August 29, 2010
I’ve been travelling this past week, encountering old and new friends. So what are you doing these days Sue? they ask, and as soon as I mention volunteering or management of volunteers out come their stories. Unsolicited, spontaneously. Everyone, it seems, has a tale to tell of both good and bad experiences. Here are some of them.
- I love this job, says the woman who volunteers as an Ambassador. I meet such interesting people, and it is so good to be useful. Yes, we got some training, but I haven’t seen or heard from the coordinator since. Never mind, I’ll just keep on coming and doing the best I can.
- My organisation has just introduced a new computer system. Oh what a headache. We’ve had lots of help and guidance but it’s still not enough. It’s like having a new toy and not knowing what to do with it. I’m worried what’s going to happen to our services. The other thing is, we are trying to get a new chairperson for our board and no-one wants the job. It makes me wonder what is happening to the organisation.
- Yes, the Book Fair is an annual event. I’ve been helping with it every year since it began. Great fun, and there’s always some gems to add to my own bookshelves. Management? In the early days the people in charge were hopeless. They didn’t know what they were doing, and neither did we, so it was all a bit of a jumble. We have a great manager now who is very organised, keeps us informed, gets a roster going for helping with sorting, shares out the work, and she says Thank You, twice, when I’m there for the morning.
- I do a driving job as a volunteer. There’s quite a lot of responsibility and what I appreciate is the training. I like to be very clear on what is expected, where the boundaries are, and how to get back-up if I need it – who to call if something goes wrong.
- I busted my guts for the organisation. It was a very demanding assignment, made worse because there was absolutely no help from the manager. Phone calls and emails were not answered, requests for information and help were refused. I won’t be going back there – it’s really put me off volunteering.
These stories are not unusual, but the themes are interesting. Volunteer motivation, training needs, communication, role responsibilities and expectations cover most of the basics of management of volunteers. I can also note the importance of a strong and healthy organisation structure and systems.
Shortcomings in management of volunteers leave me uneasy, because it seems that some organisations are relying on the volunteer’s personal qualities like loyalty and commitment, empathy with the client group, or beliefs about community service. That puts the well-being of the volunteer at risk. Worse is the potential damage to volunteerism and the non-profit sector.
And that’s why Volunteering New Zealand is supporting a project to develop management of volunteers. Follow the progress at www.volunteeringnz.org.nz.
August 22, 2010
A long time ago I read a book with this title. Written by Richard Titmuss, the social policy guru of the 1970s, it is a global survey and analysis about donating blood, highlighting the difference between altruistic giving and a commercial transaction. At the time I was enormously impressed by arguments and evidence that showed blood given freely was much less likely to be contaminated (by hepatitis) than the vials that earned their donors a few dollars. Volunteering is indeed a gift, embracing the following concepts (from
Formal volunteering is an activity which takes place through not for profit organisations or projects and is undertaken:
• to be of benefit to the community and the volunteer;
• of the volunteer’s own free will and without coercion;
• for no financial payment; and
• in designated volunteer positions only.
Like blood donation services this definition has become a bit contaminated over the past few decades. Look at the range of motivations for volunteering: as work experience, a means to rehabilitation, not to mention the rise of corporate volunteering and the huge expectations by government that the volunteer sector can work miracles in service provision. Here’s something to think about:
Do people do altruistic things—including volunteering—because they are truly altruistic and selfless, or because they themselves receive some sort of benefit from every altruistic-seeming act?
Well, this is where I have to trot out some mottoes that have been around since biblical times.
• It is more blessed to give than to receive (Bible, Acts 20:35)
• Do unto others as you would have them do to you. (Bible, Luke 6:31) (Also called the Golden Rule, because this ethic is present in all world religions)
• “The milk of human kindness” – which we understand as care and compassion for others. However, the origin of the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth Act 1, scene 5, 15–18, when Lady Macbeth carps at her husband for his nature – he is too soft to match her ambitions – he’s nothing but a milksop.
On the other hand there are plenty of people who say “You never do anything for nothing”, and those who describe ‘giving’ as “a selfish act”. There could well be a touch of Calvinism here, but read the following story to figure whether volunteering is simply selfless altruism.
