May 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.
May 19, 2013
A member of parliament resigned this week, in disgrace. For ten days the news media communicated to the public arena all the ill-chosen words that were spoken, emailed and twittered, plus as many details as they could extract from the Prime Minister. The MP could not have managed better his exit from the political stage. All because what he said, the way he said it and the medium he used compounded his errors. His resignation and departure saves the coalition government’s slender majority, and shows us all how critical the choice of words and the way they are said can be.
Put a bunch of managers of volunteers together, ask them to nominate the most important principle in leading volunteers, and 80% will tell you it’s Communication.
Of course! Except Communication is a really big carpet-bag word, stuffed full of a range of meanings and processes and practice – and technologies. It’s time we unpacked the implications of the word and understand how it is best used in the context of a volunteer programme.
Communication is about Exchange of Information Yes, the sending and receiving of accurate information is all-important to help volunteers into the organisation and for on-going retention. Ensuring information about volunteers and the volunteer programme is spread to other staff and senior managers is also important. And – being timely in responding to queries and messages: there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting to hear back from someone, even if it is simply an acknowledgement your message has been received.
Because Communication is also about Relationships It’s about creating personal connections, getting to know people and their circumstances. It’s about getting alongside paid staff, creating goodwill, and their understanding and appreciation of volunteer work. And you don’t get good relationships going without being a Listener. You have to be really genuine in meeting and greeting and appreciating volunteers – they will see through formulaic responses very smartly.
Communication is about inter-connectedness Communication is the way to create links with communities, to network with other managers of volunteers, and to open up intra-organisation channels. Beware the pitfalls of ‘talking past each other’ whether in cross-cultural communication or in everyday exchanges. It’s the intimacy of interpersonal interaction that counts towards real connections.
Communication is a leadership dynamic A leader’s support, encouragement, enthusiasm and inspiration do not happen in isolation – by definition there is always a following team. So a leader is tuned to know which buttons to press and when and what words to use, and how to draw in the reluctant player, or to spur the confidence of the shy and retiring volunteer, or to find new ways to develop volunteer talents. A good communicator will also demonstrate the value of a volunteer programme to the organisation.
You cannot not communicate There’s a truism for you! The experts can demonstrate how just 10% of a message is conveyed in words. The rest is non-verbal, the body language, the tone of voice, the facial expression. So even a tight-lipped poker-face is sending a message, whether they mean to or not.
Hang on a minute – a heck of a lot of our communication these days is not face-to-face. You’ve got everything from formal letters, newsletters and written planning and policy papers, to email and social media, to websites and webinars. So the written word is still a primary tool for communicating ideas and information.
Being a communicator and minding our language comes with the territory of managing volunteers. I reckon we could teach foolish MPs a thing or two.
May 5, 2013
Going on three years ago I wrote about someone else’s bad volunteer experience, and regretted it ever since. Because every year this post is the most viewed, by a wide margin. Every day someone has Googled the words and they end up on my blog site. I’ve tried in several different ways to highlight what volunteers appreciate, but good news stories do not attract the same attention.
So the tales of volunteers being under-valued and unappreciated, and treated badly, continue to mount up. And now Australian volunteers are invited to register violations of their rights or inappropriate treatment.
Two problems here. One, I don’t know of any cast iron document on volunteer rights relating to ‘inappropriate treatment’. Which means, secondly, there is not much legal protection for volunteers (in New Zealand) beyond privacy and health and safety regulations and the non-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act. ‘Volunteer rights’ are more in the realm of ethical and best practice procedures.
There are various Codes of Practice for managing volunteers. There are various Rights and Responsibilities documents outlining reciprocal obligations for volunteers and organisations. There is, if you did not know already, a Code of Ethics for managers of volunteers. In 2001 (remember that year?) a “Universal Declaration on the Profession of Leading and Managing Volunteers” was developed by an international working group, including New Zealand representation. These hallmarks of a profession are clearly not sufficiently embedded to address the wrongs experienced by volunteers.
The regulatory environment in most jurisdictions will include volunteers within health and safety, privacy and human rights. Volunteers are excluded from employment law of course, though there is a grey area when we start talking about being ‘a good employer’ (see this post).
So from a volunteer’s perspective there is not much comeback if they get bullied, or mucked around, or ignored – all that personal insult stuff that is so hard to argue. There is no formal means of redress, unless the organisation’s HR policies and their ‘good employer’ commitment includes volunteers in their complaints and disciplinary procedures, and in annual review processes which offer a two-way consideration of both the volunteer programme and volunteer contributions. To go further into ‘workplace protection’ would jeopardise the meaning and status of volunteering.
