June 16, 2013
National Volunteer Week is upon us. The stories about volunteers will unfold through newspaper spreads and press releases, and celebratory functions will be held all over the country.
This feast for volunteering goes international every year, and now it is New Zealand’s turn. Here, Volunteer Awareness Week has morphed into National Volunteer Week, taking a broader account of the ‘volunteer industry’. In Wellington corporate volunteering gets due recognition for example, and there are at least a couple of workshops specially to support managers of volunteers. Watch out for Volunteering New Zealand’s latest innovation: a daily webinar on different topics related to volunteering.
Why do we do this, every year? What’s the rationale for putting such energy and expense into appreciating volunteers and the business of supporting volunteering, for one week every year?
I could presume we do this because:
- Volunteers and volunteering are ignored the rest of the year
- The news media don’t give much attention to good news stories
- Organisations are focused on service delivery and overlook how much the work of volunteers contribute to those services on a regular basis
- Any excuse for a party!
- Opportunity for self-promotion of organisations and Volunteer Centres
- It’s a great exercise to recruit more volunteers to the ranks
There might be some elements of truth here, but not enough to justify an annual blast of publicity. We do a great deal of appreciation and recognition throughout the year, in large and small ways, both publicly and privately. So why do we still need to hold an annual week in praise of volunteering?
I’m having trouble finding rational answers to this question, specially when I hear volunteers saying:
Volunteer work is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth. You just do it. Being part of the community isn’t something that you tack on to life – it’s a really important part of life.
Volunteering gets into your blood. Like you can’t live without it.
If volunteering is so every-day and ordinary, so much part of our lifeblood, why the need for an annual fanfare?
Maybe the point about recruiting more volunteers is a good enough reason, because total volunteer numbers represent only one third of our population (though the data is probably under-reported). Because many organisations find they are constantly short on volunteers, and long in demand of services provided by volunteers. It’s not unreasonable to showcase opportunities to attract interest in volunteering – except recruitment and retention of volunteers is an on-going practice which cannot be left to an annual drive.
Maybe a promotional week is something bigger than the detail of recruitment and recognition. Maybe it’s the real opportunity to remind people about values of community, service, and the importance of Civil Society. We might be labelled as non-government or non-profit organisations, and relegated to the less-than-noble title of Third Sector, but by heck if we were not around the political and economic sectors would be missing the third leg of the stool that represents the sort of society we enjoy.
Maybe it is coincidence that CIVICUS has published a new report on the role that civil society plays and the conditions that enable it to do so. It is certainly timely.
Civil society plays multiple roles. We bring people together. We encourage debate, dialogue and consensus building. We research, analyse, document, publish and promote knowledge and learning. We develop, articulate and seek to advance solutions to problems. We engage with people and organisations in other spheres, such as government and business, to try to advance and implement solutions. We directly deliver services to those who need them. Sometimes we do all of these things at once. We need to assert that these are all legitimate civil society roles. [p 33]
This is what we do, all year, every year – right? And if you, as an organisation or as a volunteer, are struggling to be heard – take heart that you are not alone in the world:
The value that civil society brings always needs to be proved, documented and promoted – and the argument for civil society continually made: “While the assumption of the need for strong government and private sectors is today generally not questioned, the need for a strong civil society is not always so readily assumed.” [p44]
The report is worth reading in full to appreciate the global trends we are experiencing in New Zealand.
Maybe there is no definitive explanation for holding a National Volunteer Week. For now and for this week all I need to know is the answer to the question : What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! That is the start and the end-point of volunteering and community development, and of Civil Society. It is people!
June 9, 2013
Yes, in a week’s time New Zealand will have its turn at turning a spotlight on Volunteering. It is a time for national celebration of the work of volunteers, their organisations – and for the people responsible for managing volunteers. So what’s with the promotional banner adopted for this year? Volunteering NZ’s briefing explains.
“Hutia te rito o te harakeke Kei whaea te kōmako e kō? Kī mai ki ahau; He aha te mea nui o te Ao? Māku e kī atu He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”
If the heart of harakeke was removed, Where would the bellbird sing? If I was asked What is the most important thing in the world? I would say: It is people, it is people, it is people.
Harakeke is one of New Zealand’s oldest plant species. We call it flax, but really it is a lily.
Harakeke supports a community of birds, animals and insects.
Harakeke is a fibre plant sourced by Maori to use in all parts of domestic life and community living.
Harakeke is surely the symbol to represent volunteering, to signal the weaving between all peoples and their connections with community and the land.
[Read more about the history and uses of Harakeke here.]
Look closely – see the interlacing weaving, see the linked arms of community, of people, creating a badge of honour. Volunteering is by People, for People, and about People.
In the run-up to National Volunteer Week volunteers are going to great lengths to parade the world of their work.
Go Volunteers! And please, take notice of what their managers are doing every day, in every way, to create the best possible experience for 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.
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 17, 2013
The phenomenon of social media has spawned a raft of new ways to communicate, for business, for politicians, and for the voluntary sector – which has also generated significant commentary, on websites and in print.
