July 24, 2017

Finding Your Feet

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Professional Development tagged , , , , , at 4:11 am by Sue Hine

New Picture (1)So – you’ve got your dream job, managing a volunteer programme. You are all get up and go, until you discover it’s a pretty complex role and all your previous experience and training really was not enough. And sometimes you get tripped up and stumble with what is expected of you.

That’s tough, and you need to find time to figure out what you need and how to get your feet strong on the ground. Will the organisation give you some back-up, and support (with funding) to attend a worthwhile training programme, or to attend a relevant workshop or conference? No such luck if professional development is not included in the organisation’s employment policies, or if the organisation is a small-size community-led operation with minimal funding.

That’s when you need to start thinking about mentoring, that relationship process that will support you to up your skills, to find confidence and generally reach for your goals on your own terms, on your own feet, in your own time.

This mentoring thing is not a new invention. These days it is widely adopted by business and all sorts of organisations – sports, schools and universities, the arts, professions, start-up business projects, social enterprise. It’s a kind of coaching, a sort of on-the-job training, a form of supervision (clinical and administrative) – perhaps an amalgam of all the above. Mentoring has found favour over other terms which imply authoritative oversight. If it’s good enough for all those other occupations, why not for managers of volunteers?

New Picture (2)

When you look at this image it’s pretty much like what you do as a manager of volunteers: you want to sustain volunteer motivation, you are setting goals for them, giving advice and direction, and you are coaching and supporting them in their roles. Just what you are wishing for too?

So how do you find a mentor? Of course there are people who make mentoring a professional career. If that is beyond your means help could be on hand at your local Volunteer Centre. Try them, tell them what you are looking for, and see what they can come up with.

What can you expect from a mentor? A trusting relationship with somebody who listens, but doesn’t tell you what you ought to be doing. It’s amazing what you can learn just by talking out loud. Somebody who can challenge your ideas and attitudes, yet remain supportive while you figure out what will work best for you. Somebody who knows about good resources, as options to explore, not as imperatives.

As an alternative to 1:1 mentoring you could join a Peer Mentoring group in your own locality. Leaders of volunteers get together to find solutions to common issues, to support colleagues in working through what needs to happen, and to identify training needs, swapping notes and resources on best practice and policy procedures. Peer mentoring is thus a more purposeful form of networking. And a Peer Group could also operate as a professional committee to promote volunteering and the importance of management of volunteers within their network.

Peer groups work best when there is a regular facilitator or external leader, but a rotating facilitator can also help participants practice leadership skills.

Now a word for the people who have worked so hard to make the grade of an experienced programme manager and leader of volunteers: can you put up your hand to be a mentor for others? You’ve learned so much, you know the ropes, you’ve been around the traps – why not help others to get a grip on the ground of managing volunteers?

June 25, 2017

The Week that Was (2017)

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Good news stories, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 2:04 am by Sue Hine

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New Zealand’s National Volunteer Week finished up on Saturday, a week-long shout out, partying, praise and awards for volunteers. If you have not seen enough of the events, the press releases, videos and social media interaction there is a grand collection on Volunteering New Zealand’s FB page.

It’s the one week of the year that volunteers get public notice and due recognition – and even the Prime Minister chimed in this year at the function hosted by the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector. Though if an organisation knows what is best for it there will be plenty of regular in-house appreciation for volunteer work throughout the year.

The theme for the week celebrated volunteering as a way of life that builds communities; that enables sharing your time, energy and skills; and that creates friendships and happiness. And you can have a lot of laughs along the way – volunteering has to be fun!

Yes, there were lots of numbers quoted in the public declarations – numbers of volunteers and their monetary value. Yes the platitudes about ‘making a difference’ and ‘we couldn’t manage without you’ were still paraded in the press releases. And a grand opinion piece in the Dominion Post about benefits of volunteering was undermined by the accompanying image of ‘Volunteers Needed!’

