November 23, 2014
IVD is a global celebration of volunteerism, honouring people’s participation in making a change at all levels.
This statement is a tag-line on IVD 2014 website. December 5 is the day to ‘applaud hundreds of millions of people who volunteer to make change happen’. The Volunteering New Zealand whakatauki for the day (in the banner above) conveys a similar meaning.
Yes, I know it’s hard on the heels of International Volunteer Managers’ Day, but the two go together, don’t they? It’s a moot point on which is more important: managers of volunteers will not exist without a volunteer programme; and you will never get the best of volunteer contribution and achievement without a switched-on leader and manager of the programme.
Even then we can run into trouble. How can we measure the outcome, the effectiveness and the impact of volunteer work? That’s the question that’s troubling the community and voluntary sector at present. Counting hours of time delivered, perhaps adding in transport and travel costs as donations in kind, tells us simply the amount of free labour an organisation has enjoyed. When the hours are translated into a rough (read basic hourly rate) $$ amount we can shout loudly about how much money volunteers have saved us.
That is not real appreciation for volunteer effort, not what most volunteers set out to do. That is not ‘honouring people’s participation in making a change’.
So what are some better ways to acknowledge the real work of volunteers? When the question is put like this the answers are obvious:
- What is the real work volunteers have been doing? Describe it.
- Add in how this work has contributed to organisation mission.
- How does the work of volunteers enable higher staff performance and overall service provision? (Please don’t say staff could not manage without volunteers.)
- In thinking about why volunteers are engaged in your organisation, what has been impressive in the way volunteers carry out their roles.
- Go to consumers and ask them for stories about volunteers – the school kids who are coached by a volunteer; the homebound older person who relies on meals delivered by volunteers; the guests at the soup kitchen; the person whose cat was rescued from a tall tree by the volunteer fireman.
It’s hard to cover everything volunteers undertake. But the more specific we can be in celebrating volunteering the better we can demonstrate our understanding of volunteering, and how we value it for its non-monetary worth.
When December 5 comes round I do not want to be disappointed by the raft of blanket statements proclaiming volunteers as the organisation’s backbone, or the backbone of society. Volunteers are not skeletons!
November 16, 2014
The difficulties of volunteer recruitment never seem to go away. The plaints of being short of people or not getting the ‘right sort’ of people keep on being raised. I am still seeing notices in community newspapers or on social media and on websites about ‘wanting’ and ‘needing’ volunteers – which do little more to attract people beyond relying on the organisation’s reputation and public profile.
Well if you have not read the small print in the image above take a look at it now.
This notice reportedly delivered 5000 responses to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s recruitment of a crew for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. The original advertisement has never been located so there is doubt about its authenticity. Nevertheless it is a great story, alongside the subsequent adventures and heroism of the men on the expedition.
Yes, the message is based on men wanted (remember this is pre-Women’s Lib days), but it was the era of Antarctic exploration, and maybe the name of Shackleton drew attention (he had already made a name for himself). Maybe all those men were looking for adventure, not knowing there was a different sort of adventurous expedition that would be announced in just a few months time.
For managers of volunteers the point of any recruitment advertising is (1) grabbing attention and (2) understanding the range of motivations that draw people to volunteer. Add to that some basic principles of marketing, along with the organisation’s well-articulated reasons for engaging with volunteers.
What sort of salvo from a voluntary organisation would deliver the impact that Shackleton achieved?
- Unleash your talents!
- Want to apply your under-utilised skills?
- Opportunity knocks!
- Make friends and influence people
- Join our fun-filled team at….
It’s the impact that counts – one that attracts attention. Offer a taste of the kind of work available – which does not have to be accompanied by the kind of conditions Shackleton was describing. Add in other attractions: the rewards of volunteer work, like Shackleton’s ‘honour and recognition’, or the flexible time arrangements, or the benefits of skill development and work experience. Yes, you can make much of the worthiness on your organisation’s cause, because many volunteers will sign up to pursue their passionate interests. But do avoid messages that sound like you are desperate for help. That plea makes me wonder why volunteers are not signing up and to ask if there is something wrong with the volunteer programme.
