March 23, 2013
No, this post is not a lecture on Road Safety, nor is it about peripheral vision. I want to talk about how a manager of volunteers needs two lines of sight.
Because it’s all very well to design and develop and run a programme for volunteers in an organisation, and to take to heart the mission of ensuring the best experience for the volunteers – but if you have not looked the other way to see how the volunteer programme integrates with other organisation functions and policies then both volunteers and the organisation can end up being short-changed.
Over the years I’ve listened to the sorrowful song-book presented by managers of volunteers. Here’s a small sample:
- Volunteers are regarded as second-rate workers
- Managers of volunteers don’t rate it as ‘managers’, nor as ‘professionals’
- They are lowly-paid and inadequately resourced
- No support for professional development
- Lip-service recognition of the volunteer programme, and volunteer achievements
- ‘They’ just don’t get volunteering
It does not have to be like that! And it isn’t of course, as the champions and leaders of our profession can demonstrate. There are also Chief Executives who know and understand volunteering and its importance to the organisation, ensuring volunteers get a fair go and respect for their work.
So what can you be doing to get away from the moan-and-groan stuff?
Simple answer: you get strategic.
Help! I don’t know how.
Yes you do! You have thought through what was needed for the programme, developed policies and processes, set everything in place for the recruitment and training of volunteers, and how volunteering would work in the organisation. You connected with your communities, and with the local network of managers of volunteers. Now you can do it all again, in the other direction, developing the connections and the strategies that will show senior management how to embrace volunteering and your management and leadership within the organisational fold.
Where do I start?
Hang on a minute. Before you get to action you have to do the planning. And before the planning, you need to figure what it is you are trying to do. You want the organisation to get volunteering, and the importance of good management and leadership of volunteers, right? What do you mean by “get volunteering”? What is it that people need to know about volunteering? What do you want to tell them and what is the best way to do it?
Now you can start thinking about your strategic plan – the key areas to work on, and the goals you have identified. You will be taking into account what is working and what doesn’t and what is missing. For instance, does volunteering get more than a mention in the organisation’s strategic plan and its business plan? How would you write up volunteering in these plans?
There is more: being strategic includes identifying potential allies, formulating the key points you want to communicate, and considering the channels open to you. You might, in the first instance, start reporting on volunteers and their activities, telling their stories and successes – and circulating the report to key players in the organisation, and especially the chief executive. Be bold, and go further by offering to meet and discuss the report. Even suggest what more could be achieved by volunteers.
Is this enough to go on with, to give you a kick-start?
If you want more info and other perspectives, go see how volunteer programmes can get Messed Up and what to do about it; or the observations of a group UK Managers of Volunteers. For details on how-to-plan, and what should be included, see this chapter of the Community Resource Kit or get the basics from Sport NZ.
One of the slogans I hear frequently is “managers of volunteers are advocates for volunteers in the organisation”, though I hear little about results of advocacy. The plaint of getting volunteering gets much more air time. Quite honestly this is the biggest foot-fault of our profession: wishing others would see our point of view is wishful thinking and accomplishes nothing. It is time to change our ways, to work on making looking-both-ways a key dynamic in the life of a manager of volunteers.
March 17, 2013
The phenomenon of social media has spawned a raft of new ways to communicate, for business, for politicians, and for the voluntary sector – which has also generated significant commentary, on websites and in print.
In the on-line course Essentials of Volunteer Management participants are asked to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for recruitment. Mostly the responses are “we don’t”, and reservations are sometimes based on unfamiliarity with the facilities social media can offer.
Yes, as Susan J Ellis points out, social media is not always the ideal medium for recruitment messages: there are other fundamentals to take into account. And as we all know, it is word-of-mouth that proves the most effective tool for engaging new volunteers. Yet I am impressed with the promotional information and volunteer opportunities put up on Facebook by Volunteer Centres. In their role as brokers between organisations and prospective volunteers they are offering new opportunities for both parties. Mostly the messages are short and snappy and accompanied by a photograph, plus clear contact details.
Why should NGOs and not-for-profit organisations be bothering with social media? If you have a well-produced and inter-active web-site and regular e-newsletters what more do you need?
Well – social media is just the best communication tool for reaching the widest possible audience and for dispersing information and promoting organisational interests. Just think how popular crowd-sourcing and on-line fundraising has become. Notice how often a message or a video-clip can ‘go viral’ and become part of popular culture.
After all, says a UK fan, social media is designed to be fun, straightforward and easy to use, and with millions of potential supporters accessible online it’s too good an opportunity to miss.
