August 28, 2011

Volunteering: the Next Generation

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Technology, Yes but at 5:32 am by Sue Hine

Congratulations to Volunteer Wellington for offering an on-line recruitment process for member organisations.  There is an opt-out option, but the up-shot is a facility for direct communication between volunteer and organisation, without Volunteer Wellington’s intermediary role of screening volunteer interests and skills.  VW anticipate the majority of volunteers will continue to come through the current one-on-one interview process.

I sense a modicum of concern expressed in this announcement.  Maybe there is some residual anxiety about the business of real and effective communication.  Maybe there is a sense of responsibility to maintain established standards with member organisations.  By coincidence the newsletter also included an insert from my blog on volunteer-friendly websites, illustrating my views on what makes a website attractive for recruiting volunteers on-line.

The ‘next generation’ of volunteering has been around for some years, though it has not been taken up with the alacrity of a new App from Apple or Microsoft.  Volunteer Wellington has a presence on Facebook, and writes an occasional blog – cited recently as a good example in a US-based webinar for volunteer and community organisations on using social media.

Christchurch earthquakes, Queensland floods and Japan’s tsunami have shown us the utility of instant electronic communication for volunteering and for management of volunteers. The virtue of on-line volunteering is paraded around the world as a tool for enhancing the range of volunteer opportunities.  It is also welcomed by volunteers who seek time-limited do-it-from-home engagements. Micro-volunteering they call it.

Managers of volunteers are reaching beyond telephone conference calls, skype and video-conferencing: we can now engage in international seminars without leaving our desks.  (Just call them ‘webinars’.)  The savings on travel and accommodation to a conventional conference or training programme will not be escaping the budget manager’s eye.

Volunteering New Zealand offers an introductory course on managing volunteers, all on-line.  E-learning is nothing new these days.  In this programme there are six weeks of reading, video clips, weekly assignments and on-line forum participation finally a quiz to test student learning.  Tutor support and feedback is available throughout.  [Disclosure: I am the tutor for this course, and pleased to report student appreciation of content and learning.]

If people remain anxious about the quality and efficacy of communication without face-to-face interaction then let us remember the years that Youthline, Samaritans and Lifeline have been in the business of telephone counselling.  No problem in establishing working relationships here.  And if we have been communicating through the written word over centuries and continue to do so in book-publishing and newspapers, what is so different about ‘talking’ with each other through  the magic of modern technology?

Around the international traps there is much buzz about the new opportunities for volunteering, for managing volunteers and for management training.  This topic was explored last week in a webinar offered by Warrington Volunteer Centre (UK).  A summary is available here, with further links to more detailed information.  Or there is a wealth of good advice and encouragement available from US-based consultant and trainer Jayne Cravens who has been writing about effective utilisation of the internet for more than 20 years.

When you read the evidence, consider the examples, see how simple working on-line can be, you just have to grasp the nettle.  And really, it’s not so prickly.

August 21, 2011

Recognition & Rewards

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers at 4:54 am by Sue Hine

We might have had a week of once-in-a-lifetime weather in New Zealand, but recognising and rewarding volunteer efforts requires ongoing everyday initiatives.

I’ve written quite a few columns which link to a category of ‘Valuing Volunteers’.  It’s a huge topic, ranging from economic measurement to stuff that is pretty intrinsic and hard to measure, let alone find a specific description.  Yet there is nothing more important in a manager’s canon than the continuous acknowledgement and appreciation of volunteer effort.


Well, it’s payback, isn’t it?  A volunteer might not get a pay packet, but there are other ways of being rewarded for ‘work’.

When volunteers are valued and appreciated they are going to stick around for a while, so you are not going to be so worried about turnover and retention issues.

And you can bet there is a flow-on effect for your organisation’s reputation in the community.  You might even have volunteer applicants lining up at the door.

