September 26, 2010

The Push of Politics (2)

Posted in A Bigger Picture at 8:25 pm by Sue Hine

There is a comment from Michael Edwards posted to my original blog on this topic.  Thank you Michael, and just to show I am not alone in my views I urge people to view  http://www.futurepositive.org/smallchange.php.   This introduces Michael’s new book Small Change, Why Business won’t Save the World, and is accompanied  by a YouTube discussion and other links.

The Push of Politics

Posted in A Bigger Picture at 4:37 am by Sue Hine

I must have been looking out the window during my sociology lectures on Social Capital and Civil Society.  These ideas have been around for two or three centuries, and I thought I knew what they meant without resorting to academic analysis.  I could also add Third Sector to my lexicon without wondering why, and absorb various acronyms like NFP, NPI, NGO as just new facts of life. 

In recent months however, ‘Civil Society’ has been invading my brain-space and I’ve had to do some serious reading.  Not surprisingly, conceptual words like ‘civil’ and ‘society’ produce several different meanings.  I have latched on to the interpretations of Michael Edwards, a writer much admired when I was studying development (the 3rd world kind) a couple of years ago: 

  • Civil society as part of society – in the form of associations, groups of people operating within society at large (producing Social Capital that drives positive social norms for the ‘good’ society);
  • Civil society as a kind of society – value-based, creating “good” (as opposed to ‘uncivilised’); and
  • Civil society as the public sphere – the arena for public debate and argument, a public space in which differences in community, cultural identity, and public policy are debated (and also the sphere of community development, empowerment and self-determination).

Ultimately the discourses of civil society are about the relationships between culture, market and the state.  And where volunteering and the community sector fits.  Lester Salamon (2010) argues that the Civil Society sector needs to be put on “the economic map of the world”: New Zealand statistics on NFP organisations is a start.  Bos and Meijs (2008) make a good case for using volunteer centres to build Civil Society, and I think it’s fair to say Volunteer Centres in New Zealand do well in generating an infrastructure for volunteering.  But that’s not the whole picture.    

What bothers me is that ‘social capital’ – community organisations and volunteers – sounds like an economic entity alongside human and physical capital, another resource commodity to be exploited for economic gain. 

The economy used to be a duopoly of state and private sectors.  Now we have the Third Sector as a significant player – NGOs and community organisations are the new service providers.  Funny isn’t it, that we are placed third, though we are ever the grist for the mill of politics and the economy.  Funny isn’t it, how the private sector has muscled into volunteer services under the guise of corporate responsibility.  Of course others will see Third Sector as a counterbalance to political and economic power, and be pleased we have a voice, even if we are not always heard.

I am bothered, because in a worst-case scenario I see a takeover.  I see the ideas of Civil Society conflated into government policies and programmes, perverting the voice of community, of the volunteers and their managers, in favour of the power-broker views of Civil Society.  The Oracle Bones from the UK, from Australia and from Aotearoa New Zealand are telling me so.

In the UK the new Conservative government intends to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a Big Society that will roll back big government, bureaucracy and Whitehall power, undertaken by community organisers.  Political and social change of this scale has not happened since the heyday of monetarist economic policies.  Go back to the 1960s and people like me recall the opprobrium dished out to ‘community organisers’ because they stirred up so much citizen protest and action for change. 

It is not surprising that in a matter of days the next pronouncement of the UK government is a massive cut in funding to the community sector.  Who gets what in terms of community services will be determined by government, not by the sector that knows what happens on the ground.

In Australia it is same-same, different words.  The new Labour-led Government wants the non-profit sector to deliver smarter regulation (the meaning of this is unclear), reduce red tape and improve transparency and accountability of the sector.  The previous government had started the ball rolling with intentions to build a National Volunteer Strategy.  A consultation document earlier this year roused a welter of concerns: how can you have a strategy on volunteering if you do not include the issues of managing the volunteers? 

Government in Aotearoa New Zealand has been less direct in showing its hand than either Australia or the UK.  And much slower.  Well, it all started back in 1999 when with a Ministerial Portfolio for the Community and Voluntary Sector, and after a couple of years’ deliberation, the Statement of Good Intentions for an Improved Community-Government Relationship (SOGI).  A new National Government got prodded by ANGOA’s report Good Intentions (2009), and suddenly there is consultation on Kia Tutahi – Standing Together, a relationship agreement between “the communities of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Government of New Zealand”.  Ummm…nnnggh??   Many people were saying “SOGI – never heard of it!”; “Relationship?  Only if you increase our funding”.  Debate and discussion at the consultation meeting I attended and subsequent discussion boards indicate a readiness and willingness to challenge Government assumptions. 