But it was evident that more effort is going into genuine recognition for the work achieved by volunteers. For example:

  • Handing out high fives for generally keeping the country ticking
  • Listing the benefits newcomer and migrant volunteers bring to organisations
  • “The more we continue to grow this spirit of helping others, the stronger our communities will become “
  • “Volunteers create connected communities by bringing families together”
  • “Volunteers help us to do more, and in return for their hard work and efforts they are able to step forward, act on the issues that affect them and take ownership of changes they want for themselves and their community”
  • “We’re [working on] ways to improve our volunteer experiences, including improved communication, ensuring greater diversity among our people, more accessible clinical training and better fatigue management”
  • Sport brings communities together through parent volunteers who organise and manage teams, coordinate transport to ensure kids get to and from games and training sessions, cutting up the half-time oranges or washing the team shirts. Others contribute as coach, referee or umpire, by drawing up rosters, being part of committees or organising fundraisers.

The best tribute to volunteering around New Zealand is found here, starting off in Taranaki and including photos and extra stories (filtered through all the ads and inserts of online newspaper publishing).  ‘Volunteer efforts help keep New Zealand communities afloat’ the headline says.

It seems churlish now, after all the good news stories, to ask what happens when volunteers do not enjoy the experience of living, laughing and sharing in their work. They leave, give up volunteering in disillusionment. They can damage an organisation’s reputation in an instant, through casual remarks to friends and neighbours. And they may miss out forever the opportunity to belong to a community, creating a sense of well-being and a strong Civil Society.

And that’s why well-organised and respected professional management of volunteers are as important to organisations as the volunteers. Right?

April 22, 2017

Community & Voluntary Sector: What Do We Mean?

Posted in Civil Society, Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity tagged , , at 11:34 pm by Sue Hine

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The collective noun of Community & Voluntary Sector is widely used. The words trip of the tongue whenever we want to make a point of how important the sector is, or to argue the significance of volunteer contribution to organisations and communities. Or to point out that this or that organisation is getting a raw deal.

Trouble is, ‘community’ invokes anything from my local neighbourhood, to a particular set of organisations or particular groups of people, and then links with the broader term of Civil Society. It’s a blanket word used so loosely we risk drowning the distinctions – and the voices – that are collectively represented in ‘community’.

You can read all about the facts and values of ‘community’ in Raymond Plant’s Community and Ideology: an Essay in Applied Philosophy (1974). (OK, it’s an oldie but still a goodie.) Plant argues there is no overall definition of community because there is always a value element implicit in using the word: when we talk about what a community is we are also inferring what a community ought to be like, and we may be talking about several different forms of community at the same time. Forty years later we can add ‘networks’ to the meaning of ‘community’, and ‘online communities’ and even global ones.

The Community & Voluntary Sector is also beset with a number of non-titles, like NGOs, NPIs, NFPs, or it is an also-ran as Third (and sometimes Fourth) Sector. Then there is the legal status of organisations: registered charity, incorporated society, or simply a non-entity, a neighbourhood group that organises an informal street clean-up. Or you can categorise organisations by their field of activity, and there are twelve fields according to New Zealand definitions for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (2009). You could also say organisations contracted to provide services on behalf of government are yet another category, one that tends to dominate conversations about the sector.

I wish we could find another way of expressing a ‘community’ voice that does not lump us all in together, obscuring all the myriad services and groups catering for human diversity and their interests.

Now think about ‘voluntary’, another word used loosely, and then some. Yes, there is a fundamental applied definition of ‘work that is freely given without expectation of reward’, but then count all the different ways of volunteering, the different sectors of interest – and vested interests – and the diversity of volunteers and their motivations.  No wonder we run up against people and organisations that do not ‘get’ volunteering, that do not understand the word’s real meaning.

Volunteering is both a verb and a philosophic concept.  Our beliefs about people and our community relationships will flavour the sort of volunteering we undertake and why we volunteer. Yet too often organisations engaging volunteers have not thought beyond ‘unpaid labour’. There’s a lot more behind ‘working for free’ than donating one’s time.

