January 27, 2013

A Back-Handed Lesson

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 2:22 am by Sue Hine

employee-relations[1]A couple of weeks ago a colleague reminded me of a paper I had thought interesting enough to copy several years ago.  It was good fortune to find it in the depth of my badly archived resources.

The topic is a perennial conversation among managers of volunteers, that business of establishing and maintaining good relationships between paid staff and volunteers.  There can be lots of agonising on how-to, and what to do when volunteers get a raw deal.

Well, on just one short page, authors Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch turn the discussion on its head. Their paper is titled How to Generate Conflict between Paid Staff and Volunteers.  I can’t find the date of publication, but you can still find the page here.

The recommended advice contradicts everything good practice in managing volunteers would support.  It points up the hazards of relationships, and what can go wrong – specially if the manager gets precious about volunteers.  Here’s what McCurley and Lynch are suggesting:

  • Don’t involve staff in the decisions as to if and how to utilize volunteers within the agency. Everybody loves a surprise.
  • Don’t plan in advance the job descriptions or support and supervision systems for the volunteers. These things will work themselves out if you just give them time.
  • Accept everyone who volunteers for a position, regardless of whether you think they are over-qualified or under-qualified. Quantity is everything.
  • Assume that anyone who volunteers can pick up whatever skills or knowledge they need as they go along.
  • If you do insist on training volunteers, be sure not to include the staff with whom the volunteers will be working in the design of the training.
  • Assume that your staff already knows everything it needs about proper volunteer utilization. Why should they receive any better training than you did?
  • Don’t presume to recognize the contributions that volunteers make to the agency. After all, volunteers are simply too valuable for words.
  • Don’t reward staff who work well with volunteers. They are only doing their job.
  • Don’t let staff supervise the volunteers who work with them. As a volunteer director, you should be sure to retain all authority over ‘your’ volunteers.
  • Try to suppress any problems that come to your attention. Listening only encourages complaints.
  • In case of disputes, operate on the principle that “The Staff is Always Right.” Or operate on the principle of “My Volunteers, Right or Wrong.” This is no time for compromise.

I hope this litany raises more giggles than guilt.  I hope it points out best practice principles in ways that are simple to apply.  Maybe it will generate action to be taken, indicate areas for negotiation, especially around the extent of responsibilities carried by the manager of volunteers.

For example, letting go of direct management could be a strategic way to get paid staff more directly involved with volunteers.  It would bring management closer to volunteers and open up opportunities for ‘volunteer’ team leaders.  Ultimately, devolving direct line-responsibilities could be the stress-and sanity-saver for managers of volunteers.  Just think of the time and energy conserved when there is less effort required for trouble-shooting and peace-keeping.

The bottom line, if you need to be reminded, is a better deal for volunteers, with a side-dressing dollop of greater respect for the role and the skills of the manager of volunteers.

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January 20, 2013

Prospecting for a New Year

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Annual Review, Best Practice, Managers Matter tagged , , , , , , , at 3:43 am by Sue Hine

Happy-2013[1]  It’s that time of year for reflection, to look into the pool of 2012 and to assess the prospects for volunteers and their managers in 2013.

Looking good from last year was the continuing increase in numbers of volunteers, especially from youth cohorts. There was a lot more corporate volunteering too.  I was heartened by the increased support and recognition for International Volunteer Managers’ Day (November 5) and for International Volunteer’s Day (December 5).  And it seemed there was greater and more effective use of the e-waves than previously – for recruiting volunteers, for creative news reporting on volunteering, and for producing better and brighter organisation websites.

Volunteering New Zealand stepped up with the publication of Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations, outlining a steer on supporting managers of volunteers, getting the best from a volunteer programme and enhancing organisational attraction for volunteers and paid staff.  I am looking forward to the next publication, the Learning and Development Pathway for managers of volunteers.

But there is no time to rest on our laurels.  At the top of the search list for my blog, again, is Bad Volunteer Experience.   Again, it shows how many people miss out on good practice in management of volunteers.  More disheartening are the continuing accounts of raw deals for managers of volunteers, overburdened and under-appreciated, by organisations that should know better.  So work on promoting and educating on the basics – the essentials – of managing volunteers will continue to be a priority in the coming months.  Business as usual, you might say.

I picked up some signals last year that are going to be my worry-beads for 2013. I am not alone in my concerns:

Volunteering is becoming more transient, more promiscuous, more blurred

Convergence between NFPs and the business sector is not the panacea for all ills

Volunteering is an unloved child generally but was particularly so in 2012

Volunteers are demanding to be led – not managed 

Resources are being drawn away from volunteering for investment in fundraising

These quotes come from different sources and could all be placed under the rubric of The Great Unsettlement.  Here are the features I reckon are the ‘big-picture’ issues:

  • Corporate social responsibility has spawned corporate volunteering, and also sponsorship and partnerships with NFP organisations.  Good stuff, and sensible in cash-strapped times.  Except there is potential risk to maintaining organisation branding and identity if relations with a corporate business are not well-managed.  Worse is the way volunteering and the management of an ongoing volunteer programme seem to be sidelined in preference to scoring big business patronage.  This is particularly evident in marketing and managing fundraising events.
  • ‘Social enterprise’ has risen in popularity stakes as a business model for social outcomes.   Yes, good for the national economy, and more sexy than ordinary everyday volunteering – which (if you need reminding) has promoted social outcomes for generations.  I sigh, because the definition of volunteering is up for debate, again.
  • Government out-sourcing of social services has turned many NFPs into NGOs over the past 30 years, introducing an active if unequal interface between government and community.   Proposals for new models of funding such as social bonds will put a whole new agenda in front of many organisations, again challenging the place and the contribution of a volunteer programme.
  • Accountability, the business of measuring performance, not just inputs and outputs in dollar terms, has been around for a while now.  The current attention to Social Return on Investment (SROI) is more serious, more intense and we’d better get to know about it.  Except the impact of human service delivery is difficult to formulate, expensive to administer, and risks turning volunteering into a commodity.

The political and economic environment rules – OK?  So it seems, and in the process that part of social structure that is called Civil Society, or the Third Sector, or simply ‘the community’ becomes marginalised.  What’s a manager of volunteers to do?

Top of my wish-list for this year is to get beyond the hand-wringing and to turn questions of ‘what can we do?’ into ‘how do we get there?’  Notice how ‘we’ reminds us of the collective and the collaborative approach to action.  There is the stimulus, to seek out allies in local networks and to enlist support from the progressive organisations that were pilots for the Best Practice Guidelines.  Take some leafs from marketing and fundraising strategies: cultivate news media contacts, and never let up on social media plugs.  Become social entrepreneurs in the sense of community-building for social innovation, for volunteering and volunteer organisations.

There are already pockets of volunteering enterprise in various communities.  Just think what volunteering could become if we stitched those pockets into overalls.  There is our challenge for 2013: to gain a stake in the future we need to stake a claim, on our terms, for the territory of community and for volunteering.