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 8, 2012
I wonder how many readers noticed the tenor of last week’s post. How the Top Tips are all about relationships, about respect and communication and support for volunteers. How being a manager and leader of volunteers is about nurturing and caring for a valuable resource. The tasks of organising and advocating and programme administration can take second place in the scheme of things.
Well – that might be a debatable premise, though we all know (don’t we?) that the best designed and administered volunteer programme is not going to get off the ground if we cannot demonstrate the attributes needed to lead a worthy team of volunteers.
That’s where the people-skills kick in. Volunteers are not ciphers on the annual accounts, nor cans of peas in the production line of a community service. Volunteering is a human service, and needs to be treated accordingly. Yet all too often organisations can overlook that managers of volunteers are human too.
I have been nudged by another blogger, when I read her take on the unintentional selflessness of managers of volunteers.
We have to be concerned with the wants and needs of clients, other staff, administration and all of our volunteers. We juggle these wants and needs continually, listening closely to volunteer stories, soothing hurt feelings, and probing for motivations. We are on heightened alert at all times.
And the ultimate message is: “Volunteer managers can run the risk of losing themselves in the job.”
Many years ago I was occupied as a ‘counsellor’. It was a volunteer position in a provincial town, for an organisation that operated nationally. In the course of this work I encountered women struggling to do their best for their families, struggling with relationships and parenting and many with poverty as well.
I could offer empathy and challenge assumptions and suggest strategies for change, and there was always a startled look of recognition when I proposed: “If you do not look after yourself then you will not be able to look after others”.
Taking care of yourself remains a concern. How can you keep in good shape to manage the volunteer programme, and to lead volunteers? Working-out at the gym might do wonders for your physical fitness and percolate the endorphins for a feel-good high. But what about the work-related niggles that keep you awake at night, the on-going tensions and responsibilities that never go away? And never mind the push-me/pull-you stresses of time management.
Back in my counselling days there was always a ‘supervisor’ to support, encourage and monitor my professional practice. I graduated to being a supervisor too, and have continued to offer a supervisory and mentoring role to people working in NFP organisations.
Years later I am still hearing the agonised stories of managers of volunteers under stress, and I am still asking the question: If you do not look after yourself then how can you look after others?
I have been plugging away at professional development and professionalism for managers of volunteers for a while now.
To avoid “losing yourself in the job” go look for formal supervision or mentoring, or get together with colleagues, either 1:1 or as a group. Or join a webinar discussion. Time spent thus can be time saved in problem-solving, in new learning, and in being forced to take time-out. The pay-off, remember, is the flow-on benefits for volunteers and for the organisation.
May 27, 2012
Those of you who receive the Updates on Volunteering New Zealand’s Management of Volunteers Project will notice a gathering momentum. The Learning and Development work-stream, charged with creating a professional development pathway, is making good progress towards a significant milestone.
As a reminder, the two key areas of the group’s work programme are:
- To identify key competencies for leaders and managers of volunteers
- To establish a process for enabling Assessment of Prior Learning (APL)
The part that has taken the most time and effort is figuring out how to frame Competencies. A whole issue of e-volunteerism (October 2011) devoted to ‘credentialing’, with contributors from all around the world, could not produce a consensus. It was not simply a matter of establishing options for certification, nor in identifying particular tasks or skills. Much of the debate roved around the meaning of competence and its application to the business of managing volunteers.
The Learning and Development group is not engaged in determining the detail of what knowledge, skills and attributes signify competencies for managers of volunteers. That way overlooks the huge diversity in organisations, responsibilities, communities and sector interests. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula. Prescription could also become stifling for people wanting to move beyond standard practice, for people wanting to carve out new territory in leading volunteers.
The principal concern for the group is to identify a learning pathway, a road-map that offers clear entry points, recognition of prior learning, indications for further learning, and for leadership extension. The pathway is open to all non-profit organisations, will offer something to all managers and leaders of volunteers, regardless of scope and scale of the organisation.
Think of a motorway with on-ramps, and passing lanes, and exits to different destinations. Think of short journeys for immediate and relevant development needs, or taking the long road to a higher goal. This learning pathway will have signposts and markers for different options, and room for personal choice and direction.
The Wellington Leadership Group met a couple of weeks ago to consider a draft proposal for the motorway. We are impressed with the breadth and depth of the work that has gone into compiling the documents. We are excited by the range of ways the model could be used, and how useful it will be as a development guide for both new and experienced managers of volunteers.
The draft competency framework will be available for consultation in a matter of weeks. Getting feedback is one small step towards the significant milestone that will benefit all managers and leaders of volunteers inNew Zealand, and their organisations.