Consider the different forms of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can be both formal (engaged with an organisation) and informal (helping people outside family obligations).
  • Volunteering can be regular or episodic, short- or long-term.
  • Volunteering can be undertaken as part of Corporate Social Responsibility by employees.
  • Volunteering includes activism for social or political change.
  • Volunteering as obligation, a civic duty.

And the roles undertaken by volunteers:

  • Governance
  • Personal support, befriending
  • Team leadership
  • Event organisation and participation (including fundraising)
  • Administration, from reception and clerical input to accounting
  • Pro bono professional services
  • Research
  • Exploring new approaches to service delivery – innovation

Or the drivers for volunteers:

  • Supporting a cause
  • A desire to connect, to belong in a community, to be useful
  • Gaining work experience (for Interns and unemployed people)

So next time a report is issued on numbers of volunteers, the hours they contribute and the $ value of their contribution to the organisation (or to GDP), start asking a few questions about what the volunteers are working at, and what they achieve. Think about just what sort of difference they make, and exactly why ‘you could not manage without them’.

And then do some hard thinking about how you talk about ‘community and voluntary sector’.  Is its purpose to contribute to GDP, or to social well-being and community cohesion – to be part of a strong Civil Society? Or is this sector largely the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff of economic and social inequity?

March 25, 2017

Lessons from Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 10:30 pm by Sue Hine

A few days ago I got a call from Matthew, one of those volunteer types who like to put up their hand for the next best thing. He had landed the job of recruiting a team of volunteers for a city-wide fund-raising effort and scheduling them into a roster for the day. Not a problem he thought – just ring around the people on the list handed to him – slot them in at their preferred time, perhaps do a bit of juggling with where they wanted to go. Piece of cake. And a nice way to support an organisation he respected.

Except a lot of people did not answer his calls, even after several messages. ‘Should I keep on trying to contact them?’ he asked. Of course my question in reply was ‘What sort of briefing were you given when you took up this job?’ Not much. ‘What did you understand you were asked to do?’ Just ring around a few people. ‘No outline of how to run a conversation?’ Zilch. … And so on.

Matthew was not very happy.

Neither was Gina, who volunteered for a branch of a national organisation that had a high reputation in the community. She really wanted to get involved in this work, took up the intensive training, got fired up to give it a go. Loved the work and being involved with people in the community, but hugely disappointed and disillusioned with the organisation. Problem was the other volunteers had all been involved for some years, and they were a very cliquey group. Not at all inclusive when it came to newcomers. And the team leader, the local manager of this branch, was in cahoots with them. You’d go to a meeting and they would spend half the time gossiping about local issues, and even the cases they had been working on. No direction from the manager, no meaningful support, and little guidance when you needed it. Gina stuck it out for a year or so but was pleased to move on to new employment in a different town. She was going to be more cautious about volunteering in the future.

Jess’s problem was somewhat similar. Her volunteering involved supporting families in the community, taking up heaps of time and rather a lot of travel when there were meetings arranged with various agencies. That was OK, really, but Jess was missing the organisation support she had got from volunteering stints with other organisations. Yes, there was an occasional group email with a generic thank-you message, and a list of instructions on what still needed to be done. And yes, there was also a compulsory fortnightly team meeting to attend. But instead of a forum for discussion of ideas and sharing concerns, the manager would go through a list of what Jess and her colleagues were doing wrong. All rather dispiriting. Jess checked out what other people were thinking and feeling and they supported her idea to challenge the manager at their next meeting.

It wasn’t going to be a formal complaint, just setting out what volunteers would appreciate in support and recognition for the work they were doing. Jess was not unaccustomed to laying out facts and examples, but she did not expect the hostile response from the manager. There was no discussion, just a personal attack that made Jess out to be ungrateful, lacking understanding of the organisation and its mission, and totally off the wall in her comments. The other volunteers stayed silent.

