February 15, 2024

Episode #97: Transforming How We Lead Volunteers with Martin J Cowling

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast, host Tobi interviews global change management expert Martin J. Cowling on how we can transform how we lead volunteers! They discuss the transformative shifts happening in volunteer management, and the need for 21st-century organizations to rethink their approach to volunteers.  

Martin shares his insights on how organizations can better leverage their volunteer talent by selling the impact of volunteering, reconstructing roles for wider engagement, maximizing flexibility, and embracing diversity. He highlights the importance of measuring the impact of volunteering on the individual, the organization, and the community, and calls for a change in the language and outreach methods used to engage potential volunteers. It’s an extremely insightful conversation, tune in now! 

Lead Volunteers – Show Highlights

  • [04:25] – Martin’s Personal Experience and Perspective on Volunteering 
  • [06:32] – The Importance of Volunteerism in Nonprofit Work 
  • [10:55] – The State of Volunteerism and Its Challenges 
  • [13:43] – The Need for Innovation in Volunteer Management 
  • [20:50] – The Role of Volunteer Managers in Driving Change 
  • [25:12] – Revolutionary Leadership for 21st Century Volunteering 
  • [29:00] – Understanding the New Generation of Volunteers 
  • [31:28] – The Challenges of Traditional Volunteering Models 
  • [32:35] – The Power of Online Volunteering 
  • [34:04] – Reimagining Volunteer Roles and Engagement 
  • [36:02] – The Importance of Measuring Volunteer Impact 
  • [45:23] – Embracing Diversity in Volunteering 
  • [55:41] – The Future of Volunteering 

Lead Volunteers – Quotes from the Episode

“I saw children starving the first time that I volunteered that I remember. I was four. We went to a refugee camp to give packets of milk to families, and I said to my dad, why do we give milk to children that are fat? Because all their tummies were big. And that’s when my father explained to me these children were starving to death. And their tummies had actually grown, which is kind of a big thing to tell a four-year-old.” 

Our entire not for profit sector was set up by people like my great grandparents who saw a need in the community and said, let’s go and do it. Now, today we’ve structured, and we’ve organized those into organizations, but that’s where it came from. 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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Episode #97 Transcript: Transforming How We Lead Volunteers with Martin J Cowling 

Tobi: Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. We are in for a treat. I have not had the opportunity and have been emailing back and forth forever today, and we’re finally able to get him on. Martin J. Cowling, so excited to have you here.  

Martin J Cowling: Tobi, I am beyond excited, and I can’t believe that it’s taken us so long to finally connect, and it’s a delight. Thank you for having me with you. 

Tobi: today. Yeah, we’re kind of OGs in the space, right? Been around for a while. 

Martin J Cowling: ‘m not commenting. Not commenting. I came and went.  

Tobi: Gang, I want to talk about this because I want to introduce Martin and today, we’re going to talk about transforming how we lead volunteers. Now Martin is an expert in change management and leadership. 

He’s been in the volunteer space for years and really has some wisdom to share today. So, we’re going to get into it. But before we do, I want to introduce Martin J. Cowling. He is a change management expert and leadership guru, and his business is called The Entire World is My Oyster. Is that the case? Is that your business name? 

Martin J Cowling: That’s my nickname, Tobi. 

Tobi: I saw it in your LinkedIn profile, and I had to check. I’m like, is that your business name? No. That’s your nickname. I wish it was. So why, why do you use that? Why do you use that as a nickname? Or why do you have that nickname?  

Martin J Cowling: Tobi, I’m the most traveled person I know, and I have worked now in 23 countries with organizations from, I reckon, 90 countries. I grew up in Africa, I grew up in the Middle East, I grew up in Scotland, I grew up in Australia, and I genuinely believe that the world is my oyster. And I can find a pool wherever I am.  

Tobi: Oh, that’s awesome. Well, and you are joining me from Thailand. Correct. So there you go.  

Martin J Cowling: Point made. It’s Friday. 

Martin J Cowling: It must be Thailand. Tuesday, it must be Rome. That’s how it works. Right.  

Tobi: So let me tell you a little bit more about Martin. Martin is passionate about effective change, leadership, and impact. He’s been a volunteer, hands on manager, leader, research, and consultant, working with very small grassroots organizations through to large social purpose organizations, corporates, and governments. He works with clients in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe, UK, and the USA. Back in the day, he led the office for not-for-profit sector for the Australian government and helped establish the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission, the ACNC, in 2013. 

Martin is a skilled presenter, ranked as one of the top 100 speakers on philanthropy by Philanthropy 101. That’s pretty awesome.  

Martin J Cowling: Yeah, Bono is the top of the list.  

Tobi: Rick Bono, well, that doesn’t surprise me. Hmm, he’s good at passion. He believes that people are the key to an organization’s success and is passionate about ensuring that staff, paid and unpaid, have mutually beneficial relationships and contribute to making lasting positive change. Martin is a trusted partner for organizations offering a comprehensive range of services to empower leaders, strengthen teams and drive impactful change. And we will put some links in the show notes if you want to get in touch with Martin. We’ll talk later about how people get in touch with you, but welcome to the volunteer nation podcast, Martin.  

Martin J Cowling: Super. And again, I’m sorry it’s taken us so long to get here, but at least, at least we’ve got here. Yeah. In this fantastic time of history. 

Tobi: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, in case our listeners haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you, tell our audience a little bit about yourself and the work you do. I’ve obviously given a bit of a bio-overview. How about your birth story? How did you get into volunteerism and helping non-profits improve their results?  

Martin J Cowling: Oh, that’s a very small question, Tobi. I grew up volunteering. I had parents that volunteered me from birth. And when I actually did some family research, my great grandmother started the Red Cross branch in her town. 

My grandmother set up a war soldiers’ support organization in World War I. My grandfather, great grandfather, was on the school board for 40 years, which probably he shouldn’t have been. 

