance of developing great volunteer roles and experiences? Do they promote co-production with volunteers? Do they ultimately make volunteering with out organisations meaningful, attractive and worthwhile?

Lots of countries have some form of national standards, either for the practice of volunteer leadership and management or for the organisational readiness to engage volunteers. For example:

This is of course just a sample and I’ve only picked one from each territory. The UK also has national competencies for volunteer management as well as the organisation Investing In Volunteers standard, and New Zealand has organisational best practice guidelines as well as competencies for Volunteer Managers. I’m sure there are more and please do let me know if there are any I’ve missed (you can leave a comment below).

Any effort to raise the standard of volunteer management and create a more pro-volunteering culture in volunteer involving organisations is a good thing. Yet what all of these have in common is an emphasis on processes, risk management and the like - the bureaucratic side of working with volunteers. Less prevalent is a consistent focus on our ability to work well with people, the skills and competencies that make someone a great leader of people, able to co-produce influence, negotiate and, well, lead.

Sure, some of the standards above contain elements of this people & leadership focus. But not all. And often this is given less prominence to the process stuff.

Now I understand that good processes should support meaningful and worthwhile volunteering opportunities. They should keep people safe and provide a context and structure to volunteering that enhances it’s value to the volunteer, the organisation and the beneficiary. But note that I said good processes, not simple processes.

All too often I come across people working with volunteers for whom the processes they work within (whether established by them or by the wider organisation) are a barrier to giving people great volunteer opportunities. Two examples:

  • Putting people off before they even start by requiring everyone to complete a long and detailed application form before they can start. In some instances this may be appropriate but do we need to do this for those just giving us the occasional hour of their time now and again?
  • An approach to risk that is about avoiding it all together rather than managing it. So family volunteering is dismissed because children could get hurt without any consideration that parents who volunteer with children continue to look our for their welfare just like at any other time and so the risk to an organisation is probably much lower than if they just involved the children without the parents.

As one volunteer I met once said, “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

If our national standards consistently focus on processes do we reinforce this culture of volunteer management being a process business not a people one? Should they place a heavier and more consistent emphasis on people and leadership skills to balance or even counteract the danger of becoming a ‘computer says no’ profession?

I come back to Justin’s challenge that we must make volunteering meaningful, attractive and worthwhile. Take a look at your national standards for volunteer management. Does they emphasise the right things to rise to this challenge, or do they focus on things that will get in the way?

What do you think? Leave your comments below so we can discuss these questions further.

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.