One more thing, and possibly more important than any of the above.  It’s Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Volunteering is an expression of active citizenship, giving, and value to community wellbeing

Which hits on volunteer motivation – seeking social relationships and being ‘useful’, or simply ‘wanting to help’.  Maintaining recognition and reward strategies for volunteers is a way to keep volunteers motivated and enthusiastic, even for those who are formally directed to volunteer experience.

What do you have to do to demonstrate how you value and appreciate volunteers?

There is a very long list of practical ideas: Google will give you 80 million sites to explore.  To narrow it down a bit, here are some basic principles:

  • Say Thank You, not just once
  • Offer positive feedback to reinforce motivation to do well
  • Establish open communication: listen to volunteers; know them as individuals so you can tailor appreciation to their personal style
  • Make sure volunteers know how they are adding value to the organisation.
  • Offer opportunities for skill development – eg leading a new venture; taking responsibility for a project.
  • Make recognition timely, and make it public
  • Ensure there is recognition for paid staff who appreciate volunteer effort

It is not solely the responsibility of the manager of volunteers to distribute the thank you’s and to organise the functions or the ceremonies or the certificates for volunteers.  The Board, and all paid staff from the Executive Team down, should be involved in recognising and rewarding volunteers.  That’s how you get all the best volunteer efforts towards achieving the organisation’s mission.

(As an aside, I would like to think the principles outlined above could be just as easily applied to paid staff.  There is more personal investment in ‘work’ than the return of a pay packet.)

There are many examples of demonstrating appreciation of volunteers.  Here is one I heard about recently:

I’d been having a battle getting the volunteer programme acknowledged at executive team level. So for Volunteer Awareness Week I sent out to all volunteers a small branded corporate gift and a letter of thanks signed by the CEO. It was a small effort and didn’t cost much. But the result was a huge success: the CEO received numerous letters of thanks from the volunteers. Our volunteer programme is now on the organisation’s radar!

So what are your best practice strategies to get organisational and individual recognition of volunteers?

August 14, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough

Posted in Best Practice at 2:02 am by Sue Hine

Last week I was putting some distance between HR and management of volunteers.  Now I am backtracking, to illustrate just when and how some HR principles can be really useful.

The tales of woe about managing volunteers who are poor performers are legend among volunteer leaders.  ‘What to do’ with the long-time loyal but now aged volunteer attracts repeated attention, and a close second is declining a volunteer application or calling a volunteer to account over a policy or ethical transgression.

I get to hear confessions about feeling sorry for the volunteer, worry about causing personal offence and potential damage to the organisation’s reputation in the community. There is a reluctance to take action, thereby compounding volunteer poor performance and risking the overall credibility of volunteer services – not to mention the manager’s ability to manage the programme.

This is where all that policy stuff comes into its own.  All that programme design, written obligations in a signed agreement, a job description, and ongoing training and supervision that was such a chore to complete – it’s there to protect the volunteer, and the organisation and its users.  And it is all basic HR practice related to performance management.

Managers of volunteers often pride themselves on being ‘people-persons’, being caring and attentive to individual interests and being really good communicators – yet encounter a mental and emotional block in communicating ‘bad news’. It is time to grasp the nettle, and HR people might just offer some good tips!

I am not your HR person, and there’s no point in me telling you what I would do, because you are not me. But here are some principles that might help achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome for you and the volunteer.

  • Don’t let the issue or incident fester – act sooner, not later
  • Whatever the context – ageing, unsuitable applicant, contravening policy – describe specific behaviours and why they are matters of concern.
  • Outline options for supporting and/or improving performance, or alternative volunteer responsibilities
  • Firm up an agreement for change and review; or agree that exiting is the best option

This process is not a magic bullet, though it is a responsible way to demonstrate your expectations and organisational standards.  And it is a way to maintain respect and dignity on both sides.  Here are two more tips:

  • Know your volunteers as individual persons.  Then you are more likely to be able to suggest a range of options relevant to the volunteer’s circumstances and personal style.
  • Know your community and its resources.  Then you can suggest possible alternatives to the unsuccessful applicant or the ‘released’ volunteer.

