Mindfulness in the workplace – avoiding burnout, building resilience and wellbeing

Guest blog by Karen Janes

In July 2021, Karen Janes kindly facilitated a workshop for AVM members, where she shared some mindfulness techniques for volunteer managers to implement into their working day. In this blog, Karen talks about why and how she moved into the mindfulness space, and shares a quick mindfulness micro-practice.

I have been a volunteer for many years q, and for the last 20 years of my career, I worked in volunteering management. I have represented volunteering in networking groups, at conferences, and on your very own Board of AVM Directors.

I am passionate about volunteering and loved working in the field. But, after a period of burnout that left me feeling exhausted, flat, disengaged and quite frankly just pretty fed up, I gave up all my volunteering roles and left my career in the volunteering sector too.

It seems that burnout is becoming all too common in our stressful and busy workplaces – so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) now includes it in its International Classification of Diseases. Defining burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The WHO identifies three characteristics of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion of exhaustion (yes, I had this!)
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job (yep – I had that too)
  3. Reduced professional efficacy (and I even had this!!)

When I think back over my career, many volunteer managers I’ve known had some, or all, of the following concerns, and it’s easy to see how these could lead to a state of unmanaged stress and burnout:

  • It’s just so busy, there’s never enough time for everything I have to do
  • I’m struggling to juggle competing demands from my manager, volunteers and our beneficiaries
  • I’m trying to coordinate ever expanding work through thinly stretched and overworked volunteers and volunteer managers
  • Relationships between volunteers and paid teams are sometimes really challenging
  • We’re going through so much change and uncertainty – it’s hard to keep supporting our volunteers through it and helping them to adapt to new ways of working
  • Everyone’s so busy and stressed, and the mental health and wellbeing of my volunteers is a real concern.

With my new business, The KJ way, I’m sharing some of the powerful mindfulness tools and techniques I have used to recover from a state of burnout to one of joy, resilience, balance and optimism. Workplace mindfulness can help you, your volunteers and colleagues to avoid burnout, manage stress, build resilience and improve their wellbeing too.

  • Some of the benefits of mindfulness in today’s busy workplaces include:
  • reduced stress and anxiety
  • increased resilience in changing and challenging times
  • improved focus and personal effectiveness
  • improved well-being and mental health
  • increased creativity
  • increased connection and empathy

Mindfulness comes in many forms. There are formal meditation practices, such as awareness of breath and the body scan. These require regular practice and commitment to strengthen the mindfulness muscles over time. Just like if you want to improve your physical fitness – you’ll probably need to work out at the gym more than once!

If meditation is a step too far for you, there are many ways of integrating mindful approaches into your everyday life to bring in more awareness and joy. Such as walking mindfully, eating mindfully and brushing your teeth mindfully! In fact, pretty much anything you do, you can do mindfully – by focussing all your mental energy on one thing at a time and being fully there while you do. Checking in with your body’s five senses, with an attitude of openness and curiosity and without judgement, to see what the experience is actually like – as you live it.

And there are mindfulness micro-practices – short techniques that can just take a few moments – that you can easily incorporate into your working life and organisational culture. The more you practice these small activities, the more they are readily available to you when stress or challenging times arise and you really need them.

Box breathing

My all-time favourite micro-practice is box breathing. This breathing practice triggers the “parasympathetic” or “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system – helping to calm your body and mind down. It’s the opposite of the “fight or flight” stress response you’ve probably heard about. The beauty of this practice for me, is that you only need to practice it for a few minutes to feel real results.

You can use this practice when-ever you need a moment of mindfulness – for example, when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or nervous. Before delivering a big presentation, or having a difficult conversation with a colleague, or when you’re about to say something you think may later regret! You might also find it useful as a reset during moments of transition – in between meetings, or just before you walk back into home life after a stressful day at work. It’s one of the many tools I’ve been sharing with organisations as their people struggle with anxiety and worry about returning to work after a long break due to the pandemic.

It’s a simple tool that you can share with family and friends too – maybe children worried about returning to school, adolescents nervous ahead of exams or driving tests, or partners worrying about a trip to the dentist!

It’s here for you to use whenever you need to take a moment, to reset and to calm down. Give it a go – following along with the infographic below and let me know how you get on!

Box breathing practice

In this practice we bring awareness to the four parts of the breath. The inbreath, the pause that follows it, the outbreath, and the pause that follows the outbreath. We consciously lengthen each part of the breath, holding it for the same number of counts – 4four in the example below.

