July 6, 2014
It’s the sort of thing you don’t know exists until you are told you’ve done wrong. It’s not written into an organisation’s code of practice, or the house rules, and never in your employment contract.
But still you learn pretty smartly when you have stepped over a line.
The line in the sand is collectively ‘professional boundaries’, not something we get to talk about over a brief coffee break. And lines drawn in the sand mostly get washed over in the next tide, so we forget about the boundary rules until the next time, when the rule seems to have changed, or we encounter a different one.
A colleague has been reminded about professional boundaries recently. Light-hearted banter with a volunteer led to an idea to introduce a bit of comedy into the workplace. It did not happen because the boss called in to say “this was not the type of professional image we wish to project in our organisation”.
Hmmmm…. Professional image? What does that look like? How would we know it? And why didn’t we get inducted to expectations when we started in the job?
The image is all part of a professionalism package. Professional values deem the expected behaviour, in relationships, and work responsibilities. Anything from the dress code to communication style can be included, along with conventions around loyalty, confidentiality, respect and trust. In other words, a professional image is a set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character, as judged by your key constituents (work colleagues, volunteers, members of your community network).
While my colleague discovers she has transgressed a professional boundary, she has also learned volunteers are attracted to the organisation through her reputation as a competent and professional manager for the volunteer programme. Which adds a bit more confusion to the line in the sand.
There’s a bigger question for me when I start thinking about volunteers and boundaries (professional or otherwise), especially for volunteers engaged in interpersonal work. Training will cover the importance of confidentiality and privacy provisions, but how many new volunteers get to consider the line between being ‘friendly’ and ‘friendship’, or discussing the difference between a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ relationship? When does accurate information turn into advice of the “if-I-were-you” kind? That’s another good reason to provide regular support and ongoing training for volunteers, and for managers of volunteers to engage in a mentoring process. We need to talk more about boundary issues.
But why can’t we get a fixed line in the sand?
Because, like the tide that washes away my sand-artwork, determining professional boundaries is a fluid process. Crossing the line is a matter of degree, a perception or judgement that is made too often by someone else. Yes, we learn from experience. But knowing the traps, and how to avoid them would give us a head start.
June 29, 2014
Yes, last week was a blast, a real boost for recognition of volunteers in so many ways. The sincerity of published tributes cannot be doubted; the excitement of award ceremonies and special functions is spread throughout organisations and communities. What could be better?
Something started niggling as I scrolled my way through electronic messages, and scanned newspaper supplements. There was something missing. In all the heaps of praise there was little to tell me what volunteers really do. Have a look at these comments:
We couldn’t manage without you (the most frequent tribute)
Thank you to our army of caring volunteers
Thanks to all our wonderful volunteers for their community work
Volunteers are vital to our work
A big “thumbs up” to all our volunteers – you do an awesome job!
Without our team of dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to achieve half of what we’re able to do
Thank you – you really do make a difference.
If I was a non-volunteer these statements would have gone right under my radar and I would have missed discovering the rainbow of volunteering opportunities out there in our communities.
Messages from organisations which cannot manage without volunteer contributions are confusing. Do they mean the organisation would not exist without volunteers? And if so I’m sure they do not mean volunteer time and effort is being exploited. Why not simply say how valuable the volunteer work is to achieving a goal or a mission and some particulars of the work, instead of a commonplace expression?
What is it that volunteers do, that makes them so awesome, so vital, so dedicated? Please tell me, what is the difference a volunteer makes? That’s what I start wondering. Yes, the stories of volunteer contributions are there, but you have to go looking or know where to look, and then read the fine print. Of course the scope and detail of volunteering is not really the material to cram into a snappy social media post – but it can be done.
Instead there is a tendency to focus on numbers, of volunteers, of their total hours worked, as though counting outputs and putting a $$ value on volunteer effort was the most important information we need to know about volunteering. Yes it is satisfying to claim our place in world surveys, up there with world leaders of volunteering, but still there is little information to tell non-volunteers what all the excitement is about.
So what would I count as real tributes to volunteers? It would be so simple to complete the sentence Thank you for…. and itemise the task the volunteer (or group of volunteers) undertake. Like:
Thanks for turning up each week to look after our kids sports team
Thanks for responding each time we get an emergency callout
Thanks for the hours you spend in care-giving telephone calls, home visits, supporting vulnerable people…….