Tobi: Talk about legacy.  

Martin J Cowling: Talk about legacy. So, I discovered that my family history is a history of actually being involved in the community. 

So, it must be in my genes or my history, whatever. I volunteered as a teenager, as a child but I chose to volunteer as a teenager as opposed to being voluntold by my parents. And I really saw the impact that people can make on other people. And you can make an impact for good or an impact for bad. 

I grew up in a civil war. Tobi in Nigeria and I saw children starving the first time that I volunteered that I remember. I was four. We went to a refugee camp to give packets of milk to families, and I said to my dad, why do we give milk to children that are fat? Because all their tummies were big. 

And that’s when my father explained to me these children were starving to death. And their tummies had actually grown, which is kind of a big thing to tell a four-year-old. But anyway. For sure. So, I saw that in a war, you can actually impact people for bad, and you can impact people for good. 

And I guess. That was a telling moment for me that I chose, and bear in mind my DNA, chose that I wanted to make an impact for good. So, I have always worked to some degree with the NGO sector. I’ve worked in the private sector, I’ve worked in the government sector, as you’ve mentioned, but I keep coming home to the not-for-profit sector because I really believe that we can change the world for good. And so many things we have done in the world, we have done for good.  

Tobi: Yeah, yeah. So why did you cultivate volunteer capacity in our sector, you talked about change for the good, why volunteerism in particular? What’s your, what are your feelings about it in the, in, within the context of nonprofit? Mission based work. 

Martin J Cowling: Another short, easy question, Tobi.  

Tobi: We’re having a conversation. It’s all good. 

Martin J Cowling: The big questions. Let’s start with the big ones. I thought you’d start with what color, what color should our volunteer materials be? It doesn’t matter the color is the answer. Volunteering, for me, does a number of things. 

The first is it has an impact on the volunteers themselves. So, people’s lives are changed because of volunteering. And we know that. And we know that generally those lives are changed for the positive. And if you could harness that energy in an organization, you can engage those people to do almost anything. 

And our entire not for profit sector was set up by people like my great grandparents who saw a need in the community and said, let’s go and do it. Now, today we’ve structured, and we’ve organized those into organizations, but that’s where it came from. That’s the heart and the passion. How do we Feed people in our community that are hungry. 

How do we educate people when we don’t have the tax resources to do that? We do that by engaging people in the community that want to make a difference. I was in Thailand during the, the, the, the time that the country shut. down. It was closed to the outside world for two years. One million people volunteered out of 77 million people across the country to help their neighbors in need. 

And across that time, the COVID volunteers, as they were called, helped our communities and helped our organizations. Thailand wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t done that. I was involved in a team that packed food. And the organization, you know, often you just randomly pack food packs, and you send them out. 

Not this organization. They had volunteers in each community who actually came in and said, I need 60 packs that are vegetarian because we have 60 families in our community that are vegetarian. And they, because they were talking in the community every day, how are you doing? I’m unwell. The family’s unwell. 

We had one family that had 13 people in one room. Mm. And one of those people got COVID. Now what do you do when you have 13 people in one room, and one has COVID? So, the volunteers swooped in. They organized accommodation, they organized food packs, they organized testing. They did all those things in that situation to help people. Volunteering has the power to make a difference in organizations.  

Tobi: Absolutely. I mean, I think you’re right about volunteers for social good, but I think there’s that added benefit of that connection to the community and that intelligence and lived experience in the community where they can be the voice of the community to an organization and provide that feedback and keeping that organization in some ways more informed because the staff, all staff aren’t from specific communities that volunteers come from all the time. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. There’s no guarantee. 

Martin J Cowling: Absolutely not. Organizations spend a lot of money and energy marketing, and yet you have, you might have 1000 volunteers sitting in your organization. And no one has ever told them, why don’t you advertise our organization to the community? 

Because they’re involved in churches, they’re involved in potluck, potluck suppers, they’re involved in family reunions, they’re involved in school meetings, they’re involved with kids. I did some work last year with a charity that has 46 charity shops and they’re having trouble getting volunteers back to these charity shops. 

And I made a comment, I said, why don’t you tell the volunteers about where the money from the charity shops goes. And they said, we’ve never told them. Huh? And I said, there’s a powerful motivation to know that if I am sitting in a dusty storeroom sorting out something, I know that 26 families were fed because of this work. And that volunteer can tell their neighbors, yep. This is what I do. And they, they had never told their volunteers the impact of their work. Yeah.  

Tobi: Absolutely. When you’re looking at and working across around the world in different contexts, I’m curious from your perspective, is volunteerism and volunteer engagement more alike than different? Or is it more different than alike? I’m just curious on your perspective on this. 

Martin J Cowling: My favorite thing is now, I’ve already told you how many countries I’ve, I’ve. I worked in, I go to a place, and it might be Seoul, South Korea, it might be Ireland, it might be Scotland, it might be Arkansas, and they look at me and they go, thank you for coming. 

You’re probably not going to understand our context because we’re so different to the rest of the world. And I sit there, and I listen and I’m like, it might be in Korean, it might be in Southern United States drawl, it might be in Scottish twang, but it’s the same issues. It’s the same concern. 

We are more alike than we like to realize. Sure, that our food might be different, you know, sure our language might be different, sure, you know, the way we look at things is slightly, there’s tweaks, but at the end of the day. Yeah. People want to help their neighbors. That’s the reality of it. One. 

Two, our community has needs. Volunteering matches those things up. It matches people who say, I haven’t seen a need in the community and want to help with that need. Wherever you are in the world, it is the same. There is a slight lag in trends. I think you see some countries going through something faster than something else. 

So, I think, for example, the Asian world has adapted to technology much faster than the Western world. So, in the Western world, I get a lot of people in their 70s and 80s saying, oh, this technology thing is unusual, whereas in, in Asia, they’re QR coding, they’re chatting online, they’re doing FaceTime. 