In 2009 serious breaches of trust between volunteers and the organisations they volunteered for led to Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The outcome called on organisations to sign up to the 3R Promise, promoting and protecting and taking responsibility for volunteer experience and raising standards of management of volunteers, and reconciliation when things go wrong. Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations is another model, outlining opportunities for organisation development and change to develop and maintain a programme that offers volunteers the best possible experience.
But the fundamentals of that best experience is based on good communication, effective working relationships, high standards of training and induction, ongoing support, demonstrative appreciation and being valued for contributing to the organisation’s mission and to the community. (Have I missed anything here?) These are matters of professional standards and ethics and values. They are ‘people-centred’, involving relationships of mutual respect and trust.
If we listened to ‘what volunteers want’ we would not have to set up complaint registers or to promise commitments, or guidelines for organisations. If we listened to volunteers we would not be pushed to concern for protecting their rights. We might even become the profession we ought to be.
And – we’ll get more pictures of happy and satisfied volunteers.
April 14, 2013
For too long I have been listening to these words, how “they” just do not understand volunteering and management of volunteers. Now I am sitting up to ask the question “What do we mean by getting volunteering – what do we want ‘them’ to get?”
And I’m running into trouble when I go looking for answers.
I could recite the litany of volunteer motivations; describe the history of community organisations and their rise to national and corporate status. I could tell the stories of volunteers, and there are millions to document ‘making the difference’ for individuals and communities. I’m not so keen on citing the record of hours worked and assumed $$ contributions, because that information does not seem to wash further than input/output statistics in the annual accounts – volunteers are just another resource to draw on. And anyway, we have gone down all these roads, many times.
What is it, what is the real deal that would get staff and organisation executives and government departments and corporate bosses to open their eyes to a real Ah-Ha moment about volunteering?
For starters it would help if “they”
Have had personal experience of volunteering and an understanding of the relevance of community in the wider fields of political and social action.
Work in an organisation structure and culture where volunteers are physically located in staff work-spaces, and which integrates the volunteer programme in service delivery plans and processes.
Employee volunteering is another option to open eyes to the richness and diversity of community organisations, and to their needs.
Yet these experiences do not seem to work for everyone in all places. The stories keep recurring about a lack of support for volunteers and their managers, and about organisations not taking volunteering seriously. It’s a low cost investment, nice to have, but not something to be worried about nor included when it comes to planning and strategic development.
Of course what the bosses and bureaucrats should be doing is paying attention to Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.
It is encouraging to note increasing awareness and activism among managers of volunteers and associated groups. We are talking up impact and outcome measurement of volunteer services, advocating for volunteering within our organisations. But following this path is simply trying to prove the worth of volunteering on “their” terms, a linear logic that can be described with numbers on paper.
If only “they” could look the other way to see the true value of volunteering. Here is what I would want “them” to see:
Volunteers complement the organisation’s delivery of services.
Volunteers add value to services, providing extras that are never going to be funded, and which enhance the holistic experience of users/clients.
Volunteers are ambassadors for the organisation. With a good experience volunteers can be the best marketing agent ever. If that experience is not so good they will do the worst possible damage to your reputation in the community, making it difficult to recruit new volunteers, and putting significant limitations on the success of fundraising projects.
Community organisations are said to be driven by values. No matter the mission you will find words like respect, dignity, communication, family-whanau/people-centred, community inclusiveness featuring on the masthead. Values represent beliefs and attitudes we hold dear, and we know them by the way they are exhibited in behaviour. Regardless of the reasons why people volunteer their behaviour generally reflects the ideals of the organisation.
So when we try to measure volunteering according to business plans and key performance indicators and impact measurement we get stuck on things like courtesy and goodwill, like relationships and understanding, like social connections and community development and individual and collective strengths. Volunteering is about people, by people and for people.
The value of volunteering is not less than the organisation’s ability to reach targets and to show a return on investment. Volunteering is a different sort of value. So, for “them” to ‘get volunteering’ requires understanding a different culture.
The beauty of understanding and accepting cultural difference is the new relationship that forms, based on each others’ strengths and a willingness to learn how to work together. That’s when I shall know “they” really get volunteering.
April 7, 2013
A recently reported research study is titled Fears, constraints and contracts: the democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector. The results are hard-hitting, lifting a lid on current experience for organisations whose voice has been largely silenced by the political shift over the past forty years, to neo-liberal economics and the out-sourcing of social services to the community sector.