All of these suggestions tap into standard volunteer motivations. They are also pretty similar to anything found in Sits Vac columns or job-seeking websites. Let’s not forget that volunteering is a job, is real work – and not simply stuffing envelopes and making cups of tea. And we do it for free, for all sorts of different reasons.
Two more recommendations (but note, there is never a last word on recruitment): (1) include a name, a real person to contact beyond the phone number or email address; and (2) ensure a quick response to messages and expressions of interest. That’s the most important start for a conversation that could lead to a long career as a volunteer.
November 9, 2014
I’ve never thought too much about job satisfaction in my working life. I’ve taken the rough with the smooth, got on with it, and found small pleasures where I could. And most of the time the roles I’ve undertaken have offered scope for applying skills and finding creative responses to all the challenges. I don’t think I would be amongst the 40% of New Zealand’s workforce that are reportedly unhappy in their jobs these days.
But I am not surprised by this figure. The nature of work and employment has been changing for decades. Full employment went out the window more than 30 years ago and worker rights keep on being eroded. Technology has changed the level of knowledge and skills required for the greater part of the workforce, and unskilled work gets harder and harder to find.
The bit in the news report that got my attention was this:
[P]art-timers seemed to hold less attachment to their job and were more likely to look for a new role or career in the pursuit of happiness.
For those employing large numbers of part-time staff, it is vital to build a culture of inclusion and make sure employees feel their contribution is valued in order to inspire loyalty and retain good staff.
Of course! Managers of volunteers have known that forever, haven’t we? Our job is all about ‘part-timers’. We work hard to ensure volunteers feel their contribution is valued; inclusion is what you do to help people feel they belong to the organisation. Hence the attention paid to interpersonal communication, and all the newsletters and social media posts aimed at keeping in touch.
Because for a volunteer the counterpoint of being valued and included in an organisation amounts to dissatisfaction and departure – and a risk to the organisation’s reputation in the community.
From where I sit it seems employers of part-time staff could learn a lot from managers of volunteers and their approach to good relations with volunteers. Go ask them: they’ll show you how to enhance part-timer commitment and job satisfaction.
This claim is supported by research that showed paid staff wanted improvements to provision of career development, the work environment (particularly culture and morale), and to their welfare (stress levels, feeling appreciated and engaged). Such negativity resulted in 32% of the research sample intending to leave their jobs in the next three months. The most important traits employees wanted in their managers were openness, honesty, and good communication skills.
Of course there are plenty of executive managers who can demonstrate these qualities (see this post). I’ve also commented a few times on employer practice that offers lessons for managers of volunteers (see here, here and here) – and vice versa.
These principles are even more important for organisations involved in the voluntary and community sector. Good people management is not just for staff and volunteer job satisfaction – these skills are also essential for working with service users and in wider community relations.
So while the manager of volunteers makes every effort to develop volunteer inclusiveness and job satisfaction, I hope the organisation’s executive managers are also working to ensure a happiness culture for everyone.
November 2, 2014
We all know there are a few principles (quite a few!) to follow in leading volunteers. So when you are asked for your best tips, what you have learned from experience, what would you be putting at the top of your list?
A couple of people presented me with acronyms recently. Just a couple of single-syllable words that say pretty much everything we need to note in relationships with volunteers.
CARE: Communicate; Appreciate; Respect; Engage
CLAP: Communication; Listening; Acknowledgement; Participation
Pretty simple, huh? We care about volunteers, right? And we want to clap and cheer them for their work? So what do we need to know about the words that make up the acronyms?
Communication comes at the top of just about everybody’s list. Volunteers want to know and understand what is expected of them. Some volunteers work well being told in person what the specific tasks are, others enjoy working off a list on the whiteboard. Some (oh joy!) like to use their initiative to identify other tasks that might also need to be done – that is when you chalk up real value-added service. A huge part of communication comes from the manager knowing and understanding the volunteer, in listening and really hearing what is being said, in getting to know the person, warts ‘n’ all, not simply as more grist for the organisation mill. Communication is the art of connecting with people, more than regular news updates about organisation matters.
