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.
February 17, 2013
I have been collecting a litany of words commonly used as descriptors of volunteering. There’s quite a selection, and they cover various meanings, from conferring respect and value to some not-so-flattering terms.
Volunteers make the world go round Backbone of society
Local heroes Salt of the earth Good sorts People power
Glue / Fabric of the community Community Builders
Community collective Spirit of Community Community Champions
Not-for-Profit Institution Non-Government Organisation
Freebies Do-gooder Lady Bountiful
No doubt there are a few more to add (please do!) The one that is grabbing my attention at present is Unsung Heroes, a television programme on TVNZ. Yes, really! Volunteers are featuring on prime time TV, an extended series show-casing the range and variety of volunteer work in New Zealand.
Most of the major NFP organisations in our communities are represented, and there are some nice pieces on less widely-known charities. Even the Christchurch Student Army gets a look-in.
What a relief from other reality-TV programmes which too often display the sad, the bad and the downright silliness of human behaviour. Unsung Heroes hits all the right notes, covering the real activities undertaken by volunteers and including off-the-cuff comments on their motivation. Mostly the latter is about the feel-good benefits for the volunteer, or the doing-good-in-the-community effect, and once or twice because the volunteer had experienced help from the organisation they have joined.
And yet…. It’s all very well showing off the worthiness of volunteer work, and the achievements of volunteers – but if you haven’t got the background of the organisation, and what it takes to getting a volunteer on the job then you are getting less than half the story. There’s no show yet of a manager of volunteers, nor the extensive training undertaken by emergency service volunteers and telephone counsellors. Training has not had a mention in any context. Or even an induction and orientation. The series, thus far, has excluded that vast array of informal volunteering that goes under the radar and which really does make the world go round. It would be nice to see something of Mahi Aroha, and the volunteer effort generated by migrant and refugee communities for supporting their own and for sustaining their cultures.
OK – we can’t have everything, and we should be congratulating NZ On Air for commissioning the programme. But still I think – why not go a bit further?
What about creating a series based on the drama that is ever present in the life of a manager of volunteers? Synopsis: follow a valiant manager who herds a bunch of aspiring volunteers through the process of recruitment, training and placement, and what happens to them on the job. Now there’s a scenario to put management of volunteers on the map! Because they are our real Unsung Heroes.
November 25, 2012
Scenario: you are interviewing a candidate for a position to manage volunteers, and you want to check out the level of passion they would bring to the role. How would you frame the questions?
I am not looking for answers right now. I’m going off on a tangent to investigate the meanings of ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’. I want to question why these words should feature so frequently in the context of volunteering.
They turn up in promotional material, in organisation newsletters and in recruitment adverts. ‘Thank you’ speeches at Volunteer recognition functions are peppered with references to appreciation for volunteers’ ‘passion’. Volunteer Centres and national umbrella organisations and even international leaders in our field find ways to insert ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ into their writing. Even government publications don’t shy away from such emotive language where volunteers are involved.
Here are a few examples of slogans you can find without looking very far:
Show us your passion
Your passion, our nation, volunteer now!
Volunteer leadership is “passion management.”
They are examples of language used to attract and encourage volunteering, and to proclaim the good intentions and aspirations of managers of volunteers.
‘Passion’ means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. It comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to suffer’. OK, I know how ‘intense desire’ can be experienced as suffering, though this interpretation is better applied outside the province of volunteering and management of volunteers, despite frustrations experienced too often by the latter. The passion of volunteering and the management of volunteer services is more about ‘intense enthusiasm’.
There is nothing the matter with being passionate, and to be fair, the word is also prominent in the for-profit sector. But we do need to be clear what we mean, otherwise the word becomes a cliché and its currency devalued. ‘Passion’ risks turning into a platitude, like ‘commitment’ and ‘making a difference’. ‘Passion’ is a word too big and too important to turn into a shorthand slogan.
When we use ‘passion’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath we are referring to values held about people and communities and belonging and relationships, about service and mutual support, and about meeting needs. Values are those beliefs and principles that are prized and cherished, and they are demonstrated every day in our behaviour. We don’t have to declare we are passionate about volunteering: we can show you, all the time.
Being passionate about volunteering is relative to the cause of the organisation and its mission. That’s how many a community organisation started in the first place. Of course these days people can be more pragmatic about why they volunteer, yet there’s many a story about less-than-enthusiastic volunteers finding their ‘passion’ and becoming ardent supporters of an organisation.
Why should ‘passion’ be an important attribute for managers of volunteers? For starters you have to be pretty keen (if not ‘intensely enthusiastic’) about volunteering to make the most of the position. Passion contributes to raised performance standards, job satisfaction, and effective leadership of volunteers – which may include harnessing their passion when it becomes indiscriminate. Sometimes passion is needed in gaining a recognised stake in the organisation.
But what if you overplay your hand? There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic and becoming a fanatic. It’s a line between getting people to listen to well-reasoned arguments and in the way the emotional speech can turn into an eye-rolling, here-she-goes-again response. Too much overt passion can end up like Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: Each man kills the thing he loves.
