April 24, 2011

Volunteering and Culture

Posted in Language, Valuing Volunteers at 12:42 am by Sue Hine

“Volunteering is culturally-driven.”

Well – there’s a statement of the bleeding obvious!   It’s a nice piece of jargon, possibly including some PC elements. We can nod our heads and agree with the profound sentiments, and then move on to the next item on the agenda.

We all know what the statement means, don’t we?

And that is where I pause for reflection. When I unpack the meaning of the words I discover how jargon is not always what it seems.

At face-value the statement says volunteering is an important part of our culture. We participate in volunteering activities because ‘it’s what you do’ as a member of your community and to participate in a wider society. In Aotearoa/New Zealand there are many cultures, so volunteering can be driven by different cultural elements.

For example, Maori concepts of mahi aroha describe volunteering as “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring and through a sense of duty”. It is a way to fulfil cultural obligations to the wider collective, to enhance individual sense of identity, and to maintain culture and traditions. In the Maori world view, “personal wellbeing depends, both immediately and ultimately on the wellbeing of the community as a whole”.  (Read more here)

My pakeha experience in decades of volunteering indicates some affinity with this cultural approach.  In later years I learned  more about volunteer motivation. The basic response to ‘why?’ was ‘I want to help’, and people were not always clear on where this helping interest came from or why it was important to offer help. Sometimes I would hear about a sense of duty or obligation to the local community, or sympathy and caring for the services offered, or maybe simply giving back to an organisation that had been personally supportive. You could say these drivers were more ‘social’ than ‘cultural’. Yet somewhere along the line social behaviours derive from cultural beliefs and values. Our individual sense of identity, regardless of cultural origins, seems to rest on belonging to a social group in communities.

The evidence is there in the volunteer response to Queensland floods and Christchurch earthquakes. When the chips are down we are looking out for our friends and neighbours, putting up our hands to help out, wanting to be ‘useful’ and to find that sense of belonging. That’s the ‘community spirit’ that has been widely extolled, along with the frequent use of the word ‘resilience’.  And you don’t get resilience by going it alone.

I hope you have seen the big But coming. You and I might be fully aware of volunteering as a culturally-driven enterprise. Government and business sectors appear to see volunteering as an industry to be exploited.

Think social service contracts where community organisations deliver services on the cheap, constrained by health and safety regulations, financial obligations, risk management, regular auditing – which turn organisations into mini-government agencies. (And some not-so-mini.) We have lost the opportunity for creative enterprise that built so many of our volunteer organisations. Some would say we have forsaken our origins.

Think corporate sponsorship and volunteering which could be more about corporate self-promotion than real commitment to the cause of your organisation.

In this post-modern / anything-goes world my cultural beliefs and principles are ignored and abandoned in favour of what best suits politics and economics. Please – I do not want to be counted as an also-ran in the ‘Third Sector’, and I would really like to get away from the ‘Non-’ labels of non-profit, non-government institutions – as though we are non-existent.

Volunteers (and their managers) could do so much more for our organisations, our communities and our social well-being if they had half the chance of Team NZ. The syndicate has just secured $36m of government funding to make a bid for the yachting prize of the America’s Cup in 2013. International kudos wins over empty Foodbank shelves, over the issues of child abuse and domestic violence, and what a network of organisations could do to keep our communities hanging together.

Statistics NZ can tell us a lot about who volunteers and what for and how often, and what volunteers are worth to the national economy. The figures are impressive, but I will be taking a lot more notice when the analysis starts referring to outcomes of volunteer contributions to cultural and social well-being.

The moral of this story is, if you have not got it already, is:

Volunteering is culturally-driven. Volunteering is also a taonga that needs greater respect and resourcing.

April 16, 2011

At Last, a Good News Story!

Posted in Good news stories, Valuing Volunteers at 9:34 pm by Sue Hine

This is how it goes.

I filled in a volunteer request form and fired it off to the Volunteer Centre, that place where there is a meeting and matching between community organisations and aspiring volunteers.

I submitted an explicit job description that ticked all the boxes of tasks, technical requirements, accountability, time frames, expected outcomes – and the available back-up support.

