October 28, 2012

The Spirit of Managing Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Managers Matter, Organisation responsibilities, Professional Development tagged , , , , , at 4:06 am by Sue Hine

I rather like this crib of a World War II poster, now doing the rounds in cyberspace in a whole lot of variations.

I can raise a smile at the slogan which is a contradiction in itself.  How do you keep your cool when the job of managing volunteers is chaotic most of the time?  Even the bold red colouring suggests keeping calm is about keeping the lid on stress that is best kept out of the chaos.

Lest you think I am indulging in cynicism, let me start again.

In the list of knowledge, skills and attributes for a management position I have never seen any hint of a required ability to manage stress (in self and others).  Yes I know stress comes with the territory whatever the field of management, but why should it be reported so frequently by managers of volunteers?

There could be a number of reasons:

  • Position responsibilities have not been properly scoped, leading to task overload
  • The appointee is not adequately qualified or experienced for the position
  • No proper induction
  • No professional development programme
  • No volunteer policy to give meaning and direction to the volunteer programme
  • Senior management fail to understand and appreciate the value of the volunteering

These factors are organisational matters: feeling stressed and overwhelmed under these circumstances does not derive from personal shortcomings.

Raising questions about extending part-time hours or engaging administration assistance too often gets the reply (after the standard ‘lack of resources’ response):  Make a case to justify increasing the budget for the volunteer programme.  It’s not hard to guess what happens then: I haven’t got time, and I’m too tired.  A few months later there is another notch to score in rate of turnovers for the position.

We could, in the face of adversity, Keep Calm and Drink Tea.  Or we could Keep Calm and just Carry On.  Volunteers deserve more, and they need good management and effective leadership.

There is no denying the role is diverse and demanding.  The art of multi-tasking, being multi-skilled and with demonstrable leadership qualities turn the job into something that could be called ‘multi-management’.

That’s where a tool-kit of Survival Strategies is useful.  The load gets lighter when it is shared:

  • Engage volunteers for administration support
  • Establish volunteer team leader positions for support and communication with volunteers
  • Recruit or train-up volunteers to interview new applicants, or introduce group-screening
  • Seek out allies within the organisation to help promote and advocate for volunteers
  • Check out Volunteer Centre training opportunities and make a point of attending
  • Find a mentor, or join a mentoring group

Adopting some or all of these strategies will then give a little space to address organisation shortcomings regarding volunteering and its management.  Further help will be available very soon: Volunteering New Zealand will launch Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations on International Volunteer Managers’ Day, November 5.  Join the webinar to learn more.

Nobody has ever said being a manager of volunteers is an easy job.  But there are many people who love the work, and who make it a long career.  It’s worth the effort to make it worthwhile.  That’s the spirit of managing volunteers.

October 21, 2012

An Opportunity Missed

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Organisation responsibilities, Professional Development, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:06 am by Sue Hine

There are a lot of disappointed people around the country this week.  There were just not enough of them to prevent cancellation of the conference planned by Volunteering Auckland for the beginning of November.

Let’s Get Connected aimed at bringing together people from across sectors – community, business and government – to listen and discuss topical issues relating to volunteering.  Just what we needed in times of change.

Just what we need when every day there are new stories about business sponsorship and partnerships with NFP organisations.  Just what organisations need, in order to get to learn more about social enterprise.

There has never been a better time to Get Together, to take the opportunity to sit at the same table and to listen and learn from each other.  Getting community, business and government together could have kick-started new relationships and collaboration.

We have missed out because registration numbers were too low.  Because, it is said, there is little money available for training and development in the current economic climate.  I hope reference to the recession is not a euphemism for organisations giving low priority to a conference related to volunteering and managing volunteers.

That would mean a big mistake as well as a missed opportunity.  It’s also a bit of a worry for future conference planning.  Prospective sponsors and funders may look twice at a group that could not muster the numbers for a conference in their own best interest.

In the UK one writer refers to present state of the third sector as a ‘great unsettlement’.  Certainly in New Zealand there are signs of potential transformation.  The government’s Better Public Services report promotes a focus on results and outcomes, greater efficiency and effectiveness, and getting value-for-money.  A responsible businesslike approach for the 21st century you could say – with an inevitable flow-on impact on community organisations providing services under government contracts.

Streamlined contracting arrangements are to be welcomed for reducing compliance costs and duplication.  Meeting conditions of provider capability, and more rigorous performance measurement will undoubtedly test organisational capacity to meet new arrangements.

This is no time to doubt community resilience, responsiveness and volunteer readiness.

This is where forging connections with business and social enterprise, as well as government, could stimulate new models of development in community organisations.  There’s a helping hand in a new report offering information and tools to help businesses and charities work better in partnership – produced by the government’s Department of Internal Affairs.  Let’s Get Connected, indeed!

In real life we can curse a bit when we miss a travel connection: it’s simply a frustrating delay till the next bus (or whatever) comes along.  But missing an opportunity to consider new ideas and new ways of operating is like leaving the rugby field open for others to score all the tries.

October 14, 2012

Diversity in Action

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Good news stories, Leading Volunteers tagged , , at 3:41 am by Sue Hine

Promoting diversity is a significant industry in New Zealand.  The Human Rights Commission (HRC) works for a fair, safe and just society, where diversity is valued, human rights respected, and everyone is able to live free from prejudice and unlawful discrimination.  Commissioners for Race Relations, Equal Employment Opportunity and Disability Rights are included in the office of HRC.

