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.
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.
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.
November 11, 2012
We know all about the benefits of volunteering, for organisations and communities. We can count up the numbers – of volunteers and hours worked – which show simple aggregates of inputs and outputs, and we are finding ways to offer evidence of ‘making a difference’.
We know how a well-run programme can attract new volunteers and donors and gains in street-cred for the organisation. (And how quickly the reverse can happen if quality standards slip).
These days we know volunteer motivation can be less grounded in altruism than in seeking ROI – skill development, work experience and social contact. That’s the individual and personal gain.
There are other spin-offs. At volunteer gatherings where a mix of teams get together I have known excited reunions of people who went to school together or who lived in the same street a long time ago.
When volunteers are really engaged in the organisation you can bet they are developing relationships and forging new friendships. There’s many a tale of clusters of volunteers who meet regularly out of the workplace, organise a reunion, start their own Facebook page. Rugby World Cup volunteers got together again recently, to reminisce and to celebrate their achievements.
But did you know that Volunteering is also Good for Your Heart?
So says a report on research on individual health benefits of volunteering (published 2007).
Volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.
Those who engage in volunteer activities are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life and may be introduced into a positive reinforcing cycle of good health and future volunteering.
Even when controlling for other factors such as age, health, and gender, research has found that when individuals volunteer, they are more likely to live longer.
These claims are substantiated in more than 30 studies reviewing the relationship between health and volunteering. It is suggested by one commentator that Civic Engagement and Volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century – and it’s free to join.
Which is all very encouraging for volunteerism and community organisations and community well-being. But is the correlation of volunteering with good health dependent on practice standards in organisations, and quality management of volunteers? Feeling good about volunteering is certainly related to job satisfaction, a supportive work environment, and being respected and appreciated – all charged out as organisation responsibilities.
So the launch this week of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Organisations is to be welcomed, by administrators, managers of volunteers, and surely – by volunteers themselves.
November 4, 2012
This is the week to bring out the banners and balloons, put on the party gear and to show off yourself and what you do in managing volunteers. Self-promotion if you like, and I like self-promotion – because if you cannot value yourself and your achievements then it is sometimes hard for other people to see the value of your work.
So going crazy now and again is a way to take pride in being a manager of volunteers. You know – leading teams, juggling 100 people, 100 motivations, 100 job descriptions, with a zero budget for a priceless resource. As the You-tube clips have been saying, Who else could do that!
[Mumble mumble, and a bit of rhubarb] What’s that? You are uncomfortable with displays of self-praise? It’s not right to put yourself ahead of volunteers?
Don’t you see? Everything you do as a leader of volunteers is promoting their interests. Standing up for them, pushing their barrow every which way you can is demonstrating the importance of your work. You know the power of volunteering and just how much volunteers contribute to the organisation’s mission. So take some credit for getting the programme going and for maintaining the standards.
And notice, every now and again, how volunteers appreciate your leadership. They might be small efforts, like encouraging them in their work, giving praise and thanks for a job well done, and spending time to listen to their stories – but you bet they will be noticed. Make up a poster board to record all the compliments that come your way, even the little things like thanks – for returning my call / your prompt reply / your welcoming smile.
And take time, at least on one day a year, to say Yes, I did well, and I am well pleased. Because you’re worth it.
October 14, 2012
Promoting diversity is a significant industry in New Zealand. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) works for a fair, safe and just society, where diversity is valued, human rights respected, and everyone is able to live free from prejudice and unlawful discrimination. Commissioners for Race Relations, Equal Employment Opportunity and Disability Rights are included in the office of HRC.
Of course it is in the public interest (and the Government’s) to celebrate cultural diversity, to promote equal rights, to foster harmonious relations, and to meet the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi. And it should be of no less interest to managers of volunteers.
There are some tactical advantages in aiming for a volunteer team that represents diversity in the community. One is the signal to donors and the public that the organisation is open and community-friendly. Better still is the opportunity for a wide spread of information and good tidings about the organisation – which in turn can generate more goodwill, and donations, and a steady stream of volunteer applicants. And when users or clients of the organisation come from diverse backgrounds it makes even more sense to recruit a broad range of volunteers.
This approach means the manager of volunteers is faced with applications from people aged 19 to 90, job-seekers to corporate professionals, people wanting social contact and others paying social debts, those on a mission and those looking for one, the able and the disabled, and people new to town or new to the country.
All those differences matter not a jot when there is a common goal, and when the differences have nothing to do with volunteer tasks. In other words the manager plays on volunteer commonalities. Difference and diversity does not have to mean lack of ability to work together.
But I think there is a point where demonstrating openness and community representativeness in a volunteer programme is overtaken by attention to inclusiveness.
Selection procedures will screen out people on solid grounds, according to the nature of the service or the particular volunteer roles. There is never a place to rule out the applicant who ‘does not fit the mould’.
Inclusiveness is what happens when the application from a wheelchair-user is not declined because of disability, but assigned to a role according to ability. Stumbling with communication when English is your second (or 3rd or 4th) language is no obstacle to volunteering on a beach clean up or to planting trees. The bright-eyed school leaver could be just the person to take cups of tea around to elderly patients.
Inclusiveness is what happens when the organisation offers a contribution to travel costs, or makes allowances for child care schedules. To do otherwise is to exclude people from volunteering. Inclusiveness is taking a volunteer’s good idea and running with it instead of saying it can’t be done.
Nobody has said embracing diversity would be easy. Nor commented on the amount of juggling a manager does to harness the diversity of volunteers. But the end result is creating a community of volunteers working together for the good of the organisation. Which in turn generates a flow-on impact on relationships in the wider community.
