June 16, 2013
National Volunteer Week is upon us. The stories about volunteers will unfold through newspaper spreads and press releases, and celebratory functions will be held all over the country.
This feast for volunteering goes international every year, and now it is New Zealand’s turn. Here, Volunteer Awareness Week has morphed into National Volunteer Week, taking a broader account of the ‘volunteer industry’. In Wellington corporate volunteering gets due recognition for example, and there are at least a couple of workshops specially to support managers of volunteers. Watch out for Volunteering New Zealand’s latest innovation: a daily webinar on different topics related to volunteering.
Why do we do this, every year? What’s the rationale for putting such energy and expense into appreciating volunteers and the business of supporting volunteering, for one week every year?
I could presume we do this because:
- Volunteers and volunteering are ignored the rest of the year
- The news media don’t give much attention to good news stories
- Organisations are focused on service delivery and overlook how much the work of volunteers contribute to those services on a regular basis
- Any excuse for a party!
- Opportunity for self-promotion of organisations and Volunteer Centres
- It’s a great exercise to recruit more volunteers to the ranks
There might be some elements of truth here, but not enough to justify an annual blast of publicity. We do a great deal of appreciation and recognition throughout the year, in large and small ways, both publicly and privately. So why do we still need to hold an annual week in praise of volunteering?
I’m having trouble finding rational answers to this question, specially when I hear volunteers saying:
Volunteer work is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth. You just do it. Being part of the community isn’t something that you tack on to life – it’s a really important part of life.
Volunteering gets into your blood. Like you can’t live without it.
If volunteering is so every-day and ordinary, so much part of our lifeblood, why the need for an annual fanfare?
Maybe the point about recruiting more volunteers is a good enough reason, because total volunteer numbers represent only one third of our population (though the data is probably under-reported). Because many organisations find they are constantly short on volunteers, and long in demand of services provided by volunteers. It’s not unreasonable to showcase opportunities to attract interest in volunteering – except recruitment and retention of volunteers is an on-going practice which cannot be left to an annual drive.
Maybe a promotional week is something bigger than the detail of recruitment and recognition. Maybe it’s the real opportunity to remind people about values of community, service, and the importance of Civil Society. We might be labelled as non-government or non-profit organisations, and relegated to the less-than-noble title of Third Sector, but by heck if we were not around the political and economic sectors would be missing the third leg of the stool that represents the sort of society we enjoy.
Maybe it is coincidence that CIVICUS has published a new report on the role that civil society plays and the conditions that enable it to do so. It is certainly timely.
Civil society plays multiple roles. We bring people together. We encourage debate, dialogue and consensus building. We research, analyse, document, publish and promote knowledge and learning. We develop, articulate and seek to advance solutions to problems. We engage with people and organisations in other spheres, such as government and business, to try to advance and implement solutions. We directly deliver services to those who need them. Sometimes we do all of these things at once. We need to assert that these are all legitimate civil society roles. [p 33]
This is what we do, all year, every year – right? And if you, as an organisation or as a volunteer, are struggling to be heard – take heart that you are not alone in the world:
The value that civil society brings always needs to be proved, documented and promoted – and the argument for civil society continually made: “While the assumption of the need for strong government and private sectors is today generally not questioned, the need for a strong civil society is not always so readily assumed.” [p44]
The report is worth reading in full to appreciate the global trends we are experiencing in New Zealand.
Maybe there is no definitive explanation for holding a National Volunteer Week. For now and for this week all I need to know is the answer to the question : What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! That is the start and the end-point of volunteering and community development, and of Civil Society. It is people!
June 9, 2013
Yes, in a week’s time New Zealand will have its turn at turning a spotlight on Volunteering. It is a time for national celebration of the work of volunteers, their organisations – and for the people responsible for managing volunteers. So what’s with the promotional banner adopted for this year? Volunteering NZ’s briefing explains.
“Hutia te rito o te harakeke Kei whaea te kōmako e kō? Kī mai ki ahau; He aha te mea nui o te Ao? Māku e kī atu He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”
If the heart of harakeke was removed, Where would the bellbird sing? If I was asked What is the most important thing in the world? I would say: It is people, it is people, it is people.