In the on-line course Essentials of Volunteer Management participants are asked to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for recruitment. Mostly the responses are “we don’t”, and reservations are sometimes based on unfamiliarity with the facilities social media can offer.
Yes, as Susan J Ellis points out, social media is not always the ideal medium for recruitment messages: there are other fundamentals to take into account. And as we all know, it is word-of-mouth that proves the most effective tool for engaging new volunteers. Yet I am impressed with the promotional information and volunteer opportunities put up on Facebook by Volunteer Centres. In their role as brokers between organisations and prospective volunteers they are offering new opportunities for both parties. Mostly the messages are short and snappy and accompanied by a photograph, plus clear contact details.
Why should NGOs and not-for-profit organisations be bothering with social media? If you have a well-produced and inter-active web-site and regular e-newsletters what more do you need?
Well – social media is just the best communication tool for reaching the widest possible audience and for dispersing information and promoting organisational interests. Just think how popular crowd-sourcing and on-line fundraising has become. Notice how often a message or a video-clip can ‘go viral’ and become part of popular culture.
After all, says a UK fan, social media is designed to be fun, straightforward and easy to use, and with millions of potential supporters accessible online it’s too good an opportunity to miss.
Quite – especially when I want to keep in touch with Gen Y friends and find they are never checking their email inbox.
Of course, for all my enthusiasm there are still disadvantages to consider when thinking about using social media.
Here’s the advice from a for-profit business perspective * :
- It takes time: it’s a constant investment
- Target which channel you want to use, likely to be used by your consumers
- What are your objectives? To gain sales; build profile; communicate with members only?
- You need to have something interesting to say: be instructive, informative, controversial or humorous – otherwise your efforts will be simply social media white noise
- Is social media relevant to your target market? Test and measure its value to your business
For NGOs and Non-Profit organisations the best resource is the information offered by Jayne Cravens . Her advice and commentary, plus extra links, cover most of the points made above. There are risks to manage: you need a written policy on staff and volunteer online engagement as representatives of the organisation. It takes time to get results; you have to really get engaged with online supporters. Ultimately, Jayne says, online social networks are an important part of a mission-based organisation’s box of outreach tools.
And outreach, in my book, is all that marketing and promotion we need to do in this day and age. You might think it ironic that I am not a Tweeter, and a minimal contributor to Facebook – but I do know a good thing for community organisations when I see it. And I do like to push out boats on this blog.
* Drawn from an article in Dominion Post, Februay 25, 2013
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.
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.
December 2, 2012
It’s coming to your place this week, this annual splurge to celebrate volunteers and volunteering. It’s a day established back in 1985 by United Nations General Assembly to:
Promote the work of volunteer-involving organisations and individual volunteers
Promote their contributions to development at local, national and international levels.
There’ll be civic functions and a ministerial speech or two, maybe presentations of service awards, and lots of nice words said about volunteers and their work. We can say thank you forever, and of course we do that a lot more than one day a year.
Big question: Will International Volunteer Day really be about promoting the work of volunteers and their contribution? Saying thank you is not the same as doing a marketing programme.
Second question: Has anyone thought about what volunteers really want? Has anyone asked volunteers this question? Not why they volunteer, but what volunteers think is important to get the best out of their volunteering. Because in the midst of all the applause for volunteers on December 5 I know there are continuing complaints about volunteering that does not go well.
Here is a check list for measuring expectations:
- I want to know what the organisation stands for, its mission and values – who, and what, I will be working for. And I want to know what is expected of a volunteer.
- I want information about volunteer opportunities, job outlines, training programmes and support. That training had better be good too, for me to do a good job.
- I’m happy to fill in all the forms, answer the questions, reveal all that info that can be checked via an official database, and I want to know why you want all these details, and the about the security of your security systems. (Disasters in other fields in New Zealand this year have made me a bit nervous.)
- Yes, I shall complete all the training, but please explain why that health and safety stuff is important, even if all I will be doing is making cups of tea.
- I would really like to be buddied with another volunteer until I feel confident in doing what you expect of me.
- That’s why knowing about back-up is so important. Can I get answers, have a conversation, feel free to call in when I need to?
- I want to feel included, in the volunteer programme and in the work of the organisation, so I never have to say “I’m just a volunteer”.
- It would be good to know what my rights are too. Do I dare lay a complaint if things go wrong?
- I get a real buzz when people say ‘thank you’ to me – service users and staff – and it’s also nice to go to those functions like IVDay where I can meet up with other volunteers. Please keep this up!
- I really like the newsletters that keep me informed on what is happening in the organisation, always including a bit about volunteers. And yes, I follow the Facebook page too.
That’s the basic stuff I go for when I volunteer. I had to learn it the hard way, through the best of times and the worst of times.
That’s how I learned about management of volunteers too. And I keep on learning from volunteers who tell me what they want.
One more thing – there’s a lot to be learned when volunteers are asked some good questions in an annual survey, and specially when they leave.