Thanks for being such an enthusiastic fundraiser
Make the message simple, sincere and specific to the organisation. Adding in service-user feedback comment could highlight volunteer effort, illustrating what really makes a difference. Other messages could focus on why the organisation engages volunteers, what makes them so vital and valuable.
That’s the kind of communication that connects with a wider public, that demonstrates what is involved in volunteering, and which can encourage more people to put up their hands to volunteer.
June 22, 2014
From start to finish National Volunteer Week 2014 has been an outstanding success in achieving widespread promotion and acknowledgements for volunteer contributions to organisations and communities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.
Day after day sector organisations offered press releases, postings on social media and accounts of events to mark the week. There was a huge increase in the numbers of organisations going public, and in the range of organisations – the small, the large, the national and the local groups.
Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te tangata.
(With your contribution and my contribution the people will live.)
This whakatauki represents the fundamental nature of volunteering. It highlights the cooperative work of individuals and the sharing of skills, knowledge and experience that can make a difference in our communities. And this is what the published tributes are saying:
Thanks for taking a moment to connect with us
Thank you for your passion, for all your hard work and thank you for your time. You have helped us keep more hearts beating for longer.
Thank you for making our work possible
We recognise the talent and dedication of our volunteers
Ordinary people can make an extraordinary difference
They say it takes a village to raise a child, by volunteering at Playcentre we’ve found that village.
Then there are the events, the awards and the displays.
There were static displays at public libraries promoting what volunteering can offer and how to connect with an organisation. There were community fairs where organisations could display information about their work. The first Employee Volunteering Awards were presented in Wellington, the outcome of another sponsored Corporate Challenge for the region. In other centres there are certificates of service to be presented, and local ‘Volunteer of the Year’ awards to be announced.
Special mention has to be made for the Wellington Sportsperson of the Year whose work is based on a philosophy of ‘attract, retain, develop’ in working with volunteers. That’s a pretty good summation of the purpose for good management of volunteers.
Another special mention goes to Kiwibank who went all out to produce a couple of videos on Facebook, on staff who volunteer. “Everyone contributes”, says one winner, “Giving back is natural, and it’s good to find work values are in line with my own”.
Prime-time TV grabbed a head-start on the week with a news item about Coastguard volunteers, outlining their work and the training involved. Volunteers talked about why they volunteer and why they stick with it.
Volunteers at VNZ’s office were kept busy compiling a record of all the media items. If you missed anything you can probably find it here.
So congratulations to Volunteering New Zealand for promoting the celebrations we have enjoyed this past week. I did not get all last week’s wishes met, but one day, some day in the near future, we might reach a point where shouting out for volunteers happens every day, not just one week in a year.
June 15, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand have done it again! Here’s another National Volunteer Week banner, together with a message to inspire volunteers and their organisations. You can learn more about the whakatauki and its theme here.
The buzz about NVW has started already, with postings and notifications for events to come. And some nice little tasters, like this piece from Volunteer Wellington’s June newsletter:
According to recent OECD statistics people in this country spend an average of 13 minutes per day volunteering, compared with four minutes in other countries. The stats go on to say this results in higher ‘happiness’ ratings plus longer life expectancy.
Nice one – New Zealand leads the way in yet another field of endeavour! It’s worth reading this OECD report for its background introduction, as well as finding out more on the data.
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Studies show that time spent with friends is associated with a higher average level of positive feelings and a lower average level of negative feelings than time spent in other ways.
Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. [...] A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation.
It’s a long time since I have seen such well-rounded reasoning for building strong and healthy communities, and how volunteering is part of that healthy status.
Volunteering NZ reviews other global and local reports which indicate a downward trend in volunteering and in monetary donations. No explanations for these trends are offered. Nor can I find explicit definitions of volunteering that informed the surveys.
In the week ahead I’m hoping to read some great stories about volunteers and volunteering, about the good experience they enjoyed, and the difference they made for people or the environment, and the fun they had in the process. I’m hoping there will be stories too about good relationships between paid staff and volunteers, and praise for staff who support volunteer effort. And that’s where the managers of volunteers might get a tiny acknowledgement.
