May 31, 2010
There’s just one more thing related to language. My colleague Alison was brave enough to tell a story against herself. Read about it here, and I hope I do not need to spell out the moral of the tale. It was first published by Volunteer Wellington in their April newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission.
I thought I was a pretty good manager of volunteers. I could report regularly on how many volunteers I had, how many new ones I had recruited, any issues my team had and updates on vacancies. I was proud of my volunteers and their performance, which of course was due to the training and support I provided for my team. I was also a passionate advocate for my volunteers with other staff.
Until the day I got gutted by a new boss. I was reporting with my usual enthusiasm on the progress of my volunteers, and he stops me in mid-flight. Excuse me Alison, he says, very politely, they are not your volunteers – they are part of the organization. You will not, he says, ever again, looking at me directly, use the word ‘my’ in reference to volunteer services.
Well, that was a pretty clear instruction, and I had to do a lot of re-jigging of my self-image, and my perceptions of volunteers, and what my role was really about. And I had to cut that possessive ‘my’ from my vocabulary. What happened next was just amazing.
Other staff started to show how they felt connected to volunteers, to value and respect the volunteer contributions to our services. And they stopped dumping on me every time a volunteer put a foot wrong. They started taking responsibility for guiding and supporting volunteers, especially the newbies. They started engaging with volunteers, getting to know them and learning how to draw on individual volunteer skills and strengths. Just like they always did with their colleagues. Well hello – volunteers are a valuable asset and a valued resource, no less than paid staff.
As for me – once I had got over the humiliation of being told off, which is what it felt like – I discovered there were a whole lot of new things to learn. Like being able to have open discussion about further developments of volunteer services. Like feeling more engaged with the whole organization instead of being a precious sub-set, and a bit on the outer. The most important lesson was finally understanding what my role was all about.
I am not a ‘volunteer’ manager – I get paid for managing volunteers. So I do all that HR stuff of recruiting, training, placement, performance appraisal – but that does not mean I ‘own’ the volunteers, any more than the HR person in your organization ‘owns’ the paid staff. But neither am I a ‘manager of volunteers’. When volunteers are spread across the organization in various roles it is not my job to micro-manage what they do – that’s up to team leaders and other managers, and part of that integration thing that happens when you drop ‘my’ from your vocabulary. What I am really employed to do is manage volunteer services – not the people, not the individuals, but making the services happen. So OK, I might have to turn my hand to event management when there is a Street Appeal, or to rally resources for a particular client need, or to discuss options for a recruitment drive with the manager of our op-shops. I have to be really good at setting up processes and policies for recruitment and screening of volunteer applicants; I have to ensure the best possible orientation and training programmes; I need to have really good communication channels open for the volunteers, by phone, email and even old-fashioned snail-mail; I need to be really smart in maintaining a database; and then I have to show off my marketing skills when it comes to Volunteer Awareness Week and International Volunteers’ Day.
And by heck – I need to keep up with all the stuff out there in cyber-space that tells me what’s happening in the world of volunteer management. That’s what managers do, right?
I do not have to do all this stuff on my own. All round me I can draw on volunteers with amazing skills and willingness to take on assignments. When I let go the ‘my’ of my work I can embrace the ‘our’ and accomplish so much more than ever before.
Here is another way to think about language. One of the canon’s we teach volunteers is never to say ‘I’m just a volunteer’. If you catch a volunteer saying that, it means your organisation is not paying attention to volunteer contributions to its vision and values, and to its services. So why would you say, when somebody asks, “I’m just a volunteer manager”?
What you need to know
You are not ‘just’ anything! You are a really important person, doing a great job for your organisation. You are likely to be engaged with heaps more people than your Chief Executive; you have a heap of knowledge at your finger-tips; you manage a database and are expert at communicating in different ways with volunteers. You have got great people skills, enabling volunteers do wonders they never thought of, and in finding the job that is just right for them in your organisation. And all the time you are acknowledging volunteer efforts and the organisation’s appreciation of their contribution.
When you say I’m just a volunteer manager you are giving out a message that says:
- What I do is not really important; I am not important; and the pay packet says I am not worth very much.
- Which says volunteers are not really important either, not really valued.
What do you do, really?
Instead of such harmful thoughts let’s find other ways of answering this question.
- I am a mover and shaker, a wheeler-dealer
- I am an organizer extraordinaire!
- I am an economic entrepreneur, adding value to the raw material of a volunteer applicant and the product of our organisation
If you are really stuck for answers go to Susan Ellis’s website: http://www.energizeinc.com/hot/2008/08jan.html&usg=AFQjCNFQpC_jJ_2UJsV6odoH1Yk_93uZow to find creative and positive examples to describe what you do. The one I like best is “I find buried treasure” – because that is the really exciting thing about managing volunteers, watching people grow and develop, and accomplish things they never thought were in their capacity. And don’t let people say ‘how noble of you’ – such remarks might polish your personal halo but do nothing to promote volunteering and the importance of volunteer management.
When you find the words that fit with your style, put them on a banner, use them as a reminder that you are an agent of change, that you can change your organization (if not the world). And join the networks that will help you get there.
This blog is about and for people who manage volunteer services and/or programmes. The first thing I would say is Mind Your Language! Are you a volunteer, or a manager? Or both? But if you are paid you are not a ‘volunteer’ manager. Is your job title ‘Volunteer Coordinator’? Hmmm… I know being a coordinator involves a lot of management skills, but if you are running a programme, responsible for 1000 volunteers, why are you still called a ‘volunteer coordinator’?
Your job title sends out messages about what you do and your function in the organisation. This is where we have to start thinking about the real nature of the job, and we need to get a lot more explicit about what we do. Do you really do all the hands-on management and personal supervision of the volunteers in your organisation? Or are you more realistically managing the delivery of services provided by volunteers? If you say yes to the first question, and you have a roll-call of 100+ volunteers, I say whew! no wonder you don’t have time to think about the real business of managing volunteers. If you say yes to the second question you will be engaged in all parts of your organisation, working with other staff, developing, negotiating, being creative – and you will be a real manager of volunteer services.
I am recognising here the huge range of community organisations around the country – the national networks that support local endeavours as well as promoting political interests, iwi and whanau organisations, city-based and regional organisations – all involving volunteers on diverse interests. And please, we cannot overlook the local and particular, the supermarket sausage-sizzle, the soccer mums and dads who get our kids into sport every Saturday, and all the heap of stuff that goes on at a local community level.