I was a tough manager of volunteers, never one to shy away from asking awkward questions, issuing the challenges to make people think. Instead of individual interviews for new applicants I organised group screening sessions (the biggest-ever time-saver). Let’s jumble all the candidates together, put them up with their peers so they are not parroting what they think the interviewer wants to hear. And right after the initial icebreaker introduction stuff people had to talk in pairs (1) about why they wanted to volunteer for this organisation, and (2) what they thought they might gain from volunteering – with people they had never met before. Every time, year after year, there was the same collation of reasons for volunteering, and every time, year after year, there was a blank stare when I asked about their expectations.
Oh, I don’t want to gain anything, I just want to give.
That’s what I heard most often. And that’s when I delivered my lecture. ‘Keep your hearts and minds open’, I would say, ‘and you will learn about people, about communication and relationships, and most of all about yourself.’ And they did.
Giving, as in volunteering, involves a relationship which by definition is an exchange between people. So the volunteers would come back to me to say what a great experience they had had. I watched the shy and diffident people grow in confidence and become respected for the work they did with difficult people. I noticed how people found strengths they never thought they had. And the client population noticed too. They sent in their thank you letters and mentioned volunteers by name, and when I passed on such messages to the volunteer, they sat up with pride and a sense of achievement.
The thesis of Titmuss’s Gift Relationship is now regarded as passé. That’s a pity, because in many ways these two words capture the essence of volunteering, the business of giving and receiving, of living together, being interdependent. Regardless of the sophistication of modern society, regardless of the reasons that bring people to volunteering, there is still a fundamental human spirit that strives to belong in communities.
August 15, 2010
A couple of years ago I was engaged by a national organisation to compile a new edition of guidelines for managers of volunteer services. Exciting stuff, supported by several keen and experienced in-post managers. We did some good things I think, revising content to be more explicit about why we engaged with volunteers and what they offered. Even better, we established a new job title. No longer a volunteer anything, in this organisation we were now going to be called Managers of Volunteer Services.
There was more good stuff on offer about the basics of developing a volunteer programme: the business of recruitment, training, reviewing performance and rewarding volunteers. And more about paid staff / volunteer relationships, the regulatory environment, and encouragement for support and mentoring first-time entrants into the occupation. Another first was a raft of collegial offers to share information, so that no newbie had to reinvent the wheel. We extended the list of references for further information. The final document was as up-to-date as it possibly could be.
This was pretty exciting because my previous experience with this organisation had offered plenty of evidence of the ‘Just a Volunteers’ Manager’ Syndrome. Why would we do this to ourselves when we would never let a volunteer get away with being ‘just a volunteer’?
And then a voice of wisdom spoke up, from outside our circle: To be valued as a manager of volunteer services you need to start valuing yourself.
Now there is a wake-up call, a real Ah-Hah moment. Let’s cut the ‘poor me’ stuff and point some fingers at where the lack of appreciation is coming from.
The government supports volunteerism in many ways. Well heck, volunteering and NGOs contribute 4.9% to New Zealand’s GDP. There is much lavish praise for volunteering, but never an acknowledgement that volunteer activities and good volunteer programmes are dependent on skilled managers. Let alone a bit of funding for professional development, or a salary commensurate with qualifications and experience.
Many organisations accept all the goodwill and effort volunteers can offer, not realising how far volunteer contributions depend on the training and support and people skills of the Manager of Volunteer Services. Volunteers are the ‘added value’ for their organisation, enhancing services. Or they can be destructive ambassadors, cutting the reputation of an organisation in an instant if their volunteer experience is not a happy one. Good management of volunteers can make the difference between adding value to services and ruined street cred.
Have a look at the websites that pop up when you Google Volunteering or Volunteerism – you have to go a long way down the list of 12 million+ hits before you find a mention of volunteer management.
Have a really good look at NGO newsletters and Annual Reports to see what they are not saying about management of their volunteers.
And all the time You know you are doing a great job; You know how much the volunteers appreciate your training and on-going support; and You know just what volunteers are contributing to your organisation’s services. You are not ‘just a volunteer manager’, and not ‘just’ anything!
So stand tall, and follow Volunteering NZ’s Updates to keep in touch with the Development Project for Managers of Volunteers. In particular, look for our promotion (coming soon!) of International Day for Managers of Volunteers (November 5) when we will be celebrating and acknowledging the Heroes of volunteer management in local communities.
Pssst! Tell your volunteers about it too, so you can get nominated.
August 7, 2010
When a volunteer experience turns bad everyone gets to hear about it. Not just in your local community. You can go global on the internet. Here is a desperate story from Mr X in Singapore about Why I’ll never volunteer again.
