October 27, 2013
News headlines this week have not been pretty stories. Blue Mountain country in New South Wales (Australia) has been devastated by the worst bush fires in forty-five years. The pictures of a wall of flame are succeeded by burnt-out homes and grieving residents. Acres of bush are laid waste.
The Rural Fire Service has rightly won praise and gratitude for its heroic efforts, working 12-hour shifts and staying overnight in dense bushland when required, snatching a rest when they can. Need I add that most of them are volunteers?
I don’t think I would make a good fireman. I’d have to get really fit, do hard yards at training, and wear all that clobber, and work long hours mostly at unfriendly times, cope with emotional and distraught people and be involved in those big disasters that turn up without warning. It’s a big commitment.
Only twice in my volunteering career have I been asked to commit to a minimum length of service. One was for two years, and another for just six months. The latter, in reality, was just time to complete the basic assignment, and it took another two years before it was really done. I’ve no doubt the rationale was to ensure a return from the investment in training and support, and to send a message that this was not a fly-by-night undertaking.
Should we spell out expectations for length of volunteer service?
The stories of loyal and long-serving volunteers are legend. It is not unusual to find people who have been working for the same organisation for twenty-five or thirty years. When people resign within five years it is usually for legitimate reasons: going overseas, relocating to another town, a change of employment, having babies, or a family crisis.
We all know what keeps volunteers keeping on, so my observations suggest we are doing things right: ensure volunteers enjoy a good experience with your organisation and they will stay loyal and enthusiastic. That ‘good experience’ may vary according to organisation mission and the work of the volunteer programme.
Key indicators to maintain volunteer commitment would include:
- Philosophy and policies that integrate volunteers throughout the organisation
- Good relations with staff and senior management
- Strong relationship with the manager of volunteers
- Congruence between personal values and organisation mission and values
- Ongoing communication, in various forms
- Options for skill development
- Recognition and rewards that highlight non-monetary value of volunteer contributions
Now I start thinking about that trend noted over the past couple of years, that preference for time-limited, task-focussed volunteering. Sure, this sort of volunteering has always been available, particularly for fund-raising or events and projects, and a creative manager of volunteers knows how to find ways to engage a skilled volunteer for a few weeks or months.
I am not hearing about increases in turnover of volunteers, but if that should happen – if there is a fall-off in staying power – then prospects could be dire for volunteer programmes based around on-going services and relationships. I can’t imagine a volunteer fireman being taken on for a six month stint. Nor a volunteer for ambulance services, or civil defence. Short-term volunteering would make unviable those programmes that revolve around support relationships and befriending vulnerable people.
Or does the interest in short-term volunteering stem from the rise of practical motivations, like graduate internships, work experience, ‘obligatory’ volunteering and corporate volunteering? Is it attracting a different sort of volunteer from the stayers?
Should I be worried?
October 6, 2013
Ask a group of managers of volunteers what they like most about their job and nine out of ten will say “working with volunteers”. I forget what the tenth person says, because I have started thinking and wondering why and how volunteers make their manager feel so good about their work.
It’s the people thing, isn’t it? Those interpersonal relationships, the people skills. We get to know volunteers in quite intimate ways, which enhances our ability to involve them effectively, to encourage skill development, to help move them to greater performance. It’s a virtuous circle, really.
It’s also a bit soft and mushy. There has to be more than simply being on good terms with each other.
Enlightenment has come to me this week from several different sources.
- Look at the words for Volunteering New Zealand’s whakatauki for IVM Day:
Ma mua ka kete a muri, Those who lead give sight to those who follow;
Ma muri ka ora a mua. Those who follow give life to those who lead.
There’s that mutual benefit of the reciprocal relationship again, a self-reinforcing cycle. There are also imputations of ‘leadership’: leaders enable their followers; they model desired behaviour and practice. And followers affirm their belief in and support for their leaders.
So people who manage volunteer programmes are really leaders. Yes, we know that – but what are the ingredients of leadership?
2. That’s where a recent issue of NZ Listener spotlighting ‘influentials’ offers some leads.
“Today’s complexities demand new forms of leadership and influence across private, public and non-profit spheres.” Great to have the community sector included here, with examples like the Student Army efforts post-Christchurch earthquake. “This is an example of the kind of bottom-up, adaptive influence that can channel the resources and energy of ordinary people with something to contribute, and turn it into effective action that improves lives” (Brad Jackson, co-director of New Zealand Leadership Institute).