The survey covers both NGO and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, all fields of social service provision, and both large national organisations and small community groups with no paid staff and no external funding. The promise of confidentiality and privacy allowed a freedom to respond to questions in an open and direct way. The results will not be surprising to those of us engaged in the community and voluntary sector, but the tenor and directness of the quoted statements leave us in no doubt of a depth of disappointment and frustration behind the words. For example (p 57):
NGOs play a unique and crucial role in New Zealand. Their contribution to political decision-making in NZ is currently undervalued and under-utilised. They are under-resourced and therefore undermined. (Emphasis added)
Small wonder these words deserved underscoring.
The report deserves to be read in full, to get the picture of how we have come to this pretty pass, and to note the references to earlier studies raising questions and alarm bells.
Those with long memories will recall the shifts we had to make in New Zealand from the early 1980s. Let me remind you:
A simple ‘begging letter’ to a philanthropic or trust fund changed to formal application requirements and for reports on spending and demonstrable benefits or gains. Organisations were forced to hire people to spend their days making funding applications, thus increasing overhead costs. And philanthropic funders got into cahoots to determine which social issue of the moment deserved the most attention.
Contracts for health and social services devolved from government responsibility might have brought funding security, but the new environment came with fish-hooks like health and safety regulations; like additional responsibilities and accountability for volunteer governance, not to mention compliance costs. What was previously a mission-based civil society endeavour changed to dancing to the tune of government direction.
Consultation quickly became a dirty word as proposals were presented with invitation to comment, only to find policy directions had already been decided. Very little notice was taken of community responses no matter the expressed outrage. Neither were organisations given time or resources to present community views to government.
These are the bones now cemented into the community and voluntary sector. Fundraising has become a professional occupation, accompanied by the marketing experts so that organisations compete for the charity dollar and corporate sponsorship. Contracts with government are confidential and a gagging clause ensures docile compliance. These days it seems a consultation document is issued one week and turned into a political or regulatory edict just a few weeks later.
The government’s ‘relationship’ with the community and voluntary sector bound in the Kia Tutahi document counts for nothing against the control imposed by the contracting environment. Adding to this disregard of communities the Charities Commission is disestablished, its responsibilities now determined and regulated by a government department. The rules change and over a thousand organisations lose their charitable status and their ability to raise funds via the carrot of tax rebates. Advocacy is out, so longstanding organisations like Greenpeace and National Council of Women (NCW) are no longer deemed charities. In ‘the good old days’ NCW was a political force to be reckoned with, up there with Federated Farmers and the Federation of Labour.
Here is the sound of the silence of democratic dissent.
And this reality happens, the report’s findings say, regardless of which political party heads the government. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.
A few people will recognise a parallel universe in the way organisations can undervalue the work of managers of volunteers, and under-appreciate volunteer contributions to oiling social wheels and to maintaining community wellbeing in many different spheres. I could suggest this is a function of a trickle-down pecking order. I would sooner we took a stand to exercise our democratic voice, for volunteers and for the organisations that serve our communities.
There was plenty of encouragement to do just this at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Management of Volunteers. Focus Up! was a key message. Recognise our roles as Leaders, Educators, Movers and Shakers and do something! Even if it means getting out of comfort zones, causing a stir, sticking heads over parapets. We owe it to volunteers and to our communities.
March 23, 2013
No, this post is not a lecture on Road Safety, nor is it about peripheral vision. I want to talk about how a manager of volunteers needs two lines of sight.
Because it’s all very well to design and develop and run a programme for volunteers in an organisation, and to take to heart the mission of ensuring the best experience for the volunteers – but if you have not looked the other way to see how the volunteer programme integrates with other organisation functions and policies then both volunteers and the organisation can end up being short-changed.
Over the years I’ve listened to the sorrowful song-book presented by managers of volunteers. Here’s a small sample:
- Volunteers are regarded as second-rate workers
- Managers of volunteers don’t rate it as ‘managers’, nor as ‘professionals’
- They are lowly-paid and inadequately resourced
- No support for professional development
- Lip-service recognition of the volunteer programme, and volunteer achievements
- ‘They’ just don’t get volunteering
It does not have to be like that! And it isn’t of course, as the champions and leaders of our profession can demonstrate. There are also Chief Executives who know and understand volunteering and its importance to the organisation, ensuring volunteers get a fair go and respect for their work.