Harakeke is one of New Zealand’s oldest plant species. We call it flax, but really it is a lily.
Harakeke supports a community of birds, animals and insects.
Harakeke is a fibre plant sourced by Maori to use in all parts of domestic life and community living.
Harakeke is surely the symbol to represent volunteering, to signal the weaving between all peoples and their connections with community and the land.
[Read more about the history and uses of Harakeke here.]
Look closely – see the interlacing weaving, see the linked arms of community, of people, creating a badge of honour. Volunteering is by People, for People, and about People.
In the run-up to National Volunteer Week volunteers are going to great lengths to parade the world of their work.
Go Volunteers! And please, take notice of what their managers are doing every day, in every way, to create the best possible experience for volunteers.
June 2, 2013
Recognition and appreciation of volunteer work throughout community organisations is something managers do every day in lots of different ways. This month Volunteering New Zealand is heading into National Volunteer Week (June 16-22), a brief time to celebrate the contribution of volunteers to all parts of New Zealand’s social and cultural life.
There are other annual opportunities for public acknowledgement, from national honours to local civic awards and community-sponsored medals. Two standout nation-wide programmes come via TrustPower and Kiwi Bank (as principal sponsor of New Zealander of the Year Awards). Both programmes are competitive, involving nomination and judging at both local and national levels in a range of categories.
TrustPower Community Awards are run in 24 regions, and they cover five categories: Heritage and Environment, Health and Wellbeing, Arts and Culture, Sport and Leisure, and Education and Child/Youth Development. Supreme winners in each region then vie for the title of National Awards Supreme Winner. For 2012 the winner was Kaibosh, a Wellington-based organisation dedicated to daily redistribution of left-over food.
The catalogue of winners at regional level is an eye-opener on the range of community organisations and their achievements. The Men’s Shed scored in Tauranga; in Dunedin the winner was the Neurological Foundation Southern Chair of Neurosurgery; a theatre group from the small town of Katikati took out honours in Western Bay of Plenty; and the ecological restoration project at Maungatautari was the winner for the Waipa District. Runners-up and commendations are recorded too.
TrustPower’s award for Youth Community Spirit recognises secondary school students’ service to school and the community. From the achievements noted in the citations these young people are the emerging leaders for a new generation.
New Zealander of the Year Awards focus more on individuals than organisations. There is a top award for New Zealander of the Year, and others for a Young New Zealander and a Senior New Zealander. Then there are the Local Hero awards identifying everyday people doing extraordinary things in their local communities. All of these engender significant local and national publicity, and recognition for individual and collective achievements.
In addition, the Community of the Year award provides groups with an opportunity to be recognised for their holistic contribution, rather than a focus on a particular sector. The small town of Paeroa is the winner for 2012, for its determination to retain an active events calendar and to enhance heritage attractions.
The heart of this community really lies with the large number of volunteers whose can-do attitude has seen the town develop to be a safe and vibrant community. The contribution and energy of a large number of groups is in contrast to the small population. It is this strong sense of community that is the key to the towns continuing growth and proves what can be achieved when residents share a common goal and work together harmoniously.
That’s a real illustration of what the spirit of community volunteering can achieve.
A study of winners and finalists for Community of the Year could reveal significant data on success factors – like leadership, collaboration and cooperation, strategic planning and implementation – because the achievements of Paeroa and other communities do not happen without effective leadership and management of a volunteer programme.
There’s no huge prize money offered from these award programmes, but the publicity and kudos will generate increased awareness to be translated into donor and funder interest and volunteer applications.
And when you scroll through the list of present and previous award winners it is very evident there are more things in community services and community development than NGOs filling the breaches in government health and welfare services. So when we join the functions lined up for National Volunteer Week let’s give a nod to the way leaders and managers of volunteers make all things possible for volunteers.
May 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.
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.
April 14, 2013
For too long I have been listening to these words, how “they” just do not understand volunteering and management of volunteers. Now I am sitting up to ask the question “What do we mean by getting volunteering – what do we want ‘them’ to get?”
