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.

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