October 19, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand held a workshop for managers of volunteers in Wellington last week. Raising the Bar was the first of a number to be held around the country, drawing on the Best Practice Guidelines to ask What does Best Practice look like and how do we get there?
My long memory recalls the origins of this workshop, the tiny germs of ideas that got translated over time into a working group, to a VNZ project, to publishing the Guidelines, and now to working on getting them implemented.
Back in 2009 the VNZ Conference theme was Volunteering Unleashed, and there were two streams: Volunteering Tomorrow and Inspiring Leaders – two sides of the same coin you might say. With presentations like ‘Unmasking the role of volunteer management’ and ‘Awaken the hero leader in you’ there was plenty to inspire and unleash imaginations for future effort. At the final session I asked “What happens next?” to which there was a smart reply: “What would you like to happen?”
A few weeks later a meeting was convened with a bunch of other people who were asking the same question. The Management of Volunteers Development Group was born, if not right then, but over the next few meetings. I’ve written about its progress several times:
Raising the Bar was the theme for VNZ’s conference in 2011, and a principal stream was devoted to ‘Developing the Leaders’. Sessions covered a range of regular practice for managers of volunteers, and included focus on leadership – because managing volunteers is nothing without leadership.
The present round of workshops on Raising the Bar is another step to encourage managers of volunteers to take on strategic leadership, and to advocate for implementation of the Best Practice Guidelines. At the same time there is a parallel effort going into nominating champions of managing volunteers, the executives of organisations that demonstrate and promote understanding and recognition of volunteering and its management. Yes, we need to promote these champions so others may raise their sights, to include the value of volunteers and their managers in their vision.
The workshop this past week raised a real buzz, a community of managers of volunteers sharing concerns and their ideas and information, using the material of the Best Practice Guidelines. There was plenty of diversity in this group, both in size of organisation and in sector interests. The old hands mixed with the newbies, and there was learning for everyone.
At the end of the day what happens next is up to participants. They’ve got their take-home message and intent for action, but we’ll have to wait to see results. Strategic leadership for change and development takes skill, courage and determination. And time.
How high does the bar have to go? We’ll know when we get there, for sure.
October 5, 2014
I’ve seen a few job vacancies lately, opportunities that make me sit up and take notice. These are senior positions in national organisations, charged with strategic management and development of volunteer programmes.
Words and phrases like ‘leadership’ and ‘integrating volunteer work with service delivery’ and ‘best practice processes and resources to maximise voluntary service’ leap out of the published blurbs. These jobs are close to Executive Team level, offering opportunities to lift the profile of volunteering and its contribution to organisation operations. Candidates are expected to competent in strategic planning and project implementation, and in leading transformational change. Being able to undertake surveys and analysis could be useful too. And of course, being experienced in developing and maintaining good relationships with both internal and external stakeholders is another given.
Yay! Management of volunteers has come of age! At last, there is recognition for the rightful place of volunteering within organisations. And yes, the relevance of strategic leadership, as outlined in Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, gets acknowledged.
And then I start looking at the fine print. What are the qualities and qualifications these organisations are expecting in candidates? “A relevant tertiary qualification” can be anything from community development to health, including human resources and psychology. Or in research and evaluation. Or in ‘social services’, or management. Take your pick. Your experience is likely to count for more – say a minimum of four years in social service management. The list of desired experience includes leadership and people management. Desired communication skills extend to coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. While all these skills and experience are relevant and important, any reference to direct experience in managing volunteers is a lesser consideration.
By now you might be able to sense my raised eyebrows.
Yes, I know there are people out there with qualifications and experience that could foot any of these positions.
And yes, management is management, and leadership likewise, regardless of the field.
And yet, a toehold at executive management level is still precarious for volunteering.
Unless the executive team has their own experience of volunteering, unless they understand fully what volunteering is about, the new strategic manager is still in the position of advocating for volunteers, still arguing their cause and how to engage fully with them. That’s a hard road, where expectations and big ideals can get sidelined when the organisations are struggling to meet contract obligations and to secure funding to cover the shortfall. It is even harder if the appointee is not steeped in volunteering philosophy and practice.
What if the new position is more about taking control and command of volunteering, ‘using’ volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision? That’s a risk, specially without direct experience of volunteering. And volunteering will be the poorer for that.
Because at bottom there are big distinctions between working for pay and working as a volunteer. I need to earn a living, so a paid job is a necessity. When I volunteer it is by choice, to follow an interest or to support a cause. There are set hours for paid work; volunteer work can happen at all hours, including weekends. Volunteers set their own ‘leave’ schedules; paid workers must apply to take time off. Paid workers fit into designated positions, limited by organisation budgets; volunteers will be assigned to particular roles, but these are limitless. Numbers of volunteers can outweigh paid staff 5:1 and more.