Jess has not done any formal volunteering since.

Fortunately I don’t think the experiences of Matthew, Gina and Jess happen frequently, but they are reminders of the real importance of

  • Clear instructions for volunteer tasks via a role description
  • Ensuring an inclusive process for new volunteers
  • Managers of volunteers understanding ethical boundaries and their leadership role
  • Genuine recognition and appreciation of volunteer work
  • Listening to volunteers and their ideas for improvements in the programme

When we listen carefully volunteers can always teach us a thing or two.

February 26, 2017

Thinking about Altruism

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:08 am by Sue Hine

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Over the holiday period I gobbled up a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Well – what else do you do when it’s supposed to be summer and the wind and rain keep pouring into my city? And there was a fair bit of Googling as well, checking out New Year prognostications arising for the non-profit sector.  And trying to comprehend developments in “the new world order”, the term applied here to the reign of the new US President.

I sense a swell of concerns in the voluntary and community sector that have been simmering for some time: competition for funding; changes in government commitment to service provision, forcing organisations to close their doors; a fall of volunteer numbers and increases in paid staff; and in some quarters, a lack of public confidence in non-profit organisations. As always, there’s a refrain, singing for better recognition of volunteers, and for management of volunteers.

There are some other strands emerging too. They’ve also been around for a while, but I’m reluctantly taking some notice of the rise of ‘social enterprise’, a revival of ‘social investment’ (and what impact that might have on existing services), and a movement called ‘Effective Altruism’ promoting ‘how to help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back’.

Its champion is William MacAskill, and in his book Doing Good Better he offers a disarming self-help manual on how to decide best career choices when you want ‘to make a difference’, what cause to focus on, which charities offer the best outcomes. It’s hard to argue against his reasoning, except that it’s a long way from my basis for making choices when offering to volunteer or to respond to calls for $ donations.  His utilitarian approach has been well-critiqued, not least for ignoring the sticking plaster some charities put on injustices perpetrated by capitalism.

In simple terms, MacAskill advises that ‘the market will make it all work’.  Donors are investors seeking the best return for their money (ROI).  They might also get their name in lights as a worthy philanthropist.  What bothers me is the absence of any attempt by MacAskill to define ‘altruism’ beyond the basic ‘giving’. There is scant attention to other values and moral codes that can influence decisions, and he offers several examples of choices that have made little or no ‘difference’. The only mention of volunteering implies that giving money is a far better option than giving time:

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area which you are helping, which means the benefit you provided might be limited. At the same time you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for. Anecdotally, we have heard from some non-profits that the main reason they use volunteers is because those volunteer subsequently donate back to the charity.

Hands up those who reckon volunteers are more trouble than they are worth!

There is more. Another book picked up by chance is by Nic Frances, a leading supporter of social enterprise. He outlines in The End of Charity how the divide between money-making business and doing-good charities doesn’t really make the world any better. This view is echoed by Don Pallotta who highlights business practice discrimination against non-profit organisations. Frances argues we need to stretch financial values to include social and environmental values, and for business to incorporate these elements into their operations – to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously. Well, yes, but is there any guarantee the outcome will not be like a corporate takeover of the non-profit sector? The ‘end of charity’, indeed.

Let’s go back to that word ‘altruism’, a loaded value-word, and values are notoriously debatable though highly significant in shaping thinking and behaviour. In simple terms ‘altruism’ represents a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and according to a cluster of researchers, altruism is also an integral part of human nature. Altruism can also bring benefits to ourselves – as volunteers well know and evidenced in research.

OK, science is divided between arguments on Darwinian competitiveness and the kind of mutualism (collaboration and coordination) that contributed to human evolution, but genuine altruism is right up front in Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Work done of one’s own free will, unpaid, for the common good.

