April 13, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting where a consultant trainer in mentoring declared managing volunteers is an extreme sport. Wow! We are up there with all those dare-devils who go base-jumping, running rapids, going higher, deeper, longer and faster in places I would never venture. I know I’ve advocated being adventurous, taking a risk or two, like bungy-jumping, so we can learn from mistakes, push boundaries and seize opportunities for innovation and creative programme development. Extreme sport? That is something else.
‘Extreme’ in a sporting context means Very High Risk, and death is not an uncommon outcome for participants. I have never heard of a manager of volunteers dying on the job, unless you count burn-out and stress-related resignations. So I go digging for more insight into this comment.
A sport is labelled extreme when there are a high number of uncontrollable variables. Yes, I understand how weather and terrain – wind, snow, water and mountains – inevitably affect the outcome of an activity. Combine uncertainty and risk with human errors of judgement and disaster is a sure result.
So how can the job of managing volunteers be included as an extreme sport?
First there is the sheer number of variables. Numbers of volunteers, their age ranges, the cultural mix, the range of experience and skills they bring as well as the roles they undertake, their flexible time commitment – all these are add up to a mountain of detail that needs to be absorbed into the management process.
Then there are the uncontrolled variables. Human nature in its infinite variety means desired behaviour is not always predictable or guaranteed. This uncertainty applies to relations with staff and organisation management as much as to volunteers. Neither are managers of volunteers immune from errors of judgement.
The environment, in this case the community and social and political context of the organisation can also be unpredictable. In a world of constant change how can we be certain of the efficacy of this policy or that strategy and the intended outcome of a particular programme?
By these conditions I reckon management of volunteers qualifies for membership in the Extreme Sports Hall of Fame. Welcome to the club!
You can’t quite see how you make the grade? Sure, you would never find me gliding in a wing-suit or scaling high rise buildings and doing back-flips on a narrow board when I get to the top. But think about the basic tasks for management of volunteers: they are pretty-much focused on minimising risk. Policies and processes to cover recruitment, training, on-going support and communication – all these are designed to ensure the safety of volunteers and the organisation and as far as possible a programme that functions without hitches.
But of course the hitches and glitches turn up, every day. No amount of planning can guarantee a smooth path. Volunteers and organisations, let me remind you, do not run on prescribed channels like cans of peas on a manufacturing production line. So the constant juggling of multiple demands, the flexibility, the political nous, the mental stamina – all desirable qualities for managers of volunteers – add up to create an extreme sports participant.
I have chosen surfing extreme waves as my image of an extreme sport. After all, managing volunteers is about riding the highs and lows of a turbulent environment, and we keep on climbing back on board after the tumbles.
April 6, 2014
I am no musician, though I enjoy listening to a variety of music. This week I have come across two new variations on the theme of volunteering. When you think about it there’s quite a catalogue of words playing on ‘volunteering’. Let me introduce you to the old, the new and my own inventions.
Volun-Told – I start with this term, because that’s how I got involved in volunteering, years and years ago when my mother roped me in to help with a fund-raising event. I was about eight years old, and you did what mother said in those days. It was a while before I understood fully what volunteering is about. Today it’s ‘work-for-the-dole’ and community service sentencing that keeps ‘volun-told’ alive.
Volun-Tourist – Another familiar term, referring to those (like Grey Nomads) who take up a spot of volunteering while on holiday, or to spend time helping on a development programme in foreign parts. Nice work, as long as there is benefit to local people.
Micro-volunteer – The new kid off the block, offering multiple opportunities for time-poor people, for virtually anything. But not well understood in my neck of the woods.
Shadow-volunteer – Here’s a newcomer, courtesy of Gisborne Volunteer Centre (March 31). Could be a new way to induct new volunteers, or a ‘try-and-buy’ recruitment option.
Volunt-Hear – From Volunteer Canada, running a hotline for North America’s National Volunteer week, for people to shout out about volunteers and their efforts. Possible spin-off: organisations create in-house opportunities to appreciate volunteers.
Now here are my novel terms:
Vol-Intern – Bring this word into common parlance and we would be rid of arguments on whether an intern is a volunteer or not.
Volun-Corp – Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring of importance as ‘corporate volunteers’, but at least it puts the volunteering context up front.
Volun-Finders – Raising cheers for all the Volunteer Centres that facilitate volunteer engagement between organisations and the volunteer aspirant.
Volun-Funders – They’re a special breed, going all out to support organisations of their choice. They are the elves to the Fundraising Manager’s shoemaker.
