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.
June 2, 2013
Recognition and appreciation of volunteer work throughout community organisations is something managers do every day in lots of different ways. This month Volunteering New Zealand is heading into National Volunteer Week (June 16-22), a brief time to celebrate the contribution of volunteers to all parts of New Zealand’s social and cultural life.
There are other annual opportunities for public acknowledgement, from national honours to local civic awards and community-sponsored medals. Two standout nation-wide programmes come via TrustPower and Kiwi Bank (as principal sponsor of New Zealander of the Year Awards). Both programmes are competitive, involving nomination and judging at both local and national levels in a range of categories.
TrustPower Community Awards are run in 24 regions, and they cover five categories: Heritage and Environment, Health and Wellbeing, Arts and Culture, Sport and Leisure, and Education and Child/Youth Development. Supreme winners in each region then vie for the title of National Awards Supreme Winner. For 2012 the winner was Kaibosh, a Wellington-based organisation dedicated to daily redistribution of left-over food.
The catalogue of winners at regional level is an eye-opener on the range of community organisations and their achievements. The Men’s Shed scored in Tauranga; in Dunedin the winner was the Neurological Foundation Southern Chair of Neurosurgery; a theatre group from the small town of Katikati took out honours in Western Bay of Plenty; and the ecological restoration project at Maungatautari was the winner for the Waipa District. Runners-up and commendations are recorded too.
TrustPower’s award for Youth Community Spirit recognises secondary school students’ service to school and the community. From the achievements noted in the citations these young people are the emerging leaders for a new generation.
New Zealander of the Year Awards focus more on individuals than organisations. There is a top award for New Zealander of the Year, and others for a Young New Zealander and a Senior New Zealander. Then there are the Local Hero awards identifying everyday people doing extraordinary things in their local communities. All of these engender significant local and national publicity, and recognition for individual and collective achievements.
In addition, the Community of the Year award provides groups with an opportunity to be recognised for their holistic contribution, rather than a focus on a particular sector. The small town of Paeroa is the winner for 2012, for its determination to retain an active events calendar and to enhance heritage attractions.
The heart of this community really lies with the large number of volunteers whose can-do attitude has seen the town develop to be a safe and vibrant community. The contribution and energy of a large number of groups is in contrast to the small population. It is this strong sense of community that is the key to the towns continuing growth and proves what can be achieved when residents share a common goal and work together harmoniously.
That’s a real illustration of what the spirit of community volunteering can achieve.
A study of winners and finalists for Community of the Year could reveal significant data on success factors – like leadership, collaboration and cooperation, strategic planning and implementation – because the achievements of Paeroa and other communities do not happen without effective leadership and management of a volunteer programme.
There’s no huge prize money offered from these award programmes, but the publicity and kudos will generate increased awareness to be translated into donor and funder interest and volunteer applications.
And when you scroll through the list of present and previous award winners it is very evident there are more things in community services and community development than NGOs filling the breaches in government health and welfare services. So when we join the functions lined up for National Volunteer Week let’s give a nod to the way leaders and managers of volunteers make all things possible for volunteers.
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.
March 10, 2013
Last weekend I followed my Sunday habit to visit the fruit and vegetable market held at the local primary school. You have to admire the enterprise of schools these days for hiring out their space and facilities to Churches, Sunday sports for kids, and for the market. That’s what you have to do to maintain a cash-strapped “free” education.
At the school entry I encountered a woman struggling to open the security gate. The gate had been a puzzle for me on previous weeks but I had it sorted now. I opened the gate for the woman and remarked “We never had to master this sort of barrier when we went to school”. The woman nodded vigorously, acknowledging both the import of my comment and our shared age bracket.
I went on up the path, the back entrance to the school. There was another security gate to gain access to classroom areas and the market stalls.
The gates were not so big they could not be opened by the average-sized six or seven year old child standing on tip-toes. They offered more of an impediment than a barrier, and certainly no real obstacle to adult visitors. But when a couple of four year old boys leave their day-care centre their adventure is called an ‘escape’. From what, you might ask.
I start thinking, again. I am really bothered that we have become so dependent on legislation and regulations around hazards and safety precautions that kids these days never get to use their instincts for self-preservation, never learn to evaluate risk and the limits on their own capacity. It’s all done for them by adults who bend over backwards to ensure nothing bad happens. No wonder teenagers think they are bullet-proof when they get behind the wheel of a car, or get tanked-up to go on the town.