Most people don’t naturally breathe this deeply, so holding for a count of four may seem difficult at first. In this case, try holding each part for a count of three or even two. The important thing is to hold each part of the breath for the same count.

The technique

  • Consciously lengthen the in-breath, out-breath and the pauses in between for the same number of counts (4 in the example below).
  • Breathe in 2, 3, 4
  • Pause 2, 3, 4
  • Breathe out 2, 3, 4
  • Pause 2, 3, 4

Practice tip:

Get used to box breathing during calm times, so you’re ready to use it when stressful moments arrive.

Infographic of the box breathing technique. For those who are visually impaired, this image is described in the text to the right of this image.
Infographic of the box breathing technique. For those who are visually impaired, this image is described in the text to the right of this image.

About Karen

Karen Janes headshot.

Karen Janes is a certified workplace mindfulness facilitator, working with organisations, teams and individuals to develop bespoke mindfulness sessions and programmes that both support business outcomes and improve personal wellbeing.

Karen is a volunteering professional with over 20 years experience of leading volunteering development programmes at national charities. She has previously been on the Board of AVM and is committed to supporting volunteering managers to build resilience and improve their working lives.

For more mindfulness tips and practices, or to find out more about Karen’s autumn return to work offer on her Introduction to Mindfulness session, connect with Karen on LinkedIn, or get in touch on [email protected] to discuss how mindfulness can help you and your organisation’s people to avoid burnout, bring their real selves to work and shine every day.

Personal reflections on ‘Struggle’, by Grace Marshall

The surprising truth, beauty and opportunity hidden behind life’s sh*ttier moments

Jo Parry, AVM member (my own views, not representing AVM, but had great fun discussing them with other members at a recent AVM members’ book club.)

‘Struggle’… is that a word that has resonated with you recently?

I was initially drawn to the title of the book ‘Struggle’ as it perfectly defined where I was at that moment. ‘Life’s sh*ttier moments’… I think we have all had a few of those in the past year!

Picking up the book, I hoped it would help me come through to ‘the other side’ of struggle. It did something far more powerful. Grace Marshall encourages the reader to acknowledge there will often be struggle and sh*t moments in life. To not fight against it, run away or see it as a failure but to accept that it is exactly where you need to be to. Grace suggests that ‘rather than waiting for the struggle to pass, we live out life in all it’s fullness, whatever the situation, wherever we find ourselves’.

Grace’s words and the topics discussed in the book provoked some personal reflections on the last year and home, work, and volunteering life.

Throughout the pandemic, it feels like sector colleagues, whether out of work, in work or on furlough repetitively, shared the same heightened challenge – learning to be comfortable in discomfort. ‘Struggle’ discusses the how we might start to move from feeling comfortable in what we know to learning to feel comfortable in what we don’t know.

We have all had to tread into the unknown this year. ‘Struggle’ explores how this is when we ‘learn, how we develop…and discover how capable we are’ as ‘there is often magic in the mess’. With our adoption of new ways of working, perhaps the book would suggest we have grown more than ever this year. Have our own relationships with risk evolved to help us to step out of our comfort zones more?

We now more than ever recognise the importance of prioritising the areas of life most important to us. ‘Struggle’ explores the biology and psychology of wellbeing and self-care (‘not necessarily ‘spa days and smoothies’) in a refreshing way. That ‘Technology is 24/7, humans are not’. Parallels drawn to the dangers of continued ploughing resulting in a ‘failed crop’. Might we all need a ‘fallow season’ after such a challenging year?

‘Struggle’ is built around bitesize chunks and short chapters which make it very readable and easy to pick up and put down (useful if you have a short attention span!). It cleverly builds a logical path of encouragement, balancing storytelling, and curiosity through philosophical and practical discussion points. It is warm, non-judgemental, accepting and encourages you to take the same approach towards others and their Struggle. I highly recommend.

The power of a THANK YOU

A guest blog for Volunteers’ Week, from AVM member Imo Greatbatch, Head of Volunteering at England Netball.

Imo and her two boys

Last year I wrote a blog on the netball volunteer strategic journey and the silver-linings it presented to a grey COVID-19 cloud (read it here). This year I am being ‘braver’ (as Brené Brown would say), sharing a story a little closer to home… an insight into life as a leader supporting volunteers emerging from the pandemic, which also made me want to champion the value and importance of a simple ‘Thank You’.

I am hugely passionate about volunteering, people, and being a part-time working mum, but if I am totally honest with you, this has turned out to be one of the most challenging years of my life. I’ve cried in more meetings than I would professionally like to confess to, and experienced anxiety in ways that has been quite debilitating.