So what can you be doing to get away from the moan-and-groan stuff?
Simple answer: you get strategic.
Help! I don’t know how.
Yes you do! You have thought through what was needed for the programme, developed policies and processes, set everything in place for the recruitment and training of volunteers, and how volunteering would work in the organisation. You connected with your communities, and with the local network of managers of volunteers. Now you can do it all again, in the other direction, developing the connections and the strategies that will show senior management how to embrace volunteering and your management and leadership within the organisational fold.
Where do I start?
Hang on a minute. Before you get to action you have to do the planning. And before the planning, you need to figure what it is you are trying to do. You want the organisation to get volunteering, and the importance of good management and leadership of volunteers, right? What do you mean by “get volunteering”? What is it that people need to know about volunteering? What do you want to tell them and what is the best way to do it?
Now you can start thinking about your strategic plan – the key areas to work on, and the goals you have identified. You will be taking into account what is working and what doesn’t and what is missing. For instance, does volunteering get more than a mention in the organisation’s strategic plan and its business plan? How would you write up volunteering in these plans?
There is more: being strategic includes identifying potential allies, formulating the key points you want to communicate, and considering the channels open to you. You might, in the first instance, start reporting on volunteers and their activities, telling their stories and successes – and circulating the report to key players in the organisation, and especially the chief executive. Be bold, and go further by offering to meet and discuss the report. Even suggest what more could be achieved by volunteers.
Is this enough to go on with, to give you a kick-start?
If you want more info and other perspectives, go see how volunteer programmes can get Messed Up and what to do about it; or the observations of a group UK Managers of Volunteers. For details on how-to-plan, and what should be included, see this chapter of the Community Resource Kit or get the basics from Sport NZ.
One of the slogans I hear frequently is “managers of volunteers are advocates for volunteers in the organisation”, though I hear little about results of advocacy. The plaint of getting volunteering gets much more air time. Quite honestly this is the biggest foot-fault of our profession: wishing others would see our point of view is wishful thinking and accomplishes nothing. It is time to change our ways, to work on making looking-both-ways a key dynamic in the life of a manager of volunteers.
March 3, 2013
March is the month for the beginning of autumn in my southern hemisphere, though current sunshine levels have not yet arrived at the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. We are getting close however, to harvesting a project begun more than three years ago. In a couple of months Volunteering New Zealand will publish the Learning and Development Pathway, a guide to professional development for managers of volunteers. This document will sit alongside the Best Practice Guidelines for volunteer-involving organisations.
The need for skilled and competent managers of volunteers has been a universal catch-cry for decades, alongside attaining due recognition and appreciation for the work entailed in enabling volunteers to play such a huge role in delivering community services. We are not alone in raising the concerns we have in New Zealand.
The project started from a vision that Managers/Leaders of Volunteers should be valued, well-resourced and competent professionals. Research and stories of experience was showing managers of volunteers were (and are) struggling for recognition and for resources for professional development. The flow-on effect was that volunteers may not get the best possible experience from their work, thus impacting on job satisfaction and recruitment, and not least on the services they provide in community organisations. We were also keen to put paid to the self image of being just a volunteer or just a volunteer manager, phrases which carry the imputation of lesser value than others in the organisation.
What took us so long – in getting to start the project, and then three years of consultation and debate? The original cry was Enough! following a Volunteering New Zealand conference. Then we engaged in a collective debate to determine goals and lots of sharing skills and knowledge. It was an empowering process, encouraging people to respond to the challenges and to think about breaching some of the barriers. Good things take time, and given the diversity of volunteering and community organisations it was important to discuss plans as widely as possible.
Of course getting a learning pathway to publication stage is not the end of the mission. Follow-up promotion will be needed, pressing for acceptance and action on recommended practice. There are plenty of opportunities to meet a range of training needs, but maybe some persuasion will be needed for organisations to see the benefits of supporting professional development – through fee reimbursement or paid study leave, for example. Managers of volunteers who may be reluctant to take on formal study, can note they could gain credits via Assessment of Prior Learning (APL).
So what will we be seeing in a year’s time? At the very least, there will be wide-ranging conversations about recognition and training for managers of volunteers. At the very least, organisations could be acknowledging the relevance and importance of their volunteer programmes, and considering how to enhance them.
Whether by small steps or big strides Volunteering New Zealand has started something that could end up being a whole lot bigger.