The importance of showing appreciation and acknowledging the work of volunteers can never be underestimated. Saying ‘thank you’ with meaning, in as many ways as possible should never be an add-on chore. A special email sent out after a particular job is completed, a small note left on the board with a smiley face or a surprise plate of biscuits can all remind a volunteer that ‘yes’ the organisation appreciates their contribution.
Treating everyone with respect, regardless of their position or the hours and the effort they put in goes without saying. When the manager leads by example in demonstrating respect, the standard is set for everyone else.
Engaging with your volunteers shows that you are an integrated team, working towards the same goals. That means you don’t shy away from working alongside them, or checking in on how the weekend went or what the family is up to these days.
Because ultimately, volunteers are in and of the community, and participation in a community-based organisation enhances the connection between them. Volunteering is a way to realise our existence in a wider world.
So here’s a big thank you to Tara and Laura for encapsulating a big part of the role of managers of volunteer in well-crafted acronyms. Here is an alliterative last word from Tara:
Clap for the victorious vital volunteers, for their valued vigilant vivaciousness!
And when it comes to November 5 this week, we will be letting off a few fireworks in praise of managers of volunteers in our communities, and doing some clapping for the way they care for volunteers.
October 26, 2014
Celebrations for the fifteenth international day for managers of volunteers will happen at a place near you on November 5. It’s a day to acknowledge the skills, talents, leadership and downright doggedness of managing volunteers. And by proxy, to understand how volunteering makes magic happen in our communities, in organisations and in all the services supported by volunteers.
On Facebook we are spurred to consider what elements of volunteer management drives our passion. And what is our vision for an ideal world of managing volunteers?
It’s all very well to dream up future scenarios, and to repeat that quote attributed to GB Shaw:
You see things and you ask “Why?” But I dream things that never were, and I ask “Why not?”
Well – Susan J Ellis taught me a long time ago how the history of volunteering is the history of the lunatic fringe: volunteers often work at the cutting edge of change. Managers of volunteers are part of that fringe, forever seeking new chemistry that will enable volunteering to adapt to changing conditions.
For the moment I am keeping my feet on the ground. I am thinking about the drivers that keep managers of volunteers keeping on. What is it that the stayers among managers of volunteers love about their work? Here is my sampling:
- When the shy and nervous volunteer turns into a confident and well-respected member of the team.
- When you are charged with organising a huge event, and the volunteers just keep on turning up and turning their hands to what needs doing. They know how to manage themselves.
- When you find heads nodding in a training session covering organisation mission and values – not because people are falling asleep or because it’s boring – because the mission and values is what has attracted them to the organisation in the first place.
- When thank you letters from grateful clients are sent to the Chief Executive, and they include volunteers alongside paid staff. It’s even better when they mention the volunteer by name.
- When a volunteer steps up to manage an unexpected crisis situation, showing how all that training and support pays off.
- When staff get to understand they have responsibility to support and guide volunteers on their team, and they cease running to the manager with complaints about volunteer performance.
- When International Volunteers’ Day or National Volunteer Week happen, and staff and senior managers organise an appreciation function for volunteers. Or they set up a Post-it board to pin up messages of goodwill and recognition of good work.
- When volunteers get due acknowledgement at Annual Meetings, and in the Annual Report – more than a few words or a last page paragraph.
- When people stop saying how wonderful volunteers are and uttering platitudes – when they start talking about the real work and accomplishments of volunteers.
- When we finally get a means to measure the impact of volunteer work that is more than a record of outputs translated into $ values.
You will notice this litany is all about the product of managing volunteers, not what has to happen to achieve these credits. But that’s just it – job satisfaction comes from the outcomes, seeing how the manager’s ground work produces great results. You will also see how volunteering is people-centred, dependent on personal service and performance. And at last, get to understand how great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky: it takes a visionary manager to make them happen.
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.