The community sector is also plagued by regulation, as I described a few months back. Volunteers are known to become tetchy when restrictions seem unreasonable. Over the past ten years I have noticed a creep of limitations placed on the roles and tasks of volunteers: can’t have them doing personal cares for people in a clinical setting; huge risks if you let volunteers loose on Facebook; volunteers are not the same as staff; can’t ask them to do extra; but we’ll keep them on to work the phones and do the cleaning.
I exaggerate, just a little. For all the stories of restrictions there are also accounts of volunteers going beyond the call of duty, and many times we can see how collective volunteer actions have created a community fabric.
You see, that’s the bounty of volunteering. Volunteers get up and go, they can experiment with new ideas and different ways of doing things. They see a need or a gap in community services and they are free and flexible enough to devise an immediate and sometimes a long-term response to the presenting problem. They are risk-takers, big-time. That’s how our major NGOs and NFPs got started in the first place – read their histories.
So please, do not wrap volunteers in cotton-wool. Give them credit for intelligence and sensitivity and responsibility, and especially for their humanity. Give them space to be innovative and creative in the best tradition of community development. And remember that ‘humanity’ involves trust and respect and dignity – qualities that are never going to be measurable in pursuit of volunteer impact, yet can be diminished by over-regulation.
Perhaps I should have titled this piece ‘Stretching Boundaries’. I do not wish to make light of school security, nor of the tragedies that have created the armoury of protection for students and stringent screening for visitors. Nor am I suggesting volunteering should be turned into a laissez-faire free-for-all. I just want to make sure that too much bureaucracy does not shut down the whole point of volunteering.
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 24, 2013
Just two months into the year and already there are plenty of agendas being talked up, plenty of rising anxiety levels in community sector organisations, accompanied by what sounds like, and feels like, a sinking lid for programmes and practice. Paying for criminal checks on volunteers, getting the charities legislation reviewed and the prospect of new contracting and funding arrangements through ‘social bonds’ are just three of the big picture issues. I shall leave them to other platforms for the moment.
My matter for this week is not as the headline suggests, the community gardeners. Nor am I presenting yet another promo for best practice volunteer recruitment. The niggle at the back of my head is the continuing interest in courting Gen X and Y to engage in volunteering, as though it was a new and untapped resource for organisations short on volunteers.
I wrote about Youth Volunteering a bit over a year ago, being enthusiastic about all the evidence of increases in young people’s involvement. And they continue to be involved, even as part of whole family volunteering. More recently Volunteering New Zealand has published a paper on UN Youth NZ; Labour Party youth are on a roll this year to connect with local community groups; in January United Nations announced a trust fund to support Youth Volunteerism. There is no end to the ways young people can be involved in their communities, and you can see this even at early school years when class projects open children’s minds to community and community needs.
Here is my ‘yes but’ question:
Are we cultivating volunteers or promoting the cult of youth?
The rise in youth volunteering is capturing attention at a time when retirees, the ‘baby-boomer’ generation, could be expected to join the ranks of volunteers in droves. They are not, for various reasons: they continue in paid employment; they are full-time care-givers for grandchildren; they are travelling the world and ‘pursuing other interests’. Yet there are still enough older people – and we can see them working in our communities every day throughout the year – to be a significant proportion in volunteer statistics. This is the expanding age group that is proving such a burden on governments and age-support organisations throughout the western world. To which I would say: “if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them”.
My plea is for inclusion, for all population groups. I am thinking of skills that older people can offer from their employment experience. I am thinking of tolerance and acceptance of difference that comes with age and experience, along with a raft of communication and relationship skills. Of course they do not have these skills on their own, and nor is the wisdom of age always informed by tolerance. But neither do young people hold all the answers to achieving organisation goals through volunteering.
Dissonance between age and youth is as old as time. This is not the time to pitch one in favour of the other. Volunteering could be the much-needed space where young and older New Zealanders come together to learn from each other and to appreciate the perspectives of different generations. That’s where leadership for the 21st century could come from.
Disclaimer: Please do not think I am carrying personal angst in writing the above. By conventional dating I belong to the Silent Generation, those who never spoke out, who accepted everything thrown at them. I like to think I have moved with my times.
PS: Comment per email sent by Salle-Ann Ehms:
As always, your blog is very thought-provoking. In the light of inclusiveness, I thought that you’d appreciate this photo I took last week-end. It’s not the best shot but I love the contrasts; youth-aged,
caucasian-asian, able-disabled, but what I most love is that none of those things are really relevant, the caring is palpable.