So I will not be jumping ship and buying into non-profit organisations becoming models of utilitarian business institutions. I will be thinking long and hard about what would be lost, like the passion for a cause, the spirit of community, and the rewards of volunteering. I shall be asking where the ‘common good’ has gone, and whether I still have free will.

Because we have been slow to appreciate the impact of change over the past thirty years. Contracts with government, rules and procedures for funding applications, formalised reporting and accounting for the spending of funds have upped the game of running a community organisation – and lifted standards of transparency and accountability. The shift from grass roots advocacy and action to formalised volunteering has introduced better practice in ‘using’ volunteers, aided through the professional development of volunteer management. In doing so, we have allowed a great divide to open between formal and informal volunteering.

According to altruists we have become corrupted by the modern money system, “an unnatural transactional mentality which establishes competitive relationships, overemphasises individualism, erodes society and fuels consumerism”. At the same time we protest loudly at the lack of recognition, of the true (non-monetary) value of volunteering and the work of community organisations.

While MacAskill and his colleagues preach ‘effective altruism’ I shall continue to beat the drum for the gift economy and relationships based on respect, empathy and cooperation. Without a strong volunteer presence, without thousands of organisations and people serving their communities through sport, arts and leisure pursuits, health and welfare support, emergency response, environment advocacy and all the stuff that goes on under the radar, the world would be a poor place to live.

That’s why we keep on volunteering, and doing the right thing in managing volunteers. Right? What actions would demonstrate our true worth?

December 10, 2016

Volunteers’ Day in the Sun

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 11:47 pm by Sue Hine

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There wasn’t a lot of sun around on Monday last week (December 5 2016) in New Zealand. International Volunteer Day seemed more muted than usual. Yes, there were tea parties and picnics and presentation of volunteer awards around the country, but fewer media statements from previous years and less shouting-out on social media.

A very big thunder rolled across our sky when the Prime Minister announced his intention to resign, taking too much of our airspace. And the coach of our Phoenix football team resigned too, after losing a match which took them to the bottom of the table.

On the other hand there was a great news story about the rescue of 340 campervans and rental vehicles stranded in Kaikoura after their renters had left town – by ship, helicopter or plane in the aftermath of the earthquake. About eighty volunteers from the NZ Motor Caravan Association put in a ten-hour day, travelling by bus to the town, and returning in convoy over a road that still has some hairy spots to negotiate. Pity there wasn’t a mention that the first journey took place on International Volunteer Day.

But there was enough during the day to give me a glow, and a deal of pride in the value of volunteering. Here is my hit parade:

For starters, the United Nations’ theme for the year Global Applause – Give Volunteers a Hand is well captured in a video which also reminds us of the role volunteers play in working towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Our Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector commended the volunteer workforce as ‘major contributors to New Zealand topping lists of the world’s best places to live’.

Over the previous weekend more than 800 Flight Centre staff gave 2,200 hours of volunteer time to community projects around Auckland, as part of their ‘Giving Back’ conference. A big tick for corporate volunteering.

Volunteer Centres did their stuff, from a library display to a reminder that New Zealand boasts the highest rate of volunteering in the OECD with kiwis spending an average of 13 minutes a day volunteering. (The global average is just 4 minutes a day.) Volunteer Waikato’s message on Facebook went like this:

ivdayvolwaik

“Thank you is not really enough… without you guys there would be a lot less happening in communities throughout New Zealand… and all over the world. You are not just awesome… You are FREAKIN’ AWESOME (with a Unicorn!)”

There were some great one-liners too:

From a volunteer: ‘I think I needed volunteer work as much as volunteering needed me’.

‘While on this day we think of you we recognise that you have been thinking of others all year.’ (Salvation Army)

‘We acknowledge that there is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.’ (St John New Zealand)

In New Zealand our theme for the day was Together we Can, a tag-line which could be incorporated into a photo of volunteers at work. Here is Gisborne Volunteer Centre’s effort, and incorporated in their message is the best line of the day:

Together we can! Together we DO!

