July 29, 2012
I have been rabbiting on for ages about the relevance of volunteering and the importance of good management of volunteers in the community and voluntary sector. I have been on about organisations that just don’t get volunteering, about boards and management that take volunteers for granted, and who fail to recognise that volunteers might be just the true deliverers of organisation vision and values.
Volunteers live the organisation’s mission; they have organisational values at heart; and they put up their hands to work for free without expectation of a pay package or other reward.
What if, I venture to ask, what if we turn running the organisation over to volunteers?
I can hear the objections shouted down the e-waves:
- The board members / trustees are all volunteers! Isn’t that enough?
- Volunteers are part-timers, mere bit-players in service delivery
- Volunteers are unreliable, take time out, have other commitments and priorities
- Volunteers do not have the necessary professional knowledge and skills
- Come on – volunteers are not the answer to everything!
- Lots of them are merely getting work experience, or fulfilling their employer’s obligations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
- Open Sesame to organisational chaos!
To which I respond:
- The role of Board members / Trustees is governance, overall direction and decision-making responsibility – well-placed to ensure best practice service delivery
- If you regard volunteers in your organisation as ‘bit-players’ then you do not deserve them
- Many community services are delivered entirely by volunteers – and highly valued for their standard of service
- Yes, volunteers are free to come and go: respect that freedom and you get loyalty and long-term commitment
- When volunteers know and understand why they join your organisation, they are demonstrating the real meaning of being ‘professional’, and all the knowledge and skills that go with that
- Volunteers are powerful contributors to community development, community integration, and the building of Civil Society
- And by being exposed to volunteer experience those people engaged for work experience or CSR events are likely to continue volunteering
- As for the chaos, welcome to tumultuous energy of the world of Management of Volunteers and the community and voluntary sector
What if, I ask again, what if the manager of volunteers was promoted to Chief Executive?
I can hear the gob-smacked responses from here! Sure there’s a load of extra responsibility and more things to think about. But think about it a bit more:
- The manager of volunteers is well-versed in management and leadership, especially in being responsible for more people than most Chief Executives in the community sector. [See Susan J Ellis, Non-Profit World 1986, 4/2 - Maximising the Potential of the Director of Volunteers; and 1996 – What Makes the Position of Volunteer Programme Manager (VPM) Unique? (Adapted from Chapter 4, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success)]
- The manager of volunteers is creative and flexible; has to be a strategic thinker and really good at time management; has an amazing network of colleagues and game-players to call on, and really good mentor support.
- The manager of volunteers knows the organisation inside out; works across all service areas; has effective working relationships with senior managers.
- The manager of volunteers is committed to organisation mission and vision and knows how to engage volunteers to put these into practice.
You might still think I am in fantasy-land. Not so, if you read Claire Teal’s arguments about the status of management of volunteers:
[S]o many of us seem to simultaneously lament the lack of value given to our role, but also resist any real attempt to do anything about this. In many ways we seem to want to have our cake (a higher value placed on our role) and eat it too (not change anything we’re doing).
This on-going self-deprecation has to be turned around! If you really object to a volunteer take-over, or to the manager of volunteers becoming your Chief Executive, go read Betty Stalling’s counterfactuals about Volunteer Program Champions.
That is the What If challenge for organisations and their managers of volunteers. That’s the world of difference a What If question can make.
July 15, 2012
Last week I attended a fund-raising function organised by former refugees from the Kachin State in Myanmar. Most of them have not been here longer than 5 years. In very short order they learned about living in their new environment. They bonded as a group, like seeking like, as you do in strange territory. They learned from each other, finding out how to access resources, and supporting those who needed extra help. And the leaders among them established a national network to share local information and to keep in touch with homeland politics.
This function entertained both old and new Kiwi supporters with song and dance, and then provided a meal for 200 people. It was a superb demonstration of event management organisation and spirited goodwill: a totally awesome display of volunteering. Now they have raised a goodly sum to provide medical supplies and mosquito nets to send to the remote and primitive camps for displaced people in their homeland.
