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.
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.
October 7, 2012
There are no definitions for the X factors of volunteering. There will never be a TV reality show for the unseen and unsung qualities that make up the best of volunteering and its management. Mostly it is chance encounters that tell us something of the outcome of our work.
Three times in as many weeks I’ve been reminded of the influence a manager of volunteers can sometimes have on the lives of volunteers.
The first is a story about a volunteer and his wife, told fifteen years after the event.
A few days later I get to hear, long after I have left the workplace, how my words at a group induction session are still ringing in a volunteer’s ears:
“You don’t think you will gain anything from volunteering? Keep your hearts and minds open and you will discover all sorts of rewards.”
You know, the volunteer says to my successor, I’ve never forgotten that, and by heck, she was right!
Then Andy Fryar, who has his own remarkable story of unintended influence on a volunteer, puts up this poster on his Facebook page, noting it is something he raises regularly in training sessions.
None of us set out to be inspiring or to make a difference in the lives of volunteers. It’s a by-product, and we are merely catalysts for that inspiration to take hold, or that change to happen.
And mostly we never get the feedback.
I’ve been volunteering for yonks, and worked in a variety of management roles. My one experience in managing volunteers was in a hospice, where I discovered there was still much to learn about volunteering and management. Hospice volunteers taught me about the work they did, how they did it and why. Simple – serving cups of tea and dishing out meals. But it was the way they provided these services that showed me how volunteering is a whole lot bigger than ticking off a task sheet.
Because reports from patients and families indicated how the supporting words and gestures from volunteers touched them at just the right moment. When I gave this feedback to the volunteer there was usually a shrug and a comment like “But all I did was listen, and it was only for a few minutes”. No big deal for the volunteer, yet an inspirational spark for the family.
Now it’s my turn to tell a story about a volunteer and what comes after.
Mary had been volunteering for some time when I met her – Wednesday lunch service, regular as clockwork, a close buddy with her volunteer partner. She liked things neat and tidy, liked knowing what was what. Always Mary was someone you could count on to let you know if she could not come, wanted time off for travel, or if something was bothering her. Sometimes the bothering could be personal stuff, outside the volunteering bit.
Now Mary the volunteer has become the patient. Pinned on the notice board by her bed in the hospice is a letter I wrote to her eleven years ago, alongside the certificates issued in recognition of her years of volunteer service. Such little things, such small gestures from the office of a manager, to be received and treasured in ways I never anticipated.
All of us can touch other people’s lives in unknown ways. It’s part of being human. Sometimes we can turn the cliché of ‘making a difference’ into something real.
But always, in times like this, my mind flicks to the line that says:
You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people. *
And I wish I did not always have to be the last to know.
* William Boyd (1990) Brazzaville Beach
June 17, 2012
We’ve been talking up Volunteer Awareness Week for weeks. Now let’s unfurl the banners, deliver the speeches, do the award presentations and the street parades, and read with pride the full-page spreads in our newspapers and the online affirmations about community organisations and the work done by volunteers. Let the party begin!
Let us also hear the voices of volunteers, recording the delight they find in their work, and the personal and professional gains they make through their volunteer experience.
Volunteers involved in New Zealand’s biggest exercise in event management, the Rugby World Cup have a few things to say, in a recently published report:
“My fellow volunteers – they were all wonderful people and extremely generous with their time and energy – this feeling spread amongst the team, so everyone stayed motivated and fed off the energy of others.”
“The whole experience, from the information road shows to the training and captain’s run, was amazing. So well organised, totally positive and supportive, I truly felt like an important person in a team for an important event. I was VERY proud to tell people I was a volunteer for RWC 2011!”
At Volunteer Centres around the country the work of recruitment and referral of volunteers is their core business. The quotes that follow are drawn from Volunteer Wellington publications.
“Volunteering has given me a chance to merge properly into the local community”
“Volunteering was a great stepping stone to help get from A to B, to make the big transition into paid employment.”
“Volunteering makes me a better person to be around.”
“It’s interesting, varied, challenging and rewarding too. I’d recommend volunteering to anyone.”