Why am I telling you this?

It is only in the past month that something has started to change, the balance is positively shifting (slowly) to experiencing more good days than tough ones and I thought sharing this might help others going through similar, know that it will get better.

In Netball we have over 3000 member organisations (Clubs, Leagues, Counties and Regions, Schools and Universities) catering for thousands of netballers. Women and girls who love being on court together. Most are powered by volunteers (defined as ‘someone who gives their time and talents freely to make netball happen and is not paid more than out of pocket expenses’).

As a National Governing Body (NGB), we have been focussed on equipping and empowering those restarting netball to build knowledge and confidence interpreting the government guidance, and developing a care package of support tools to enable them to manage and mitigate risk for the netball opportunities they organise.

Our jobs have not been as we knew them, we have all muscled in to do what we can, support each other and consistently reflect and re-evaluate, if what we are doing provides the best possible support to empower people to do this, to the best of their ability.

Volunteers have been incredible this year, dedicating significant hours reading ‘restart’ guidance, learning how to be a COVID-19 officer (over 2500 people have stepped in to fulfil this critical role), attend forums to listen and share experiences, all to ensure they can enable participants to access netball in the safest way possible.

I have started to do a weekly reflection, it inspired me to action my gratitude, by writing this blog to say a big Thank You to those who have supported me and more importantly, the volunteers I champion.

This volunteers week a few SPECIAL THANK YOU’s…..

  1. To all staff at England Netball for genuinely caring about supporting volunteers (and me) to help us get community netball back up and running.
  2. To fellow volunteer leaders/managers (within, and beyond sport), through the numerous forums we’ve been on together, you always inspire me. I have witnessed how you all give every ounce of energy you have, to supporting the volunteers, supporting your causes.
  3. Last and not least, to ALL volunteers (especially those in netball, obviously!) for supporting so many of us. We would not be able to do what we do without you, we will build back stronger from this because of the incredible partnership we have been re-building to empower you, support us, enrich lives through netball.

To finish, if you’re having a tough time, reach out for support. My biggest lesson learnt this year is the importance of putting ‘me’ first, to be my best for others. Reaching out for support was more helpful than the fear I felt of seeking it. Please make sure you look after you.

If you read this and think you’ve been able to access sport or, do something because of the time a volunteer has invested, don’t forget to say Thank You. It may seem simple (because it is!) but don’t underestimate how many forget, it’s crazy how big, and positive the difference it could make.

Happy #VolunteersWeek.

Guest blog: How our new Active Lives report has given us a deeper understanding of volunteering in England

This guest blog by Jenny Betteridge, Strategic lead for volunteering, Sport England, was originally published on the Sport England website.


Our latest Active Lives Adult Survey report, which we’ve published today, gives an overview of volunteering in sport and physical activity in England.

It shows that one in five adults – just under 10 million people – gave up their time to support sport and physical activity at some point across the 12 months from November 2019 to November 2020.

It underlines what we already knew: the response by sports volunteers to the challenge posed by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has been inspirational and phenomenal.

While many will have had to make the difficult decision to step back to shield themselves or protect family members, others have been able to step forward to help their communities when they needed it most. And now community clubs and groups are reaching out to welcome their volunteers back.

Nevertheless, while the importance of volunteers has remained, the pandemic has had a profound impact on people’s relationship with volunteering.

Whether it was learning new digital skills and hosting AGMs online or creating remote connections to support and motivate others in new ways, Covid-19 has changed habits and it has never been more important for us to understand the roles volunteers perform.

We know that, with greater understanding and insight, organisations with volunteers are better able to adapt their work, invest in volunteer support and engage their volunteers (and prospective volunteers) to understand their experience.

This is why, for the first time in four years, the volunteering questions we asked within Active Lives have changed.

Instead of focusing on a twice-a-year threshold for our reporting, we now ask a wider question about how often (the frequency) someone gives their time to support sport and activity.

We believe this will allow voluntary organisations to explore whether people are more likely to volunteer weekly, monthly, or as one-off or occasional opportunities. 

We also now ask about the amount of time a person usually gives while volunteering – the average duration of each session.

Recent years have seen a growth in micro-volunteering opportunities, where someone can meaningfully contribute to a team effort in short chunks of time and can fit better around busy lives. Understanding more about this will again help organisations offer a range of options to cater for a wider variety of people.

As with previous reports, we continue to ask questions about the roles people are performing, but we now recognise the invaluable role of ‘organising fundraising’ for their sports club or group.