So when it comes to interviewing prospective managers of volunteers I would be steering away from emotional rhetoric and asking about practical applications. Examples of practice will demonstrate just how ‘committed’ to ‘making a difference’ and the degree of ‘passion’ is held by the candidate.
August 12, 2012
… Is a grand novel by A S Byatt, which turned into a pretty good movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow
… Is the title of several other movies, and songs
… Is a word of many different connotations, like:
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. (That is, the question of ownership is more likely to be settled in a legal context by ‘possession’.)
We have pronouns, my / mine, your / yours, our/ ours and theirs, to indicate ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’ of everything between material property and ‘things’, to inspirited passion and hearts’ desires, to great ideas and intellectual property.
The question is: who owns volunteers?
I am asking because twice in one week I have been at workshops where I was hearing about my volunteers, my board of trustees, my volunteer programme. That possessive pronoun was working overtime.
Here are my arguments on why we should avoid talking about my volunteers:
- “Owning” people went out with the demise of feudalism. Slavery is outlawed too, though we still have to be vigilant re People Trafficking.
- Volunteers are their own persons; they are exercising their free will to engage with the organisation.
- They engage with the organisation, not exclusively with the manager of volunteers.
- Volunteers undertake a range of roles, tasks and responsibilities across the organisation, generally accountable to different section or team managers, not directly to the manager of volunteers.
- Even where the manager of volunteers is leading a team, this happens on behalf of the organisation. So better to refer to ‘our’ volunteers, or the more neutral ‘the’ volunteer programme / service.
- ‘Our volunteers’ still hints of possessiveness, yet embraces volunteering as an integral part of the organisation. And if you say ‘our volunteers’ with pride in your voice you are saying heaps about your sincere appreciation of their work.
- Relationships and Communication are key elements of leading volunteers. Yes, managers of volunteers need to establish personal connections with volunteers, but we also need to set the boundaries of these relationships. Becoming ‘over-involved’ is a sure route to trouble, and a big no-no for professional reputations and credibility.
So this is my litany. I am quibbling with a simple linguistic usage. Yet if we can change a few simple words in our language we can change a whole lot of perceptions and make a world of difference. Read Alison’s story to see what can happen when you drop my from your references to volunteers.
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 24, 2012
Whew! The excitement and hype of Volunteer Awareness Week has come to an end – though I hope the messages of appreciation have gone far and wide, and will linger in the ears of volunteers for a while to come.
This year the Week generated more participation and enthusiasm than I have seen in years. Press releases continued to be issued throughout the week, from such diverse organisations as Department of Conservation, Age Concern, and Coast Guards. On Facebook there were dozens of daily entries inviting you to check the ‘like’ box, because they were highlighting an event or acknowledging the extent of volunteer service. Newspapers ran articles on volunteering and management of volunteers, and occasional stories of volunteer experience. There were also advertisements of appreciation, from a wide range of organisations, alongside invitations to volunteer.
There was little public proclamation from volunteers themselves. You had to be at one of those functions where awards were handed out and where the stories were told.
“It’s very nice to be appreciated,” said recipient Brenda Segar, 71, of Parklands. That was on the front page of The Press, about Volunteer Canterbury’s award ceremony. Another item reported on the 82 year old woman who was too busy volunteering to accept an award for her work. “I don’t do it for reward”. She likes doing things for others. “This is most enjoyable. I get home on a bit of a high afterwards.”
I wish we heard more from all those younger generations of volunteers who are filling the ranks in increasing numbers. Volunteering is not just for the olds!
The story of matching organisation need with corporate interest and volunteer support was recounted at a Wellington function to celebrate the Nikau Foundation Corporate Challenge 2012. There could not have been a more literal example of building communities than the alliance between Habitat for Humanity, and the volunteer engineers from Beca.
In all the hoop-la and speechifying I could still hear the platitudes and clichés about volunteers and volunteering. There were some new buzzwords too. I wish we could find the slogans that offer genuine meanings of volunteering.
However, my media-scanning over the past week has gleaned some thoughtful and honest representations of volunteering and the relationship between volunteers and the organisations they serve.
Volunteers make the world go round, which is another way of saying Volunteering is Fun; it’s going and doing. Volunteering is not the last word saving the world or being indispensible: it is being human, and being involved in community.
Volunteers demonstrate commitment and dedication and passion and skill, and they choose to show us how. (Plunket Society)
Volunteering and volunteer organisations are an important part of the fabric of New Zealand (Citizens Advice Bureau). Yes! A fabric is made up of warp and weft, and colour and design, length and breadth – all the multiple dimensions we can find in our communities.
Connection is the heart of volunteering There is resonance here: Connection speaks of interaction, and a linking with other parts of societal structures – the political, economic and cultural. This, from the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector who concludes:
“As a short-cut for describing the outcomes achieved by the volunteering sector, we often use descriptions like ‘improving social cohesion’ and ‘strengthening communities’. What that really means at a personal level is that volunteers are creating relationships and enriching people’s lives, including their own, as they contribute their time and effort to making New Zealand a better place.”
There we have it then, a simple equation:
Volunteers + the organisation (good leadership and management) = Building Communities