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In this era of external constraints and funding cuts, a day to understand and appreciate the work of volunteers is a small candle for the community and voluntary sector.  Volunteering is never going to disappear, but the future of many organisations looks uncertain. In this last week two long-standing telephone counselling services reported on loss of funding: Lifeline now needs its own lifeline and Youthline will have to reduce services, or even close down. It seems decisions are made with little thought to flow-on consequences.

I am looking for better things in 2017, and I have found a couple of encouragements. In her latest Hot Topic Susan J Ellis reminds me:

When things seem dark and cloudy, history tells us that volunteers can be the bolts of lightning that can turn things around.

For managers of volunteers out there you could start singing the Twelve Pearls of Wisdom, coined for a Thoughtful Thursday post.

And I shall hang on to this quote from John Berger: Remember that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow but a detonator of energy for action today.

………….

For now, I am stepping off my soap-box to enjoy a festive season and summer holidays. Best wishes to all readers.

October 27, 2016

The Holes in Volunteering

Posted in Politics of volunteering, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 8:42 pm by Sue Hine

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ComVoices, a network of national organisations in the tangata whenua, community and voluntary sector has just released a new State of the Sector Survey.  In a press release Scott Miller, current Chair of ComVoices (and Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand), writes about the growing holes in the safety net provided by the community sector.

Yes, we’ve seen this coming for a long time now: the increased demand for services, greater complexity of community needs, and government exacting greater compliance regulations every year.  “No-one appears to be listening”, says Scott.

So the ‘inequality’ debate is not only about wealth distribution – it’s also about unequal weighting placed on the community sector to deliver services to stressed communities: a load of expectations without realistic resources to meet them.

And just when you might argue that volunteers will fill the gaps in organisation capacity we find an international decline in volunteer numbers.

Trouble is, we’ve talked up the ‘voluntary sector’ for years, assuming volunteers will pick up the pieces and do what communities do, looking out for each other. Volunteers got organisations going, like Plunket and IHC and Parents Centre and Play Centre, and Surf Life-Saving, and all the local sports teams.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were volunteers responsible for gaining New Zealand women the vote in 1893; volunteers raised funds to build school swimming schools in the 1940s and 50s; volunteers spoke out loudly on domestic violence and rape, till the government offered funding, in return for a more muted voice.

These days, volunteers are much less likely to be life-time devotees to a cause.  It’s not just because we are time-poor: we are preferring the short-term stint that offers a real job to do. Organisations face competition in attracting volunteers, and there is a great deal more these days to managing a volunteer programme than getting the numbers on board. At the same time the spread of volunteer opportunities has widened: from beach clean-ups to work experience, from ‘getting to know the community’ for new settlers to volunteering for English-speaking practice, from supporting a community garden to making breakfasts or lunches for the local school.

Mainstream organisations have become non-profit businesses, focused on employing professional staff and building relations with key funders as well as government. There is a sense that volunteering has become professionalised as well, given the structure and maintenance needed to ensure a well-functioning volunteer programme.  (Though note how the manager of the programme is not worth nearly as much (salary-wise) as the Funding and Marketing manager.) Of course the “we could not manage without you” platitude is real, but the roles offered to volunteers are too often for amateurs, pitted against the professionals. I wonder how many of those volunteers are otherwise engaged in professional careers.

Volunteering is not going to disappear any time soon.  But the symptoms outlined in the ComVoices report are as damaging to volunteering as they are to the organisations. A collapse in service delivery does not bear thinking about. And we cannot rely on volunteers (nor expect them) to pick up the pieces.  We have moved a long way from the roots of the organisations that are now in thrall to government contracts and philanthropic grants.

Early next week Volunteering New Zealand’s conference will focus on the links between vision and action.  Promoting, supporting and advocating for volunteering is the mission, ensuring volunteers are engaged effectively, that volunteering is visible, with sound leadership.

Volunteering lives. Let’s keep it that way!

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