So there are big challenges for the person taking on an organisation’s strategic development of volunteering. How to meet the challenges is a story for another time.
September 14, 2014
New Zealand’s All Black top-of-the-game rugby coach has earned another headline: Rip up the rulebook and write another! He is complaining about numerous laws of the game and their complexity which gives referees leeway in their interpretation. Spectator fans are infuriated when they see the game and rule infringements treated differently from their own expectations.
Well, I’ve found a rule for volunteering that seems quite out of sync with contemporary practice. Included under a heading Factors which tend to make the involvement of volunteers inappropriate is this item:
Where the work is for the benefit of a profit-making organisation.
OK – it’s not really a rule, merely a recommendation that volunteers in for-profit organisations is not a good look. But what does it imply, and how does it work out in practice?
I guess the ‘rule’ is related to that other no-no: volunteers must not displace paid staff positions. That is, it is assumed volunteering in a for-profit business has to be taking employment from someone else. Not so, given the unpaid internship opportunities for new graduates in a range of corporate organisations.
Or are we being a bit precious about volunteering, not wanting to be tainted by profit motives? Volunteering belongs to the community, it stands outside the public and private sectors. Get too cosy with them and Civil Society gets lost – is that what ‘rule-makers’ are thinking?
Let’s do a reality-check with contemporary practices.
Contracts for service provision have encouraged a number of NGOs to become large corporate-like organisations, in which volunteering becomes less central to core business. When budget cuts result in service reduction organisations overlook how volunteer time could be just as valuable and productive as the $$ equivalent.
Sponsorship and partnerships are bringing the commercial world closer to non-profit organisations. Corporate social responsibility has spawned widespread employee volunteering and Not-for-profits welcome their contributions, both practical and professional. Why should volunteers be excluded from a reciprocal arrangement?
These days many NGOs are setting up fund-raising enterprises as subsidiary businesses. Think op-shops, able to raise significant income through donated goods and volunteer time. Trade Aid is a NFP, operating as a retailer, importer and wholesaler agency – staffed by volunteers. Oxfam has generated an income stream from offering consultancy to businesses wanting to move into developing countries. If there are no barriers for NFPs to run a business which includes a volunteer programme, it does not make sense to frown on volunteer involvement in a for-profit business.
Rest homes and private hospitals have run volunteer programmes for many years, recognising all the different ways voluntary action can support the personal and relationship needs of older people. Yes, the provision of rest homes for the burgeoning aged population is a growth industry, showing significant profits for shareholders. Volunteers are welcomed in private sector rest homes, in recognition of the ‘added value’ for residents that paid staff do not have the luxury of time to offer.
There is widespread volunteer involvement in the public sector too. Schools, courts and prisons, conservation services, museums and public hospitals all enjoy significant support from volunteers, sometimes through subsidiary NFP organisations. Emergency services with large volunteer programmes are operating a public service. No-one is raising objections here, even though public sector organisations are operating under vastly different conditions from NFPs.
Consider too, those large sporting events, tourist operations and expos run by private event management operators. There’s no question of volunteer involvement in these circumstances – the volunteers become the public face of the event.
It looks like volunteers are engaged in a whole range of organisations across all sectors. Maybe not so much in manufacturing businesses – though Victim Support is on hand as a free service when an industrial accident occurs. Volunteering is characterised by innovation and flexibility, so anything is possible in the future. Let’s not short-change the scope and influence of volunteering by holding to a premise which is no longer working.
September 8, 2014
It’s in our DNA. It’s in our thinking and every-day language. A Fair Go has been the Kiwi ethos since the early days of European colonisation. New settlers came to escape from social injustice and gross inequity in their home states. Then the limitations of climate and soil and natural resources fed the development of cultural norms, social practices and political institutions that encouraged and enabled fairness, sharing and redistribution. We were living in ‘God’s own country’.
We got votes for women in 1893, a pension for elderly people in 1898, and in 1938 the landmark Social Security Act introduced our distributive welfare system. Fairness has been a foundation for our health and education policies and public services, and of course in the evolution of community organisations. But the growth of inequality in recent decades has shaken up our faith in getting a fair go.
Politicians (especially in this election-fevered period) like to talk of ‘ordinary New Zealanders’ in defence of their policies and to rebut critics. Trouble is, we are no longer an ‘ordinary’ bunch of people: the conformist years of 1950s are long gone. There is nothing ordinary about income inequality and child poverty. Ethnic diversity has become extraordinary, along with different cultures and a plurality of values. Fair Go (a consumer advocacy programme) might be the longest running TV show in New Zealand, consistently achieving high ratings – because it is about righting shoddy practice and unfair dealings – but could the programme’s success indicate a decline in the practice of fairness over recent decades?
