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 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.
November 25, 2012
Scenario: you are interviewing a candidate for a position to manage volunteers, and you want to check out the level of passion they would bring to the role. How would you frame the questions?
I am not looking for answers right now. I’m going off on a tangent to investigate the meanings of ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’. I want to question why these words should feature so frequently in the context of volunteering.
They turn up in promotional material, in organisation newsletters and in recruitment adverts. ‘Thank you’ speeches at Volunteer recognition functions are peppered with references to appreciation for volunteers’ ‘passion’. Volunteer Centres and national umbrella organisations and even international leaders in our field find ways to insert ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ into their writing. Even government publications don’t shy away from such emotive language where volunteers are involved.
Here are a few examples of slogans you can find without looking very far:
Show us your passion
Your passion, our nation, volunteer now!
Volunteer leadership is “passion management.”
They are examples of language used to attract and encourage volunteering, and to proclaim the good intentions and aspirations of managers of volunteers.
‘Passion’ means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. It comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to suffer’. OK, I know how ‘intense desire’ can be experienced as suffering, though this interpretation is better applied outside the province of volunteering and management of volunteers, despite frustrations experienced too often by the latter. The passion of volunteering and the management of volunteer services is more about ‘intense enthusiasm’.
There is nothing the matter with being passionate, and to be fair, the word is also prominent in the for-profit sector. But we do need to be clear what we mean, otherwise the word becomes a cliché and its currency devalued. ‘Passion’ risks turning into a platitude, like ‘commitment’ and ‘making a difference’. ‘Passion’ is a word too big and too important to turn into a shorthand slogan.
When we use ‘passion’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath we are referring to values held about people and communities and belonging and relationships, about service and mutual support, and about meeting needs. Values are those beliefs and principles that are prized and cherished, and they are demonstrated every day in our behaviour. We don’t have to declare we are passionate about volunteering: we can show you, all the time.
Being passionate about volunteering is relative to the cause of the organisation and its mission. That’s how many a community organisation started in the first place. Of course these days people can be more pragmatic about why they volunteer, yet there’s many a story about less-than-enthusiastic volunteers finding their ‘passion’ and becoming ardent supporters of an organisation.
Why should ‘passion’ be an important attribute for managers of volunteers? For starters you have to be pretty keen (if not ‘intensely enthusiastic’) about volunteering to make the most of the position. Passion contributes to raised performance standards, job satisfaction, and effective leadership of volunteers – which may include harnessing their passion when it becomes indiscriminate. Sometimes passion is needed in gaining a recognised stake in the organisation.
But what if you overplay your hand? There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic and becoming a fanatic. It’s a line between getting people to listen to well-reasoned arguments and in the way the emotional speech can turn into an eye-rolling, here-she-goes-again response. Too much overt passion can end up like Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: Each man kills the thing he loves.
So when it comes to interviewing prospective managers of volunteers I would be steering away from emotional rhetoric and asking about practical applications. Examples of practice will demonstrate just how ‘committed’ to ‘making a difference’ and the degree of ‘passion’ is held by the candidate.
November 18, 2012
A couple of weeks ago I was asked for information on the salary band for a manager responsible for 600 volunteers. I’m not really the best person to ask, but the question set me thinking, again.
The first thing I note is that the topic of pay packages for managers of volunteers is like a squeaky wheel that never gets oiled. There are regular queries and laments, but resolution always remains in the too-hard-basket. Some themes of the debate can be found in articles listed in Energize archives.
International data from the Global Volunteer Management Survey (2008) revealed the extraordinary range of full-time annual salaries: $US9,600 – $US90,000. The average yearly income was $US45,296: New Zealand managers of volunteers earned 10 – 15% less than this average. For 63% of respondents the handicap to growing volunteer management is that “volunteer managers would never be paid the equivalent of other professions who manage people”.
Management Matters, New Zealand-based research (2009), found the median annual salary of full-time managers is in the range of $NZ40,000 – $NZ59,000 ($US32.792 – $US49.183). At this time the mean income in New Zealand was $NZ43,836 ($US35,919).
