Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Three key steps to developing meaningful volunteer roles

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.” Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and Rob Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

Developing roles for volunteers is one of the aspects of working with volunteers that those leading and managing them sometimes spend the least amount of time on. Despite the fact that we know we pay with volunteers with meaning, not money, many of us can skimp on the investment of time needed to craft really meaningful and motivating roles that will deliver a great volunteer experience. Instead, under pressure to get volunteers recruited and put to work, we develop roles geared around lists of uninspiring sounding tasks, often using a similar format to a paid role’s job description.

This is why the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd course on Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers continues to be popular. The course gives participants a chance to step back, explore volunteer role design afresh and actually work on creating a new role to help them in their work.

Here are three quick insights that might help you improve your volunteer roles.

  1. When talking to colleagues in order to identify new ways volunteers can help them in their work, do not ask, “What do you think volunteers can / could / should do to help?”. As soon as you ask this question people censor their responses based on their past experiences or prejudices about volunteers. So if your colleague thinks volunteers will be unreliable they will not suggest a role where reliability is important. Instead, work with colleagues to identify what their work actually involves, ideally in as much detail as possible. Then work with them to suggest ways volunteers could contribute their skills, talents and experience to get that work done.

  2. Games are fun activities people enjoy playing. People like spending time and effort playing and getting good at games. There are four elements present in all games that we should make sure are also present in our volunteer roles so that people will like spending their time and effort doing the volunteer work. First, ownership - does the volunteer feel they own their role and the work within it? Second, responsibility for results - is the volunteer held responsible for actually achieving something in the course of their volunteering (remember, people want to make a difference). Third, authority to think - is the volunteer controlled and micro-managed or are they actually allowed to use their own brains to figure out the best way to get the role done, perhaps bringing new ideas and insights to the work? Fourth, keeping score - does the volunteer know how they are doing and whether they are making progress towards that difference they (and you) want to make?

  3. Don’t use the typical task-oriented paid staff job description format for volunteer roles. Why? Here’s a quick question for you - when did you last pull out your job description, look at it and get really excited by what it contain, so much so that you can’t wait to get to work tomorrow? If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t looked at your job description since you were recruited or had your last annual appraisal. Why then do we think that format will inspire volunteers, people who we need to remain passionate about our work so we can re-recruit them everyday whilst meeting their motivational paycheque? Instead, think about constructing volunteer role descriptions around the results you want volunteers to achieve, giving space for people to develop their own ideas about how to do things rather than just doing a list of uninspiring tasks.

So, over to you. What are your top tips for developing meaningful volunteer roles? Please leave a comment below and share your insights with us and with your colleagues in the field.

If you’d like to know more about this topic and get further details on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd course on Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers please contact Rob direct by email or call +44 (0)7557 419 074.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The question every Volunteer Manager dreads (and a new way to answer it)

Hi, this post has been submitted for a blog carnival being held for International Volunteer Managers Day 2017. If you've found your way here via that initiative then welcome. However, be aware that this is our old blog site. New content is posted to Wordpress and Medium so check those pages out if you like what you read here.


I’ve been involved in volunteer management for a little over 22 years now. Whilst I love being a part of this amazing field I still hate one thing about it, that awful feeling you get when you have to answer the question we all dread “so what do you do for a living?”. If you respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” you might get one of the following results:
  • “Do you get paid to do that”
  • “Oh, I was once / am a volunteer…” followed by a long story about their volunteering which I’ve had manifest as them telling me all about how much more they know about volunteer management than I do because they are a volunteer (thereby assuming I have never volunteered)
  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer”
  • A blank stare
  • The person asking the question looks at you and then moves to the next person who they suspect might do something more interesting or that they might actually understand
Frankly, sometimes, whether we are a Volunteer Manager or a consultant, it’s just easier to say something like, “I’m in HR” and deflect the question as best we can. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone else?
Just recently I was reading a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain ti to others. What struck me was this line:
“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”
What a great idea! Instead of speaking trying to get someone to grasp what we do by explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question in return, perhaps something like, “Well, have you ever volunteered?”. That way we can start to unpick their understanding of volunteering (or non-profits more broadly) and find a way to explain Volunteer Management in terms that they will understand rather than our own generalised or over detailed standard explanation.
I’d love for you to try this and let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below.