And maybe, somewhere, even in a postscript, there will be a nod to the nature of volunteering, and what it represents, and why volunteering is important in our communities and within organisations. That is worth thinking about, in the course of this week.
June 1, 2014
In just a couple of weeks it is New Zealand’s turn to hold National Volunteer Week, that opportunity to give some real acknowledgement and appreciation of volunteer work undertaken for organisations and in communities throughout the country. If you did not know about this event already I am giving you advance notice to get cracking and plan something special for the volunteers in your organisation.
I was reminded recently of the sometime lack of understanding of volunteering and the relevance of holding a National Volunteer Week:
I asked audiences of managers of volunteers how executive leadership at their organizations define success regarding volunteer involvement. And one of the answers really disturbed me: It’s successful if no one complains.
That statement is a huge indictment on executive ignorance of volunteering, not to mention any understanding of the skills and professionalism required to manage volunteers. I have to wonder if there was a similar lack of interest in the work of paid staff. I wonder if there is any executive consideration of the relation between the organisation’s structure and function, and outcomes for its users? I don’t think I would enjoy employment in that organisation, in either paid or voluntary capacity.
So I would like National Volunteer Week to be trumpeting not just volunteer virtues, but also the meaning of volunteering and what organisations need to know about volunteering and its management. Here are three questions executives in leadership positions could be asking themselves in the lead-up to NVW.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
How does volunteering contribute to social well-being in our communities?
What do you need to know about managing volunteers?
I’m not going to answer the questions, because that’s the mission for executive managers. Think of it as a treasure hunt, with the potential to bring as much value to the organisation as the next funding grant. Then everyone will be better informed about volunteering, and will be looking to celebrate volunteer achievements. Then we will know the real success of a volunteer programme.
By coincidence there is another post considering the meaning of success for volunteers and management of volunteers. There’s plenty of material available to tell us what a successful volunteer programme looks like – don’t let’s accept excuses like ‘no complaints received’.
You see, if it takes a whole village to raise a child, it can take a whole organisation to make the most of volunteer contributions.
May 25, 2014
From time to time over past decades flags have been waved about professionalism in managers of volunteers. Country-wide and regional associations to promote the profession have been founded, and foundered. Certification and credentials and National Standards have struggled to gain a foothold. In New Zealand we have developed Best Practice Guidelines, and a Competency pathway, as a means to support managers of volunteers and to gain recognition of their roles. Now UK’s Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is generating a renewed discussion on professionalism. Here’s an opening paragraph on the context for the arguments:
Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.
More recent presentations have covered a case for a Code of Practice; distinctions between a job, an occupation and a profession; and some of the questions and risks that need to be discussed.
I have been down this road before. Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in debates about registration for social workers in New Zealand. University level programmes had been going for some years, offering academic credentials; a national association was active with newsletters and a quarterly journal. But the arguments on professionalising were about competence and performance appraisal. (I’ve still got the documents, typed in Courier font before the days of computers.) For social workers in government welfare agencies there were statutory responsibilities to worry about; in the health sector social workers were more concerned with raising their status to the level of other Allied Health professionals. Compared with the current position of management of volunteers, social work at this time was streets ahead in developing professional credibility.
I bowed out of the debate, gave up membership of the association, and have never submitted to assessment for registration – in part because I moved to some different fields of work, rather as managers of volunteers will do. Mostly I gave up because being professional was far more important to me than professionalisation.
Professionalisation is a formal process to gain status and credentials, to ensure standards of practice can be maintained. Trouble is, elements of exclusiveness can creep in, and it would be mighty difficult to establish a comprehensive code of practice that would cover all contexts that engage managers of volunteers. See here for an outline of potential consequences of this form of professionalisation. As we have been saying in New Zealand for several years, one size does not fit all.
Being professional, on the other hand, is about demonstrating a set of beliefs and values in behaviour. That’s why the art of managing volunteers includes such emphasis on communication and relationships with volunteers, paid staff and management, with the wider community, and in support and appreciation and recognition of volunteer work. That’s why we work hard at advocating for volunteers and volunteering – and there’s an art in doing that effectively too. Being professional connotes the integrity of our work, a wholeness that comes from articulating beliefs about volunteering and communities, and in acting on those beliefs.