It’s a generalization, forgive me. Yeah. But there, there’s much more. The technology adaptation, for example, that’s one, one shift that I think is different.  

Tobi: Interesting. Yeah. I found also, you know, we do our volunteer management progress report and I find that the challenges of those leading volunteers are also very more alike than different. Correct. You know, I mean, it’s the nature of the beast, right? It’s a, it’s a, it’s a challenging role. It’s challenging. job to engage the community, even though people have an impetus you’ve got to know how to do it well. And sometimes context in the world and, you know, global pandemics get in the way. 

So I, I agree it’s mostly, but I like, I like that you pointed out that there are some trends. People are more on the bow wave than others in different regions. So, I think that’s, that’s interesting. When you think about how most organizations lead volunteers, where do you think, you know, we’re talking trends now, and this may mean a generalization of some kind, and, and but I’m interested to hear your point of view on this. 

And because you do change management, where do you think they are on the continuum of innovation? You know, are, is, are most organizations that you come across still on business as usual? Are some folks tinkering around the edges with change? Are some folks making modest changes in getting modest success? 

Or do you think most organizations are at full scale innovation and just charging forward? And you’re like, what? I wish I had a, it just in your gut reaction, I know you don’t have hard data on this. I mean, you know, that would be difficult. 

Martin J Cowling: Yeah. I wish there were innovation charging it. Are we talking in terms of generally, Tobi, or are we talking volunteerism? 

Tobi: Volunteerism, how they lead. 

Martin J Cowling: We’re all over the shop, to be honest. Yeah. I think most organizations are stuck in traditional mode. Mm hmm. And they’re operating what I call the 1980s or the 2000s volunteer model or the 90s volunteer model. And most organizations, if you look at the chat setups of volunteer managers around the world, they’re basically asking, how do we do this the right way all the time? 

So, what is the right way to recruit a volunteer? What is the right way to do an application form? What is the right way to do a reference or a police check? It’s like this, there’s some sort of node of knowledge that I must tap into. And most managers are volunteers. Unexperienced. Mm hmm. They’ve not been trained in volunteer management, and they don’t have a voice in their organizations. 

So, they don’t feel they have permission to innovate. And that’s not new, Tobi. When I was a manager of volunteers, we didn’t feel we had permission to innovate. And I did. I, when I, every organization, I broke the rules. And I had a saying that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Sure. End. Sometimes it went wrong, but most of the time it went right. 

And my call to volunteer managers is to be innovative. Follow your gut. Now, I’m not saying do anything illegally, moral or wrong you know, that’s not the mission I’m looking for, but do things differently and be prepared to push back. So, I make the organizations go volunteers can’t do that because of insurance. 

I’m like, have you actually asked the insurance company, are they not allowed to do that? Sure. And time and time again, I haven’t. There’s just, there’s some rule in the organization that says volunteers don’t do that. I think there’s less rules about volunteer management than people like to think there are. 

I get some organizations that are in panic mode, so they realize they actually have to innovate. So, a lot of organizations that have been based on traditional volunteer models are now really struggling. So, if you’re an organization that says our volunteers come in once a week for a day, you’re in trouble because we don’t have those volunteers anymore. 

So, some organizations still haven’t quite worked out that those volunteers aren’t coming back. And other organizations are in sheer panic mode and are going, we must completely rethink how we do things. Those organizations are also realizing they have to change their service delivery models as well. 

Usually, you have the CEO and the board involved, so there is a move within the organization to shift things. I, I just did a training seminar for an organization that has 4, 000 employees, and they marketed this seminar on volunteerism. And I was just curious. I went on the ride. Huh. And we got two people to sign up. 

And I actually said to them, you’re completely marketing wrongly. Mm hmm. You know, no one’s going to turn up to hear this random guy talk about volunteer management. We need to actually talk about how we manage change in our organizations, because when you sat down with the people, they went, I can’t get volunteers, our volunteers haven’t come back, they’re not returning, but they weren’t going to come to a seminar on volunteer management. 

hey needed to come to a seminar that says, this is the, this is the change process that we need to go through to as an organization.  

Tobi: Yeah, and then align the volunteer resources with the new goals and the new model. 

Martin J Cowling: Correct. So, the issue, I think, is that volunteerism is not linked to organizational strategies. Fundraising is, but volunteerism isn’t. And I actually signed up for an organization. This is, this is, this is I was doing some consulting for an organization. So, I went on to the website and I signed up to be a volunteer and I got this email, dear volunteer, thank you for your interest in volunteering in our organization. This is last year, so 2023, thank you for your interest in our organization. We have a very exciting year lined up for 2020. God. We will be in touch with you as soon as a volunteer role becomes available. Yeah. I signed up to donate 2 because I wanted to see what happened. 

Dear Martin, thank you for your generous donation of 2 to our work. This will help a family in need in our community. We would like to continue the journey with you around donating. And I’m like, chalk and cheese. Yeah. Why is one absolutely tailored to me as an individual and why is one not even up to date? 

Tobi: Yeah. We did our Volunteer Vision Week at Volunteer Pro. We did our Vision Week Strategic Planning Bootcamp, and this was the second year we did it. We did it in November and the year before folks had joined. And I started talking about, you know, day one. I’m talking about aligning your volunteer strategy with your organization’s larger strategic plan. 

And folks are like, I don’t have the strategic plan. And I go, well, then go get the strategic plan. And I, some of the comments at the end of the boot camp were, I wish I would have known I needed the strategic plan. I could have tried to get it earlier. So, the second year, I, ahead of time, I’m like, look, these are the things you want to try to get your hands on. 

And even still, Even still, people couldn’t get their hands on their organization’s strategic plan, and I just simply, I’m floored, you know, having worked in nonprofits for, you know, 25 years before consulting, any work, any program I developed at any time Needed to roll up into, whether it was a volunteer driven program or not, needed to roll up into the strategic plan of the organization. 