This story got me thinking of all the different representations of volunteering: there are a lot of related words and phrases in common parlance these days.
The Kindness of Strangers turns up as a book title, over and over. It’s there on You Tube presentations and in song lyrics, and a TV programme. It’s the title of a scientific study, which includes reference to that archetypal model of a kind stranger, the Good Samaritan. Pay it Forward is a variation on this theme – a practice that has been around a lot longer than the movie of this title. A Guardian (UK) article claims “a civil society needs the kindness of strangers and acquaintances”, and cites another report from the Young Foundation , which argues that
Civility is the largely invisible ‘glue’ that holds communities together, and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact of people’s sense of social health than crime statistics. Perhaps most significantly it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is ‘contagious’.
Volunteering is also touted as a glue to hold communities together; and ‘civility’ reminds me of Civil Society – which is just the term to embrace volunteering and all the ways we talk about community and people. Like this:
Civil society activity meets fundamental human wants and needs, and provides an expression for hopes and aspirations. It reaches parts of our lives and souls that are beyond the state and business. It takes much of what we care about most in our private lives and gives it shape and structure, helping us to amplify care, compassion and hope. (Making Good Society, 2010)
The Gift Economy is another variant of the concept of volunteering, that ancient practice of exchange and sharing that kept the wheels on communities before we got hooked into market-economy drivers. And the Gift Economy is still a big one. Pacific Nations can enjoy remittances from emigrants that total more than local economies. Maori consciousness of collective wellbeing and responsibility means ‘volunteering’ in the accepted definition has no equivalent in their language. So we refer to mahi aroha – “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring”, which is part of everyday cultural life within family/whanau, and marae communities. Nor should we forget that New Zealand’s 4.9% contribution to GDP by the community and volunteer sector is another constituent of the Gift Economy.
And then I think of Altruism, a virtue demonstrating a selfless concern for others, the opposite of Selfishness. It is a huge topic, involving religion, philosophy and pretty much all of the social sciences. Volunteering is a form of altruism, given the normative definition of free will and no financial reward. And wouldn’t you know it – research is showing a strong correlation between volunteering and personal health and well-being. Volunteering, as a Gift Relationship, is always a two-way stretch.
One more piece in the jigsaw of volunteering is Philanthropy, that munificent gesture that is going to keep an organisation solvent for another year. Etymologists will recognise the Greek origins of this word, meaning ‘love of humanity’. It’s another way to reinforce all the interpretations of volunteering I have highlighted. Philanthropy is about private initiatives for public good, operating outside government and business. You could say Philanthropy embraces all the elements above, writ large.
I learn from these reflections that “volunteering” is a fundamental element of being human, of belonging to a community of family and friends and to wider connections. Long may this premise remain without corruption.
July 8, 2012
I wonder how many readers noticed the tenor of last week’s post. How the Top Tips are all about relationships, about respect and communication and support for volunteers. How being a manager and leader of volunteers is about nurturing and caring for a valuable resource. The tasks of organising and advocating and programme administration can take second place in the scheme of things.
Well – that might be a debatable premise, though we all know (don’t we?) that the best designed and administered volunteer programme is not going to get off the ground if we cannot demonstrate the attributes needed to lead a worthy team of volunteers.
That’s where the people-skills kick in. Volunteers are not ciphers on the annual accounts, nor cans of peas in the production line of a community service. Volunteering is a human service, and needs to be treated accordingly. Yet all too often organisations can overlook that managers of volunteers are human too.
I have been nudged by another blogger, when I read her take on the unintentional selflessness of managers of volunteers.
We have to be concerned with the wants and needs of clients, other staff, administration and all of our volunteers. We juggle these wants and needs continually, listening closely to volunteer stories, soothing hurt feelings, and probing for motivations. We are on heightened alert at all times.
And the ultimate message is: “Volunteer managers can run the risk of losing themselves in the job.”