Volun-Tired and Volunt-Tried – Here is a bit of word-play, referring to the long-standing volunteer, or to the volunteer on trial (and/or found wanting). Or maybe the volunteer who contacted the organisation and never got a reply; or the volunteer who has not enjoyed a good experience. Take your pick.
Volun-Steering – I like this one, referring to the manager/leader of volunteers. Not only steering the programme, but negotiating organisation waters that can sometimes be troubled. Could apply equally to volunteer peak bodies.
There is one word omitted from this list: I refuse to include ‘Vollies’. It may be a colloquial term of endearment, but I see it more as word used in a patronising tone, one you might apply to a domestic pet.
That’s enough to go on with; there are plenty more variations to conjure up (suggestions welcomed!). ‘Volunteering’ is a generalist term, covering a multitude of activities and roles. It’s a bit like an orchestra, a collection of very different instruments that collectively can make a beautiful noise. Let’s keep it that way, because in being inclusive we can demonstrate the strength of volunteer actions and the organisations that engage with volunteers. We might yet “become the change we want to see in the world”.
March 23, 2014
How do we perceive volunteering? Let me count the ways that people present requests for volunteer help and to offer volunteer time:
- Can you find a volunteer to clean up after staff meetings?
- We’d like to place volunteers with you for 15 to 30 hours per week for work experience.
- This care-giving service agency is being cut back and we’d like your organisation to provide volunteers to do this work.
- Please can you find volunteers to clean out this house, because commercial cleaners refuse to do it.
- I’ve got a couple of hours to fill in each week, I don’t mind what I do. What’s that? (Indignant tone) I don’t need any training or induction, I’ve got experience. I thought you’d welcome some extra help.
- We’ve got a team of volunteers ready to help, anything you need, for tomorrow
- There’s a fundraising event this weekend – we need several teams of volunteers
These requests and offers can come from internal staff or external agencies and individuals. Each statement offers different assumptions about volunteers and volunteering. Volunteers are menial hand-maidens, suitable for domestic work; organisations are desperate for volunteer help; and volunteers are readily available at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it is evident that when contracts are cut back volunteers from another organisation are expected to step up to roles that were formerly undertaken by paid staff. The eye of many a beholder reflects mistaken perceptions of volunteering.
Of course managers of volunteers are renowned for their flexibility and creative innovation when it comes to engaging and placement of volunteers. And some of the list above may not be out of tune with regular practice. More often I am seeing a mismatch between perception and the reality of 21st century volunteering.
Fifty years ago anybody who raised a hand to volunteer would be welcome. Fifty years ago there were always willing working bees turning out to fix up premises, clear a section, do a paint job or run a fundraising event. Regular cake stalls did the trick to pay for rented space and supplies. Fifty years ago there were no interviewing, training or police checks. Fifty years ago groups of volunteers were available even at short notice. There was little recognition of a volunteer sector: organisations were lumped together as ‘voluntary associations’.
This kind of volunteering has not gone away. Spontaneous volunteers appear in great numbers during disaster emergencies: nobody is asked, they all come to help, to look out for each other in times of need. People still gather in groups for a cause, an idea, to create a community garden or for a new community development initiative.
It’s the organisations that have changed, and formal volunteering for service provision has become one end of a long continuum covering the donation of freely given time.
Formalised volunteering is accompanied by obligations, regulations, recording, reporting and measuring. Volunteering has its own international and political associations. If volunteers are not counted as professional, their managers surely own to professional status. Volunteering in this context is big business.
There’s a set of rules now, except the rules of engagement can vary, depending on the organisation’s purpose, in-house structure and level of activity. No wonder there is confusion. No wonder managers of volunteers are pressed to explain over and over why they cannot meet the requests that fall outside designated programmes and responsibilities.
What to do?
Here’s my list of priorities:
- A clear statement on why volunteers are involved in the organisation, indicating what roles volunteers undertake
- A fully-developed policy on the volunteering programme
- Orientation for all paid staff includes time with the manager of volunteers
- Full information about the volunteering programme on the organisation’s website
- Spend time advising details of the volunteer programme to related agencies (Volunteer Centres, funders and corporate sponsors)
There are no guarantees these suggestions will change perceptions of volunteering overnight. But raising levels of understanding of volunteering under 21st century conditions will mean fewer inappropriate requests for volunteers.
