Monday, 15 August 2016

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

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.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Seven productivity tools and resources I recommend

This November I am speaking at the AVSM annual conference where I have volunteered to run a workshop on time management and productivity for Volunteer Managers. It’s a theme I’ve wanted to train on for a while and the AVSM conference gives me a chance to finally develop and trial a workshop which I intend to add to my list of available training topics.

Coincidentally American colleague Liza Dyer and I have been discussing productivity recently via a Slack group for leaders and managers of volunteers. That led me to this brilliant video on TED where Yves Morieux draws some great parallels between 4x400m relay racing and the culture organisations create around productivity (it’s about 17mins long but well worth your time to watch in full).

My interest in productivity came as a result of starting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd five years ago. I realised that I would need to adapt my work practices as I was now running my own business rather than working in a large team. No longer did I have IT or Communications or Finance support, it was all my job now. I was also becoming frustrated with suggested time management practices like blocking your diary out to work on projects. Such approaches didn’t seem to reflect the variable and fast paced nature of changing requirements and schedules, leading to time being wasted re-scheduling rather than doing work.

So for this blog I thought I’d outline seven of the resources and tools I really rate (and use!) to aid me with my own productivity. There are others of course - I only briefly mention my calendar tool of choice and I don’t mention at all some key resources like Evernote. This is because I have chosen to focus on the resources and tools that I think have made or the biggest positive difference to the way I work (or have the potential too).

NB - Please note that a Mac, iPhone and iPad user I therefore use these tools on those platforms and devices.

How To Be a Productivity Ninja Written by Graham Allcott, a former colleague when he was CEO of Student Volunteering England, this excellent and readable book gives sound theory and very practical advice on becoming more productive. Sharing many similarities with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, yet presented in a more accessible format, Graham advocates steps like adopting a ‘second brain’ to store all those tasks we try and keep in our heads. He also challenges our tendencies to procrastination and distraction. I particularly found helpful the steps to identify when my attention levels were highest during a day and then schedule the most complex work accordingly.

Things This is my ‘second brain’ system. Almost every task I have to do, personally or professionally, goes into Things. Tasks are sorted by project and can be allocated to specifics dates but, as per the GTD and Productivity Ninja approaches, this isn’t encouraged. Why? Because if you schedule that task for Monday then something comes up on Monday which takes priority then you have to spend (waste) time re-scheduling the task. Instead Things allows me to have a due date and then specify how many days in advance of that I want to be reminded the task needs to be done. I can even tag tasks for specfic contexts such as an errand to run or something I have to do in the office or when online or at my computer etc.. Then, every morning, I have a list of tasks to choose from which I can allocate to that day, defer to decide upon later depending on what else comes across my desk, my attention and energy levels etc.. With Things synchronising seamlessly between all my devices and having powerful search and sorting features this is an essential productivity tool for me.

Due One feature Things doesn’t support is the need for some tasks to be allocated to particular times, for example a reminder that it’s my job to pick the kids up from school today. That’s where Due comes in. I can quickly and easily schedule a task for a specific date and time, create recurring tasks and defer items if I have to postpone them. Critically Due never lets me forget that task needs doing. Whereas other reminder systems just remind me once at the set time, Due keeps reminding me over and over again (at a frequency I can specify) until I do the task. Sync isn’t quite as seamless as Things but it works fine and between the two systems I always have a list of what needs doing.

Airmail 3 As a Mac user I try and avoid Microsoft software and have not once missed using Outlook in the last five years. Instead I have relied on the standard Mac and iOs mail software. Until recently, when I switched to Airmail 3, a product that’s all about efficiency and getting that inbox to zero. Processing email is now a breeze. I can far more easily move messages between all my different accounts and folders, allocate messages to be actioned later or (in the case of newsletters and the like) to be read later. If something comes in that needs a task creating or requires a diary entry then with just a couple of clicks I can add that to Things or Fantastical (my calendar app of choice largely down to it’s natural text features and time zone management). Airmail 3 is also super fast to set up and syncs beautifully between all my devices.