February 3, 2013
Molly has volunteered for 25 years, delivering meals-on-wheels in a small country town. She took her turn once a week for two months each year. She’s a farmer living thirty minutes out of town and unable to volunteer more frequently. Molly enjoyed the work and the folk she came to know. Always her work was completed on time, no-one missed out and there were no muddle-ups.
Now Molly is 80 years old and would like to give away her volunteering days. She is all set to advise the volunteer coordinator accordingly. But the coordinator has not phoned, has not made contact, has not enquired about Molly’s well-being or otherwise. So Molly has been cast adrift with never a thank you note to acknowledge the years she has been serving in this rural community.
Too often we hear the tales of agony from managers of volunteers faced with scenarios of elderly volunteers who avoid recognising their age-related deficiencies. But to abandon a volunteer who has not put a foot wrong by simply ignoring them? Not on, I say.
Of course Molly might have picked up the phone herself to let the coordinator know she would not be coming back. Well, I’ve been on the end of such conversations with managers of volunteers and felt the pressure to change my mind, to keep on volunteering because the organisation needs me so badly, is so short of volunteers, and I’m so good at what I do, and the clients just love me. Molly doesn’t need such flattery. Nor is she feeling aggrieved, and is not about to blab about her experience to friends and neighbours. That’s a blessing, because in small town rural New Zealand where people and their business is known to all, that would spell damnation for the coordinator and the service.
The irony is, the coordinator is now delivering meals herself because she is unable to recruit more volunteers. That’s what we should really be concerned about – the colleague who is struggling, who needs support and probably a heap of good advice. And there is no Volunteer Centre to call on. What should we do? Stand back and watch everything go from bad to worse? Or take time, find some resources to lend a hand, or at least offer support?
I’ve got some ideas, because I know the area and there’s one or two contacts I can call on. OK, it could be tricky, but it is important to try.
Because one person’s plight is a bell tolling for all of us in this profession. Managing volunteers is more than running a good programme – it’s also an occupation that needs muscle and political strategising to maintain respect and value for volunteering. We need to look out for each other as well as the volunteers.
January 27, 2013
The topic is a perennial conversation among managers of volunteers, that business of establishing and maintaining good relationships between paid staff and volunteers. There can be lots of agonising on how-to, and what to do when volunteers get a raw deal.
Well, on just one short page, authors Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch turn the discussion on its head. Their paper is titled How to Generate Conflict between Paid Staff and Volunteers. I can’t find the date of publication, but you can still find the page here.
The recommended advice contradicts everything good practice in managing volunteers would support. It points up the hazards of relationships, and what can go wrong – specially if the manager gets precious about volunteers. Here’s what McCurley and Lynch are suggesting:
- Don’t involve staff in the decisions as to if and how to utilize volunteers within the agency. Everybody loves a surprise.
- Don’t plan in advance the job descriptions or support and supervision systems for the volunteers. These things will work themselves out if you just give them time.
- Accept everyone who volunteers for a position, regardless of whether you think they are over-qualified or under-qualified. Quantity is everything.
- Assume that anyone who volunteers can pick up whatever skills or knowledge they need as they go along.
- If you do insist on training volunteers, be sure not to include the staff with whom the volunteers will be working in the design of the training.
- Assume that your staff already knows everything it needs about proper volunteer utilization. Why should they receive any better training than you did?
- Don’t presume to recognize the contributions that volunteers make to the agency. After all, volunteers are simply too valuable for words.
- Don’t reward staff who work well with volunteers. They are only doing their job.
- Don’t let staff supervise the volunteers who work with them. As a volunteer director, you should be sure to retain all authority over ‘your’ volunteers.
- Try to suppress any problems that come to your attention. Listening only encourages complaints.
- In case of disputes, operate on the principle that “The Staff is Always Right.” Or operate on the principle of “My Volunteers, Right or Wrong.” This is no time for compromise.
I hope this litany raises more giggles than guilt. I hope it points out best practice principles in ways that are simple to apply. Maybe it will generate action to be taken, indicate areas for negotiation, especially around the extent of responsibilities carried by the manager of volunteers.
For example, letting go of direct management could be a strategic way to get paid staff more directly involved with volunteers. It would bring management closer to volunteers and open up opportunities for ‘volunteer’ team leaders. Ultimately, devolving direct line-responsibilities could be the stress-and sanity-saver for managers of volunteers. Just think of the time and energy conserved when there is less effort required for trouble-shooting and peace-keeping.
The bottom line, if you need to be reminded, is a better deal for volunteers, with a side-dressing dollop of greater respect for the role and the skills of the manager of volunteers.