March 16, 2014
News media are regularly reporting leaks of information, not always on the scale of an Assange or a Snowden. This past week an Auckland institution has had some of its domestic linen waved around in public. The Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) has been around for more than 50 years. It was started by volunteers and continues to be supported by volunteers who work on restoration and maintenance of exhibits as well as hosting visitors. Auckland ratepayers contribute $12 million in annual funding. There is also a history of troubled relationships between the founding Motat Society and the museum’s governance. This time the headline reads:
The deputy board chairman at Motat has resigned and 20 volunteers have walked out as troubles grow deeper at the country’s largest transport museum.
The walk-out is related to a confidential review tabled two years ago which has now been leaked, revealing the museum is in crisis, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘childish’, facing irrelevance and closing if there is no change in direction. These words are pretty damning, even though a new strategic vision is about to be launched.
Organisation change is difficult at the best of times and needs careful management. Motat’s director recognises “Not everyone will want to come on this journey. Some will be threatened by it. You get an element of disaffection or insecurity that comes out of change. There are some people who will feel exposed.”
I don’t know details of volunteer dissension at Motat, but I do know how long-standing volunteers can feel they own their work and the organisation as an intimate part of their life. And I’ve lived through enough organisational change to know how uncomfortable it can be for employees as well as volunteers.
Well, here’s a story that illustrates organisation change and a less-than-disastrous outcome:
There’s an Op Shop that’s been operating for years, a social enterprise and excellent source of funding for a well-known national organisation. A new manager is appointed. She’s got business experience and nous for the industry of second-hand, pre-loved, re-cycled goods. “We’ve got to up our game”, she says to the volunteer staff. “We need better displays of our goods and we need to offer excellent customer service. We’ve got to be up-to-the-minute with our marketing because there is lots of competition out there.” She adds “Our organisation is looking to us to increase the funding base so we can maintain services to clients.
A development plan is presented for discussion. “Have your say”, invites the manager.
Of course there is much mumbling and grumbling among the volunteers. “You can’t do that”, one says, “It won’t work”. Another says “We’ve always done it this way and your way doesn’t look any better”. There is a tide of objections and opposition.
A bunch of volunteers resign, saying they cannot work with the new manager and certainly not with her new-fangled ideas. That’s the price of organisation change, though at least there are no redundancy payments for volunteers. Yes, there may have been some negative tattling in the community, but no newspaper headlines exposed dissension in the ranks of volunteers.
The manager gets on with introducing the changes, engaging volunteers in each step of the way, providing extra training if warranted. New volunteers come knocking at the door when they hear about new opportunities. Customer count rises, drawn to attractive window displays, and word-of-mouth conversations about helpful volunteer staff. And of course the ultimate goal of increased income is a monthly cause for celebration.
And then, in ones and twos, and then more – the old volunteers start to return. They are impressed with what they see and they hear good things about the new manager – how she listens to volunteers and is willing to try out their suggestions. They do not ask for their old jobs back: they want to give the organisation another go, to join what looks like a fun place to work. And they miss the social camaraderie that goes with the job.
This story is not a fiction, though I have embroidered the details. It does not describe change of the magnitude Motat is likely to be looking at, nor does it give assurance that Motat volunteers will accept the changes ahead of them. But it does tell me that even if you lose some in the process of change, you can also win them back.
For more on long-term volunteers see this Thoughtful Thursdays blog and discussion.
March 9, 2014
Whenever I hear the sad tale of a manager of volunteers who is wrung out by overwork and lack of support, who is under-appreciated and sometimes un-noticed, I get reminded of that old folk tale that turns up in every generation as a child’s reader. You know the story: how the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat, asks the farmyard animals to help plant it and when they refuse she says “Then I’ll do it myself”.
(If you have forgotten the tale, see this beautifully illustrated version.)
What I hear in my mind is not the moral of caring and sharing and helping each other. I hear the tone of the Little Red Hen as she says “Then I’ll do it myself”, repeated at each stage of the growing and harvesting of wheat. I can see her puffing up her chest, giving a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, and her tone of voice is one of martyred self-righteousness.
I’m sure that is not how a manager of volunteers reacts, though some may feel like it. So let me tell another version of the LRH story to see how life could be turned around for those who are over-burdened…..
LRH sighs when yet another task lands on her* desk. Maybe there is something here that would interest volunteers. She asks around, but there are no takers. Not this week please; not really my thing; I want to stick with what I’m doing; sounds interesting, hope you find someone: these replies make LRH even more depressed.
