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.
April 7, 2013
A recently reported research study is titled Fears, constraints and contracts: the democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector. The results are hard-hitting, lifting a lid on current experience for organisations whose voice has been largely silenced by the political shift over the past forty years, to neo-liberal economics and the out-sourcing of social services to the community sector.
The survey covers both NGO and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, all fields of social service provision, and both large national organisations and small community groups with no paid staff and no external funding. The promise of confidentiality and privacy allowed a freedom to respond to questions in an open and direct way. The results will not be surprising to those of us engaged in the community and voluntary sector, but the tenor and directness of the quoted statements leave us in no doubt of a depth of disappointment and frustration behind the words. For example (p 57):
NGOs play a unique and crucial role in New Zealand. Their contribution to political decision-making in NZ is currently undervalued and under-utilised. They are under-resourced and therefore undermined. (Emphasis added)
Small wonder these words deserved underscoring.
The report deserves to be read in full, to get the picture of how we have come to this pretty pass, and to note the references to earlier studies raising questions and alarm bells.
Those with long memories will recall the shifts we had to make in New Zealand from the early 1980s. Let me remind you:
A simple ‘begging letter’ to a philanthropic or trust fund changed to formal application requirements and for reports on spending and demonstrable benefits or gains. Organisations were forced to hire people to spend their days making funding applications, thus increasing overhead costs. And philanthropic funders got into cahoots to determine which social issue of the moment deserved the most attention.
Contracts for health and social services devolved from government responsibility might have brought funding security, but the new environment came with fish-hooks like health and safety regulations; like additional responsibilities and accountability for volunteer governance, not to mention compliance costs. What was previously a mission-based civil society endeavour changed to dancing to the tune of government direction.
Consultation quickly became a dirty word as proposals were presented with invitation to comment, only to find policy directions had already been decided. Very little notice was taken of community responses no matter the expressed outrage. Neither were organisations given time or resources to present community views to government.
These are the bones now cemented into the community and voluntary sector. Fundraising has become a professional occupation, accompanied by the marketing experts so that organisations compete for the charity dollar and corporate sponsorship. Contracts with government are confidential and a gagging clause ensures docile compliance. These days it seems a consultation document is issued one week and turned into a political or regulatory edict just a few weeks later.
The government’s ‘relationship’ with the community and voluntary sector bound in the Kia Tutahi document counts for nothing against the control imposed by the contracting environment. Adding to this disregard of communities the Charities Commission is disestablished, its responsibilities now determined and regulated by a government department. The rules change and over a thousand organisations lose their charitable status and their ability to raise funds via the carrot of tax rebates. Advocacy is out, so longstanding organisations like Greenpeace and National Council of Women (NCW) are no longer deemed charities. In ‘the good old days’ NCW was a political force to be reckoned with, up there with Federated Farmers and the Federation of Labour.
Here is the sound of the silence of democratic dissent.
And this reality happens, the report’s findings say, regardless of which political party heads the government. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.
A few people will recognise a parallel universe in the way organisations can undervalue the work of managers of volunteers, and under-appreciate volunteer contributions to oiling social wheels and to maintaining community wellbeing in many different spheres. I could suggest this is a function of a trickle-down pecking order. I would sooner we took a stand to exercise our democratic voice, for volunteers and for the organisations that serve our communities.
There was plenty of encouragement to do just this at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Management of Volunteers. Focus Up! was a key message. Recognise our roles as Leaders, Educators, Movers and Shakers and do something! Even if it means getting out of comfort zones, causing a stir, sticking heads over parapets. We owe it to volunteers and to our communities.
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.
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 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.
September 30, 2012
In just five weeks’ time the International Day for Managers of Volunteers will be upon us. Planning has started already for the day’s performances.
You can find out more on the website, including resources and articles and a great list of ideas for promoting managers of volunteers. Or track the international buzz on the facebook page – there’s a couple of jazzy you-tube clips to view as well.
In New Zealand the day will begin as usual with a breakfast session hosted by Volunteer Wellington. A lot of focus will then turn to the start of Volunteering Auckland’s two-day conference, Let’s Get Connected. A highlight on the first day is the launch of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best-practice guidelines for volunteer-involving organisations, to be broadcast per webinar.
I talked about this year’s slogan a couple of months ago: Leaders of Volunteers: Who Else Could Do That? Now take a look at the poster and see just what an awesome person the manager of volunteers can be.
For example, the Community Organiser (known some decades ago as Professional Dissenter) and the Social Entrepreneur might be unfamiliar labels – but that’s what you do when getting people to work together in a team, or for your cause. Right?
You may have doubts about being a visionary, but by heck you are always looking ahead and figuring the next steps in a programme, or how to engage the super-skills a volunteer is offering. Come on – you know you are a Seer.
And when you add up all the labels on this list, there’s only one summary: Miracle Worker.
You are a Miracle Worker because
- you create something out of nothing more than the offer of goodwill;
- you can bind together diverse interests, personalities and cultures to work in a common cause;
- you own a know how / can do belief in the organisation’s vision and mission; and
- you are an achiever, despite many people lacking full understanding of volunteering and what your role entails.