Of course it is in the public interest (and the Government’s) to celebrate cultural diversity, to promote equal rights, to foster harmonious relations, and to meet the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi.  And it should be of no less interest to managers of volunteers.

There are some tactical advantages in aiming for a volunteer team that represents diversity in the community.  One is the signal to donors and the public that the organisation is open and community-friendly.  Better still is the opportunity for a wide spread of information and good tidings about the organisation – which in turn can generate more goodwill, and donations, and a steady stream of volunteer applicants.  And when users or clients of the organisation come from diverse backgrounds it makes even more sense to recruit a broad range of volunteers.

This approach means the manager of volunteers is faced with applications from people aged 19 to 90, job-seekers to corporate professionals, people wanting social contact and others paying social debts, those on a mission and those looking for one, the able and the disabled, and people new to town or new to the country.

All those differences matter not a jot when there is a common goal, and when the differences have nothing to do with volunteer tasks.  In other words the manager plays on volunteer commonalities.  Difference and diversity does not have to mean lack of ability to work together.

But I think there is a point where demonstrating openness and community representativeness in a volunteer programme is overtaken by attention to inclusiveness.

Selection procedures will screen out people on solid grounds, according to the nature of the service or the particular volunteer roles.  There is never a place to rule out the applicant who ‘does not fit the mould’.

Inclusiveness is what happens when the application from a wheelchair-user is not declined because of disability, but assigned to a role according to ability.   Stumbling with communication when English is your second (or 3rd or 4th) language is no obstacle to volunteering on a beach clean up or to planting trees.  The bright-eyed school leaver could be just the person to take cups of tea around to elderly patients.

Inclusiveness is what happens when the organisation offers a contribution to travel costs, or makes allowances for child care schedules.  To do otherwise is to exclude people from volunteering. Inclusiveness is taking a volunteer’s good idea and running with it instead of saying it can’t be done.

Nobody has said embracing diversity would be easy.  Nor commented on the amount of juggling a manager does to harness the diversity of volunteers.  But the end result is creating a community of volunteers working together for the good of the organisation.  Which in turn generates a flow-on impact on relationships in the wider community.


The fern represents the growing cultural diversity of New Zealand. Starting from the base of the fern, the motifs are as follows:

  • Traditional kowhaiwhai pattern from a painted panel. Manutuke church. (1849) Rongowhakaata Tribe.
  • Fleur de Lys design loosely representing the European population, taken from hinges on St Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland.
  • Samoan pattern from tapa cloth.
  • Traditional Chinese character found on silk cloth. The character ‘shou’ means longevity.
  • Indian paisley, used in henna (mendhi) designs to adorn the hands.
  • Vietnamese motif from a piece of woven fabric.
  • Middle Eastern motif (Iranian).
  • Baby fronds symbolising new growth.

October 7, 2012

The Volunteering X Factor

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 4:00 am by Sue Hine

There are no definitions for the X factors of volunteering.  There will never be a TV reality show for the unseen and unsung qualities that make up the best of volunteering and its management.  Mostly it is chance encounters that tell us something of the outcome of our work.

Three times in as many weeks I’ve been reminded of the influence a manager of volunteers can sometimes have on the lives of volunteers.

The first is a story about a volunteer and his wife, told fifteen years after the event.

A few days later I get to hear, long after I have left the workplace, how my words at a group induction session are still ringing in a volunteer’s ears:

“You don’t think you will gain anything from volunteering?  Keep your hearts and minds open and you will discover all sorts of rewards.”

You know, the volunteer says to my successor, I’ve never forgotten that, and by heck, she was right!


Then Andy Fryar, who has his own remarkable story of unintended influence on a volunteer, puts up this poster on his Facebook page, noting it is something he raises regularly in training sessions.


None of us set out to be inspiring or to make a difference in the lives of volunteers.  It’s a by-product, and we are merely catalysts for that inspiration to take hold, or that change to happen.

And mostly we never get the feedback.

I’ve been volunteering for yonks, and worked in a variety of management roles.  My one experience in managing volunteers was in a hospice, where I discovered there was still much to learn about volunteering and management.  Hospice volunteers taught me about the work they did, how they did it and why.  Simple – serving cups of tea and dishing out meals.  But it was the way they provided these services that showed me how volunteering is a whole lot bigger than ticking off a task sheet.

Because reports from patients and families indicated how the supporting words and gestures from volunteers touched them at just the right moment.   When I gave this feedback to the volunteer there was usually a shrug and a comment like “But all I did was listen, and it was only for a few minutes”.  No big deal for the volunteer, yet an inspirational spark for the family.

Now it’s my turn to tell a story about a volunteer and what comes after.

Mary had been volunteering for some time when I met her – Wednesday lunch service, regular as clockwork, a close buddy with her volunteer partner.  She liked things neat and tidy, liked knowing what was what.  Always Mary was someone you could count on to let you know if she could not come, wanted time off for travel, or if something was bothering her.  Sometimes the bothering could be personal stuff, outside the volunteering bit.

Now Mary the volunteer has become the patient.  Pinned on the notice board by her bed in the hospice is a letter I wrote to her eleven years ago, alongside the certificates issued in recognition of her years of volunteer service.  Such little things, such small gestures from the office of a manager, to be received and treasured in ways I never anticipated.

All of us can touch other people’s lives in unknown ways.  It’s part of being human.  Sometimes we can turn the cliché of ‘making a difference’ into something real.

But always, in times like this, my mind flicks to the line that says:

You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people. *

And I wish I did not always have to be the last to know.


* William Boyd (1990) Brazzaville Beach