It’s just alignment. It’s pretty basic knowledge. The fact that people are begging and scraping and being told, no, you can’t, you, you, you’re not allowed to see our strategy. It’s just like, are you kidding me?  

Martin J Cowling: To think that people need to be actually reducing their time, if you’re a volunteer manager, to 40 percent doing the day-to-day stuff. And if you are a manager of volunteers and not engaging volunteers to help you do the day-to-day stuff, you don’t need to be interviewing volunteers. You can get people in communities that would like to interview volunteers. So, I set up a team. I had seven people on my team. I stopped interviewing volunteers for an organization where we had 1, 500 volunteers. 

We recruited 700 volunteers a year for fundraising, a series of fundraisers. In some organizations, a volunteer manager interviews all those people and, you know, whether you’re doing a group or one to one or online, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Why? You know, start modeling volunteer management in your own life and free your own time up. 

Then I would be spending 20 percent of my time actually marketing the volunteer program internally. Getting your name out there, listening to people, what’s your need? Going into people’s offices saying, can I have a coffee? And find out what is needed in your area. Mm hmm. So, what people do is they go, I’ve got 20 volunteers, who wants a volunteer? 

No one’s going to do, respond to that. I actually did a coffee in one organization, sat down with the deputy CEO and said, what do you need? And he said, look around you. And his office was a mess, complete and utter mess. And I’m like, what? And I’m like, what? And he’s like, what? And He said that I can’t, because we can’t afford admin support because of our funding, I’m drowning in admin. 

And then I set up this thing we call the Flying Squad, and we had volunteers who were, it was an organization working with a debilitating disease. We had volunteers who had that disease. Working in the organization doing admin on a casual basis. So, they would give as much time as they could with their illness. 

You should have seen the deputy CEO’s office after he had this guy come in four times. He said, I’ve never been opened, able to open my filing cabinet before. And then spend 40 percent of your time setting up new innovation stuff, doing things differently, reversing the way things go, listening to people. 

So, you know. Spend 40 percent doing your grunt work, 40 percent doing innovation, 20 percent listing and marketing in your organizations would be my when they have the strategic planning meeting, don’t wait for permission to get yourself on the invitation. Yeah,  

Tobi: Absolutely. Becoming that internal consultant and really starting to share your expertise, not assuming other people know, I call that working on your program versus in your program. Really taking the time to build the infrastructure and then test it out and then, you know, evolve.  

Martin J Cowling: My concern, Tobi, is that many organizations, the volunteer manager is seen as the no person. Yeah. So, someone somewhere says, oh, why don’t we, we need to volunteer for this. Why don’t we ask the volunteer manager for 20 volunteers tomorrow? 

Which is, you know, yeah, which is the question I used to hate as a volunteer manager. Where am I hiding 20 volunteers? On the top drawer of the filing cabinet? Do it. Yeah. Sprinkle water on them instant volunteers. But instead of saying no, which is what the instant reaction is, so I was talking to one CEO of a charity in Sydney that works with homeless people and he wanted volunteers to go into people’s houses in crisis and help them move because often they have to move and they’ve got a lot of crap and they can’t afford a moving van. 

So, he went to the volunteer manager and the volunteer manager’s first answer was no. Because it’s too dangerous, because the insurance won’t let us, because they haven’t been trained. So, you know, the CEO then came to me in frustration and said, my own volunteer management team can’t get me volunteers. Mm hmm. 

Our first answer should be, let’s see what we can do. Right. Because we have all the resources of the community. And there are probably people out there who would like to go into people’s homes and help them move. Right. And we can do it in a way that’s safe. How do we do that? But I, time and time again, I go to organizations and the volunteer manager thinks I need to protect volunteers. 

So my first answer is no. You’ve got to follow a system. You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to jump for a hoop. It’s going to take you six months before you see a volunteer. I’m going to move away from those answers.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s talk about revolutionary leadership. We’re going to do so right after the break because one of the impetuses for this conversation was an article that you wrote for the Engage Journal. 

And I’ll link to it in the show notes and all that. But let’s take a quick break with more on transforming how we lead volunteers and more on how we evolve with Martin J. Cowling. So don’t go anywhere, anybody. Everybody. We’ll be right back. If you’re enjoying this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Pro Premium Membership. 

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Tobi: Okay, we’re back with our discussion about transforming how we lead volunteers with Martin J. Cowling. Let’s get into his ideas about where we go from here. So, before the break, I talked about this Engage Journal article, Revolutionary Leadership for 21st Century Volunteering. And in that article, you note that our models of volunteering in the 20th century no longer resonate this far into the 21st century. 

A volunteer program established 25 years ago now belongs to the pre internet era. If it has not significantly changed in that time, it will now be struggling. So, what was the impetus for, do you remember back? What was the impetus for, you know, it was the spark that said, you know what, I need to write this. It was almost a manifesto when I read it. I felt like it was a bit of a manifesto.  

Martin J Cowling: I actually want to do a training series around the world. called Manifesto, because COVID accelerated a series of changes we’re seeing in society generally. Our entire world is now going through a major series of changes, and we all see that. 

We see that politically, we see that society, we see that with our education systems, we see that with our conflicts. We are seeing massive shifts. It’s right across the world and my concern is we’re actually going to be seeing a period of deep pain and difficulty for a long time and I’m depressed that we’re seeing war as, for example, as an answer to solutions, you know, I thought we’d finish with war and here we are back again seeing conflicts breaking out around the world and, you know, that’s very depressing. 

Let’s hold that. The first is the world is suddenly big. It’s suddenly scary. There’s a whole lot of things going on. The second thing is that organizations around the world came to me and said, our volunteer is not coming back. Mm hmm. We opened our doors and we’re not seeing them. And I sat down with volunteers who said, no, I’m not coming back. 