Finally, we now ask current volunteers about how long they have been volunteering in their current role. We know from other studies, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Time Well Spent, that 70% of people in the UK volunteer at some point in their lives, but only 7% volunteer consistently throughout.

Our own work with Jump Projects, Lifecycle of Volunteering in Sport (download), which was published in 2019, suggests the average time volunteering in sport is 5.9 years. Now this question is incorporated into Active Lives, we’ll be able to understand if this is changing over time.

We hope these more nuanced changes to Active Lives will enable even more voluntary organisations to continue to build their understanding and insight and that, by coming together to share our learning, we will do even more to support people to volunteer.

Active Lives is a national survey and we would encourage all organisations to use this data alongside their own volunteer surveys.

We’ve produced a guide (download) to help organisations establish their own annual volunteer survey, including a bank of suitable questions, but anyone who would like some help developing a volunteer survey please get in touch.

Hints and Tips for Leading and Managing Volunteers in a Pandemic

Hints and Tips for Leading and Managing Volunteers in a Pandemic

Well what a year 2020 was and already early 2021 is looking pretty similar.  Leading and managing volunteers in a pandemic is probably the single biggest challenge those of us who are leaders and managers of volunteers have faced in at least a generation – if not longer. 

There’s been no manual for this and with guidance either being not there at all in the early days or changing and evolving regularly at short notice it has been more than a little tricky to lead and manage volunteers.

In this article we can’t give you a guidance on what to do – much as we might like to – as all situations are different.  What we can do is give you a few hints and tips that might prove useful in your ongoing journey (not challenge) to lead and manage your volunteers well during this global pandemic.

We all know volunteers volunteer for people not organisations.  As such key to supporting, leading and managing volunteers in the pandemic has been communication.  Communication about volunteering and doing it safely, communication while volunteers can’t volunteer to keep them warm and engaged and communication about how to restart volunteering or indeed stop it again depending on changes to government/s guidance.

Outlined below are a few hints, tips and principles that may help those of you navigating this ever changing situation.  You will need to decide which, if any, may be applicable or useful to your situation/organisation.  Hopefully at least some of these are helpful or at least  thought provoking.

  • Wherever possible follow appropriate government advice rather than create your own bespoke advice around volunteering and what is or is not allowed.  All four countries of the UK have issued specific guidance around volunteering (see Useful Links below). 
  • Many organisations have taken the view that they consider volunteering to be ‘work’ for the purposes of their operations.  This makes following the appropriate country Covid-19 guidance a little easier if you read anything relating to work as also covering volunteering.
  • As the vaccine roles out volunteers may be asking if this changes if they can volunteer and what they can do.  At the moment as I write the government/s advice on Covid-19 restrictions is not changing regardless of whether you have or have not had the vaccine.
  • Ensure those who are extremely clinically vulnerable are protected – as at Jan 2021 this means they can only volunteer from home.  In Scotland and Wales there are useful tools for assessing the risk to individuals who are clinically and extremely clinically vulnerable.  Some organisations have used this to assess if it is safe or not for particular volunteers to volunteer.  This can be helpful as it is government guidance you can refer to that you are following if challenged by volunteers on why you are taking that approach.
  • You might want to consider covering the cost of a Flu jab for your volunteers under your expenses policy – some organisations have done so.
  • Zoom, Teams and any other video conferencing tools are now your new best friend.  They are a great way to keep in contact with volunteers. Many volunteers previously unfamiliar with this technology now are, as a direct result of the pandemic and the need to keep in contact with family.  Other volunteers familiar with these video conferencing tools can also support others in using them – just to keep in touch or indeed to run events and activities.
  • Considering treating volunteers and employees the same as much as you can – saves producing separate guidance for two elements of your workforce if the guidance is and should be applicable to both.  Guidance for Covid-19 secure workplaces, as an example, is the same regardless of if you are a volunteer or an employee.
  • Help volunteers understand the difference between the guidance for ‘work’ and volunteering versus the stricter guidance for ‘social’ and personal activities.  Just because something might be allowed for ‘social’ or personal activities does not mean it can necessarily be undertaken safely in a ‘work’ environment and vice versa.
  • Trust your volunteers.  For those supporting community groups of volunteers give them guidance on how to undertake activities safely and in a Covid-19 secure way. Then let them take responsibility for running those events in line with local restrictions.  The BBC has a really useful guide on local restrictions – see Useful Links below.
  • Some organisations have provided volunteers who are commuting to or from their volunteering or undertaking essential travel as part of their volunteering with a letter signed by the organisation they can show if challenged.  Increasingly useful as authorities crack down on unnecessary travel.
  • Don’t forget you can say ‘No’!  Just because volunteers want to volunteer does not mean it is necessarily safe or appropriate for you to let them volunteer.  Levels of risk an individual may be willing to take are not the same as the levels of risk an organisation should be prepared to manage and take or indeed legally can take.
  • As always volunteering is a gift of time and it is for the volunteers to decide if they feel comfortable, or not, giving that gift of time in a global pandemic.