The fern represents the growing cultural diversity of New Zealand. Starting from the base of the fern, the motifs are as follows:
- Traditional kowhaiwhai pattern from a painted panel. Manutuke church. (1849) Rongowhakaata Tribe.
- Fleur de Lys design loosely representing the European population, taken from hinges on St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland.
- Samoan pattern from tapa cloth.
- Traditional Chinese character found on silk cloth. The character ‘shou’ means longevity.
- Indian paisley, used in henna (mendhi) designs to adorn the hands.
- Vietnamese motif from a piece of woven fabric.
- Middle Eastern motif (Iranian).
- Baby fronds symbolising new growth.
September 30, 2012
In just five weeks’ time the International Day for Managers of Volunteers will be upon us. Planning has started already for the day’s performances.
You can find out more on the website, including resources and articles and a great list of ideas for promoting managers of volunteers. Or track the international buzz on the facebook page – there’s a couple of jazzy you-tube clips to view as well.
In New Zealand the day will begin as usual with a breakfast session hosted by Volunteer Wellington. A lot of focus will then turn to the start of Volunteering Auckland’s two-day conference, Let’s Get Connected. A highlight on the first day is the launch of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best-practice guidelines for volunteer-involving organisations, to be broadcast per webinar.
I talked about this year’s slogan a couple of months ago: Leaders of Volunteers: Who Else Could Do That? Now take a look at the poster and see just what an awesome person the manager of volunteers can be.
For example, the Community Organiser (known some decades ago as Professional Dissenter) and the Social Entrepreneur might be unfamiliar labels – but that’s what you do when getting people to work together in a team, or for your cause. Right?
You may have doubts about being a visionary, but by heck you are always looking ahead and figuring the next steps in a programme, or how to engage the super-skills a volunteer is offering. Come on – you know you are a Seer.
And when you add up all the labels on this list, there’s only one summary: Miracle Worker.
You are a Miracle Worker because
- you create something out of nothing more than the offer of goodwill;
- you can bind together diverse interests, personalities and cultures to work in a common cause;
- you own a know how / can do belief in the organisation’s vision and mission; and
- you are an achiever, despite many people lacking full understanding of volunteering and what your role entails.
Now all of this is fine and good, and we can roll over for another year. Except don’t you just wish we could see a few more steps towards regular recognition and support for professional development? In New Zealand the Best Practice Guidelines are a start, and watch out for the Learning and Development Pathway to come early next year. But these are practice issues, and I am thinking more about the professional association that could speak as one voice on our behalf.
In our region that association is AAMOV – the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers.
Professional associations for managers of volunteers have not had a good track record over past years, but do not let that put you off. You want to get recognition, acknowledgement of your training and qualifications? You want your expertise recognised in a halfway decent salary? You want somebody to be able to speak out on your behalf, to be a champion of your occupation? Support AAMOV so they can support and promote your interests.
Because it is through collective strength that we can make achievements in
- promoting best practice for Managers of Volunteers
- providing pathways for professional development
- providing opportunities for peer support
- developing strategic relations with government, non-government organisations and the business sector.
The annual AAMOV Manager of Excellence Award offers an example of best practice, and one small step towards public recognition of the importance of good management of volunteers.
Let’s celebrate on November 5, as the poster says, the work of those “who inspire, empower and manage the spirit of volunteerism around the world”.
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.
August 5, 2012
The clock has started ticking. Three months from today we will be rejoicing and celebrating International Volunteer Managers’ Day, or as we say in New Zealand, IMV Day. ‘Managers of Volunteers’ speaks to us in New Zealand more loudly than being a Volunteer Manager, specially when we read the slogan for this year, and the taglines.
Leaders of Volunteers: Who Else Could Do That?
- Leading teams of both paid and unpaid staff? Who else could do that?
- 100 people, 100 motivations, 100 job descriptions… Who else could do that?
- $0 budget for a priceless resource? Who else could do that?
I confess I asked myself Who Else would Want to Do That?
But the introduction and promotion of Leadership is timely. We are not ‘just’ managers – the pen pushers and the strategists and organisers for running a volunteer programme – we are leaders of prime importance in delivering services over a whole range of interests. We are leaders in our communities, creating opportunities for volunteers, ensuring they have a good experience – not to mention the training and the support, the supervision and the celebrations and appreciation events that volunteers can enjoy. Who else could do all that, indeed!
So while people might be ground down in multi-tasking, coping with the numbers, whole-of-organisation coverage, and performing to super-hero(ine) status, November 5 every year is the time to draw breath, to accept the accolades, and to recognise that leadership of volunteers is a unique occupation. Long may you reign!
The IVMA website tells me we celebrate the profession of volunteer leadership because:
1. Volunteer Managers have the skills and knowledge to help people be part of the solution in meeting community needs. Even in cynical times, they practice the art of the possible.
2. Volunteer Managers change lives — both the lives of volunteers themselves and of those served by well-led volunteers. It is a life-changing profession. Volunteer managers provide the leadership and direction that allows people to build a good and just society and to mend the social fabric. Without professional leadership, people’s time, talents and efforts could be wasted.
3. A well-run volunteer program shows the community, including potential donors, that the organization is not afraid of public scrutiny and involvement and endeavours to make the most efficient use of monetary assets.
4. Well-led volunteers become an advocacy and public relations force for an agency or program — a force no amount of money could buy.
Amen to all that I say.
The thing is – and I have bleated about this before – managers of volunteers should not have to wait for an annual event. Respect and recognition for what they achieve should happen every day – because as former Prime Minister Helen Clark acknowledged in 2008: Without volunteers New Zealand stops!
When we no longer promote a special day for managers of volunteers I will know their time has come. And I will no longer have to join ARD Fairburn’s lament for the
“weary dolphins trapped in honey-coloured cobwebs / murmuring to the revolution Will you be long.”