Enter Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who waves a wand and says: “Let’s look at this job you’ve got to do – or think about your current tasks that could be handed over to a volunteer. What’s involved – tasks, time, responsibilities, skills required? Let’s work up a job description and see if there is an existing volunteer who might fit the bill. If not where could we go to find one? You’ve got to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, not send out vague messages about needing help.”
LRH protests: “That takes time, and then I have to do a screening and orientation and training and monitor what the volunteer does on the job, and I’m tired and I just don’t have the energy”. FG has to do some straight-talking about excuses that mean nothing will ever change, and trusting volunteers to do a good job. “I mean”, says FG with a rather intense stare, “what’s the point of running a volunteer programme if you have to keep such a tight hold on the reins?”
LRH buckles under the charm of FG and before long she has engaged the volunteer of her dreams: enthusiastic, willing, skilled in all the right places, and experienced. “You just need to know how to make time and see new possibilities” she tells her peer support group.
She’s fired up now. She devolves to volunteers responsibility for a lot of daily administration, managing social media posts, collating items for a newsletter, even gets a volunteer on the organisation’s Health & Safety Committee where they get to meet and participate with paid staff. Soon she is going to find a volunteer competent enough to interview new recruits.
LRH is not so much a manager now, pulling all the strings to her tune. She’s a leader, supporting and nurturing her team to be the best volunteers they can be. And they are. They love their work; they are sharing in the creation and development of the volunteer programme, and even better, demonstrating to the wider organisation what powerful contributions volunteers can make to its mission.
No longer does LRH get excuses when she invites a volunteer to take on a new role. She has turned around from potential burn-out, and no longer has to puff up her chest, give a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, or say in a tone of martyred self-righteousness “Then I’ll do it myself”. And when it comes time to eat the loaf of bread, the fruit of all her efforts, she does not do that alone in the time-honoured ending of the folk tale. Instead she holds a joyous celebration for all volunteers who have shared in the undertaking.
* Yes, I know a hen is always female, and yes, I know there are many men who manage volunteers – so please take this narration as gender-neutral.
March 2, 2014
I’ve written quite a lot about definitions and meanings of ‘volunteering’ over my blogging years. And I have to keep thinking about questions of ‘who is a volunteer’ as the word’s connotations expand to embrace corporate volunteering, internships and community service. Now I have been snared yet again into debating with myself about the work I have been doing this week.
For the past few days I have been helping my daughter get her house in order for putting it up for sale. She did not ask for my help: I offered. I did not receive any monetary payment. I gave my time freely without expectations of reward. I gained enormous satisfaction from cleaning up the garden and washing windows, and seeing the improvements I achieved. And I toned up a lot of muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I got lots of hugs of appreciation. I would volunteer likewise for friends and neighbours too. And I have done the same sort of work when engaged as a volunteer for an organisation supporting new settlers in my community.
By many accounts, what I have described fits generally accepted criteria for ‘volunteering’ – except when I go looking, I find variations in definitions and additional conditions to determine the use of ‘volunteer’.
Volunteering England would exclude my efforts to help my daughter from definitions of volunteering. It’s ‘informal volunteering’, which extends to all such unpaid help to someone who is not a relative.
So I need to understand there is a distinction between being a ‘helper’ and a ‘volunteer’, and a formal / informal dichotomy of volunteering, even when I am doing the same sort of work.
Volunteering Australia goes further, in restricting ‘formal’ volunteering to an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations, and in designated volunteer positions only. That sounds like a higher status is attached to formal volunteering. Or, that the work I used to do freely and on my own initiative in my local community has become institutionalised as an economic resource, as unpaid labour.
That’s when warning signs light up contradictions. NGO contracts with government rarely include funding for the costs of volunteer programmes, like a manager’s salary or reimbursement for volunteer out-of-pocket expenses. Neither does ‘formal volunteering’ guarantee recognition and status for volunteers and the manager of the volunteer programme within the organisation.
In the meantime my informal volunteering continues to go un-noticed and uncounted. A colleague reminded me of the words ‘natural support’ to describe all that child-rearing, house-keeping, befriending, good neighbourliness that goes on and on in our communities. So if all that volunteering is ‘natural’, does that mean there is something ‘unnatural’ about formal volunteering? That might sound flippant, but I have to ask the question.
One place where volunteering is not designated formal or informal is the data collected during a Census. In New Zealand we are asked to record details about ‘unpaid work’, those activities performed in the four weeks before the census date, without payment, for people living either in the same household, or outside. Statistics NZ describe volunteering as:
“Voluntary work supports groups and organisations whose activities contribute to social well-being. Volunteers give their time and skills to help others and give back to their community.”