Yes, a manager can be influential in the way volunteers achieve effective action, so ‘influence’ is surely one part of a leader’s tool-kit. I am cautious about using this word, however, because ‘influence’ has connotations of that P-word that can produce hugely negative results. But when there is a common cause it is not so difficult to channel ‘the resources and energy of ordinary people’. I know how the common cause also facilitates harnessing the diversity of ages and skills and interests among volunteers.
There is a huge literature on leadership, including masses of research, though not a lot spills into the volunteer management domain. Contemporary thinking appears to be less concerned with individual personality profiles: it’s the ability to take the initiative and responsibility for the purpose of the cause that matters. So the role of the leader is to ensure common interests, shared goals and collective commitment: these drivers have been forever the means for development of community organisations. There is also a shift from individual accountability to mutual accountability, a change from ‘I know best’ to ‘we know how’, says Chris Johnson, Auckland leadership consultant. Leadership becomes Teamwork, as the America’s Cup racing in San Francisco has demonstrated – by both Team New Zealand and Oracle. The role of each team member is integrated into a seamless collaboration.
Yes again: these points will be familiar to managers of volunteers.
However, on the employment front research shows that only about 20% of the average workforce is ‘highly engaged’ – that is, motivated and committed to the organisation’s purpose (according to Johnson). That would never happen in a volunteer programme: if volunteers are not highly engaged they will be walking elsewhere. And there we have a very big distinction between paid staff and volunteers.
Today’s leaders have to trust the people who work for them (Johnson). Again, this is nothing new to managers of volunteers. Trust is probably the biggest attribute in their tool-box, contributing to their positive relationships with volunteers. We know that too, don’t we?
3. Here is affirmation for managers of volunteers, coming from an unexpected quarter:
Volunteering – A Great Way To Learn Real Executive Leadership
Young corporate managers are urged to do volunteer work early in their careers, because the type of leadership at the top is akin to being a leader of volunteers. It is not about carrots and sticks but about persuasion and getting people to grasp and follow your vision. [Emphasis added]
The article acknowledges the challenging environment for managers in volunteer organisations. It refers to ‘permission leadership’, in which managers have to earn the trust and respect of people they are supervising.
Here’s the virtuous circle again. Relationships do matter: leadership (and management) is all about people skills.
So what? I hear people thinking, if not saying. We’ve always known the importance of ‘people skills’, and by extension the precepts of leadership.
I am thinking aloud, you understand, unravelling the obvious, just a little. What is still an open question is the detail in ‘people skills’ and how we get to learn them. Where can I find some answers?
September 15, 2013
An excerpt from a NFP newsletter dropped into my inbox recently. The headline read We are not Volunteers. The author preferred the term unpaid appointees on the basis that such people were ‘nominated’ by community organisations, rather than ‘putting up their hands’ to volunteer. In all other respects these unpaid appointees followed standard volunteer programme practices in being interviewed, attending a training programme and orientation. On completion of all this they were gazetted and sworn in to undertake their roles as Justices of the Peace. That was the bit that put them beyond being called volunteers.
Oh dear – here we go again on the definitions and principles of volunteering.
Are volunteers for emergency services, for surf life-saving and fisheries protection to be deemed a different category from JPs?
What about the work-for-the-dole programmes, and community sentencing? That’s ‘compulsory’ work for nothing, people say, not volunteering!
When I give my time and accept tickets for a concert in return is that volunteering, or incentivised something? Time-Banking raises another curly question: for all its popularity it’s more about exchanging services, a trading arrangement, isn’t it?
Then there’s the business of ‘informal volunteering’, being a family care giver for aged or disabled people, or being a good neighbour. This sort of volunteering simply goes under the radar, uncounted and unrecognised. But it is suggested that foster care, which is paid, could be termed volunteering under a ‘moral contract’.
And even if organisations involved in advocacy and activism are not eligible for charitable status, their workforce embodies significant volunteer commitment.
Some of these instances were debated in a panel discussion on the scope and definition of volunteering at the recent Australian National Conference on Volunteering. Opinions diverged of course, but there was a point of agreement on the way forward:
Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering is the outstanding challenge
This undervaluing of volunteering is evident in both NFP and Government sectors, said the CEO of Volunteering South Australia/Northern Territory. Recent research in New Zealand drew similar conclusions. It does not take much to see the flow-on effect in low respect and appreciation for the work of managers of volunteers.
So debate and discussion on what constitutes volunteering is a very big red herring. The real issue here is finding a voice that speaks out about the value of volunteering, and I don’t mean in economic terms. Volunteering is a force to be reckoned with, and we owe it to volunteers and our communities to demonstrate why and how.
The collective “We” includes organisations and their leaders, the movers and shakers in our communities, and managers of volunteers. By creating alliances and developing collaboration we will find a unified voice, telling the story of volunteers and volunteering like it is.