I sat down with one woman, and she said to me, I volunteered every Thursday in the charity shop. When the charity shops were closed because of the COVID restrictions in my community, I babysat my granddaughter. Every Thursday. And my granddaughter says to me, love your nana, she said when I go to the op shop, there’s gossip and backstabbing and nasty customers. 

If I must choose between love your nana and that. So that started something for me. And I sat with a group of 90 first year university students, first year college students. And I said, how many of you volunteer? One did. When I was at university, half of us did. So, I said to them, why don’t you volunteer? 

And we had a great conversation about that. People said to me, oh, the younger generation are lazy, they’re unmotivated, they’re blah, blah, blah. They’re not. They all wanted to help in the community. But the model that we’re presenting to 90 first year college students was not a model that they would resonate with in any shape or form. 

One of them said, I’m looking for Instagrammable moments. Now, as soon as I say that to organizations, they go, we can’t, that’s terrible, the younger generation, Instagrammable moments. 

Tobi: The MarCom’s department’s head’s exploding right now because they’re losing control of the message. Yeah.  

Martin J Cowling: Huh. Where are young people sitting in the world? Look at TikTok, look at Instagram, like it or not. And I watched it on the subway, I watched on the metro systems around the world, people scrolling through their TikTok’s and Instagram videos, second, second, second, second, second, seconds, you know. If you haven’t grabbed someone in six seconds. Yeah. We’ve lost them. 

So, those things started to coalesce into, we actually need a revolution. We are actually seeing something that I believe was happening anyway, but the COVID pandemic accelerated that. So, we saw the older generation willingly disengaging from volunteering and volunteerism, saying I have not much time left. 

I learned in my lockdowns that I want to do things with my life. I want to make an impact with what’s left with my life. We’re seeing younger people saying. I am an individual and I want to make an impact on the world as well. We’re seeing Generation X and the next generation who are juggling, older parents who are getting, aging parents who are juggling their kids at school, university, college, juggling careers, juggling financial stress, juggling cost of living situation right across the world that is causing people to have real angst and anxiety at the lower- and middle-class levels. And we’re saying, would you like to fill out this application form to volunteer once a week? We must completely reimagine how we, and it’s not just, it’s not just Jane Smith, John Brown, volunteer coordinator, sitting in an office in downtown Little Rock. 

It is actually the way we view our entire communities, all our legacy organizations, our churches, our bowling clubs, our softball leagues, they’re all in massive, steep declines. And because None of the way we operate is resonating anymore. One of the interesting statistics that came from the United Kingdom that showed areas with fast internet, there’s a correlation with low volunteering now. 

Fascinating. So, if you can stay home and stream eight episodes of a TV show, why would you drive in the snow to volunteer somewhere?  

Tobi: Yeah, they did research years ago on what we people were doing instead of volunteering watching TV Watching TV. So people will say we don’t have enough time and I don’t know people are not Prioritizing this people have time now some people work multiple jobs and they look they legitimately do not have enough time, but there are plenty of people, you know, I volunteer online with my master gardener group, and it works for me because I can, I work really long hours during the week. 

I can get up Saturday morning. I can jump online. We can do a Facebook live, give out gardening tips, have fun getting together, and I can move on with my day, and I’ve made an impact in a short amount of time. It works great. I love my people, and you know, it works.  

Martin J Cowling: Yes. But the two issues we have, the first is what happens to the volunteer jobs we cannot do online? 

Tobi: Yeah. Oh, of course. It’s not the only answer.  

Martin J Cowling: That is our challenge. And I agree with you. I volunteer online as well. I also want to volunteer face to face in my community. So, the first thing is how do I, how do we get people doing that? The second thing is the way we market it. So, I recently helped as a school fundraiser. 

Now, I was lucky I was in a situation where I could show my working with children check and volunteer on the spot. Like literally, I went to this fundraiser, and they were having a crisis. We need someone to do this now. I wouldn’t have volunteered for that organization normally because they would say, could you please do an application check? 

Could you please come to our training session? Could you please sign up to do our fundraisers, the next four fundraisers? So, the first is we need to be able to help people engage. as quickly as possible and now and to be able to dip in and dip out. And that means completely restructuring the way we organize our volunteers in our organizations. 

And I kind of half joke, I said to people, I think we should sack all the volunteers who are doing the groundwork and replace them with paid people and get the volunteers in to do the creative stuff. So, volunteers doing the marketing, volunteers doing the fundraising, volunteers doing the internal stuff, and get paid people do the grunt stuff. 

Tobi: It would be interesting for people to look at revisiting the volunteer versus paid staff roles and just see where there’s flexibility, where there isn’t, where there, you know, you really do need to have the same consistent person. It, you know, I, you know, I hear folks. Sometimes saying, well, we need volunteers to commit a year or I, I read recently three to five years. 

I’m like, nobody’s going to sign their life away. And you ask people, why don’t you volunteer? One of the answers is I don’t want to sign my life away. And, you know, and that’s everywhere in the world. Yeah. Like I said, more alike than different, right? Like we were talking about. So, in your article, you talked about your manifesto. 

You talked about seven standards. Yeah. And we’ll link to the full article. I think you need to be an Engage journal member to get the whole thing. But you know, gang, join Engage. It’s not very expensive. And it’s run by fabulous people. So, I will post a link to the Engage journal if you want to join and subscribe. 

Tobi: Maybe pull out a couple of those and from that article, a couple of those seven standards and if you have any examples or recommendations around that. We’ve kind of been touching on these a little bit. 

Martin J Cowling: So, the first is I think we need to be selling the impact of volunteering more than we ever have. And we don’t. We undersell volunteering. So, volunteering has three impacts. The first is it impacts the, the, the person who’s volunteering. And if our volunteering is not impacting the person who’s volunteering, then it’s not actually working. So, as a result of volunteering, I should walk away. Now, sometimes I’m going to walk away going, what the hell was that? 

