April 29, 2012

In the Wind

Posted in A Bigger Picture tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:44 pm by Sue Hine

I’ve been to a few meetings lately, listened to presentations and viewed the power point slides.  They were not meetings about volunteering or volunteer management, but the information and ideas sure made me sit up and take notice.

Here is my take on some of the straws in the wind that have come my way.

  • Demographic trends indicate a shrinking working-age population

We’ve heard about the dramatic increase of older populations for decades.  On the flip side is a decline in people of working age, which will give us the benefit of lower unemployment.  We are going to get ZPG without even trying. The bad news is a big revenue problem for government and a rise in resource demands.  All this, on top of a national economy struggling to recover from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

NGOs, already struggling to maintain their funding base, will be under pressure to do more with less.  In rural areas where population change will be greater community organisations will face shrinking resources, of both funding and volunteers.  There are serious implications for national organisations providing outreach services in provincial areas.  On the other hand there could be opportunities to work more closely with local government, to develop partnerships with other organisations and subsequent economies of scale.

  • Collaboration, Participation, Innovation

These words are the catch-cry for change in the community sector, the drivers for action.  Proposed changes in both central and local government offer an opportunity for community organisations to articulate a new view, to occupy a new space and to develop new coalitions.  Yes!

Can we do it?

  • Collaboration is the buzzword of the month

There are plenty of models to follow: community development partnerships, through community engagement, the effective use of social capital and linked with social enterprise.  None of these words are new, but they gain increased currency in a time of sector uncertainty.  What is new is the trend towards alliances with the business sector and philanthropic trusts.  But I worry about collaboration, and whether it is another word for the public and private sectors to take control while proffering the hand of partnership.

  • “A new phase of capitalism, where new ways of creating wealth are identified”

In all the talk of Social Investment and Social Impact and Outcomes it is difficult to see who benefits.  Governments can transfer risks to the community sector.  Social investment from the private sector could lead to creaming off the best of NFPs and ignoring others, thus creating new forms of underclass.  It also leads to the Marketisation of Charities.  That sounds more like a death knell for the sector’s capacity for innovation.  When organisations become risk-aversive it is too easy to curtail services in areas where outcomes and impacts are less impressive.  The spectre of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is resurrected, specially when funding gets tagged to results.

  • “The community sector is not considered a peer of Government

Too true, I sigh, and has been so for decades, despite terminology like Third Sector and concepts of Civil Society.  Volunteers and their organisations might enjoy praise and platitudes of appreciation, but never do they get to be equals at negotiating tables.

So I am disappointed the recent report on public services makes never a mention of relations with NGOs, NFPs or the community sector.  It is like these organisations do not exist.

Well, it is proclaimed, the Government and the community sector need to get to know each other better. They need to build mutual trust and understanding, not stand-off bargaining.  They need to reduce the power imbalance, get a pay-off for both funders and recipients (not to mention the beneficiaries).  I wish.

Yes, I know the NFP sector is complex.  We struggle to establish a common definition and language, and to determine the essence of the sector.  Yet the diversity of communities and organisations means a single voice and a unifying philosophy is unrealistic.

Yes, there is room for collaboration where there are shared interests.  Yes, we need to break down the silos and patch protection.  And Yes, we have been in the business of change for generations.  Except this time it seems like the change is being done to us, and not in the spirit of community development.

To gain a stake in the future it we need to stake a claim, on our terms, for the territory of our communities and their missions.

April 22, 2012

Minding Our Values

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice tagged , , , , , , at 4:12 am by Sue Hine

It’s always enlightening to bone up on organisation missions and visions.  The office reception or the organisation’s website or letterhead is the place to go.  That’s where I also look out for the values, the words that act as the moral compass to guide the organisation’s operation and practice.