There’s encouragement to be found in the latest Thoughtful Thursdays posting. Susan Ellis acknowledges the busyness of managers of volunteers and reviews some reasons why we do not speak out. The real challenge is to find ways to present volunteering as a vital part of civil society, within organisations as well as in the wider community.
June 23, 2013
What a blast! What a storm of praise, press releases, and parties. Interviews erupted all over news media and the internet, whether it was in print, on radio, television, or webinars and Youtube clips. Facebook and Twitter were full-on with accounts from Volunteer Centres and volunteer organisations. They just kept on coming. National Volunteer Week has never been like this!
Even when a destructive Antarctic storm roared “like an express train without a driver” through the country volunteers could still capture a headline:
Emergency Volunteers in Action for National Volunteer Week
Was all this hype over-the-top? Too much? There can never be too much promotion for volunteering! Even non-volunteers in my brief informal poll have picked up key messages about the social and economic contribution of volunteers to New Zealand.
Government recognition came from the Prime Minister and MPs, and local councils issued press statements in support. The Minister of Health presented five awards to volunteers in the health and disability sector for outstanding achievement. There were more awards from the Minister of Police for public safety volunteers. There was recognition from all sectors – sport, health, emergency services, public safety, schools, conservation, and social services. There were awards, certificates, ceremonies and celebrations – for long service; outstanding achievement, and for excellence. A volunteer expo promoted local organisations to attract new recruits; there were displays in libraries and community centres. Promotion and publicity was innovative and creative throughout the week.
I was not tracking everything, and my engagement in the week’s events was confined to Wellington. Here is my selection for the Top Twelve features of the week (not in any particular order):
Best headline: Let’s Celebrate People Power (Wellington City Council)
Best reported quote: (On TV1 Breakfast Show) Maya said she volunteers on crossing patrol because she a young leader at the school and volunteering is what leaders do.
Best innovation: Volunteering NZ daily webinars, on Resourcing the community with partners; on Te Reo, the Language of Volunteering in Aotearoa; on Recognition and Rewards; on Reimbursing Volunteers; and on the Rights of the Volunteer. (Now available on VNZ’s YouTube channel)
Best story: A fishy story, one that illustrates the best of volunteer service and awarding recognition.
Best TV interview: Dr Louise Lee, on employee volunteering (plus associated press releases)
Best plug for management of volunteers: Conference presentation on Volunteer Recruitment (Dr Karen Smith)
Closely followed by : Competencies for Managers of Volunteers (coming in early the previous week); and the launch of on-line Guidelines for Managers of Volunteer Services, from Hospice New Zealand.
Best Thank You message (specially for going beyond individual volunteer contribution): New Zealand Fire Service –“Your tireless commitment to protecting lives and property has helped to build safe, strong and caring communities. We are also grateful to whanau, friends and employers for supporting our volunteers to be on call to help, whenever help is needed.”
Runner-up: “Volunteers – thank you for your smile” – Auckland Council.
Best function: Nikau Foundation Corporate Challenge celebration – to see the suits sincerely committed to joining with the volunteer sector, and being impressed by what volunteering can achieve.
(There were a lot of other functions up and down the country, but I could not get to all of them!)
Best under-the-radar recognition: a School Newsletter acknowledging volunteer contribution to the sports programme: “…. thanking the staff, parents and members of the local community who give up their time to share their talents and experiences with our students.”
Best testimonials for volunteering: a compilation of feel-good stories direct from volunteers, presented by Volunteer Nelson.
Best Action Plan: Our Volunteer Capital, Wellington City Council’s effort to recognise and grow volunteer groups, launched this week.
For recognition of multi-volunteer roles: Taupo Hospice
So National Volunteer Week and all the public recognition for volunteering is done and dusted for this year, even though we all know volunteering does not stop with the end of this week. Go follow-up the links here to catch up on the week’s happenings, or just to re-live the experience.
I would like to think ‘recognition’ of volunteers continues on in the form of regular ‘appreciation’. Recognition is that formal stuff; appreciation is the daily acknowledgement, the regular thank you to each and every volunteer no matter how large or small their contributions might be. You show your appreciation in behaviour, your tone of voice, the gesture, the time you take to listen with attention, and the way you communicate and keep in touch with volunteers. Appreciation is remembering a volunteer’s name, including volunteers in organisational planning and development, understanding the ‘added value’ and ‘service enhancement’ and the role volunteers play as ‘ambassadors’ for your organisation in the community. Volunteering is indeed People Power: He Tangata! He Tangata! He Tangata!
This post is the last for a few weeks: I am out of the country until August.
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 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.