Set realistic expectations, never make promises you can’t keep and always express gratitude and acknowledge their work.


The chancellor’s autumn statement gave little hope to the many small charities struggling to cope with an increase in demand for their services during a difficult financial time.

If there was ever a time to reach out to volunteers, especially business volunteers, then this is it. For 10 years Pilotlight has been putting senior executives together with small charities to coach them in business skills, help them become more sustainable and to grow. It has not been easy over the past few years as both businesses and charities have felt the full force of the recession. So what have we learnt about how to engage with businesses and, more importantly, how can we keep that relationship going in tough times?

I have met hundreds of senior business people during my time at Pilotlight and I know that, while many of them want to help, one of the biggest barriers is time. Take one of our business members, James Taylor*. He led teams, certainly understood figures and was full of energy. He wanted to give to a good cause, but had little time. Our model of two to three hours a month suited him. It removed the barrier of giving large chunks of time and showed that the meetings with charities would be effectively managed. He signed up.

A year later I asked James how his time working with the charity had been and he said: “It was an amazing experience. I understand so much more about the way small charities work and the challenges they face and have huge admiration for the director. When is my next charity?”

I learnt from this that volunteers need to be managed. Every step of the way our project manager, Ellis steered the team and the charity director, listening to their problems. I also learnt that setting realistic expectations is crucial – never make promises that you can’t keep. We now make it clear that it takes time for change to happen. We measure an increase in business skills at the end of the project and a year later we measure turnover. On average our charities will have increased their turnover by 50% and be helping double the number of people. But we make it clear this is an average. Everyone I recruit nods at me sagely, as if to say, ‘of course’. I set the expectation on what we can deliver, not on what I think the donor wants to hear.

For any engagement to work I also believe there needs to be some exchange of skills or knowledge. While our teams of senior business people use their skills to help the charity become more sustainable, it’s encouraging to hear how much they have gained from the charity. For example, Tom Smith was the head of a bank that we put with a mixed team of other executives. The charity they worked with loved the team and it was successful – the charity doubled in size. But it also worked for Tom.

He came back impressed by what he had learnt. “I didn’t just learn about the charity, but about my fellow team and the way in which they think. I love it. Not just teaching the charity skills, but getting non-executive skills myself.” If you can develop an engagement that means the person volunteering gets back more than they put in then you have a winning combination. Corporate Social Responsibility is also changing and we are constantly finding that corporates want to do more than write a cheque or send employees to paint a wall; they want an engagement that will deliver learning and development for their employees as well.

Finally I have learnt that volunteers like to be thanked. I learnt this the hard way when I met with Graham Lewis, an entrepreneur who’d been working with a children’s charity in Scotland.

No one had thanked Graham for the time he had given. He was worried about his fellow volunteers and so he had asked if the children could make cards saying a simple thank you to them. The cards were sent to all four volunteers, including Graham. He has his in his office to this day.

We now have team photos at the end of each engagement and a card. One of our Pilotlighters told me that even if it ends up in the bin eventually, it matters. They show it to friends and family and it means a lot.

So never underestimate the volunteers. They will surprise you and you will learn: it is all about lighting a touch paper and seeing that spark grow but doing it with care.


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