Now all of this is fine and good, and we can roll over for another year. Except don’t you just wish we could see a few more steps towards regular recognition and support for professional development? In New Zealand the Best Practice Guidelines are a start, and watch out for the Learning and Development Pathway to come early next year. But these are practice issues, and I am thinking more about the professional association that could speak as one voice on our behalf.
In our region that association is AAMOV – the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers.
Professional associations for managers of volunteers have not had a good track record over past years, but do not let that put you off. You want to get recognition, acknowledgement of your training and qualifications? You want your expertise recognised in a halfway decent salary? You want somebody to be able to speak out on your behalf, to be a champion of your occupation? Support AAMOV so they can support and promote your interests.
Because it is through collective strength that we can make achievements in
- promoting best practice for Managers of Volunteers
- providing pathways for professional development
- providing opportunities for peer support
- developing strategic relations with government, non-government organisations and the business sector.
The annual AAMOV Manager of Excellence Award offers an example of best practice, and one small step towards public recognition of the importance of good management of volunteers.
Let’s celebrate on November 5, as the poster says, the work of those “who inspire, empower and manage the spirit of volunteerism around the world”.
September 16, 2012
There may not be too many people who recognise the heading for this post as a quote from an early 20th century Welsh poet. It is from a poem I learned early in my schooldays, lines that jaunted along in sing-song rhythm, though the theme pretty-much passed over the heads of nine and ten year-olds.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
These words are all too relevant in a Time-Poor 21st century. We are too busy doing, so focused on tasks that we overlook that other pressure to take stock, to think about the way work and what we might do better.
Don’t just do something, stand there!
I found this line a few years ago when reading about a ‘learning organisation’. Managers of volunteers, (and many other professional occupations) are also ‘learning organisms’. That is, our professional development is bound up in critical thinking, experiential learning and self-awareness – a cycle of action and reflection.
Well – Volunteering New Zealand’s on-line training programme for Managing Volunteers is a good place to start reflecting on experience. Last week a spirited bunch of people completed another 6-week course. They took on weekly assignments designed ‘to make you think’. They shared their replies on-line, including a lot about themselves and how they went about managing volunteers in their organisation. They learned from each other, and about their own skill-sets, drawing on life experience and previous employment positions. Their feedback showed they were encouraged and heartened by their participation in the course.
That’s the value of Professional Development for you, something I keep on promoting. (You can read more in my blogs on Professionalism.) You see, being professional does not always mean pinning the credentials of academic qualifications on your wall. Certificates of competency are not always the best measure of the quality of your work. But when you take the time to think, to reflect on what you are doing and what could be tweaked to improve volunteer experience or the volunteer programme and what you might need to accomplish any change – that is the mark of a true professional who understands the importance of ongoing development.
So don’t wait till it’s time for your next performance review. Make time now!
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
(The poem is Leisure, by W H Davies)
August 5, 2012
The clock has started ticking. Three months from today we will be rejoicing and celebrating International Volunteer Managers’ Day, or as we say in New Zealand, IMV Day. ‘Managers of Volunteers’ speaks to us in New Zealand more loudly than being a Volunteer Manager, specially when we read the slogan for this year, and the taglines.
Leaders of Volunteers: Who Else Could Do That?
- Leading teams of both paid and unpaid staff? Who else could do that?
- 100 people, 100 motivations, 100 job descriptions… Who else could do that?
- $0 budget for a priceless resource? Who else could do that?
I confess I asked myself Who Else would Want to Do That?
But the introduction and promotion of Leadership is timely. We are not ‘just’ managers – the pen pushers and the strategists and organisers for running a volunteer programme – we are leaders of prime importance in delivering services over a whole range of interests. We are leaders in our communities, creating opportunities for volunteers, ensuring they have a good experience – not to mention the training and the support, the supervision and the celebrations and appreciation events that volunteers can enjoy. Who else could do all that, indeed!
So while people might be ground down in multi-tasking, coping with the numbers, whole-of-organisation coverage, and performing to super-hero(ine) status, November 5 every year is the time to draw breath, to accept the accolades, and to recognise that leadership of volunteers is a unique occupation. Long may you reign!
The IVMA website tells me we celebrate the profession of volunteer leadership because:
1. Volunteer Managers have the skills and knowledge to help people be part of the solution in meeting community needs. Even in cynical times, they practice the art of the possible.
2. Volunteer Managers change lives — both the lives of volunteers themselves and of those served by well-led volunteers. It is a life-changing profession. Volunteer managers provide the leadership and direction that allows people to build a good and just society and to mend the social fabric. Without professional leadership, people’s time, talents and efforts could be wasted.
3. A well-run volunteer program shows the community, including potential donors, that the organization is not afraid of public scrutiny and involvement and endeavours to make the most efficient use of monetary assets.
4. Well-led volunteers become an advocacy and public relations force for an agency or program — a force no amount of money could buy.
Amen to all that I say.
The thing is – and I have bleated about this before – managers of volunteers should not have to wait for an annual event. Respect and recognition for what they achieve should happen every day – because as former Prime Minister Helen Clark acknowledged in 2008: Without volunteers New Zealand stops!
When we no longer promote a special day for managers of volunteers I will know their time has come. And I will no longer have to join ARD Fairburn’s lament for the
“weary dolphins trapped in honey-coloured cobwebs / murmuring to the revolution Will you be long.”