I am not usually prone to conspiracy theories, but I am mightily suspicious of the trends outlined here.  The voluntary sector has always been the creative and innovative driver for community and community services, for filling gaps in public services and being free to respond to the needs and interests of groups and communities.  An invitation to enter the government den is of course a tremendous opportunity for the sector to influence public policy.  But what of the  costs?  What do we stand to lose?   

The Resources Page includes references for this post and a selection of further reading.

September 19, 2010

Going With the Flow

Posted in A Bigger Picture at 4:29 am by Sue Hine

Volunteerism is like a living organism. It grows, declines and changes in response to the stimuli surrounding it.   Mary Merrill

I don’t much like the word volunteerism.  It sounds clumsy, and suggests there is some deep and meaningful philosophy to be read and understood.  Not so, as dictionary definitions are almost all descriptive of a process rather than enlightenment on meaning.  The word does not seem to have any bearing on what I do as a volunteer – though I will acknowledge a set of beliefs or principles that inform and shape the course of my volunteering. 

However, I have to allow Merrill’s metaphor of volunteerism as an organism that responds to its environment.  Trouble is, ‘the environment’ is a word of many definitions and concepts.  It includes physical and social elements, political and economic influences and all the shades in between.  ‘The environment’ is constantly shifting and volunteering, like the rest of us, has to live with continual change. 

Global conversations have been going on for some time about contemporary trends in volunteering.  You know – the shifting interests of different generations, different motivations and expectations, corporate volunteering, episodic and flexible volunteering, and the huge impact of internet and social media technology.   All around me managers of volunteers are running to catch up.  Organisations who fail to recognise these changes are hard-pressed to maintain their business, and to recruit and retain volunteers.

There have been other changes too over the past 25 years.  Government structural adjustment programmes and devolution of services meant the voluntary sector had to learn how best to present a formal application for funding, and where the best resources for our interests lay.  We had to learn about accountability, not just reporting on how donated funding was spent, but what outcomes were achieved.  Committee members had to step back from operational involvement and learn about governance responsibilities.  There were learning curves for everyone, and flow-on effects for volunteers and their managers.  When the regulatory environment kicked in with health and safety proscriptions, with legal obligations and the employer’s ‘duty of care’ extending to volunteers, organisations were obliged to change long-standing laissez-faire practices. 

The pay-off was in securing contracts with government for the provision of services.  We are now a flourishing industry, a Third Sector, right up there with the Public and Private Sectors.  The VAVA Project (see http://www.nzfvwo.org.nz/publications/) reckoned annual accounts did not show the added value provided by volunteers.   Statistics NZ has got that sorted now:

 Non-profit institutions contributed 2.6% to New Zealand’s GDP in 2004.  When volunteer labour is included the GDP contribution rises to 4.9%.  

Wow! That’s equivalent to the building and construction sector; it’s greater than tourism brings into the country.  And wow, again!  It all happens because there is a manager, a leader or a coordinator, paid or unpaid, who keeps the volunteers on track, keeps them coming, ensuring a worthwhile experience.  

Management of volunteers has moved with the times too.  The basic processes of recruitment, recognition, rewarding volunteers and renewal are well understood, if not always applied.  The word ‘profession’ is adopted for the occupation; there are codes of practice and national standards available – though New Zealand has not got there yet.  There are opportunities for training and education at all levels, including distance and on-line learning programmes.  We have lifted our game. 

But it’s a longer harder road to lift our profile, to get some investment in and recognition of management of volunteers.  Despite the writing and publishing and on-going promotion by global leaders the message at the masthead of this post is not getting through. 

 That is why the Volunteering NZ sponsored Development Project for Management of Volunteers was started.  That is why November 5 is marked as International Day for Managers of Volunteers.  When the Project Team no longer needs to meet, and when we no longer need to mark our existence on a special day, then Management of Volunteers will have come of age.

September 12, 2010

People Power

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter at 5:23 am by Sue Hine

If ever there were doubts about volunteer resources in New Zealand they have been put to rest over the past week. 

In Christchurch we have seen the best of volunteering in action, following the earthquake that happened where no earthquake ought to have been.

Volunteers from Civil Defence, Ambulance and Fire Services responded immediately, demonstrating the benefits of good training and sound leadership.  Red Cross and the Salvation Army were also ready to rise to the occasion.  I guess we should expect good organisation from these designated emergency and relief services.