Well – it took only a day to get the first response.  Amy had some really good credentials, and we arranged to meet. Over a coffee we started to learn about each other, and to fill in details of the job requirements.  Not a problem said Amy – just what she wanted to do.  I handed over the materials she needed and left her to it.

There is a back story here.  Amy is a bright young 20-something, recently completed uni (history and social policy majors).  She’s looking for a job, like so many others out there, and maybe this project will give her a leg-up to something that pays a bit more than the rent.

She’s got a bit-time job working as a shop assistant. Boring as, but the pay is a small contribution to living expenses. Her flat-mate is volunteering to work at Trade Aid – for no pay, nothing.  Amy cannot understand – why on earth would you spend all that time doing grunge work for nothing?

Until she tries it.

Amy discovers volunteering. She learns how cool it is to be part of an organisation that matters, that is not all about reaching sales targets and balance sheets and gloomy economic prospects.  She discovers how volunteering is much more about connecting with people and doing some really good stuff for all the communities out there. She has joined a wider world. It’s a whole new world where she feels involved, respected, valued, part of the team. She can speak up and know her voice is heard.  It’s pretty exciting to be part of an organisation that is doing such great things, she says. Things she cares about, thinks are important in her communities, and nationally as well.

Amy’s enthusiasm is a welcome antidote to the depressing news of a market survey revealing that 20-something people are more interested in their pay packets and prospective bonuses, and sex, than in community issues and knowing their neighbours.   I should be ignoring these results, because we have been reading figures for some months that show an upsurge of volunteering from younger age-groups.  Which just goes to show that market surveys do not know everything.

We have got some great results from Amy’s work. She was diligent; she responded immediately to requests for an update; took on board my late additions of information and was not fazed in offering a formal presentation.

That’s what volunteers do, right?

Call me now if you would like Amy to join your organisation.  Her primary interest is in administration stuff, though she has potential to do much more.

Please note – I am not a recruitment agency, but I do know about employee applicant potential, and a great volunteer when I see one!

Clarification:  Some readers of last week’s post thought I was the manager that had been hard-done by their organisation.  It was not. I was personalising a real incident that exemplifies what happens to managers of volunteers when organisation executives just don’t ‘get’ volunteering and what managers of volunteers really do. And if you are wondering, the Amy in this current post is alive and real, and she did some real work for the Volunteering New Zealand Management of Volunteers Project.

April 10, 2011

How Bad, How Sad

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter at 2:05 am by Sue Hine

The Energize newsletter has given me a load of laughs for this week.  Yes there are some real funnies, yet all of them have more than a tinge of irony, that we have to laugh at the misfortunes of the occupation of Manager of Volunteers.

There is more dry humour to be found among the Myths of Volunteer Management, the tall tales that claim:

  • Volunteers are free
  • Anyone can manage volunteers
  • You don’t need much time to manage volunteers (aka do it off the side of your desk)
  • You don’t need staff to manage volunteers (aka volunteers manage themselves; volunteers will just show up)
  • Volunteer management is a luxury we can’t afford

Fortunately I can get over such insults by chasing a link to professional advocacy where there is sound advice and references to helpful information.  If I have the energy to follow them up.

Right now I have to deal with a Clear and Present Danger.  There is a special management seminar in my workplace, but my name is not on the invitation list.  When I ask why I am told it’s because I do not have people reporting directly to me.

OK – I have worked hard to engage other service managers to be responsible for day-to-day performance standards when   volunteers are working on their patch.  That’s after I have done the recruitment and training and administration, and all the nuts and bolts of managing a volunteer programme.

But when something goes wrong I am surely going to have the fingers pointed at me, to be held accountable for a volunteer misdemeanour.  And nobody else is going to put up their hand to undertake annual reviews and satisfaction surveys and exit interviews and all that stuff that keeps our Volunteer Programme up-to-the-minute in delivering quality services.

I am feeling aggrieved at my exclusion from management development.  Just how much head-battering against brick walls do I have to suffer?

