October 7, 2012
There are no definitions for the X factors of volunteering. There will never be a TV reality show for the unseen and unsung qualities that make up the best of volunteering and its management. Mostly it is chance encounters that tell us something of the outcome of our work.
Three times in as many weeks I’ve been reminded of the influence a manager of volunteers can sometimes have on the lives of volunteers.
The first is a story about a volunteer and his wife, told fifteen years after the event.
A few days later I get to hear, long after I have left the workplace, how my words at a group induction session are still ringing in a volunteer’s ears:
“You don’t think you will gain anything from volunteering? Keep your hearts and minds open and you will discover all sorts of rewards.”
You know, the volunteer says to my successor, I’ve never forgotten that, and by heck, she was right!
Then Andy Fryar, who has his own remarkable story of unintended influence on a volunteer, puts up this poster on his Facebook page, noting it is something he raises regularly in training sessions.
None of us set out to be inspiring or to make a difference in the lives of volunteers. It’s a by-product, and we are merely catalysts for that inspiration to take hold, or that change to happen.
And mostly we never get the feedback.
I’ve been volunteering for yonks, and worked in a variety of management roles. My one experience in managing volunteers was in a hospice, where I discovered there was still much to learn about volunteering and management. Hospice volunteers taught me about the work they did, how they did it and why. Simple – serving cups of tea and dishing out meals. But it was the way they provided these services that showed me how volunteering is a whole lot bigger than ticking off a task sheet.
Because reports from patients and families indicated how the supporting words and gestures from volunteers touched them at just the right moment. When I gave this feedback to the volunteer there was usually a shrug and a comment like “But all I did was listen, and it was only for a few minutes”. No big deal for the volunteer, yet an inspirational spark for the family.
Now it’s my turn to tell a story about a volunteer and what comes after.
Mary had been volunteering for some time when I met her – Wednesday lunch service, regular as clockwork, a close buddy with her volunteer partner. She liked things neat and tidy, liked knowing what was what. Always Mary was someone you could count on to let you know if she could not come, wanted time off for travel, or if something was bothering her. Sometimes the bothering could be personal stuff, outside the volunteering bit.
Now Mary the volunteer has become the patient. Pinned on the notice board by her bed in the hospice is a letter I wrote to her eleven years ago, alongside the certificates issued in recognition of her years of volunteer service. Such little things, such small gestures from the office of a manager, to be received and treasured in ways I never anticipated.
All of us can touch other people’s lives in unknown ways. It’s part of being human. Sometimes we can turn the cliché of ‘making a difference’ into something real.
But always, in times like this, my mind flicks to the line that says:
You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people. *
And I wish I did not always have to be the last to know.
* William Boyd (1990) Brazzaville Beach
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.
June 4, 2012
It’s such a simple question. Quite straightforward. Should be easy-as to give me an answer.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy! Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff? Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power? And if you say No way – impossible! then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers? This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief. Let me offer a few leads to think about.
There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel. Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence. Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers. The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme. Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.
There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category. Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example. All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.
Why? Why involve volunteers?
Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff? Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work? Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?
I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.
Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness. Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal? Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?
I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then
- Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
- There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
- Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
- Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
- The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
- And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.
There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility. Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.