That’s an impact. I should be knowing that the time I’m giving to the organization is making a difference to the community. So, I need to be able to be told that or to see that in some way. Now I can do that, you know, for example, let’s say it’s a holiday gifts thing that families come, and they get gifts. 

You know, that’s obvious. I could go home and go, I helped give 50 gifts to 50 families that couldn’t afford the holidays. You know, there are other ways that we need to say to people, this is how we impact, this is how volunteering will impact you as an individual. Now, we kind of do these vague things like, you’ll make friends, you’ll get skills. 

No. If I volunteer to do a role in your organization, you should know the data. You should know that 30 percent of volunteers who did this role over the last two years reported feeling happier about themselves. 50 percent of volunteers as a result of volunteering for an organization got a full-time role in this sector. 

20 percent of volunteers reported that their marriages were improved as a result of volunteering. You know, in your volunteer survey, one of the questions you should be asking people is what has been the impact of volunteering on you and then using that to market volunteering. And if, if your volunteers come back to you and say, a volunteer was awful, I hated doing it, I do it out of duty, then you need, you have a problem, you need to change things. 

But we need, you know, when we do those volunteer surveys with people, one of the things I did in one organization was we actually set up a team of people that rang every single, called every single volunteer. Mm hmm. And said, how is volunteering working out for you? And because of their feedback, we made extensive changes to our programs. 

I’d agree with volunteers who do that. So, the second, that’s the first impact of volunteering. The second is the volunteering must impact the organization positively. Now, again, how are we measuring that in the organization? Have you actually asked your paid staff what is the impact of volunteering on your program? 

What is the impact of volunteering on your department? Now, some departments will come back to you and go, I don’t engage a volunteer department because they’re paying the Mm hmm. Trying to find the right word the pain in the back side. Now that’s very useful feedback, you know, how do we change the volunteer program to do that? 

I was in one organization where the volunteer, the organization was so fed up with the volunteer department that there were like six different volunteer programs in the organization. People were secretly recruiting their own volunteers, because you know, it’s, they didn’t want to go through the official systems because it was too painful. 

So, we need to be looking at what’s the impact of volunteering is on our organization. Now the fundraising departments are easy. You can tell me that you raised a million dollars. Now the way we talk about the impact on organizations is they go, we had 267 volunteers that gave five hours. That’s worth 2. 2 million dollars. 

It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything to a donor, doesn’t mean anything to a potential volunteer. Last year, our volunteer program taught 65 people in our community to read, 33 of them got full time jobs, and 10 of them were homeless in our home. Absolutely. Now, if I’m the governor of a state and I hear a statistic like that, I’m going to go, that’s fantastic. 

If I’m the head of a trust, I’m going to go, that’s fantastic. If I’m a volunteer, I’m going to, I want to be part of that. Because none of us want to see homeless people. You know, we want to see people’s lives changed. So, talk about the impact on your organization and talk about the impact on your community. 

What are you doing to make a difference to the community? If you can’t measure the difference you’re making to a community, I would challenge us, are we actually in the right business? Are we actually doing something that’s useful or are we just perpetuating the need of our organization to survive?  

Tobi: The three impacts is really powerful to me. Yeah, I love that. Selling the impact of volunteering on the volunteer, the organization, and the community. What are ways to, you know, sometimes that ultimate impact on the community or society at large is a difficult one to measure because sometimes it doesn’t happen overnight. 

Especially if you’re working with an advocacy organization, changing legislation may take decades. So, any suggestions on measuring that impact to the community at large?  

Martin J Cowling: The first is, I, I think we actually should be doing that long term stuff. I discovered a resource that’s free in every city in the world. Every university has. There are students studying statistics, every college, every program, there are students who are studying market research and statistics. And they do these imaginary examples, you know, sometimes they have a group, there’s always a group project. My memories of group projects at college aren’t always positive, but I actually spoke with a university in my city, and I said, would your students like to come and do a real project? 

So, they now come back, and they measure the impact of our organization on the community, and it costs me two packets of cookies. Nice. And the students have a real example for their work and the lecturer is thrilled because they’re trying to invent or find examples. Right. And here’s a real one. So, the first is we, we need to measure. We can get ways of measuring. Now every college in the country is going to get a phone call from someone. But anyway.  

Tobi: Yeah. You got to do the time. The timing has to be right, but yes.  

Martin J Cowling: Correct. Yeah. But we, we need to, the second is we need to be looking for the small wins and telling people those small wins. Now we mightn’t see a whole community change, but we saw Mrs. Brown’s life made better. We can find those small wins and celebrate those small wins. The third thing is we also need to be looking at the reality of what’s not going to change unless we see massive shifts in our work and start thinking differently. 

How do we, how do we do that differently? So, I think the first is measure that long term stuff. The second is to look for the small wins and look for the stuff that isn’t working and work out and be honest with the community about it.  

Tobi: Yeah. I think small wins too are well illustrated with testimonials and storytelling of individuals that, you know, have, have experienced something, whether it’s something in their neighborhood, something in their family, et cetera, or something they’ve just noticed that’s different, you know? 

Martin J Cowling: Let me give you an example. I worked in an organization with a CEO who was doing public speaking all the time, you know, to the government or to donors or whatever. One day I dropped something off to his office and I said, here’s a story about what the volunteer program is doing in the community. And he used it. 

Of course. And. After that, the office would ask me for stories, which then got, had the double barrel bonus of the CEO, then popping into my office and saying, I’m really enjoying these stories. Tell me more about what our volunteer program is actually doing. So, it was internal education of him, but you know. 

I told this story at a conference in the United States, I can’t even remember what Chicago was. And a year later, a woman came to my session, and she said, do you remember me? Now, I shake that sometimes because I’m like, I presented that year to 12, 000 people. And I said, no, I’m really sorry, I’d love to say I do. 