Maybe this description is too simplistic for purists. Yet the concept of ‘unpaid work’ enables an overall account of the scope of freely given activity in our communities wherever and however it occurs. ‘Formal volunteering’ is a label that has evolved with the growth of the NGO sector. It is a pity that institutional understanding and appreciation of volunteering and its management within organisations has not grown with the label.
Some years ago Andy Fryar raised similar questions about definitions of volunteering:
- Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
- Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?
These questions are not so silly, and there are no easy or even silly answers. We are continually tripped by meanings attached to different types of volunteer involvement. It’s worth having a look at Volunteering Vocabulary (see inset p5) to see how many ways there are to use ‘volunteer’.
‘Volunteering’ is a word that has grown in use and expanded in meaning alongside social, political and economic change in our communities. To confine ‘freely given time, skills and energy for the common good’ within the boundaries of a rigid definition could restrict our willingness to give so freely.
February 23, 2014
Two items referring to volunteering turned up in my news reading this past week. One cast a slur on the meaning of ‘volunteer’ and the other described volunteers as ‘committed staff’.
The bad news story is about a man who drove a pub’s courtesy van and undertook other tasks on request from staff. He was paid $50 per shift, but did not have an employment contract despite repeated requests. The hotel’s new owner decided the man’s services were no longer required and a text message was sent to that effect. However, our man took his case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to claim unpaid wages and compensation for unfair dismissal. The hotel owner argued the man was “just a lonely elderly volunteer”.
To be dismissive of volunteers in this way is enough to start a protest march, a vigil outside the hotel, or a boycott of the pub’s services. Or all three! The protest can be generated on several counts:
- Nobody is ever ‘just a volunteer’
- Not all volunteers are lonely and elderly
- Neither are all older volunteers lonely
- Not to mention demonstrably shoddy HR practice
There is a good ending to this story. The ERA decided our man was a regular on-call casual employee: he was paid regularly for regular work days and he answered to a manager. The dismissal was found to be unjustified and monetary compensation duly awarded.
I am hoping that the hotel’s owner will heed two important messages from this experience. Firstly, volunteer work is not to be taken lightly: it is an honourable commitment that should be valued regardless of age and status. Secondly, and possibly more important, is the fair and professional practice of HR management. Volunteers and paid workers might be simply the labour inputs for a business, but employers need to apply a duty of care to both those resources.
The next story offers much better news. The International Rugby Sevens was hosted in Wellington a couple of weeks ago, an annual party event that has been going on for fifteen years. This year misbehaviour and drunkenness by a small proportion of the crowd got more media attention than New Zealand’s team carrying off another tournament win. Yet the event was still counted a success, attributed to “300 committed staff … the vast majority of them volunteers”. There speaks a manager who understands the parity status of paid employees and volunteers. He adds:
“All of them are dedicated to our values – being passionate about Wellington; delivering excellence (which includes learning from our mistakes) and teamwork.”
There will be many managers of volunteers who can applaud the people they work with for the similar qualities. Wouldn’t it be great if more organisations could proclaim equal status on these grounds for volunteers and their paid staff?
February 16, 2014
Stand up the manager of volunteers who does not have a worry about volunteer recruitment, staff-volunteer relations, establishing a new volunteer role, training and equipment for volunteers, getting funding for recognition events, maintaining database records, writing reports, and making time to check out volunteer satisfaction. OK – perhaps not everything at once, but maybe one or two that are fast turning into Problem Pumpkins. You come slap-bang up against something related to policy or practice you have not thought about. Like: you are all for diversity in recruiting volunteers, but are you open to all comers? Or you encounter that curly organisational infection you wish would go away. Like: how do I turn around the organisation’s view of volunteers as economic saviours for the organisation?
Oh dear, is there no-one to claim they are worry-free? So you are all suffering sleepless nights, chewed-off fingernails, failing to give full attention to volunteers, missing important deadlines? These options are not to be wished on anybody. What to do?
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
Well, that’s not much help when you have to go find the recipe for making lemonade. Better go find your local network of managers of volunteers, the peer support group you belong to or your favourite online group. You ask for some answers, aka solutions. Do not be surprised if people come back smartly to ask What is the lemon?
That’s the trick, you see, getting to look at the lemon on the outside and the inside, to smell that tangy citrus, to taste the acid of the juice on your tongue. Your peers are asking questions, getting you to explain, get into detail, digging to find out why this thing is a lemon. Stick with this process, because you will discover the eureka moment that reveals the recipe for making lemonade. Now you can see how the solution to the problem was there all the time.