Ultimately it is also worth remembering a quote that a colleague shared early in the pandemic that has stayed with me since.

‘We are not all in the same boat.  But we are all in the same storm.’

Everyone’s circumstances are different.

Useful Links

Governments Guidance on Volunteering and Covid-19

Volunteering will continue to be impacted as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. There is separate government guidance on coronavirus for the four nations:

Assessing Risk for Clinically and Extremely Clinically Vulnerable

Advice for Scotland

Advice for Wales

No advice issued for Scotland or Northern Ireland so some organisations are using the Welsh or Scottish version above.

Useful guide to what the rules as near you – a BBC guide

NCVO guidance on Coronavirus

Alan Murray , Director AVM & Head of Volunteering and Employee Engagement at the RSPB


This article was originally posted on Countryside Jobs.

How being a mentor gives me insight

“Mentoring…gives me an insight into the challenges faced in the sector today.”
AVM mentor, 2020
Neil Monk is Peer Support Project Officer at Norfolk County Council Adult Social Services, and a Director of AVM

I recall my early forays into leading volunteers. I was already on some steep learning curves, starting new initiatives in campaigning as well as building a project to support orphaned children in Uganda from scratch. This all needed volunteers (I was one myself). I had gone to this with little thought
that leading volunteers would be another steep learning curve in itself, a whole new job description.

I look back now and realise how much I could have gained from support, advice and encouragement from someone who had experience and knowledge of why, and how, volunteer management is very much a skill in itself.

So, giving back when you can is a large part of what the whole volunteer sector is about. It’s great for me to be in touch with a new volunteer manager. While my mentee is looking to gain support from someone with years of experience this can also be a two way experience. Mentoring someone else, in my case with someone new to working with volunteers, puts me back I touch with the initial stages of leading volunteers, and gives me an insight into the challenges faced in the sector today.

Becoming a volunteer mentor

So, what do I need to have to become a volunteer mentor? I think that the answer here is that, along as you do have experience of leading volunteers, you may not need as much as experience as you think. If you feel that you have been on that sharp initial learning curve (and, of course, still learning every day) and have lessons learned that can be passed on then mentoring well be a way that you can pass on your experience in a way that not only supports another volunteer manager, but supports the whole sector of volunteer management, as this strengthens the line of support within a specific job description framework.


If you are interested in becoming a mentor for a volunteer manager, you can find out more, and sign up today.

The mentoring programme is available to AVM members. Find out more about AVM membership.

Why I signed up to be an AVM mentor

“[Being a mentor] has really helped my imposter syndrome
AVM mentor, 2020
An anonymous blog from a current AVM mentor

A while ago, I realised I liked mentoring – the sense of learning from the energy that new recruits bring, and sharing a longer term view of an occupation. As I work part time at school, I am not best placed to support new trainees or teachers, but I like supporting and coaching volunteers in the roles I have with Samaritans. I recently mentored a new Samaritan as they took their first calls, and I was blown away by how much I learned from the process and how refreshing it was to work with someone who saw everything we do from a new perspective. Feeling connected is also a huge motivator in my volunteering, so I was delighted to try a role that lends itself to building a relationship quickly. There is a vulnerability that I think comes from learning together and sharing expertise that can be a real bonding experience.

The first meeting

From my first emails from my mentee, I was really excited to be involved in the programme. She is a bubbly, proactive individual and the process helped us be clear about how much time we will spend together and how often. We are both organised, and have a lot to fit in, so this worked well. I was thrilled at how well-matched we are. As a teacher, it has been really interesting to see how someone else has used their education background in the third sector, and it has helped me understand the development of organisations much better. My mentee is part of a relatively young, youthful organisation with humorous yet serious messaging and it has helped me to reflect on how Samaritans has evolved.

It was great to meet my mentee – via Zoom – and the meeting lit up my whole week. We really hit it off. I just love listening to how other organisations work and what solutions different teams come up with for our common challenges. It has really helped my imposter syndrome to be able to offer solutions that have worked for our volunteers at a branch, regional or national level and reflect on my own volunteer management journey and learning.