I am told more stories from a community organisation involving large numbers of volunteers in a wide range of roles:
“I got a job, and I’m studying at Polytech, all because the organisation gave me confidence to believe in myself and my abilities”
“I’m working as an ESL teacher now – all because I volunteered and the organisation acted as my referee”
Then there are the corporate volunteers, where businesses support employees to volunteer in the community. It might be for a fund-raising event, or a day-long conservation project working on improving a particular environment, or offering professional expertise to an organisation. Here is what the organiser of one company’s volunteer projects says:
“This is a community-minded company. The people here care about the community and volunteering. My bosses leave me to make it happen. It is very much their interest that drives our volunteering: it is their way of giving back to the community.”
I raise a flag too for the unsung volunteers in our communities, the huge population of informal volunteers whose voices are not often heard in public, nor their deeds loudly proclaimed. These are the people who look out for their neighbours, the clusters of small organisations who take the initiative to restore a waterway, to plant a hillside, those who run a sports team, develop a programme for young people, or the young people themselves who fundraise to help the cause of their choice.
If you ask them why you are likely to hear statements like these:
“It’s what you do – it’s part and parcel of living in this community”
“Giving is also receiving.”
“It’s easy to write a cheque, and it’s much more satisfying to give your time and skills to doing something money can’t buy.”
This week is also a time to acknowledge the organisations that give volunteers such opportunities. Here are a couple of testimonies from volunteers, drawn from Volunteer Wellington newsletter (Dec/Jan 2012).
“Volunteer work has to have purpose and be well managed, so that people know where they stand and how they are making a difference. Then they will be committed.”
“The people and managers at all the places I volunteered gave me a feeling of belonging. I always felt I was treated as one of the staff – properly equal.”
These are samples of the stories you will hear from volunteers. They come from different directions, representing different interests and different reasons for volunteering. They are also the stories about building communities, contributing to that interlocking honeycomb pattern that is our logo for this week.
So the joy of volunteering, the learning, the life path development, the social networks and the individual achievements illustrate the importance of (1) a switched-on manager of volunteers, and (2) an organisation that understands and fully appreciates the true value of volunteer contributions.
Volunteers + the organisation + good leadership and management = Building Communities
* Those who notice the adaptation of a biblical quote will also recognise that Volunteering has biblical dimensions.
June 4, 2012
It’s such a simple question. Quite straightforward. Should be easy-as to give me an answer.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy! Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff? Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power? And if you say No way – impossible! then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers? This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief. Let me offer a few leads to think about.
There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel. Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence. Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers. The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme. Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.
There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category. Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example. All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.
Why? Why involve volunteers?
Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff? Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work? Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?
I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.
Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness. Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal? Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?
I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then
- Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
- There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
- Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
- Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
- The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
- And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.
There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility. Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.
May 20, 2012
In all the gloom and doom of national and international economics the volunteer industry keeps on keeping on. Numbers of volunteers continue to increase, now spread across a wider age range than in generations past, and across different sectors. The range of volunteer activities broadens as organisations raise their expectations and the standards of volunteer programmes, as the manager of volunteers becomes recognised as a leader holding a pivotal role in developing and maintaining volunteer services.
There could be quite a number of people wanting to tell me “it ain’t necessarily so”. Somebody is bound to point out how volunteer recruitment and retention is so often the most wanted topic on Volunteer Centre training schedules. There are lots of reasons for this: turnover in people working with volunteers, a lack of specific training on management of volunteers, getting behind the times in new ways to attract volunteers, and the different expectations of volunteers – you know, using social media, getting upbeat in advertising, creating new roles for volunteers.
There will always be room for improvement. And there are always people out there thinking about volunteering who need a bit of encouragement.
Like a conversation I had last week that went like this:
- I am asked: Are you working, or retired?
- I talk a bit about being involved in the Management of Volunteers Project, and why. Of course it’s a great opportunity to do a bit of a sell, on volunteering and on the importance of good management for volunteers.
- Oh, she says a little wistfully, I’ve thought about volunteering, and I could ‘cos I work part-time. I do like shopping, she adds, eyes lighting up at the thought of being a volunteer that got to browse the malls and shopping meccas.