No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (Voltaire)
Of course you have to frame the problem to fit with your circumstances. It is not for other people to tell you what it’s like for you. When that lemon fits the frame it’s amazing how clear the picture becomes: you can see what needs to happens, and all you need now is to work out how to get there. You’ve got some ideas, but let’s go ask your peers about possible actions.
Caution: walk away if people start saying ‘If I were you I’d………’, or ‘What you need to do is………..’ Solutions have to fit with your scenario and your style, not according to other people’s quick-fixes.
A Trouble Shared is a Trouble Halved
OK – a proverb is not always a truism. Extended metaphors might be useful illustrations of a process, but you still have to get down to doing something, to deal with the other half of the trouble. Supportive peers will offer suggestions like ‘When I had a similar experience I found this helpful……….’ Someone else might be able to share written material, like a policy or a template. Another person refers you to useful on-line resources.
Enough! Time to return to your desk, to draw up the plan and plot the strategy to deal with this lemon once and for all. Some lemons are larger than others and take time and constant resolve to get them to the done-and-dusted phase. Some lemons need collective action, so your first step might be to find allies for the purpose.
When you report an outcome to the peer group you will also tell them what you have learned from this experience: No-one has to go it alone.
The quote comes from Lennon’s song: Watching the Wheels
February 9, 2014
Ask a reasonable question about why volunteers are involved in non-profit organisations and don’t be surprised if the answer is To Save Money! It’s there in writing as well, in comments about budget constraints which ‘increase reliance on volunteer support’, and in ‘saving on administration costs’.
Annual Reports can include acknowledgement of volunteer numbers and hours contributed translated into monetary value, but rarely any analysis or demonstration of why they are valued and important for the organisation.
This money thing really gets in the way of thinking about volunteers and understanding volunteering.
The people who claim ‘volunteers are priceless’ have not looked at the costs of running a volunteer programme. Somebody should be adding up expenditure on recruitment and training, provision of support and supervision, functions for recognition of volunteer work, and reimbursement of expenses. Hang on, why should we reimburse volunteer expenses? Paid employees don’t get reimbursed for travelling to work, nor their parking fees!
When I hear about organisations saving money by using volunteers I am hearing ‘exploitation’. To ‘use’ volunteers is close to ‘abusing’ their goodwill, and their time and their talents.
If the budget shortfall really means increasing volunteer support what extra work will they do? Taking up jobs that used to be paid? That would mean relaxing some of the current rules that limit volunteer roles like a ban on undertaking personal cares for frail and vulnerable people or the constraints of safety boundaries. And let’s not overlook a potential backlash from worker associations.
What is it that so many people need to understand about volunteering?
For starters, ‘volunteering’ is a modern-day term for an ancient human practice that provided mutual support and protection for the collective group, binding people within their communities. These days we call it ‘Civil Society’, denoting all those activities that bring people together to pursue their mutual interests. Volunteering is noted for its diversity and the wide fields of interests, for large national organisations and small informal and local groups. These days, volunteering is a means for community engagement, for maintaining social relations and stability. Volunteering is also the agency to promote a cause, to bring enlightenment and create change.
So when we get down to organisation level, to the place that employs paid staff, what’s the point of volunteering, if it is not to save money? Here are some pointers to finding an answer:
- At a basic level, volunteer assistance will support staff and enable them to focus on specialist responsibilities.
- Volunteers help to create a positive image of the organisation in the community. As ambassadors they can be a real asset, attracting donors and more volunteers, and being the best-ever marketing agents. (Or, as the worst-ever critics, they could be your biggest liability.)
- Volunteers can bring new insights, energy and time to the organisation. It was probably volunteer enthusiasm and commitment that got it started in the first place. So why not harness that energy to develop and trial new strategies or processes, to push the envelope beyond existing limits. The voluntary sector needs a research and development function as much as manufacturing corporations.
- When volunteers bring a diverse range of skills and experience they enrich the organisation, and help expand community connections which can extend the reach of organisation services.
- At best, volunteers offer added value to the organisation’s vision and contribute to achieving its mission.
These are general points, and will need to be tailored to organisation specifics. More importantly, getting to grips with the real reasons for volunteer involvement will mean you never have to say ‘volunteers are priceless’ or that they save you money. And, you’ll find the words and phrases to give real meaning to volunteering.