Many NPF organisations claim they are Values-Driven, drawing on their foundation manifesto.  But organisation values are not exclusive to our sector.  Basic manuals on organisation development will include reference to the importance of developing a Mission, Vision and Values.  Corporate businesses and government departments can spend time and a lot of $$ pinning the right words and statements to their mastheads.  The mission describes the intention of an organisation’s design and plan, and the vision defines the desired end-state.  The values express ends and means underpinning both mission and vision.

That is, the abstract words that name our values become real in our behaviour, the way we do business and in our relationships.

One writer* calls values “the DNA of an organisation, the glue that holds culture, leadership and strategy together”.  So even if there are no values identified they will be operating under the radar.  Much better to have them up front.

Many an organisation has failed because it got diverted from its mission and the vision got blurred. But none failed so spectacularly as the energy corporation Enron, in 2001.  Engraved in granite at head office reception, Enron’s values were Communication, Integrity, Respect, and Excellence – decorative words that came to be a false deal in the company’s business practice.

This cautionary tale might be an extreme example, yet is a reminder to pay attention to organisational standards and everyday practices.  And to go about identifying values if not already established – involving all staff and volunteers.

Choosing particular value-words is the fun part. What does this organisation stand for?  What words represent the way we want our mission and vision to be understood?  And more particularly, what words will inform our actions and behaviours?  Yes, but value-words are abstracts that have no substance until we put meaning and actions to them.  And then we have to understand how commitment to a particular value can operate on a continuum: people will put different weights to the meanings, depending on their own beliefs.

Let’s take Respect as an example. A discussion might go something like this:

Q:        Why have we selected this value-word?

A:        Because … we believe in the fundamental dignity of all people; people have rights; we are a people-centred organisation; because it fits with our mission.

Q:        How can we live up to this value?  How can we demonstrate ‘respect’?

A:        We listen, actively; we want to empower others; we answer messages and queries promptly; we can agree to disagree; we accept differences.

Clearly such questions involve extensive discussion of the ‘makes you think’ kind.  Values then become embedded in organisation planning and policies and operations.  Values will be on the agenda in recruitment interviews.  And the pay-off will become evident in organisation culture, staff and volunteer cohesion, and flow on to reputation in the community.

This piece is a very brief introduction to the business of values.  A recent UK survey of NFP organisations will take you a bit further, under the title To Practise what we Preach.  Exactly!


* Henderson, et al. (2006) Leading Through Values: Linking company culture to business strategy.  Auckland: HarperCollins.

April 15, 2012

For Whose Benefit?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , , at 12:18 am by Sue Hine

The Latin tag cui bono can be applied in many contexts, but rarely do we stop to consider the implications of who benefits from volunteering and in what ways.

Too often we speak in clichés and platitudes, like:

  • Volunteers are the salt of the earth
  • They are the glue of society
  • Thank you volunteers, we couldn’t manage without you

Yes we can measure volunteer contributions by translating hours and inputs into $$ figures which tell me little beyond how volunteers save the organisation a lot of money.  What of the qualitative value of their work and its impact on outcomes?  We really need to find the measuring tool that shows the true value of volunteer contributions to the organisation’s big-picture mission and strategic goals.  There are ways and means, as I suggested some 18 months ago, and there are extensive references listed at Energizinc.

There are two other questions worth considering:

Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?

Why do volunteers choose to volunteer for your organisation?

Finding some answers could lead us away from the financial cost-benefit analysis to getting some real understanding of volunteering and the kind of social profit it brings, to the organisation as well as to volunteers.

Ideally we should be looking for a win-win outcome on all counts.  Any act of volunteering is a giving process, but it is never selfless.  There is always a quid pro quo, an exchange of something in return for a volunteer’s time, skills and knowledge.  So the real question should be What is the pay-off for the volunteer?

There are practical gains, like work experience, learning new skills, developing new interests.  Volunteering can improve job prospects and open new career options.