She said, I came to your session last, it was fantastic. And she said, I have this volunteer who donates I’ve forgotten, like several thousand dollars a year. And she said, I just sent that down to the fundraising department and they processed the receipt. She said, after your speech, I put it into an envelope, it was a check. 

I put it into an envelope, and I sent it to the CEO. And I said, here’s another example of what the Impact Volunteer Program has on the organization is a check for 7, 000. She said, I’ve been trying to talk to the CEO ever since I joined the organization. 20 minutes after I dropped that check off at her office, the CEO asked me to come to the office for a discussion about the volunteer program. 

This is how we need to be selling the impact of volunteering. Absolutely.  

Tobi: Absolutely. Do you want to share one other? of those standards?  

Martin J Cowling: Absolutely. I’ve talked about selling the impact. I’ve talked about ensuring a positive strategy already, so I don’t need to talk about that. We’ve mentioned reconstructing roles for wider engagement. The other one is around maximizing flexibility. Notice what I’m doing here, Tobi. I’m managing to get floor of the seven in.  

Tobi: Gang, you’re lucky. You should still subscribe to the Engage Journal.  

Martin J Cowling: Absolutely. Well, there’s two I’m not going to mention. Okay, there you go. But the other one is what I call embracing diversity. 

And when I look at our volunteer organizations, are we actually embracing the diversity in our communities? So, I was working with an organization in Australia in a community where 12 percent of the community came from Asia. They had either emigrated from an Asian country or their parents had emigrated from an Asian country. 

So, one in eight people effectively spoke Chinese. Mandarin, or Cantonese, at home, or Vietnamese. The organization said to me, Asian people don’t volunteer. We don’t have any. They’re not interested in volunteering. And I said to them, when I look at your website, every single face is white. There isn’t anything on your website in a Chinese language. And the CEO said to me, they can use Google Translate.  

Tobi: Yeah. Well, you know, I did work in Singapore for the Singapore government years ago. This was before the pandemic. And one of their goals was almost 100 percent volunteer participation of their, their populace. So that can complete that assertion is like completely off base. 

Martin J Cowling: So I’m like, the message you’re sending to the community is that we don’t want diversity. Yeah. And then they went and found an Italian woman and they said, we do have to first see who’s an Italian woman.  

Tobi: Well, you know, honestly, I hear a lot from the community that I’m working with that, and in our volunteer management progress report, diversity, equity, and inclusion comes up as a big need and as something think people are working towards. 

I think honestly, there’s much more impetus for it nowadays. I think people are now much more aware of the need for diversifying your volunteer corps. I think people still struggle with how to make it work. And I think sometimes it’s sort of an afterthought. Oh, you know, there’s not a comprehensive you know, inclusive culture initiative going on in the organization, but they’re asking the volunteer coordinator to bring in diverse volunteers into an environment that is not inclusive. So, it’s sort of a setup for failure in some ways. And I tell volunteer managers, look, developing an inclusive culture is not your responsibility. 

It is the executive director’s. He, that person, he or she or them are ultimately responsible and should be, you know, working with human resources, your board, et cetera, and then giving you resources so that you can align your work with the work of the organization, because bringing in volunteers into a work environment where they’re going to it. 

Maybe encounter more microaggression than usual. I’m not saying anybody can get rid of microaggression all the way. I wish, but, you know, who ethically would want to do that? You know, so I don’t think it’s always. necessarily that a volunteer manager doesn’t want to diversify. They’re struggling to figure out how to make it work, and they’re struggling to find the resources and support and expertise. 

Right? And there are people who have expertise in this, but they require an investment. To get this expertise into your organization, you know?  

Martin J Cowling: Correct. Yeah, and it’s not, and you’re right, you know, most volunteer coordinators are, I mean, absolutely committed to diversity, but our organization’s not reflecting that. 

Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, in this example of the Chinese organization, they worked out afterwards. They didn’t see any Chinese clients. So, you know, surely there were clients, there was a health organization that needed, that needed their services. Where were they going? And just saying, CEO saying, use Google Translate is not the answer. 

How do we as an organization reach under 27-year-olds? How do we, as an organization, reach people living in our community that are concerned about the issues in our community in a way that makes sense to them?  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. So, along those lines, in addition to showing volunteer impact, are there any other quick tips you have for volunteer managers who are really trying to engage the executive level in actively supporting innovation because innovation oftentimes requires obviously change management, an ability to release control in some respects and also resources, those are things that I think volunteer managers often have a hard time advocating for.  

Martin J Cowling: Correct. I think we’re asking the wrong questions and we’re making the wrong statements. So, people say, I’d like to talk to the CEO about volunteering. Mm hmm. The CEO’s going to go, that’s nice, but I need to talk to the board about the fact I’m facing 110, 000 deficit. 

Dear CEO, I’d like to have a conversation with you about how the volunteer department could help plug that 110, 000 deficit we’re facing. Mm hmm. Yeah. It’s, it’s subtle, but it’s powerful. And often we, we say to people, let me come and talk to you about volunteering or volunteerism internally in the organization. 

Partly because we don’t know what to say. If we reversed it and said, I would like to show how this program, volunteer program, can make a difference in your area. I have. We can make your life easy. Let me tell you about the impact of the volunteer program. We’re going to change the language because we use volunteer language, our organization uses KPI language, money language, fundraising language, I’m struggling language. 

We need to be speaking to the HR department. Let me work out how I can walk and work alongside you. Let me have a coffee with you and listen to your needs. So, we need to change the entire conversation. The second is we need to start marketing what we do in non-volunteer terms. So, yeah, and I’ve already mentioned a couple of examples. Stop talking about volunteer hours. No one’s interested.  