- Well, I advise, it’s really important that you get a job that you like, and managers try to match your interests.
So then I went on about how to connect, how to find out what volunteer positions were available. Easy as, I said – you can do it all on the computer. Or you could go to Facebook – there are regular inserts on volunteer opportunities. Or go visit a Volunteer Centre. That’s where you can get registered and get referred to places that could meet your interests and expectations.
I don’t know if I have enabled one more person to join the ranks of volunteers, but at least I have taken the opportunity to offer some good leads and some encouragement to give it a go.
In just four weeks’ time New Zealand will be alive with exhibitions and events to promote and to celebrate volunteering. Volunteer Awareness Week will have something for everyone. This annual programme serves to illustrate the breadth and depth of volunteering and all the organisations that go to make our Civil Society.
Volunteers are everywhere. When I go to catch a bus I walk past the Community Centre which is always alive with people meeting for community purposes. Around the corner I can find the local Community Garden, and further on is the Citizens Advice Bureau staffed by warm and welcoming volunteers. When I go walking on one of the many trails around Wellington I see the work of volunteers who have been landscaping a desolate environment, restoring native plants and trees, recovering a waterway to re-introduce native fish. During the weekend I’ll be watching some kids run around a cold and muddy sports field, and I will be admiring the volunteers who are team coaches, managers and referees, and the ones who organise the rota for half-time oranges and the jersey washing. My weekly community newspapers tell me more, about op-shops run by volunteers, about food collections for Food Banks, or a meal delivery service for new mums. Volunteers knock at my door, doing their stuff as collectors for a fund-raising appeal. Email newsletters turn up in my in-box, crafted by volunteers.
That’s the way of my community, just a small part of it. This year’s slogan for Volunteer awareness week is Building Communities through Volunteering. That’s what we do, and you can read more here.
April 15, 2012
The Latin tag cui bono can be applied in many contexts, but rarely do we stop to consider the implications of who benefits from volunteering and in what ways.
Too often we speak in clichés and platitudes, like:
- Volunteers are the salt of the earth
- They are the glue of society
- Thank you volunteers, we couldn’t manage without you
Yes we can measure volunteer contributions by translating hours and inputs into $$ figures which tell me little beyond how volunteers save the organisation a lot of money. What of the qualitative value of their work and its impact on outcomes? We really need to find the measuring tool that shows the true value of volunteer contributions to the organisation’s big-picture mission and strategic goals. There are ways and means, as I suggested some 18 months ago, and there are extensive references listed at Energizinc.
There are two other questions worth considering:
Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?
Why do volunteers choose to volunteer for your organisation?
Finding some answers could lead us away from the financial cost-benefit analysis to getting some real understanding of volunteering and the kind of social profit it brings, to the organisation as well as to volunteers.
Ideally we should be looking for a win-win outcome on all counts. Any act of volunteering is a giving process, but it is never selfless. There is always a quid pro quo, an exchange of something in return for a volunteer’s time, skills and knowledge. So the real question should be What is the pay-off for the volunteer?
There are practical gains, like work experience, learning new skills, developing new interests. Volunteering can improve job prospects and open new career options.
The intrinsic benefits may not be articulated well by volunteers. They can come up with clichés and platitudes too:
- Making a difference in the community
- A sense of purpose
Get volunteers to talk about satisfactions and what they gain and they will offer responses like the following:
Volunteering can enlarge social networks and social interaction; volunteering offers a sense of belonging in a community. Supporting a cause is to participate in creating change, to realise personal values. The ethic of service can be a satisfaction in itself. All of these ‘goods’ promote personal growth, enhanced confidence and competence in the work undertaken and a satisfying sense of achievement. In other words, volunteering is empowering.
Research findings from the Rugby World Cup, and a survey of volunteers involved in the Bay of Plenty clean-up after the Rena grounding indicate similar satisfactions. There are more references at Energize.
So really, the gains, benefits and satisfactions are a two-way street between volunteers and their organisations. That is a fundamental connection which should not be overlooked.