November 25, 2012

A Passionate Affair

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Managers Matter, Motivation tagged , , , , , at 3:24 am by Sue Hine

Scenario: you are interviewing a candidate for a position to manage volunteers, and you want to check out the level of passion they would bring to the role.  How would you frame the questions?

I am not looking for answers right now.  I’m going off on a tangent to investigate the meanings of ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’.  I want to question why these words should feature so frequently in the context of volunteering.

They turn up in promotional material, in organisation newsletters and in recruitment adverts.  ‘Thank you’ speeches at Volunteer recognition functions are peppered with references to appreciation for volunteers’ ‘passion’.  Volunteer Centres and national umbrella organisations and even international leaders in our field find ways to insert ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ into their writing.  Even government publications don’t shy away from such emotive language where volunteers are involved.

Here are a few examples of slogans you can find without looking very far:

Show us your passion

Your passion, our nation, volunteer now!

Volunteer leadership is “passion management.”

They are examples of language used to attract and encourage volunteering, and to proclaim the good intentions and aspirations of managers of volunteers.

‘Passion’ means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.  It comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to suffer’.  OK, I know how ‘intense desire’ can be experienced as suffering, though this interpretation is better applied outside the province of volunteering and management of volunteers, despite frustrations experienced too often by the latter.  The passion of volunteering and the management of volunteer services is more about ‘intense enthusiasm’.

There is nothing the matter with being passionate, and to be fair, the word is also prominent in the for-profit sector.  But we do need to be clear what we mean, otherwise the word becomes a cliché and its currency devalued.  ‘Passion’ risks turning into a platitude, like ‘commitment’ and ‘making a difference’.  ‘Passion’ is a word too big and too important to turn into a shorthand slogan.

When we use ‘passion’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath we are referring to values held about people and communities and belonging and relationships, about service and mutual support, and about meeting needs.  Values are those beliefs and principles that are prized and cherished, and they are demonstrated every day in our behaviour.  We don’t have to declare we are passionate about volunteering: we can show you, all the time.

Being passionate about volunteering is relative to the cause of the organisation and its mission.  That’s how many a community organisation started in the first place.  Of course these days people can be more pragmatic about why they volunteer, yet there’s many a story about less-than-enthusiastic volunteers finding their ‘passion’ and becoming ardent supporters of an organisation.

Why should ‘passion’ be an important attribute for managers of volunteers?  For starters you have to be pretty keen (if not ‘intensely enthusiastic’) about volunteering to make the most of the position.  Passion contributes to raised performance standards, job satisfaction, and effective leadership of volunteers – which may include harnessing their passion when it becomes indiscriminate.  Sometimes passion is needed in gaining a recognised stake in the organisation.

But what if you overplay your hand?  There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic and becoming a fanatic.  It’s a line between getting people to listen to well-reasoned arguments and in the way the emotional speech can turn into an eye-rolling, here-she-goes-again response.  Too much overt passion can end up like Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: Each man kills the thing he loves.

So when it comes to interviewing prospective managers of volunteers I would be steering away from emotional rhetoric and asking about practical applications. Examples of practice will demonstrate just how ‘committed’ to ‘making a difference’ and the degree of ‘passion’ is held by the candidate.

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4 Comments »

  1. Martin J Cowling said,

    Enthusiastically agreeing
    In fact I have seen someone’s passion destroy groups

    Like

  2. This is a brilliant post, and very timely and thought provoking for me personally. I volunteered in South Africa for a year, and Rwanda for three. I would have appreciated some tips, or more hands on management to better understand and focus the ‘intense enthusiasm’ that sometimes overwhelmed me. On reflection I think it’s an ongoing exploration of balance – listening to your heart and your head, for volunteering requires both love and wisdom.

    Like

  3. WaterDragon said,

    I’m less enthusiastic about “passion” these days, and for many of the reasons well articulated in the post. I fully acknowledge that a goodly dose of enthusiasm is important. But an over-the-top approach is both intimidating, and, ultimately burn out territory for the passionate one. At present, I think I prefer commitment.

    Like

  4. Good work and no pay, is another description of volunteering. Pedestrian maybe but inclusive of all motives. Liked the story Sue. Thanks.

    Like


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