The intrinsic benefits may not be articulated well by volunteers.  They can come up with clichés and platitudes too:

  • Making a difference in the community
  • A sense of purpose

Get volunteers to talk about satisfactions and what they gain and they will offer responses like the following:

Volunteering can enlarge social networks and social interaction; volunteering offers a sense of belonging in a community.  Supporting a cause is to participate in creating change, to realise personal values.  The ethic of service can be a satisfaction in itself.  All of these ‘goods’ promote personal growth, enhanced confidence and competence in the work undertaken and a satisfying sense of achievement.  In other words, volunteering is empowering.

Research findings from the Rugby World Cup, and a survey of volunteers involved in the Bay of Plenty clean-up after the Rena grounding indicate similar satisfactions. There are more references at Energize.

So really, the gains, benefits and satisfactions are a two-way street between volunteers and their organisations.  That is a fundamental connection which should not be overlooked.

April 1, 2012

“Volunteer Associations”

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 am by Sue Hine

Last week’s review of national awards honouring volunteers pointed up the extent of voluntary activity outside the mainstream not-for-profit institutions, and generally beyond a formal volunteer programme.  I was reminded of my long ago introduction to sociology, and early studies of New Zealand society.

Forty years ago I was reading about New Zealanders as ‘a nation of joiners’.  Research in 1970 in a country town of 14,000 people found there were 200 organisations, and 60% of the population belonged to one or more of them.  You could find similar patterns all over the country, and I was part of them.

Forty years ago academic research and writing never mentioned ‘volunteers’ or ‘volunteering’, despite the existence of health and social service organisations that had been active for many years, largely supported by volunteers.  Organisations were lumped together as “voluntary associations”, regardless of purpose or function.  Or they were pressure groups, sometimes regarded with suspicion by dismissive politicians. Our open political system, said one writer, “has what amounts to an unrecognised fourth estate” [after legislature, judiciary and administration].  Voluntary participation in communities was surely taken for granted.

At last count (2004) there were 97,000 non-profit organisations in New Zealand.  More recent studies (2008) estimate that 67% of the non-profit workforce are volunteers, and that more than one third of the population aged 10 and over volunteer each year.  It seems we are still a nation of joiners, though under changed circumstances.

Over the past twenty-five years Government has devolved responsibility for delivering many services to community-based organisations, and volunteers can play a large part in these.  Government organisations like Sport NZ (formerly SPARC) and the Department of Conservation are directly engaged with volunteers and supporting volunteering.  A formal relationship accord between government and communities of Aotearoa NewZealand was signed in 2010.

Terminology shifted too.  We absorbed new labels and acronyms: non-governmental organisation (NGO); non-profit institution (NPI); and not-for-profit (NFP).  Collectively, community-based organisations are tagged the Third Sector.

The focus on service delivery and ‘consumers’ and on accountability brought an attendant raft of regulations, eroding the real virtues of volunteer-involving organisations.  Their capacity for developing creative solutions and experimenting with new practice methodologies was hard to fit into the new environment, even though volunteering and volunteers remained an essential part of an organisation’s operations.  Neither did the new model enhance belonging and social connectedness in local communities.

“Voluntary associations” never really went away, but somehow dropped under the radar.  We are still joiners, because we are hard-wired to the idea of community, to social connectedness.  The philosophy of community is as old as – well – communities, and history is chequered with examples of community-led development and change on social, political and economic fronts.

So I should not be surprised to observe some winds of change over the past decade.  Concepts of Civil Society and social capital are re-surfacing in mainstream discussion and actions.  Social entrepreneurs are showing us the way to create sustainable change in our communities.  We can even put a positive spin on NGOs by re-naming them Social Profit Organisations.  And wouldn’t you know it: the theme for this year’s Volunteer Awareness Week is Building Communities through Volunteering.

There is much to encourage us in the present state of volunteering.  National and local awards for volunteers are evidence of a depth of experience and commitment to communities of all kinds.  “Voluntary Associations” deserve more air-time because their activities can build flourishing communities.

No doubt the next forty years will record more social and political change. I am in no doubt that “voluntary associations” will participate in that change, if not leading the charge.