Rob Jackson: Is your charity too big to care?

People hold charities to a high standard because we are supposed to care more - it's our job to live up to that expectation

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

One of the challenges writers sometimes face is finding topics that people want to read about. I know: producing at least three articles a month on volunteering, all year and every year, can be a challenge. That’s why I’m in awe of Seth Godin, who publishes a blog post every day. I’m glad he does, though, because he sometimes gives me inspiration. This month’s article is one of those Seth-inspired musings.

At the end of July, Seth wrote a piece called "Too Big To Care". His core argument was that the key moment in any brand’s relationship with a customer is when something goes wrong.

Sometimes a brand gets so big that policies and bureaucracy come to dominate. At this point, the brand is too big to care. It might appear to care, but doesn’t really.

As Seth says: "In that moment, when a promise was broken, the customer sees the true nature of the brand… The only way to really care is to have human beings who care (and to give them the authority and resources to demonstrate that). Once you’ve got that, it’s pretty easy to show that you do."

Seth was talking about corporate brands, but the sentiment is just as true for the voluntary sector.

People love and trust charities – until something goes wrong. At that point they don’t want a bureaucracy-driven promise of a solution. They don’t want a policy masquerading as a demonstration of care and empathy.

People hold us to a high standard because we are supposed to care more. They want to know they’ve been heard, that someone genuinely cares enough and is both empowered and equipped to take action – to demonstrate that they care in a tangible way.

I saw this in my work with the Volunteer Rights Inquiry ten years ago. When a volunteer is badly treated by an organisation, they want us to care, to live up to the promise we make of giving them a great volunteer experience.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations' report Time Well Spent lays out the principles that make for a great volunteer experience. When a volunteer doesn’t get such an experience, when they have to complain about poor treatment by a staff member, or slow processing of expenses that has left them out of pocket, or a lack of support for their work, they don’t want to be brushed off. They want someone to care, to take meaningful action to make things better.

When we promise a great volunteering experience, we need to be equipping and empowering volunteer managers to be able to live up to that promise.

Effective volunteer engagement isn’t the responsibility of the volunteer manager alone, though: everyone has a role to play. Everyone in the organisation needs to be properly invested in the promise of great volunteer experience and demonstrate that commitment in every interaction they have with volunteers.

Does your organisation genuinely care about the experience of those who volunteer for you? Or has it become too big, too professional, too focused on bureaucracy, systems and processes? Has it become too big to care?

See also this excellent post from Seth Godin on 3 August 2019.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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