April 1, 2013
What do you reckon? How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does? What is your performance rating? Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale? Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?
There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game. Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat? Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?
When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment. There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding. It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors. Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board? To the tune of the latest marketing programme? Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?
The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures. But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.
Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.
It’s still much the same these days. Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth. Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.
The impact of services like these goes in several directions. Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future. The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements. Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits. There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services. Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved. The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements. That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.
We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society. We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change. Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels. As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business. Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.
But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change. We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.
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.
June 4, 2012
It’s such a simple question. Quite straightforward. Should be easy-as to give me an answer.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy! Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff? Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power? And if you say No way – impossible! then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers? This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief. Let me offer a few leads to think about.
There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel. Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence. Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers. The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme. Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.
There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category. Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example. All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.
Why? Why involve volunteers?
Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff? Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work? Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?
I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.
Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness. Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal? Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?
I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then
- Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
- There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
- Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
- Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
- The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
- And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.
There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility. Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.
April 15, 2012
The Latin tag cui bono can be applied in many contexts, but rarely do we stop to consider the implications of who benefits from volunteering and in what ways.
Too often we speak in clichés and platitudes, like:
- Volunteers are the salt of the earth
- They are the glue of society
- Thank you volunteers, we couldn’t manage without you
Yes we can measure volunteer contributions by translating hours and inputs into $$ figures which tell me little beyond how volunteers save the organisation a lot of money. What of the qualitative value of their work and its impact on outcomes? We really need to find the measuring tool that shows the true value of volunteer contributions to the organisation’s big-picture mission and strategic goals. There are ways and means, as I suggested some 18 months ago, and there are extensive references listed at Energizinc.
There are two other questions worth considering:
Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?
Why do volunteers choose to volunteer for your organisation?
Finding some answers could lead us away from the financial cost-benefit analysis to getting some real understanding of volunteering and the kind of social profit it brings, to the organisation as well as to volunteers.
Ideally we should be looking for a win-win outcome on all counts. Any act of volunteering is a giving process, but it is never selfless. There is always a quid pro quo, an exchange of something in return for a volunteer’s time, skills and knowledge. So the real question should be What is the pay-off for the volunteer?
There are practical gains, like work experience, learning new skills, developing new interests. Volunteering can improve job prospects and open new career options.
The intrinsic benefits may not be articulated well by volunteers. They can come up with clichés and platitudes too:
- Making a difference in the community
- A sense of purpose
Get volunteers to talk about satisfactions and what they gain and they will offer responses like the following:
Volunteering can enlarge social networks and social interaction; volunteering offers a sense of belonging in a community. Supporting a cause is to participate in creating change, to realise personal values. The ethic of service can be a satisfaction in itself. All of these ‘goods’ promote personal growth, enhanced confidence and competence in the work undertaken and a satisfying sense of achievement. In other words, volunteering is empowering.
Research findings from the Rugby World Cup, and a survey of volunteers involved in the Bay of Plenty clean-up after the Rena grounding indicate similar satisfactions. There are more references at Energize.
So really, the gains, benefits and satisfactions are a two-way street between volunteers and their organisations. That is a fundamental connection which should not be overlooked.