May 5, 2013
Going on three years ago I wrote about someone else’s bad volunteer experience, and regretted it ever since. Because every year this post is the most viewed, by a wide margin. Every day someone has Googled the words and they end up on my blog site. I’ve tried in several different ways to highlight what volunteers appreciate, but good news stories do not attract the same attention.
So the tales of volunteers being under-valued and unappreciated, and treated badly, continue to mount up. And now Australian volunteers are invited to register violations of their rights or inappropriate treatment.
Two problems here. One, I don’t know of any cast iron document on volunteer rights relating to ‘inappropriate treatment’. Which means, secondly, there is not much legal protection for volunteers (in New Zealand) beyond privacy and health and safety regulations and the non-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act. ‘Volunteer rights’ are more in the realm of ethical and best practice procedures.
There are various Codes of Practice for managing volunteers. There are various Rights and Responsibilities documents outlining reciprocal obligations for volunteers and organisations. There is, if you did not know already, a Code of Ethics for managers of volunteers. In 2001 (remember that year?) a “Universal Declaration on the Profession of Leading and Managing Volunteers” was developed by an international working group, including New Zealand representation. These hallmarks of a profession are clearly not sufficiently embedded to address the wrongs experienced by volunteers.
The regulatory environment in most jurisdictions will include volunteers within health and safety, privacy and human rights. Volunteers are excluded from employment law of course, though there is a grey area when we start talking about being ‘a good employer’ (see this post).
So from a volunteer’s perspective there is not much comeback if they get bullied, or mucked around, or ignored – all that personal insult stuff that is so hard to argue. There is no formal means of redress, unless the organisation’s HR policies and their ‘good employer’ commitment includes volunteers in their complaints and disciplinary procedures, and in annual review processes which offer a two-way consideration of both the volunteer programme and volunteer contributions. To go further into ‘workplace protection’ would jeopardise the meaning and status of volunteering.
In 2009 serious breaches of trust between volunteers and the organisations they volunteered for led to Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The outcome called on organisations to sign up to the 3R Promise, promoting and protecting and taking responsibility for volunteer experience and raising standards of management of volunteers, and reconciliation when things go wrong. Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations is another model, outlining opportunities for organisation development and change to develop and maintain a programme that offers volunteers the best possible experience.
But the fundamentals of that best experience is based on good communication, effective working relationships, high standards of training and induction, ongoing support, demonstrative appreciation and being valued for contributing to the organisation’s mission and to the community. (Have I missed anything here?) These are matters of professional standards and ethics and values. They are ‘people-centred’, involving relationships of mutual respect and trust.
If we listened to ‘what volunteers want’ we would not have to set up complaint registers or to promise commitments, or guidelines for organisations. If we listened to volunteers we would not be pushed to concern for protecting their rights. We might even become the profession we ought to be.
And – we’ll get more pictures of happy and satisfied volunteers.
March 23, 2013
No, this post is not a lecture on Road Safety, nor is it about peripheral vision. I want to talk about how a manager of volunteers needs two lines of sight.
Because it’s all very well to design and develop and run a programme for volunteers in an organisation, and to take to heart the mission of ensuring the best experience for the volunteers – but if you have not looked the other way to see how the volunteer programme integrates with other organisation functions and policies then both volunteers and the organisation can end up being short-changed.
Over the years I’ve listened to the sorrowful song-book presented by managers of volunteers. Here’s a small sample:
- Volunteers are regarded as second-rate workers
- Managers of volunteers don’t rate it as ‘managers’, nor as ‘professionals’
- They are lowly-paid and inadequately resourced
- No support for professional development
- Lip-service recognition of the volunteer programme, and volunteer achievements
- ‘They’ just don’t get volunteering
It does not have to be like that! And it isn’t of course, as the champions and leaders of our profession can demonstrate. There are also Chief Executives who know and understand volunteering and its importance to the organisation, ensuring volunteers get a fair go and respect for their work.
So what can you be doing to get away from the moan-and-groan stuff?
Simple answer: you get strategic.
Help! I don’t know how.
Yes you do! You have thought through what was needed for the programme, developed policies and processes, set everything in place for the recruitment and training of volunteers, and how volunteering would work in the organisation. You connected with your communities, and with the local network of managers of volunteers. Now you can do it all again, in the other direction, developing the connections and the strategies that will show senior management how to embrace volunteering and your management and leadership within the organisational fold.