Being professional in this sense is about leadership and personal characteristics. It is different from the administrative and management processes of establishing and maintaining a volunteer programme. These elements can be clearly defined and applied; leadership is the behavioural style of application.
Professionalism in management of volunteers does not fall easily into conventional patterns of professional status. There is no exclusive knowledge base, and our practice skills are not so different from those required in other management positions. There are any number of training and experience routes that bring us to appointment as a manager of volunteers, and there are even more variations in volunteering and volunteer programmes. And, there is no formal career path to follow.
Susan Ellis wrote way back in 1997:
No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.
A professional association can offer a defined set of ethical principles related to management roles and some form of accountability for abiding by those principles. A professional association also has the potential to take collective action, speaking out on controversial issues outside the constraints of our employing organisations. Real professions, says Susan Ellis, have strong associations. I maintain my membership in the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) on the basis of these expectations.
Because, to paraphrase a quote from a long-ago text* on professionalism in social work:
Management of volunteers without service would be lame, without values would be blind, and without professional association will be mute.
*Toren, Nina (1972) Social Work: the Case of a Semi-Profession Sage Publications.
May 18, 2014
Congratulations to Volunteering Australia who celebrated last week their 25th year of National Volunteer Week (NVW). That is some achievement. And always (as in New Zealand too, next month) it is a great opportunity to hold special events for acknowledging and saying ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people for their contributions and commitment to all parts of our communities.
This year the promotional theme for Australian volunteer-involving organisations was The Power of Volunteering. But forgive me, country cousins – I am trying to figure what you mean by ‘the power of volunteering’.
‘Power’ is a word I associate with leadership and influence, with strength and a force to reckon with, and with achievement and change. Given that volunteering/volunteerism operates along a continuum from political action to small informal volunteer groups pursuing community interest projects, what are the manifestations of strength and influence in the sphere of volunteering?
What change has resulted from street marches on poverty, domestic violence, or low-wage occupations? Will global protests really help to “Bring Back Our Girls”? Yes, there are a heap of good intentions in protest marches and demonstrations – but I cannot recall any direct political change from such actions. Even the constant pressure of protests in 1981 could not put a stop to the South African Rugby tour of New Zealand.
I am talking here about civic action, expressions of community interest, seeking change of some sort. But if nothing changes where is the power of this kind of volunteering?
Volunteer responses in times of disaster can achieve great things. I have written twice under the heading of People Power – in praise of the volunteer response to Christchurch earthquakes and the beach pollution of the Rena grounding. That’s the power of spontaneous collective action, based on humanitarian and environmental values. I’ve praised the staying power of volunteer fire-fighters who sustain their essential service, along with volunteers in other emergency services. That’s demonstrating the power of volunteer commitment.
It is different in everyday volunteer workforce contributions to community support services – environmental, education, disability, health and welfare, arts and leisure and sporting activities. Volunteering in these contexts is formalised, organised, programmed, contained – and constrained. By their numbers they are a powerhouse for the voluntary sector. But let’s not fool ourselves: volunteers are a utilitarian labour resource for organisations serving the interests of government, business, and community.
That is what we acknowledge during our National Volunteer Week. It is not the power of volunteering; it is the goodwill, the giving of time, energy, skills, and personal commitment to organisational missions and values that we wish to honour.
Yet there is a kind of power in the intrinsic benefits of volunteering, where volunteers gain for themselves. Engaging with an organisation can be a way of finding that sense of belonging in a community, of being respected. Volunteering can raise self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence, and don’t forget – volunteering is good for your health. Volunteering is attractive for people seeking work experience (whether as graduate interns or unemployed people), for developing skills, for migrants and refugees to improve language proficiency.
So while I have doubts about volunteering being a power of ‘irresistible force’, there is much to be said for the work of volunteers in the way it signifies a strong and healthy civil society.
May 11, 2014
A rugby league star switched to rugby union last year, but has failed to make the grade in this different code. He has now returned to rugby league.
Some commentators reckon he was not given enough game time and opportunities to make his mark in rugby.