And I’m running into trouble when I go looking for answers.
I could recite the litany of volunteer motivations; describe the history of community organisations and their rise to national and corporate status. I could tell the stories of volunteers, and there are millions to document ‘making the difference’ for individuals and communities. I’m not so keen on citing the record of hours worked and assumed $$ contributions, because that information does not seem to wash further than input/output statistics in the annual accounts – volunteers are just another resource to draw on. And anyway, we have gone down all these roads, many times.
What is it, what is the real deal that would get staff and organisation executives and government departments and corporate bosses to open their eyes to a real Ah-Ha moment about volunteering?
For starters it would help if “they”
Have had personal experience of volunteering and an understanding of the relevance of community in the wider fields of political and social action.
Work in an organisation structure and culture where volunteers are physically located in staff work-spaces, and which integrates the volunteer programme in service delivery plans and processes.
Employee volunteering is another option to open eyes to the richness and diversity of community organisations, and to their needs.
Yet these experiences do not seem to work for everyone in all places. The stories keep recurring about a lack of support for volunteers and their managers, and about organisations not taking volunteering seriously. It’s a low cost investment, nice to have, but not something to be worried about nor included when it comes to planning and strategic development.
Of course what the bosses and bureaucrats should be doing is paying attention to Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.
It is encouraging to note increasing awareness and activism among managers of volunteers and associated groups. We are talking up impact and outcome measurement of volunteer services, advocating for volunteering within our organisations. But following this path is simply trying to prove the worth of volunteering on “their” terms, a linear logic that can be described with numbers on paper.
If only “they” could look the other way to see the true value of volunteering. Here is what I would want “them” to see:
Volunteers complement the organisation’s delivery of services.
Volunteers add value to services, providing extras that are never going to be funded, and which enhance the holistic experience of users/clients.
Volunteers are ambassadors for the organisation. With a good experience volunteers can be the best marketing agent ever. If that experience is not so good they will do the worst possible damage to your reputation in the community, making it difficult to recruit new volunteers, and putting significant limitations on the success of fundraising projects.
Community organisations are said to be driven by values. No matter the mission you will find words like respect, dignity, communication, family-whanau/people-centred, community inclusiveness featuring on the masthead. Values represent beliefs and attitudes we hold dear, and we know them by the way they are exhibited in behaviour. Regardless of the reasons why people volunteer their behaviour generally reflects the ideals of the organisation.
So when we try to measure volunteering according to business plans and key performance indicators and impact measurement we get stuck on things like courtesy and goodwill, like relationships and understanding, like social connections and community development and individual and collective strengths. Volunteering is about people, by people and for people.
The value of volunteering is not less than the organisation’s ability to reach targets and to show a return on investment. Volunteering is a different sort of value. So, for “them” to ‘get volunteering’ requires understanding a different culture.
The beauty of understanding and accepting cultural difference is the new relationship that forms, based on each others’ strengths and a willingness to learn how to work together. That’s when I shall know “they” really get volunteering.
February 24, 2013
Just two months into the year and already there are plenty of agendas being talked up, plenty of rising anxiety levels in community sector organisations, accompanied by what sounds like, and feels like, a sinking lid for programmes and practice. Paying for criminal checks on volunteers, getting the charities legislation reviewed and the prospect of new contracting and funding arrangements through ‘social bonds’ are just three of the big picture issues. I shall leave them to other platforms for the moment.
My matter for this week is not as the headline suggests, the community gardeners. Nor am I presenting yet another promo for best practice volunteer recruitment. The niggle at the back of my head is the continuing interest in courting Gen X and Y to engage in volunteering, as though it was a new and untapped resource for organisations short on volunteers.
I wrote about Youth Volunteering a bit over a year ago, being enthusiastic about all the evidence of increases in young people’s involvement. And they continue to be involved, even as part of whole family volunteering. More recently Volunteering New Zealand has published a paper on UN Youth NZ; Labour Party youth are on a roll this year to connect with local community groups; in January United Nations announced a trust fund to support Youth Volunteerism. There is no end to the ways young people can be involved in their communities, and you can see this even at early school years when class projects open children’s minds to community and community needs.