Where do I start?
Hang on a minute. Before you get to action you have to do the planning. And before the planning, you need to figure what it is you are trying to do. You want the organisation to get volunteering, and the importance of good management and leadership of volunteers, right? What do you mean by “get volunteering”? What is it that people need to know about volunteering? What do you want to tell them and what is the best way to do it?
Now you can start thinking about your strategic plan – the key areas to work on, and the goals you have identified. You will be taking into account what is working and what doesn’t and what is missing. For instance, does volunteering get more than a mention in the organisation’s strategic plan and its business plan? How would you write up volunteering in these plans?
There is more: being strategic includes identifying potential allies, formulating the key points you want to communicate, and considering the channels open to you. You might, in the first instance, start reporting on volunteers and their activities, telling their stories and successes – and circulating the report to key players in the organisation, and especially the chief executive. Be bold, and go further by offering to meet and discuss the report. Even suggest what more could be achieved by volunteers.
Is this enough to go on with, to give you a kick-start?
If you want more info and other perspectives, go see how volunteer programmes can get Messed Up and what to do about it; or the observations of a group UK Managers of Volunteers. For details on how-to-plan, and what should be included, see this chapter of the Community Resource Kit or get the basics from Sport NZ.
One of the slogans I hear frequently is “managers of volunteers are advocates for volunteers in the organisation”, though I hear little about results of advocacy. The plaint of getting volunteering gets much more air time. Quite honestly this is the biggest foot-fault of our profession: wishing others would see our point of view is wishful thinking and accomplishes nothing. It is time to change our ways, to work on making looking-both-ways a key dynamic in the life of a manager of volunteers.
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.
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.
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.
October 7, 2012
There are no definitions for the X factors of volunteering. There will never be a TV reality show for the unseen and unsung qualities that make up the best of volunteering and its management. Mostly it is chance encounters that tell us something of the outcome of our work.
Three times in as many weeks I’ve been reminded of the influence a manager of volunteers can sometimes have on the lives of volunteers.
The first is a story about a volunteer and his wife, told fifteen years after the event.
A few days later I get to hear, long after I have left the workplace, how my words at a group induction session are still ringing in a volunteer’s ears:
“You don’t think you will gain anything from volunteering? Keep your hearts and minds open and you will discover all sorts of rewards.”
You know, the volunteer says to my successor, I’ve never forgotten that, and by heck, she was right!
Then Andy Fryar, who has his own remarkable story of unintended influence on a volunteer, puts up this poster on his Facebook page, noting it is something he raises regularly in training sessions.
None of us set out to be inspiring or to make a difference in the lives of volunteers. It’s a by-product, and we are merely catalysts for that inspiration to take hold, or that change to happen.
And mostly we never get the feedback.
I’ve been volunteering for yonks, and worked in a variety of management roles. My one experience in managing volunteers was in a hospice, where I discovered there was still much to learn about volunteering and management. Hospice volunteers taught me about the work they did, how they did it and why. Simple – serving cups of tea and dishing out meals. But it was the way they provided these services that showed me how volunteering is a whole lot bigger than ticking off a task sheet.
Because reports from patients and families indicated how the supporting words and gestures from volunteers touched them at just the right moment. When I gave this feedback to the volunteer there was usually a shrug and a comment like “But all I did was listen, and it was only for a few minutes”. No big deal for the volunteer, yet an inspirational spark for the family.
Now it’s my turn to tell a story about a volunteer and what comes after.
Mary had been volunteering for some time when I met her – Wednesday lunch service, regular as clockwork, a close buddy with her volunteer partner. She liked things neat and tidy, liked knowing what was what. Always Mary was someone you could count on to let you know if she could not come, wanted time off for travel, or if something was bothering her. Sometimes the bothering could be personal stuff, outside the volunteering bit.
Now Mary the volunteer has become the patient. Pinned on the notice board by her bed in the hospice is a letter I wrote to her eleven years ago, alongside the certificates issued in recognition of her years of volunteer service. Such little things, such small gestures from the office of a manager, to be received and treasured in ways I never anticipated.
All of us can touch other people’s lives in unknown ways. It’s part of being human. Sometimes we can turn the cliché of ‘making a difference’ into something real.
But always, in times like this, my mind flicks to the line that says:
You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people. *
And I wish I did not always have to be the last to know.
* William Boyd (1990) Brazzaville Beach
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”.