In 2011 a professional survey attempted to establish real market value for managers of volunteers in New Zealand but results were inconclusive.
Aside from research, there’s a rule of thumb that reckons NFP salaries are 10% lower than for-profit businesses, and you can take off another 10% to get the going rate for a manager of volunteers. The devil is in the detail, the complex nature of the sector, the range of responsibilities, job titles and hours of work.
Managers of volunteers may be employed full-time, part-time or be an unpaid ‘volunteer manager’ or coordinator (full- or part-time). A full-time employee may be assigned part-time responsibilities for managing volunteers. They can be known variously as manager, director, administrator, or coordinator. The scope of the role is relative to the nature of the organisation’s mission and scale of operation, and operating budget. Being a manager of volunteers can be part human resource management, part line management, part strategic development. It may include skills in community organisation and project management, and certainly communication and relationship skills. And it will be nothing without leadership ability.
All these factors influence pay rates. The Managers Matter survey also found salary differences relative to job title: ‘Managers of Volunteers’ attracted higher rates than ‘Volunteer Coordinators’, regardless of paid/unpaid, full- or part-time status.
As for the numbers game, I cannot find a correlation between numbers of volunteers and manager salaries. The Managers Matter study showed that even with 200+ volunteers there were still 23% of managers unpaid. We need added information on how the volunteers are engaged: for weekly assignments or for annual events, a fixed term or ongoing involvement. We also need to take into account those people who squeeze volunteer responsibilities alongside other areas of work.
The concerns for low pay levels and unrealistic expectations remain.
So I was pleased to see included in the Volunteering New Zealand Best Practice Guidelines the following clause: Paying people with responsibility for volunteers a salary comparable to other managers with similar responsibilities within the organisation.
Which just begs the question: who, in the organisation, has similar responsibilities? Who else undertakes the range of tasks, covers the territory, and handles various roles like the manager of volunteers does – whether paid or unpaid? Is there anywhere an equivalent job?
Looks like the problem goes back to the too-hard-basket again.
But there is more to think about. It’s not just the complexity and the variations in organisation size and function, and the job title and employment status of the manager. There’s a perception that NFPs relying on the charity dollar should not be profligate in spending on salaries. Some organisations lack understanding and appreciation of volunteers, which is too easily carried over to the pay and respect accorded to their manager.
It is going to take more than the efforts of managers of volunteers to make a difference. It’s going to take the whole organisation. Discovering the true worth of managers of volunteers will also tell us more about how volunteering is valued.
November 11, 2012
We know all about the benefits of volunteering, for organisations and communities. We can count up the numbers – of volunteers and hours worked – which show simple aggregates of inputs and outputs, and we are finding ways to offer evidence of ‘making a difference’.
We know how a well-run programme can attract new volunteers and donors and gains in street-cred for the organisation. (And how quickly the reverse can happen if quality standards slip).
These days we know volunteer motivation can be less grounded in altruism than in seeking ROI – skill development, work experience and social contact. That’s the individual and personal gain.
There are other spin-offs. At volunteer gatherings where a mix of teams get together I have known excited reunions of people who went to school together or who lived in the same street a long time ago.
When volunteers are really engaged in the organisation you can bet they are developing relationships and forging new friendships. There’s many a tale of clusters of volunteers who meet regularly out of the workplace, organise a reunion, start their own Facebook page. Rugby World Cup volunteers got together again recently, to reminisce and to celebrate their achievements.
But did you know that Volunteering is also Good for Your Heart?
So says a report on research on individual health benefits of volunteering (published 2007).
Volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.
Those who engage in volunteer activities are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life and may be introduced into a positive reinforcing cycle of good health and future volunteering.
Even when controlling for other factors such as age, health, and gender, research has found that when individuals volunteer, they are more likely to live longer.
These claims are substantiated in more than 30 studies reviewing the relationship between health and volunteering. It is suggested by one commentator that Civic Engagement and Volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century – and it’s free to join.