”It was my first time volunteering with this agency – and it will be my last time. When I got to the agency there was no one there to tell me and another two student volunteers what to do. We were ill-equipped to handle client queries: we had not been trained and did not have expert knowledge. I got invited to a ceremony for presenting awards for our efforts. When I replied, I was told I should have received my certificate of appreciation once I had completed my volunteer assignment. I am still waiting to receive my certificate. The whole process has been disorganised and unprofessional.”
You can hear in these messages some clear volunteer expectations. Indeed volunteers have a right to expect better from an organisation. And our hapless volunteer received a few other pointers about volunteering from others who replied to his post:
- It is more dangerous to give wrong advice than no advice at all.
- The gift of our time is the most precious thing that we can give and volunteer managers forget that at their peril.
- Maybe it will be better to volunteer with SPCA. At least the poor abandoned animals will show their appreciation by wagging their tails or by snuggling up to you.
I am not surprised Mr X never wants to volunteer again. I am not surprised he is being recommended to volunteer with SPCA and tending loveable animals. Humans can be such beasts at times.
What does surprise me are a couple of other comments sent to Mr X:
- You should never volunteer if you expect something in return.
- Real volunteers never complain, and always prefer to remain anonymous.
Surely – please tell me – the people who made these statements were not real volunteers? I shall save up my opinion on this kind of false sainthood for another time.
Right now, what Mr X’s experience is telling us is how utterly critical the role of manager of volunteers can be for an organisation, starting with being ‘organised’ and ‘professional’. Maybe it is an extreme example of what can go wrong, but the signposts to disaster are clear for any manager to avoid.
August 6, 2010
In the Victoria University study Managers Matter: Who Manages Volunteers? (http://www.victoria.ac.nz/fca/research-services/volunteer-management-research.aspx) I was surprised by a result which showed the greatest challenge faced by managers is recruiting volunteers.
• Why would this be, when Volunteer Centres around the country are reporting increased rates of interest from prospective volunteers?
• When there is a heap of advice and information on recruiting volunteers in cyberspace waiting for you to hook into?
• And when you can download for free everything you wanted to know about Turning Your Organisation into a Volunteer Magnet ? (Andy Fryar resource drawn from the 2nd edition 2007, published by Andy Fryar, Rob Jackson & Fraser Dyer, Adelaide and London, October 2007.) Find it at
So Why is recruiting volunteers, getting enough people on the ground to do what’s needed, such a headache?
Martin J Cowling has one answer, published in his People First E-News for June 2010
How to fail at attracting volunteers & donors
Q: What’s the number one reason that agencies fail to attract volunteers and donors?
A: They don’t know they are needed and specifically why they are required.
Q: What’s the number two reason why agencies fail to attract volunteers?
A: The agency fails to respond when approached.
And Martin has the research to back his claims. When he was first a Coordinator of Volunteers, he says, he rang 20 agencies at random, posing as a volunteer to see how they handled his queries. He was astounded (and I am too!) at a response rate of six (or 30 per cent). People First still calls 20 agencies each year to see if that has changed. Since 1996, the return call rate has averaged 30 per cent. The same rate of response has also been found in US research.
Well, that just shows how important it is for a manager of volunteers to be responsive, as I pointed out in a recent post. If 70% of your agency’s donors and volunteers never get an answer to their inquiry, what are you – and they – missing out on?
Let’s turn failure around to see what it takes to attract volunteers. What are some of the things that will draw them in – like a magnet?
• Marketing strategies – you can try the word of mouth spread, the community newspapers, organisation newsletters and so on. But what about knocking on a corporate door to ask for some advice and assistance to develop a marketing plan?
• Tap into corporate volunteering, for events, special projects and perhaps some pro bono time for specialist organisational development.
• Get a detailed job description, knowing what you want volunteers to do, what time and where, and what for – just like any job-seeker would want to know – and then push that information out to all the traps you can think of.
• Get a handle on Volunteer Motivation – understand how many different reasons there are for people who want to give their time. And then tailor your promotion to entice the unemployed work-experience candidate, the skill-seeker, the between-job person, the student doing a school assignment, as well as the retiree who likes to be involved and engaged with other people. Not to mention the people who genuinely want to give back to their community in the true spirit of altruism.
• Last, but not least: take a good look at your organisation and figure out some answers to questions like
- Why do we exist?
- What’s in it for volunteers?
- What sort of skills and commitment do we need to do our work?
- Will our existing Volunteer Programme be sufficient?
- What sort of up-grade do we need?
Is this enough to turn your recruitment problems around?