Rob Jackson: Thinking outside the box

We need new sources of inspiration to solve the problems posed by volunteer management

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

In the last week of June I heard a "back-to-school" advert from a popular retail chain in the UK. We were still three weeks away from schools finishing for the summer holidays and already parents were being encouraged to think about September.

The only positive I took from this was that it made me feel less guilty about writing this article, published in August, encouraging you to think about your learning goals for the rest of the year.

Last month I wrote about "Five summer reads for leaders of volunteers". The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I included only one book focused on volunteering. That’s because I believe the new insights and ideas we need to transform volunteering largely come from outside the traditional volunteer management literature. 

I remember a roomful of volunteer managers being asked in 2008 to share the main issues they faced at work. The answers – lack of influence, isolation, recruitment, retention – were the same answers people would have given in 1998. And many of them are the same answers that would have been given in 2018, too.

If the profession of volunteer management hasn’t found solutions to the problems we face in the past 21 years, then perhaps we are looking in the wrong place.

As Albert Einstein once said: "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."

It could be that some of the resources we have relied upon for so long aren’t setting us on the right course for the future any more. 

That’s why I think we need to be turning to new sources of inspiration. As a new academic year looms at the end of the month, I want to encourage you to consider your learning goals for the rest of 2019. Here are three quick questions to get you started:

  1. What are the challenges your organisation faces in volunteer engagement, now or in the near future?

  2. What parallels can you draw between those challenges and other fields – for example, marketing or psychology – for volunteer recruitment?

  3. What learning resources (books, training courses and so on) exist in those other fields that could help you understand your volunteer engagement challenges in a different light?

Once you’ve answered those questions, go and buy a book (and read it) or sign up for a relevant training and development opportunity. Think about how your learnings can be applied to your volunteer engagement work. Test out new ideas. If they work, great – if not, then what can be learned from that?

Terry Pratchett once wrote: "I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it."

Let’s make sure that isn’t true of volunteer engagement professionals. Let’s find new ways to stimulate our thinking and innovate in our work. Our volunteers and the missions we serve deserve nothing less. 

Consider this your back-to-school call to action in time for September.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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