Tyme 2 This is a new one for me. As a freelancer I sometimes need to record the time I spend on projects and bill this to clients. As someone keen on productivity I also want the ability to keep track of the time I spend on tasks and projects. Am I spending too much time processing email? What is the balance of my time between marketing and client delivery work? That kind of thing. My old time-tracking system no longer syncs between devices so I opted for Tyme 2 as a replacement. It’s still early days but it’s working well so far, although it did need some time to set up at first, as many of these systems do, and wasn’t instantly intuitive. I am quickly and easily recording the time I spend on different work tasks and projects and starting to gain insights into my working patterns and habits. Time will tell how truly effective this tool will be - I will be using it for my first ‘on the clock’ client next month - but early signs are very promising.

Pocket I’ve had Pocket for ages now and I love it. I couldn’t be without it. If you aren’t familiar with Pocket, it’s a tool to collect and store all those articles you want to read, sort (tag) them into categories and then read offline at a later date and time. Anything I come across that I think would be worth reading for work or for personal interests gets ‘clipped’ from my web browser into Pocket. Then when I’m on a train or just have a few minutes spare I can open Pocket on any of my devices and get reading. If I think it’s something worth sharing or keeping, I can quickly and easily share to social media and / or Evernote. I also love that once a year they send me an email saying how many words I’ve read in the last twelve months and what my favourite topics have been etc.. Best of all Pocket is entirely free and, whilst there is a paid for option, I have never felt like I’ve needed it.

Buffer If you post to social media, especially to multiple accounts (and in particular to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Google+) then you need Buffer in your life. I use the free version (paid options provide more in-depth analytics and access to other social networks) and Buffer enables me to quickly share articles and items of interest to my professional social networks without having to post separately on each site. I can even automatically schedule posts for each network to the times my followers are most likely to engage with my content, essential if (like me) you have followers and clients around the world and don’t fa cry being up in the middle of the night to post something in their local timezone. Buffer also produce a superb and very helpful blog packed with tips, ideas and through provoking posts about using social media and online marketing.
So there you have it, my top seven productivity tools and resources.

What are your top tools and resources for enhancing productivity? What could you not be without?

Also, to help shape my workshop, what issues would you love to see covered in training on productivity and time management for Volunteer Managers? I’d really value your input.
Over to you.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Are we youth obsessed?

In May the UK government published new draft policy directions for the Big Lottery Fund and opened a consultation[1] on their proposals.

Michael Birtwistle at NCVO has provided a good analysis of the proposals and what they mean that is worth spending a few minutes reading.

As Michael outlines, one of the draft priorities is, “engaging young people in volunteering and supporting youth sector infrastructure”. This is what I said in response to his article:

“Sigh. Why is engaging young people in volunteering a priority? Everybody is doing this. NCS has £1.2billion to do this. vinspired had £millions for this under Labour. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem encouraging young people to volunteer. But they are a small proportion of our population. What about the huge numbers of baby boomers? What about Generation X? Where is the funding to engage them more in giving time as volunteers? Perhaps the assumption is that they’ll give just like their parents did? In which case a brief read of the final report from the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing is worth a read. For once it would be nice to see a major funder or a high profile combine breaking away from our national youth obsession and realising that there are millions of others who do and could give time that would welcome more support.”

I make this point frequently when I speak on volunteering. Ever since the demise in 2003 of the failed Experience Corps initiative, little attention has been given and almost no funding provided on any significant scale to engage our huge baby boomer population in volunteering. Schemes like Volunteer Matters’ Retrired and Senior Volunteer Programme continue to do excellent work but the majority of effort and funding is directed at people under 30.

The aforementioned Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing issued it’s final report fifteen months ago and little seems to have happened since.

So, I want to ask, what do you think?

Have we become youth obsessed when it comes to volunteering in the UK?

What should we be doing to engage with a wider demographic of people in volunteering? What are you doing right now?

How should funding and support be directed best to help organisations engage baby boomers and Generation X in volunteering?

Over to you.


  1. The consultation closes on 12 August.  ↩