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.
July 29, 2012
I have been rabbiting on for ages about the relevance of volunteering and the importance of good management of volunteers in the community and voluntary sector. I have been on about organisations that just don’t get volunteering, about boards and management that take volunteers for granted, and who fail to recognise that volunteers might be just the true deliverers of organisation vision and values.
Volunteers live the organisation’s mission; they have organisational values at heart; and they put up their hands to work for free without expectation of a pay package or other reward.
What if, I venture to ask, what if we turn running the organisation over to volunteers?
I can hear the objections shouted down the e-waves:
- The board members / trustees are all volunteers! Isn’t that enough?
- Volunteers are part-timers, mere bit-players in service delivery
- Volunteers are unreliable, take time out, have other commitments and priorities
- Volunteers do not have the necessary professional knowledge and skills
- Come on – volunteers are not the answer to everything!
- Lots of them are merely getting work experience, or fulfilling their employer’s obligations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
- Open Sesame to organisational chaos!
To which I respond:
- The role of Board members / Trustees is governance, overall direction and decision-making responsibility – well-placed to ensure best practice service delivery
- If you regard volunteers in your organisation as ‘bit-players’ then you do not deserve them
- Many community services are delivered entirely by volunteers – and highly valued for their standard of service
- Yes, volunteers are free to come and go: respect that freedom and you get loyalty and long-term commitment
- When volunteers know and understand why they join your organisation, they are demonstrating the real meaning of being ‘professional’, and all the knowledge and skills that go with that
- Volunteers are powerful contributors to community development, community integration, and the building of Civil Society
- And by being exposed to volunteer experience those people engaged for work experience or CSR events are likely to continue volunteering
- As for the chaos, welcome to tumultuous energy of the world of Management of Volunteers and the community and voluntary sector
What if, I ask again, what if the manager of volunteers was promoted to Chief Executive?
I can hear the gob-smacked responses from here! Sure there’s a load of extra responsibility and more things to think about. But think about it a bit more:
- The manager of volunteers is well-versed in management and leadership, especially in being responsible for more people than most Chief Executives in the community sector. [See Susan J Ellis, Non-Profit World 1986, 4/2 - Maximising the Potential of the Director of Volunteers; and 1996 – What Makes the Position of Volunteer Programme Manager (VPM) Unique? (Adapted from Chapter 4, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success)]
- The manager of volunteers is creative and flexible; has to be a strategic thinker and really good at time management; has an amazing network of colleagues and game-players to call on, and really good mentor support.
- The manager of volunteers knows the organisation inside out; works across all service areas; has effective working relationships with senior managers.
- The manager of volunteers is committed to organisation mission and vision and knows how to engage volunteers to put these into practice.
You might still think I am in fantasy-land. Not so, if you read Claire Teal’s arguments about the status of management of volunteers:
[S]o many of us seem to simultaneously lament the lack of value given to our role, but also resist any real attempt to do anything about this. In many ways we seem to want to have our cake (a higher value placed on our role) and eat it too (not change anything we’re doing).
This on-going self-deprecation has to be turned around! If you really object to a volunteer take-over, or to the manager of volunteers becoming your Chief Executive, go read Betty Stalling’s counterfactuals about Volunteer Program Champions.
That is the What If challenge for organisations and their managers of volunteers. That’s the world of difference a What If question can make.
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.