Of course the plot can still turn messy and unpleasant for all concerned.  The bottom line is risk management, and sometimes it is better to wear an ex-volunteer’s bad-mouthing than to jeopardise the quality and integrity of the volunteer programme.

August 7, 2011

Raising the Flag, Again

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Managers Matter at 1:43 am by Sue Hine

Sometimes I feel a bit like one of the cast of Les Miserables, one of those who line up at the barricades repeating slogans and the mantras that were created a long time ago.  Or I find myself humming Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind.  How many times must I plug on about the significance of volunteering and quality management of volunteers?

The question of where the manager of volunteers fits on an organisational chart has become a seasonal chestnut – debate and discussion turns up every year. Sometimes it feels like the managers of volunteers – the people who engage, organise and lead umpteen people to contribute in a major way to the organisation’s mission – are regarded as nuisance value.  It seems volunteers and their managers do not fit into conventional management structures, particularly where organisations employ a substantial paid staff.  Ah well, let’s plonk them under Human Resource Management.

Big Mistake.  The Manager of Volunteers gets shoe-horned into the bureaucratic stuff of policies and protocols, the straitjackets of recruitment and legislative requirements.  As if that was all there was to managing volunteers (or to managing paid staff for that matter).

Or volunteers and their manager are simply part of Support Services, along with maintenance and administration and maybe the cleaning and food services.  Well – that tells me volunteers are simple handmaidens to the really important stuff of the organisation, an indulgent, nice-to-have adjunct to the real work of the organisation.  Excuse me – What would happen if volunteers withdrew their labour for a day, or two, or more?

I think there are three things going on here:

  • When the governing board and executive team do not ‘get’ volunteering they are forgetting the mission and vision of the organisation.  They do not understand the vitality of volunteering and its contribution that goes beyond the optional extras.
  • In the pursuit of imitative corporate excellence the organisation risks overlooking the real value of volunteers and their management.  Forgetting the original activism of hardy volunteers who formed many organisations, and ignoring local community engagement and support, are surely ways to losing volunteer contributions.
  • And both of these points seem to derive from the devolution of government responsibilities on to the community sector.  We are jumping through a set of hoops dictated from outside our original frame of reference.

When I pull my head in from such polemics I can look to more reasoned arguments.   The following links connect with some wise heads in our industry, and can link you to much more.

Have a look at this UK blogpost, HR and Management of Volunteers.   “HR is set up to manage paid staff, to develop policies and procedures for paid staff, to assess pay scales for paid staff. It’s not set up to deal with volunteers.”  But we end up managing volunteers the same way, because somehow following bureaucratic rules has become the driving force of operational practice.

In 2003 Susan J Ellis raised questions about philosophic, practical, managerial, and legal HR issues.  Volunteers are ‘human’ she said, and they are a ‘resource’; it’s just that “volunteers are the unpaid personnel of an organisation”.  The really big question here is Why should unpaid personnel be treated differently from paid staff?  They shouldn’t of course, but somehow the quiet endeavours of a team of volunteers do not get the recognition of achievements accorded to various (paid) staff of the organisation.

In 2010 another Energize Hot Topic itemised four critical distinctions between HR and Management of Volunteers: HR has formal responsibilities, whereas Management of Volunteers needs to be creative and flexible.  Because, as Susan J Ellis wrote in an earlier post, what distinguishes volunteers from a paid work force is “their flexibility, the luxury of focus, short bursts of energy, and multiplicity of perspectives”.

Finally, there is an e-volunteerism article: the Odd Couple Marriage of HR and Management of Volunteers offers a good summary of the uniqueness of managing volunteers, balanced with what we can learn from HR.

Papers like these could just help us out of the bog of being ‘just a volunteer manager’.  I would like to think the arguments here could strengthen the case of colleagues who want to argue for their presence at the table of the executive team.  And if you need some extra ‘sound bites’ go to the latest Energize Hot Topic.  There is no last word, just more flag-waving, please.