As an employee he was entitled to receive adequate training to meet team management’s expectations. Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff can perform their roles at high levels, whether in the office or on the sports field. I grabbed at this statement from an employment law specialist in my weekend newspaper.
Because in attending conferences and specialist training programmes I have been surprised at how many managers of volunteers are paying their own way to participate in their own professional development. Three cheers for their personal commitment to on-going learning, even though they were not supported or encouraged by their employing organisations. (On the other hand, equal opportunity becomes a mirage if I cannot afford the cost of the conference or training course.)
Surely it is in the employer’s best interests to enable best possible performance from all staff. Skill maintenance and up-skilling has to be a good investment – for business productivity and for staff retention and job satisfaction. In the absence of organisation support the high turnover rates for management of volunteer positions is not surprising. Like that rugby player who is leaving the game, there is disappointment and disillusionment.
When professional development is not offered to managers of volunteers I have to wonder if the volunteer programme is perceived as merely a nice-to-have optional extra for the organisation’s operations; that managing volunteers is a job anyone can do; and one that does not need specialist training. It means that volunteers are not really appreciated for their contributions, and by extension neither is their manager.
On the other hand, finding a training programme that meets particular or even general needs for managing volunteers can entail a lot of searching. You have to go looking across local and global interconnections, and do the ‘stumble-upon’. You have to know where to look, unless you already know about Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, or their on-line training programme. That’s a good starting point.
There is good value too in connecting with the local Volunteer Centre, usually offering everything from a lunchtime forum to day-long seminars and workshops, extending to opportunities for mentoring.
Yes, say employers, there is a monetary cost to training. But the relatively small investment in conference fees or a short course can reap significant benefits in management confidence and competence, and in developing effective volunteer programmes. Don’t let the manager get choked off like the rugby player, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves.
May 4, 2014
In continuing the vein of last week’s blog, I am picking up on the distinction between formal and informal volunteer organisations. Because this is where Volunteer Centres might have got a bit stuck between the rock of government-funding obligations and the hard-place needs of organisations and communities, and the wider net of volunteering and community-led development.
Trends of recent decades have drawn the ‘formal volunteering sector’ into the market economy, into competition for services and project funding, has shaped activities to meet performance criteria, and has notched up business practice standards. Read the history of global developments in ‘volunteering infrastructure’ in this e-volunteerism article.
As we know, 90% of ‘voluntary organisations’ in New Zealand are not formally registered charities, and though most of them will have formal structures and purposes many fall outside the purview of government funding contracts. Thus we get a division in the community and voluntary sector, between NGOs and NFPs, even if the former are still non-profit organisations. In this broad-brush and diverse context the question is where best to place Volunteer Centre energies. Are they here for ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ organisations, or for volunteers? Of course in practice all three are important.
Volunteer Centres in New Zealand emerged independently around the country from the mid-1980s. Each one has a slightly different take on their vision and purpose which can be summarised as To promote, support and advocate for volunteering. In practice this allows for working and liaising with community organisations and local government. Supporting managers of volunteers comes with the territory, to ensure volunteers get a good experience and organisations understand and appreciate the work of volunteers. So the infrastructure is there, as a sound base to support volunteering. To offer a rounded ecosystem we should add in the work of engaging with business interests around employee volunteering (and sponsorship), and with philanthropic funders (for Centre funding as well as promoting volunteer causes).
It’s a huge mandate to cover all those interests, indicating Volunteer Centres are running a sophisticated consultancy business. But there are some questions a hard-headed auditor might want to ask:
- Why should funds be allocated for volunteer brokerage when there is potential for it to be adequately managed through an on-line programme?
- When national awards for volunteering are handed out how many of them go to individuals or organisations that have been supported by Volunteer Centres?
- How good are you (or other statistical surveys) at counting voluntary effort? Isn’t it time to get beyond counting to evaluating quality of the effort, and to capture the extent of ‘informal’ volunteering?
- If 34% of New Zealand’s population are engaged in volunteering, what would it take to raise that proportion to 40% or higher?
- Advocacy is specialist work – what successes can be reported on promoting volunteering with government (local and central) and philanthropists?
These are the questions Volunteer Centres could be addressing. See how Centres around the world are adapting to new environments in another article in e-volunteerism.