It was really straightforward to make a few notes on what we’d discussed for both our reference, and to email these with a Zoom invite for the next meeting that we arranged together.

The second meeting

I was excited to find out what my mentee had been up to in the interim: she had worked on some of the things we’d discussed, and much more besides! So far, the things I have most appreciated about being a mentor have been:

  • A practical use of my listening skills;
  • Sharing mutual enthusiasm;
  • Fits easily within a busy week – doesn’t take too much brain strain or time and gives such a lot back;
  • Has clear benefits for me and my mentee – we can be clear in sharing what we are gaining for ourselves and for our organisations;
  • In 2020 – a year that could seem like many doors were closing and avenues closed – a good way of getting to know someone I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor for a volunteer manager, you can find out more, and sign up today.

The mentoring programme is available to AVM members. Find out more about AVM membership.

Volunteers’ Week 2020: Netball volunteers and a volunteer strategy: a silver lining around a very grey COVID cloud (part 2)

In the second of our two-part series on adapting England Netball’s volunteer strategy to Covid-19, Imogen Greatbach shares how the strategy has evolved

This is a time that many of us never imagined we would experience in our life time. Life feels different with many unknowns. In December 2019 England Netball launched its first ever Volunteer Strategy. A huge signal to the estimated 26,000 netball volunteers that as a sport, they value the volunteers that help make netball happen and have a vision to improve the landscape in partnership with them. 

We have given them the opportunity to stop and reflect on the journey so far and role a volunteer focussed strategy can play within an organisation. This is only really the beginning of their journey, but they highlight what they call ‘silver linings from this grey COVID cloud’. Increased volunteer engagement, openness to try new things, revealing digital skills they never knew existed and a clear and common sense of purpose to ensure they can return to court when the time is right and it is safe to do so. 

Following on from Part 1 of this two-part reflections piece, Imogen Greatbatch (England Netball Head of Volunteering) shares her reflections on the evolution of the strategy in the face of Covid-19.


PART 2: A netball volunteer strategic story: launch, embed and evolve reflections

Roller-skating parallel worlds

The first five months of this role focussed on re-visiting concepts within the unpublished draft of the strategy, refining thinking alongside volunteers and completing the finishing touches for the formal England Netball launch in December. This post December Embed and Evolve phase has been focussed on lacing up the skates to bring it all to life. 

The wheels on one skate represent 60% of time prioritised to think, organise and activate how we service the needs, engage in conversations and build the road map to prioritise and deliver the activities together.

The wheels on the other skate roll through the needs of England Netball. With volunteering spanning pretty much all corners of the business, the remaining 40% of my time focusses on understanding the nuances of how volunteers add value and are supported. All in the interests of striving towards delivering a consistently world class volunteer experience. 

Creating conversations, actively encouraging informal learning and sharing brilliance 

Lockdown has turned our world ‘digital’ (and accelerated need and appetite for some activities we were planning in Years 2 and 3!). Digital skill sets have been revealed that some never knew they had. 

We knew we needed to create more informal netball focussed learning opportunities across broader number of roles. Much of it is centred on creating space for netball volunteers to have discussions on topics they care about but often don’t have time to explore and share opinions on. Whilst we are still developing these ‘In Focus’ sessions (in partnership with volunteers) and learning from every interaction, we are regularly seeing it is not about providing all the answers but facilitating and encouraging volunteers to be part of the journey. A true netball quality centres on supporting and learning from one another, a powerful way to unlock new thinking and ideas.

Activating segmented communication to key groups of volunteers

We have had to adapt our ways of working and thinking across everything we do, amplifying areas of focus in a significantly compressed and ever changing timeframe. This includes connecting with senior volunteers in County and Regional committee roles over two weeks (proudly achieving our highest ever engagement on a virtual tour {97%} with our CEO and Development Director, to share thoughts, feedback and ideas on ways to navigate this strange time, together. But just as importantly ensuring we also start talking more regularly to club and registered league volunteers (often individuals that span multiple roles and multiple netball volunteer led organisations).

The varying scale of time volunteers have pre Corona Virus and now presents challenges; some with lots through business furlough arrangements and many others still learning how to juggle several important balls {work, home schooling and caring commitments}. We have to ensure we tailor support to enable them to consume the essentials in ways they have time and appetite to engage with.