Tobi: Absolutely. No one’s interested. Well, unless if it’s related to GAP. And closing the gap. I think if you can relate those hours to, you know, services provided and closing the gap on services like we had, you know, we had 100 volunteers, but we still have X number of people on the wait list in order to close the gap on our service beneficiary wait list will need X number of more hours. That’s a capacity conversation versus an  

Martin J Cowling: But you’ve immediately gone beyond hours, haven’t you, Tobi? Yes, exactly. You’re talking about impact, and that’s what people don’t do. 

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Interestingly enough, in terms of terminology, it’s so funny because I think in the voluntary sector we do live in a, you know, I often say I serve a niche of a niche of a niche of a niche. You know, we live in this bubble of terminology that we use and when we’re internally marketing what we do to others and trying to, you know, influence some support and investment, we were doing some market research on executives versus volunteer managers and the language they use and the concerns they have around volunteerism and trying to crack this nut a little bit. 

One really simple difference in terminology is Executives speak about staff, volunteer, volunteer or paid employee, staff turnover, and volunteer managers talk about [00:53:00] staff retention or more specifically volunteer retention, turnover versus retention. And even just that subtle switch in, so you really just have to attune to what it is and mirror the language of the people that you’re trying to reach. And as you said, speaking to the executive’s pain point, which is often fundraising. And nowadays it is staff turnover. And executives in our research, care very much that there are not enough volunteers to get to meet the mission. 

They absolutely care about it, and they care about burning out the existing volunteers who’ve been so supportive for so long. So, it’s not that people don’t care. I think you’re right. It’s about how we frame our you know, approach.  

Martin J Cowling: And I even want to go further, Tobi, I’m questioning whether we should be using the word volunteer as much as we do. So, one of the things I said to my 91st year old students, why don’t you volunteer? Because they said, we’re not volunteers. Because in their mind, a volunteer is a particular type of person. And we sometimes have now turned that term volunteer into shorthand for a particular type of person. So, I’m wondering, you know, if we need to rescue our terminology publicly. 

Instead of asking for, every time I see a sign saying, are you a volunteer, do you want to volunteer? I cringe. Because people don’t walk along the street going, I’m a volunteer looking for a role. They go, I’m a person looking to make an impact, making a difference. So, you know, I think we need to start to shift our terminology and start to think because, you know, even calling people donors is just. 

Tobi: Yeah. You know? Supporters. I think clumpty. I like supporters. Partners. I love supporters. I like partners. Yeah, supporters, partners. Ambassadors. Change agents. Leaders. Community leaders. There are all kinds of ways to talk about people in the community.  

Martin J Cowling: And if we start to see people as supporters, using that wider word, then they can give their time. They can give their money, and they can also give their voices. So, I may not volunteer for your organization, but I might become your voice. Advocates? So, we actually turned one of our, yeah, we turned one of our volunteer training programs into an introduction to our organization program. In 20 minutes, they sold the whole organization to people in an online video. 

And people walked away going, I’m not going to volunteer for them, but I can tell people about what they do. They do a really good job.  

Tobi: Excellent. Fantastic. This has been such a great conversation. Thank you for joining me from very early in the morning in Thailand. I really appreciate you getting up early to have this chat. I have one more. Question, one final question for you that I like to ask my guests, and that’s, what are you most excited about in the year ahead? 

Martin J Cowling: Personally or globally?  

Tobi: Doesn’t matter. You can answer it any way you want. The world is your oyster.  

Martin J Cowling: I’m going to answer because I can. Personally, I am going to be making a difference in other people’s lives. So, I know already that my words and my actions will make a difference in other people’s lives. The second is, I’m an optimist. In the middle of all of the, I’m trying to find the right word in English can you think of a German word, in all the mess that we’re seeing at the moment. So, I have a hope that people are going to start saying, this is all too crazy. 

This is all too much. I’m going to hoping that we’re going to start seeing some people saying, let’s bridge some gaps here. Let’s start to talk across the political aisle. Let’s start to talk across the environmental aisle. I’m hoping that people go, we’ve had 10 years of social media fighting with each other about this. 

Let’s start to have some decent conversations and stop sniping. Fantastic.  

Tobi: Fantastic. And with that, Martin J. Cowling, how can people learn more about you, your work, get in touch with you about learning more? We’re going to put some things in the show notes, but I’d love if you’d want to plug anything right now or just let people know how to get in touch. 

Martin J Cowling: So, I focus on change, leadership, and impact which is what I’m passionate about. I work globally this year, I’ll be in the United States, I will be in Australia, I’ll be in Asia, I’ll be in Europe, I’ll be in the United Kingdom so I’m available to have conversations with people in real time and online. 

The way I talk to people these days is through my LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram. You can find me on TikTok, mostly talking about my travel stuff, but a little bit about volunteering. But the way I encourage people to talk to me is through my LinkedIn and I’m very happy for you to put the link in for LinkedIn. 

And I’d love to connect with people through that. If you don’t have LinkedIn, you’ll find me on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. If you don’t know how to message someone on Instagram, find someone who can. Excellent.  

Tobi: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining me. This has been a fantastic conversation. I hope it’s inspired people, even given them a little nudge or a little more confidence or strength to keep innovating and keep challenging the status quo within their organizations, especially if it’s not working, right? 

Tobi: If it’s not working, change needs to happen. So this has been a fantastic conversation. I’ve loved it. Yeah, it’s been really good and nice to have a chat after, you know, it’s been a while. I think we’ve only had; we were talking before we started, we don’t, we only had a chance to meet, I don’t know, I mean, I think it was like 10, physically. 

Martin J Cowling: Once, 10 years ago, maybe. 

Tobi: Right, everybody, thanks for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation. If you liked it, I hope you’ll share it with a colleague who might be able to use a little inspiration. And, of course, if you would, rate and review us. It helps us reach more folks. And I hope you’ll join us next week, same time, same place, on The Volunteer Nation. Thanks, everybody.