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.
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.
February 3, 2013
Molly has volunteered for 25 years, delivering meals-on-wheels in a small country town. She took her turn once a week for two months each year. She’s a farmer living thirty minutes out of town and unable to volunteer more frequently. Molly enjoyed the work and the folk she came to know. Always her work was completed on time, no-one missed out and there were no muddle-ups.
Now Molly is 80 years old and would like to give away her volunteering days. She is all set to advise the volunteer coordinator accordingly. But the coordinator has not phoned, has not made contact, has not enquired about Molly’s well-being or otherwise. So Molly has been cast adrift with never a thank you note to acknowledge the years she has been serving in this rural community.
Too often we hear the tales of agony from managers of volunteers faced with scenarios of elderly volunteers who avoid recognising their age-related deficiencies. But to abandon a volunteer who has not put a foot wrong by simply ignoring them? Not on, I say.
Of course Molly might have picked up the phone herself to let the coordinator know she would not be coming back. Well, I’ve been on the end of such conversations with managers of volunteers and felt the pressure to change my mind, to keep on volunteering because the organisation needs me so badly, is so short of volunteers, and I’m so good at what I do, and the clients just love me. Molly doesn’t need such flattery. Nor is she feeling aggrieved, and is not about to blab about her experience to friends and neighbours. That’s a blessing, because in small town rural New Zealand where people and their business is known to all, that would spell damnation for the coordinator and the service.
The irony is, the coordinator is now delivering meals herself because she is unable to recruit more volunteers. That’s what we should really be concerned about – the colleague who is struggling, who needs support and probably a heap of good advice. And there is no Volunteer Centre to call on. What should we do? Stand back and watch everything go from bad to worse? Or take time, find some resources to lend a hand, or at least offer support?
I’ve got some ideas, because I know the area and there’s one or two contacts I can call on. OK, it could be tricky, but it is important to try.
Because one person’s plight is a bell tolling for all of us in this profession. Managing volunteers is more than running a good programme – it’s also an occupation that needs muscle and political strategising to maintain respect and value for volunteering. We need to look out for each other as well as the volunteers.
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.