Authenticity, vulnerability and trust

Netball’s culture pivots around the importance of remaining true to oneself yet not being too proud to ask for help when needed. This is something the netball volunteer world instilled in me. I know I am not getting things right all the time, we try to do a lot at pace, not to mention aspirations often being significantly bigger than reality enables but remain true to the passion of supporting volunteers and trying, is most important and if it doesn’t land right, learn and be better next time. 

Resilience and duty of care

Resilience is a key quality these days and my experiences as a volunteer have tested my resilience but also helped strengthen it! When you volunteer you can often feel out of your comfort zone, alone and find yourself questioning is it all worth it? But then there are moments of magic that emerge from things you do like; friends, pride and a sense of achievement supporting your local community and you wonder what you ever doubted. 

Understanding this we are trying to ensure the activities we deliver as a result of the strategy create a community that cares about each other. A community that knows how to signpost one another to the right support to help individuals be the best they can be, as volunteers but just as importantly as people. Physical and mental wellbeing is more important now than ever. 

A common purpose

The volunteer strategy sets out a vision to improve support for netball volunteers to consider their ‘why’ and feel more purposeful, through building a movement. A movement towards a true partnership with England Netball. This partnership has become more important than ever as we work out how to emerge from lockdown and return to court, stronger than ever and when it is safe to do so. 

It is only appropriate to finish with, we don’t have all the answers, but as a sport we are hugely proud to have our first ever netball volunteer strategy and are learning every day. It is our first step to show netball volunteers they do matter and are truly important. Volunteers Week is a great time to shine a light on volunteering, but the reality is we need to move to a world where volunteers feel special every day of every week. 

To any volunteers reading this {particularly those in Netball} – you continue to give your time, expertise and energy to causes you care about and are helping shape the world into something pretty special. Your stories are our (volunteer managers’) inspiration.

Thank you.


Imogen Greatbatch

Imogen Greatbatch is Head of Volunteering at England Netball and focusses on Strategy, Network Support and Promotion and Recognition of volunteers. Imogen is a passionate netballer and netball volunteer, and has been since school. She has held numerous volunteer roles at Club, County, League and Regional levels and in 2019, at the England Netball Goalden Globes celebration {held alongside the Netball World Cup}, she was honoured to be awarded the England Netball Rose Award for her services to netball, as a volunteer. 

Volunteers’ Week 2020: Netball volunteers and a volunteer strategy: a silver lining around a very grey COVID cloud (part 1)

In the first of a two-part series on adapting England Netball’s volunteer strategy to Covid-19, Laura Elson shares her reflections on strategy development

This is a time that many of us never imagined we would experience in our life time. Life feels different with many unknowns. In December 2019 England Netball launched its first ever Volunteer Strategy. A huge signal to the estimated 26,000 netball volunteers that as a sport, they value the volunteers that help make netball happen and have a vision to improve the landscape in partnership with them. 

We have given them the opportunity to stop and reflect on the journey so far and role a volunteer focussed strategy can play within an organisation. This is only really the beginning of their journey, but they highlight what they call ‘silver linings from this grey COVID cloud’. Increased volunteer engagement, openness to try new things, revealing digital skills they never knew existed and a clear and common sense of purpose to ensure they can return to court when the time is right and it is safe to do so. 

Laura Elson (Consultant and former England Netball Volunteering and Governance Manager) played a big part in the development phase of the Volunteer Strategy and she will begin: 

Laura’s netball team

PART 1: A netball volunteer strategic story: pre-launch reflections

When is a strategy not a strategy?

Often what we call strategies are plans with a budget. This is still useful especially if time and resources are tight, but there are some key differences that make a strategy much more than a document on a shelf. A plan uses some internal data to describe what an organisation will do with its volunteers. A strategy is a roadmap co-designed with volunteers that uses rigorous internal and external insights to describe what volunteers will achieve.

A true strategy is about listening to the breadth of your volunteer movement, identifying the main groups within it, their diverse motivations, and the roles they play in your organisation’s purpose. For most organisations volunteers outnumber paid staff in such vast numbers that activating them is crucial to meeting your overarching goals. So a good volunteer strategy sets out how volunteers achieve your purpose, not how the annual awards will be run or what to budget for T shirts.

Strategy development techniques

Invest in the process 

We spent almost two years working through a series of research steps to gather the data we wanted to use. England Netball also chose to hire an external consultant to lead the process of gathering data and consulting volunteers.

Segmentation analysis 

Women in Sport were commissioned to conduct a segmentation analysis, with their focus groups identifying six communities of motivation within the wider netball community. This showed us we had six segments or “hearts” of volunteers who have different motivations but are all united by their ultimate reason for getting involved – because they love netball.