When it comes to the community and voluntary sector it does not take much search of the literature to find references to ‘marginalisation’, ‘political interference’, ‘loss of independence’ and ‘contracting constraints’. There is nothing fair going on here.
I wonder how volunteer programmes fare in this current environment. What does it take to ensure and to maintain a fair go for volunteers? There’s a bunch of indicators that could give me some answers.
Recruitment patterns: Elements of discrimination or exclusion, and recruiting volunteers to fit the organisation mould – or diversity welcomed and potential perceived.
Level of Engagement: Volunteers assigned low-skill tasks, minimal support and encouragement – or real work contributing to organisation mission; opportunities for job enrichment; ongoing support and training; consulted on organisation change; ideas and suggestions welcomed, and actioned; good relations with paid staff.
Retention rates: Regular turnover of volunteers – or sustained and involved engagement; resignations due to external factors.
These measures are no-brainers: they indicate the best and worst of volunteer engagement. Best is the organisation that understands volunteering, appreciates the work of volunteers and the added value they bring to the organisation. It’s an organisation that never has to hang out signs like ‘Desperately Needing Volunteers’.
And it doesn’t take much to join the dots with the core business of a manager of volunteers. That’s the person that knows all about a Fair Go, and how to make it happen for volunteers. So let’s make sure we give the manager of volunteers a fair go too. Find out how in the Volunteering New Zealand document, Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer Involving Organisations.
August 24, 2014
The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector. And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments. Here are some variations on his theme:
A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.
Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.
The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.
These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand. I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:
The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected. (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)
Volunteer sector service providers are under public management. The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.
There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement. There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.
A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society. We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time. When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector. When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice. When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.
“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly. But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”. It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”. Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community. We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.
None of these views are new. You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector. This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:
….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline. This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.
It is time now to get beyond outrage. We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place. The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.
Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone 24/01/13
August 17, 2014
Diversity is the theme of the moment, popping up in workshops around the country, promoted on websites, and a national forum is to be held next week, with a focus on migrant and refugee employment.
New Zealand is now recognised as one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Without overlooking our bicultural heritage we need to acknowledge the 213 ethnicities that are living here in Aotearoa. You could say we have become a melting pot for the 21st century. So what does this mean for the voluntary and community sector?
Volunteering is a well-travelled route for new migrants, for offering work experience, for improving language skills, for getting to know local communities. There are countless success stories, and many continue their volunteer involvement long after they find paid work.
But diversity is wider than including ethnic groups. There’s a huge range of skills, interests, ages and abilities in our population to contribute to volunteering in our communities. And when this diversity is set alongside the diversity of volunteer organisations and their members and users we could be entering a golden age of volunteering.
So let’s look at developing further all those different volunteer streams.
Corporate volunteering is increasing in bounds, especially when it is organised through the local Volunteer Centre. (Find out more here – Employees in the Community) Corporate groups can tackle large-scale projects or special ventures for organisations, or offer pro bono services. Here is a way to introduce people to the excitement, the creative stimulation, the camaraderie and companionship that volunteering can offer, which can then spin-off to a continuing involvement for individuals.
Engaging people with disabilities is not a new source of volunteers, not if you have an open mind and a focus on ability. Disabled people might need accessible facilities or extra support (see this useful model) – but to exclude them from volunteering opportunities is to deny their participation as members of our communities. There are plenty of examples where disabled or chronically-ill people are helping their fellows, or working in another field altogether. Well-planned programmes bring benefits to disabled people and to the organisation, and to our communities.
Gen Y and Millenials get a lot of public attention these days. There is quite an industry devoted to encouraging young people into volunteering. Yet I note plenty of examples where these generations are doing boots-and-all stuff in their communities, creating and sustaining initiatives and developing social enterprises, and their own strategies to counter limited opportunities in mainstream employment. The story of the Student Volunteer Army is a good example. At the same time traditional volunteer services are proving they are open to engaging with young people.
Internship programmes offer another point of entry to volunteering for young people. Despite concerns and debates the best programmes will be ensuring benefits to both organisation and the intern. And if they have not discovered volunteering previously the interns I meet are also discovering community and the world beyond paid employment.
The Boomer generation is another significant population group, yet we hear little about them as volunteers. Are they being ignored? As the community movers and shakers of times past is their continuing involvement being taken for granted? Like all other volunteers older people are looking beyond stuffing envelopes for challenges relevant to their knowledge and skills. There is still a place for cross-generational mix, and without full representation in the volunteer pool then the claim to diversity is diminished.
It takes all sorts to achieve the best in volunteering. I’ve said all this before, but some things are worth repeating.
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.