Here is my ‘yes but’ question:
Are we cultivating volunteers or promoting the cult of youth?
The rise in youth volunteering is capturing attention at a time when retirees, the ‘baby-boomer’ generation, could be expected to join the ranks of volunteers in droves. They are not, for various reasons: they continue in paid employment; they are full-time care-givers for grandchildren; they are travelling the world and ‘pursuing other interests’. Yet there are still enough older people – and we can see them working in our communities every day throughout the year – to be a significant proportion in volunteer statistics. This is the expanding age group that is proving such a burden on governments and age-support organisations throughout the western world. To which I would say: “if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them”.
My plea is for inclusion, for all population groups. I am thinking of skills that older people can offer from their employment experience. I am thinking of tolerance and acceptance of difference that comes with age and experience, along with a raft of communication and relationship skills. Of course they do not have these skills on their own, and nor is the wisdom of age always informed by tolerance. But neither do young people hold all the answers to achieving organisation goals through volunteering.
Dissonance between age and youth is as old as time. This is not the time to pitch one in favour of the other. Volunteering could be the much-needed space where young and older New Zealanders come together to learn from each other and to appreciate the perspectives of different generations. That’s where leadership for the 21st century could come from.
Disclaimer: Please do not think I am carrying personal angst in writing the above. By conventional dating I belong to the Silent Generation, those who never spoke out, who accepted everything thrown at them. I like to think I have moved with my times.
PS: Comment per email sent by Salle-Ann Ehms:
As always, your blog is very thought-provoking. In the light of inclusiveness, I thought that you’d appreciate this photo I took last week-end. It’s not the best shot but I love the contrasts; youth-aged,
caucasian-asian, able-disabled, but what I most love is that none of those things are really relevant, the caring is palpable.
February 17, 2013
I have been collecting a litany of words commonly used as descriptors of volunteering. There’s quite a selection, and they cover various meanings, from conferring respect and value to some not-so-flattering terms.
Volunteers make the world go round Backbone of society
Local heroes Salt of the earth Good sorts People power
Glue / Fabric of the community Community Builders
Community collective Spirit of Community Community Champions
Not-for-Profit Institution Non-Government Organisation
Freebies Do-gooder Lady Bountiful
No doubt there are a few more to add (please do!) The one that is grabbing my attention at present is Unsung Heroes, a television programme on TVNZ. Yes, really! Volunteers are featuring on prime time TV, an extended series show-casing the range and variety of volunteer work in New Zealand.
Most of the major NFP organisations in our communities are represented, and there are some nice pieces on less widely-known charities. Even the Christchurch Student Army gets a look-in.
What a relief from other reality-TV programmes which too often display the sad, the bad and the downright silliness of human behaviour. Unsung Heroes hits all the right notes, covering the real activities undertaken by volunteers and including off-the-cuff comments on their motivation. Mostly the latter is about the feel-good benefits for the volunteer, or the doing-good-in-the-community effect, and once or twice because the volunteer had experienced help from the organisation they have joined.
And yet…. It’s all very well showing off the worthiness of volunteer work, and the achievements of volunteers – but if you haven’t got the background of the organisation, and what it takes to getting a volunteer on the job then you are getting less than half the story. There’s no show yet of a manager of volunteers, nor the extensive training undertaken by emergency service volunteers and telephone counsellors. Training has not had a mention in any context. Or even an induction and orientation. The series, thus far, has excluded that vast array of informal volunteering that goes under the radar and which really does make the world go round. It would be nice to see something of Mahi Aroha, and the volunteer effort generated by migrant and refugee communities for supporting their own and for sustaining their cultures.
OK – we can’t have everything, and we should be congratulating NZ On Air for commissioning the programme. But still I think – why not go a bit further?
What about creating a series based on the drama that is ever present in the life of a manager of volunteers? Synopsis: follow a valiant manager who herds a bunch of aspiring volunteers through the process of recruitment, training and placement, and what happens to them on the job. Now there’s a scenario to put management of volunteers on the map! Because they are our real Unsung Heroes.
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.
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