Maybe, somewhere, there is a Lonely Hearts Club equivalent for Managers of Volunteers.  Maybe, sometime, I will be able to link with others, to unite in creating a voice to express our concerns.  And to get some measures of change.  Like:

  • Getting Boards and Committees to understand and undertake fully the responsibilities of governance
  • Getting Boards and Committees and Executive Managers and even government agencies to ‘get’ volunteering – to know and understand and to appreciate what goes into volunteering and the volunteer contribution to the organisation
  • Getting all these players to recognise and acknowledge (especially via remuneration and organisational status) the role and function of the Managers and Leaders of Volunteers.

You think I am asking too much?  You think I am over-the-top?  You think I’ve got a dose of sour grapes?  Think again!

I am not talking about personal grievances.  I’m talking about the tragedy for communities and their social well-being.  I’m addressing all those players who don’t know what they are missing when they fail to recognise and to properly value the work of volunteers.  In business terms I could say these organisations are ‘haemorrhaging’.  They are not getting anything like the
potential return on investment for their operations.

That is source of the real sadness I am feeling.

April 3, 2011

The Fifth R Word (2)

Posted in Best Practice at 4:12 am by Sue Hine

Some people will be remarking there is more to Relationships in community organisations than a cosy trust and confidence thing between volunteers and their managers.

Some people will know about the gulf that can exist between paid staff and volunteers. Which is when we get quite a literature about poor Staff-Volunteer Relationships and how to repair the damage.

Staff will say:

·         Volunteers are unreliable

·         Some volunteers are useless, and we have to pick up the pieces

·         They don’t stick around; they come and go as they please

·         Volunteers don’t know and understand the organisation like we do

·         Volunteers might be ‘nice to have’, but they are more trouble than they are worth

Volunteers will say:

·         Staff never say hello or thank you for my work

·         When I ask for help or advice staff look at me like I am an idiot

·         Staff seem to think it is my fault when anything goes wrong

·         “I don’t really feel I am a part of this organisation”

·         “I’m just a volunteer, so what else can I expect”

When you get to this sort of scenario some hard-thinking analysis has to be done.  The contributors to poor staff-volunteer relations can arise from:

·         ‘Professional’ superiority over the ‘Amateurs’.  The perception that professional training creates an expert is sad, but true – especially where clinical disciplines are involved in the community and voluntary sector.  Professional expertise can dominate volunteer contributions in asymmetrical power relations.  

·         Staff are employed to do a job – they have never thought about (or been properly introduced to) the philosophy and values of the organisation, and even less about the nature of volunteering and how it can contribute to the organisation’s goals.

·         A pecking order prevails, percolating down from executive level attitudes and their treatment of paid staff.  Volunteers are relegated to be Cinderellas in the kitchen. 

·         Nobody has asked staff about involving volunteers, and what would work for them, or how volunteers could make a real difference towards achieving staff programme goals.

·         If staff do go the extra mile to support and to appreciate volunteers nobody seems to notice their efforts.

·         And anyway the volunteers belong to the Manager of Volunteers – not a staff problem.  It’s the Manager’s fault if anything goes wrong.

·         Teamwork?  Collaboration?  Conflict Resolution?  You gotta be joking – not where I come from.

The worst indictment I have ever seen is the case of the Manager of Volunteers who ‘owns’ the volunteers.  They are never ‘my’ volunteers, as I wrote in this blog months ago.  Management of Volunteers is about running a service or programme for your organisation.  What you do with volunteers in all the training and support and communication and relationship stuff is Leadership (another story, another time).

If you don’t get this, then you get the kind of stand-off between staff and volunteers that can lead to a (metaphoric) pistols-at-dawn shoot-out.  

If you want to get out of this trap, or want to avoid ever falling into it, there are some great resources available.

On the other hand, if you know and understand about the importance of Relationships you will also know about the contributors to good relationships as I described last week.  In the quest for better staff/volunteer relations there are a few words to be added.  Like Collaboration and Compromise.  Like Listening and Effective Communication.  Like Appreciation.  Like being non-judgemental. 

And another R Word: Respect.  It’s a word that can make a deal of difference in relationships in your organisation.

Simple, eh?