Many years ago I was occupied as a ‘counsellor’. It was a volunteer position in a provincial town, for an organisation that operated nationally. In the course of this work I encountered women struggling to do their best for their families, struggling with relationships and parenting and many with poverty as well.
I could offer empathy and challenge assumptions and suggest strategies for change, and there was always a startled look of recognition when I proposed: “If you do not look after yourself then you will not be able to look after others”.
Taking care of yourself remains a concern. How can you keep in good shape to manage the volunteer programme, and to lead volunteers? Working-out at the gym might do wonders for your physical fitness and percolate the endorphins for a feel-good high. But what about the work-related niggles that keep you awake at night, the on-going tensions and responsibilities that never go away? And never mind the push-me/pull-you stresses of time management.
Back in my counselling days there was always a ‘supervisor’ to support, encourage and monitor my professional practice. I graduated to being a supervisor too, and have continued to offer a supervisory and mentoring role to people working in NFP organisations.
Years later I am still hearing the agonised stories of managers of volunteers under stress, and I am still asking the question: If you do not look after yourself then how can you look after others?
I have been plugging away at professional development and professionalism for managers of volunteers for a while now.
To avoid “losing yourself in the job” go look for formal supervision or mentoring, or get together with colleagues, either 1:1 or as a group. Or join a webinar discussion. Time spent thus can be time saved in problem-solving, in new learning, and in being forced to take time-out. The pay-off, remember, is the flow-on benefits for volunteers and for the organisation.
July 1, 2012
One of my pleasures these days is learning from others, while being a de facto teacher. That’s not such a contradiction of terms when you think about teaching as the means to assist and support others in their learning and in their development as managers of volunteers.
That’s what I do as tutor for the on-line introductory programme on Managing Volunteers. The core information is laid out in easy-to-read web pages (with all the nice extras of side-bars and video clips and personal experience stories). Participants are required to complete weekly assignments and to post them to the on-line forum, for all to share, and to learn from each other.
Here is what is required for the last assignment:
Think of your dealings with volunteers and give your very best tip, hint or advice – your hard won experience, some approach that really worked for you. Maybe it’s the knowledge you wish someone had told you before you had to go and find out for yourself! If you can, distil your wisdom down into a few words or a couple of sentences.
Always, this assignment generates sincere personal testimonies, showing me there is a lot of wisdom out there, and that volunteers are managed by pretty good hands. I have collated responses from the most recent course, and reproduce them below (with permission) to offer their best tips to a wider audience.
The Golden Rule
- Always treat others how you would like to be treated
- Always look for the good in other people
- Do not expect volunteers to do anything you would not do yourself
- Treat people with the respect, communication and action(s) you expect to receive.
- Be open and available
- By email
- Pick up the phone and actually talk to people
- Listen, more than you speak!
- Give feedback
- Positive interaction
- Acknowledge length of service
- Annual awards function
- Smile, say thank you, then say thank you again
Care for your Volunteers
- Encourage, reward and praise
- Make them feel special
- Take time for a chat
- Be open and available to support volunteers
- Work alongside volunteers
- Involve volunteers in staff meetings, planning and policy development
- Give volunteers a chance to contribute their views
Be creative and innovative
- Encourage skill development
- Provide opportunities for learning
- Create new positions relevant to volunteer skills and interests
- Find ways to engage with the rising numbers of young people
- Be organised
- Be consultative
- Be consistent in applying standards, and in your approach
- Show integrity to engender trust
Make Volunteering Fun! Enjoy having a good laugh!
Here are reminders of the wide scope and range of responsibilities for a Manager of Volunteers. You are not just planning and implementing a Volunteer Programme; you are not just serving the needs of the organisation. You are not ‘just’ anything! You are the leader of people who are the champions of the organisation, the go-to and can-do people who make the real difference.
I am humbled by what I learn from volunteers, and by the wealth of knowledge and skills that people bring to management of volunteers, or what they learn in short order on the job. I am also very proud to belong to an occupation that knows, without the trappings of orthodoxy, what it means to be ‘professional’.