Other player analysis 

It’s easy to just look around and borrow from other organisations. This is a bit of a trick though, and what’s unique about your movement often won’t translate for another organisation. We held structured interviews with leaders of volunteering across sport but also with national charities and women’s organisations. 90% of netball volunteers are women, and we actually learned the most from Girlguiding and the Women’s Institute.

Internal and external analysis 

Volunteers out number staff 200 to one in netball and their contributions underpin whether we meet those our goals. We started with our overarching strategy and ensured we used those goals, as did other departments such as Officiating and Coaching (who are also predominantly volunteers.) Sport England and NCVO also provided us with insights so that we could consider the national volunteering landscape too.

Volunteer voices 

We compiled data from thousands of volunteers via our annual survey, the Big Netball Conversation. 

Co-production 

Alongside all this was the best bit of my job, travelling around the nation over 18 months and meeting hundreds of volunteers in every region and every role. 

Yes, this is a huge investment of time but it’s crucial. Questions were asked at regional and county meetings, focus groups were held at national conferences, people who had stopped volunteering were phoned to mention some of the activities. This enabled us to be clearer about what the groups and themes we identified meant in real terms.. Second it enabled movement building, the more volunteers we involved the more ownership, partnership and respected our movement felt. 


Laura Elson is Consultant specialising in volunteering strategy and development, fundraising and governance with an MSc from the Centre for Charity Effectiveness. Laura is a member of AVM, volunteers as a trustee at Getting on Board, the national trustee recruitment charity, and Bramley Elderly Action. She also volunteers with the Institute of Fundraising, Small Charities Coalition, and her local food bank. But her favourite volunteering role is as player/kit secretary at Carr Manor Lightning Netball Club in Leeds, where she holds the title of the shortest Goalkeeper in the league.

Volunteers’ Week 2020: Looking to the future of volunteer management in the new normal

Ruth Leonard, Chair of AVM, shares her thoughts on what the future of volunteer management might look like in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’

A black chalkboard with the words "what's NEXT" written on it

This current pandemic situation has shown what people who involve volunteers know to be true – that volunteering is and remains, universally strong. Volunteers, as members of a local community, can help address needs which statutory services or organisations on their own cannot reach.
The response and growth of local mutual aid groups, helping people to self-mobilise to donate time and attention to people within their area, shows this. People, without being asked to step in, came forward to give their time, to provide practical assistance, comfort and support; ultimately creating a sense of resilience and strength.

The vast numbers of people signing up to be involved in the NHS Responders opportunity within England further demonstrates the desire of people to be able to do something and help others. Whilst this is a more top-down approach, Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), who facilitate the scheme, have been able to offer the volunteer journey in a much more agile and flexible way than many of the traditional models in volunteer involving organisations ordinarily do. If we are going to efficiently build on the successes born out of this crisis, we need to think more widely and creatively about how we engage those who want to give time.

One of the aspects for me about what volunteers bring is their ability to specialise and focus but at the same time being able to innovate and experiment, but volunteers themselves don’t necessarily feel that they have the opportunity to do this, with over one in six reporting in NCVO’s Time Well Spent report that they have skills and experience which they’d like to use in volunteering, that they’re not currently using.

Whilst this is clearly not a large number it seems statistically worth considering from a volunteer management point of view so that we can ensure that volunteers are able to give in a meaningful way which also meets their personal needs. People powered services should be exactly that – powered by people not by systems or processes.

We are used to viewing people giving their time through the lens of ‘traditional volunteering’, generally limited to pre-determined functions and selected for specific tasks; but to do so could mean that we are moving away from people’s motivations and interests and merely valuing the transactional and that which is carried out through an organisation – which I think is a barrier to those people who come forward because they want to just do something.

There is a wide spectrum of reasons for giving time and people do so in many ways – including to a variety of sectors as well as to none. As we can see during the response to the Covid19 crisis, boundaries are being increasingly blurred between the sectors – state, charities and private – and those who want to do something to make a difference want to do just that; so it is our responsibility as leaders of volunteering to help facilitate that as much as possible.

How do we ensure the necessary and relevant structure without impeding the volunteer journey and experience? Volunteer management needs to be less about telling and more enabling and encouraging flexibility. Part of this should be looking at how volunteers can fully be involved and able to influence development.

Volunteer management enables people giving their time to be engaged, supported and motivated, which includes working together with volunteers to meet the needs of the community through their own assets, so we need to develop our skills at mobilising community engagement and empowerment to ensure continued flourishing of volunteering.