What we do not often see is the spirit of community as shown by the people of Canterbury over the days following that Saturday morning wake-up call.  From my armchair comfort in Wellington I noted the following news media items: 

  • Neighbours gathered in streets and then shared resources with those whose homes were more badly damaged – so that numbers turning up at emergency welfare centres have been far lower than expected.
  • Volunteering Canterbury set up a process matching volunteer offers with jobs needed, using Facebook.
  • By mid-week more than 1000 University and Polytechnic students were out shovelling silt or turning up to help a resident pack up for evacuation – again generated by Facebook. 
  • Even the notorious Undie 500 student car race was cancelled in favour of helping in the clean-up.
  • Age Concern fielded spontaneous offers to help old people clean up their homes.

I’m sure there are more good news stories and many unsung heroes.  And none of these stories are unusual in a time of crisis.  Good people are always there to do the right things.  When we are threatened by natural disaster it’s like the spirit of community is a primal instinct, a drive to cluster together and to share resources, to belong in some way. 

Trouble is, real life in the 21st century isn’t like that, and has not been so for a long time, not in the Western world.  We have formalised the idea of community into a government office, complete with ministerial portfolio.  Community-based organisations compete for funding: many are favoured with government contracts to deliver essential services.  The regulatory environment (legal status, health and safety, accountability) keeps NFP management on its toes, dancing to bureaucratic tunes instead of the spirit that gave community organisations their origins.  

The volunteers keep coming, they keep on helping.  For different reasons from times past, and there is plenty of global discussion on trends in volunteering – generational differences, different motivations and expectations, the influence of technology, corporate volunteering, episodic and flexible time commitments.  In this complex environment volunteering is less than a spontaneous offer to ‘help’, and managing volunteers is more than taking all comers and then wondering why they fall by the wayside.  Changes in volunteering means that organisational policies and processes need to be adapted to contemporary contexts.   

In the months ahead there will be much reconstruction in Christchurch on the physical, social and emotional fronts.  There will also be much analysis of the emergency and disaster response.  I hope there will be acknowledgement and praise for the spirit of community evident during the time of crisis, and also some analysis of how and why the surge of spontaneous volunteer assistance worked so well. 

I would like to think that findings will shine a light on the personal qualities and organisational skills demonstrated by leaders of volunteers.  They Know How, and they Can Do.

September 5, 2010

The Celebration of the Year

Posted in Managers Matter at 5:27 am by Sue Hine

It’s going to happen on November 5.  And no it’s not a Guy Fawkes bonfire and a spectacular display of fireworks.

 I wish though.  I wish celebrating the International Day for Managers of Volunteers could be shouted from the rooftops, fêted and feasted throughout the land.  Why?

The best statement I have found to answer this question is on the website http://www.volunteermanagersday.org/ :

[V]olunteering does not succeed in a vacuum. Behind this army of volunteers lies an equally dedicated group of individuals and agencies who are responsible for the coordination, support, training, administration and recruitment of the world’s volunteers – skilled professionals who are adept at taking singular passion and turning it into effective action.  It is important to let those professionals know that the spirit of volunteerism is enhanced and enabled by them, and to thank them.

There’s also a Statement of Values, offering four very good reasons to celebrate the profession.

Great website, heaps of useful information, though it would be good to have some more recent articles posted.  You can become a supporter, you can add in your local event.  You can become part of a global celebration.

But it’s not the manager of volunteers’ responsibility to arrange their own recognition parties.  And we are not the sort to go trumpeting our importance from the hilltops.  IMV Day is however, an opportunity to acknowledge professional achievements of the past year as our personal triumphs, to recognise we each have our own intrinsic value. 

So far only one event is registered on the website for New Zealand, and it’s co-sponsored by a Volunteer Centre and a health sector agency.  I don’t think I am hard of hearing but communities seem to be pretty mute on indicating their Interest in celebrating the work of managers of volunteers. 

 What would be really good is to find interest and support coming from government agencies, local MPs, and local government organisations, from NFP administrators and board members, and from volunteers themselves.  I’d like to add in corporate sponsors, and particularly those engaged in corporate volunteering.  And the philanthropic trust funders.  All these sectors have something to gain in appreciating the work of managers of volunteers.

Because if you promote managers of volunteers then you are also promoting volunteering.  Right? 

So I am hoping that writing about my singular passion will spur a bit of effective action.   We need to get moving – only 60 more sleeps.

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