Which is all very encouraging for volunteerism and community organisations and community well-being. But is the correlation of volunteering with good health dependent on practice standards in organisations, and quality management of volunteers? Feeling good about volunteering is certainly related to job satisfaction, a supportive work environment, and being respected and appreciated – all charged out as organisation responsibilities.
So the launch this week of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Organisations is to be welcomed, by administrators, managers of volunteers, and surely – by volunteers themselves.
November 4, 2012
This is the week to bring out the banners and balloons, put on the party gear and to show off yourself and what you do in managing volunteers. Self-promotion if you like, and I like self-promotion – because if you cannot value yourself and your achievements then it is sometimes hard for other people to see the value of your work.
So going crazy now and again is a way to take pride in being a manager of volunteers. You know – leading teams, juggling 100 people, 100 motivations, 100 job descriptions, with a zero budget for a priceless resource. As the You-tube clips have been saying, Who else could do that!
[Mumble mumble, and a bit of rhubarb] What’s that? You are uncomfortable with displays of self-praise? It’s not right to put yourself ahead of volunteers?
Don’t you see? Everything you do as a leader of volunteers is promoting their interests. Standing up for them, pushing their barrow every which way you can is demonstrating the importance of your work. You know the power of volunteering and just how much volunteers contribute to the organisation’s mission. So take some credit for getting the programme going and for maintaining the standards.
And notice, every now and again, how volunteers appreciate your leadership. They might be small efforts, like encouraging them in their work, giving praise and thanks for a job well done, and spending time to listen to their stories – but you bet they will be noticed. Make up a poster board to record all the compliments that come your way, even the little things like thanks – for returning my call / your prompt reply / your welcoming smile.
And take time, at least on one day a year, to say Yes, I did well, and I am well pleased. Because you’re worth it.
October 28, 2012
I can raise a smile at the slogan which is a contradiction in itself. How do you keep your cool when the job of managing volunteers is chaotic most of the time? Even the bold red colouring suggests keeping calm is about keeping the lid on stress that is best kept out of the chaos.
Lest you think I am indulging in cynicism, let me start again.
In the list of knowledge, skills and attributes for a management position I have never seen any hint of a required ability to manage stress (in self and others). Yes I know stress comes with the territory whatever the field of management, but why should it be reported so frequently by managers of volunteers?
There could be a number of reasons:
- Position responsibilities have not been properly scoped, leading to task overload
- The appointee is not adequately qualified or experienced for the position
- No proper induction
- No professional development programme
- No volunteer policy to give meaning and direction to the volunteer programme
- Senior management fail to understand and appreciate the value of the volunteering
These factors are organisational matters: feeling stressed and overwhelmed under these circumstances does not derive from personal shortcomings.
Raising questions about extending part-time hours or engaging administration assistance too often gets the reply (after the standard ‘lack of resources’ response): Make a case to justify increasing the budget for the volunteer programme. It’s not hard to guess what happens then: I haven’t got time, and I’m too tired. A few months later there is another notch to score in rate of turnovers for the position.
We could, in the face of adversity, Keep Calm and Drink Tea. Or we could Keep Calm and just Carry On. Volunteers deserve more, and they need good management and effective leadership.
There is no denying the role is diverse and demanding. The art of multi-tasking, being multi-skilled and with demonstrable leadership qualities turn the job into something that could be called ‘multi-management’.
That’s where a tool-kit of Survival Strategies is useful. The load gets lighter when it is shared:
- Engage volunteers for administration support
- Establish volunteer team leader positions for support and communication with volunteers
- Recruit or train-up volunteers to interview new applicants, or introduce group-screening
- Seek out allies within the organisation to help promote and advocate for volunteers
- Check out Volunteer Centre training opportunities and make a point of attending
- Find a mentor, or join a mentoring group
Adopting some or all of these strategies will then give a little space to address organisation shortcomings regarding volunteering and its management. Further help will be available very soon: Volunteering New Zealand will launch Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations on International Volunteer Managers’ Day, November 5. Join the webinar to learn more.
Nobody has ever said being a manager of volunteers is an easy job. But there are many people who love the work, and who make it a long career. It’s worth the effort to make it worthwhile. That’s the spirit of managing volunteers.