Quite – especially when I want to keep in touch with Gen Y friends and find they are never checking their email inbox.
Of course, for all my enthusiasm there are still disadvantages to consider when thinking about using social media.
Here’s the advice from a for-profit business perspective * :
- It takes time: it’s a constant investment
- Target which channel you want to use, likely to be used by your consumers
- What are your objectives? To gain sales; build profile; communicate with members only?
- You need to have something interesting to say: be instructive, informative, controversial or humorous – otherwise your efforts will be simply social media white noise
- Is social media relevant to your target market? Test and measure its value to your business
For NGOs and Non-Profit organisations the best resource is the information offered by Jayne Cravens . Her advice and commentary, plus extra links, cover most of the points made above. There are risks to manage: you need a written policy on staff and volunteer online engagement as representatives of the organisation. It takes time to get results; you have to really get engaged with online supporters. Ultimately, Jayne says, online social networks are an important part of a mission-based organisation’s box of outreach tools.
And outreach, in my book, is all that marketing and promotion we need to do in this day and age. You might think it ironic that I am not a Tweeter, and a minimal contributor to Facebook – but I do know a good thing for community organisations when I see it. And I do like to push out boats on this blog.
* Drawn from an article in Dominion Post, Februay 25, 2013
March 10, 2013
Last weekend I followed my Sunday habit to visit the fruit and vegetable market held at the local primary school. You have to admire the enterprise of schools these days for hiring out their space and facilities to Churches, Sunday sports for kids, and for the market. That’s what you have to do to maintain a cash-strapped “free” education.
At the school entry I encountered a woman struggling to open the security gate. The gate had been a puzzle for me on previous weeks but I had it sorted now. I opened the gate for the woman and remarked “We never had to master this sort of barrier when we went to school”. The woman nodded vigorously, acknowledging both the import of my comment and our shared age bracket.
I went on up the path, the back entrance to the school. There was another security gate to gain access to classroom areas and the market stalls.
The gates were not so big they could not be opened by the average-sized six or seven year old child standing on tip-toes. They offered more of an impediment than a barrier, and certainly no real obstacle to adult visitors. But when a couple of four year old boys leave their day-care centre their adventure is called an ‘escape’. From what, you might ask.
I start thinking, again. I am really bothered that we have become so dependent on legislation and regulations around hazards and safety precautions that kids these days never get to use their instincts for self-preservation, never learn to evaluate risk and the limits on their own capacity. It’s all done for them by adults who bend over backwards to ensure nothing bad happens. No wonder teenagers think they are bullet-proof when they get behind the wheel of a car, or get tanked-up to go on the town.
The community sector is also plagued by regulation, as I described a few months back. Volunteers are known to become tetchy when restrictions seem unreasonable. Over the past ten years I have noticed a creep of limitations placed on the roles and tasks of volunteers: can’t have them doing personal cares for people in a clinical setting; huge risks if you let volunteers loose on Facebook; volunteers are not the same as staff; can’t ask them to do extra; but we’ll keep them on to work the phones and do the cleaning.
I exaggerate, just a little. For all the stories of restrictions there are also accounts of volunteers going beyond the call of duty, and many times we can see how collective volunteer actions have created a community fabric.
You see, that’s the bounty of volunteering. Volunteers get up and go, they can experiment with new ideas and different ways of doing things. They see a need or a gap in community services and they are free and flexible enough to devise an immediate and sometimes a long-term response to the presenting problem. They are risk-takers, big-time. That’s how our major NGOs and NFPs got started in the first place – read their histories.
So please, do not wrap volunteers in cotton-wool. Give them credit for intelligence and sensitivity and responsibility, and especially for their humanity. Give them space to be innovative and creative in the best tradition of community development. And remember that ‘humanity’ involves trust and respect and dignity – qualities that are never going to be measurable in pursuit of volunteer impact, yet can be diminished by over-regulation.
Perhaps I should have titled this piece ‘Stretching Boundaries’. I do not wish to make light of school security, nor of the tragedies that have created the armoury of protection for students and stringent screening for visitors. Nor am I suggesting volunteering should be turned into a laissez-faire free-for-all. I just want to make sure that too much bureaucracy does not shut down the whole point of volunteering.
March 3, 2013
March is the month for the beginning of autumn in my southern hemisphere, though current sunshine levels have not yet arrived at the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. We are getting close however, to harvesting a project begun more than three years ago. In a couple of months Volunteering New Zealand will publish the Learning and Development Pathway, a guide to professional development for managers of volunteers. This document will sit alongside the Best Practice Guidelines for volunteer-involving organisations.
The need for skilled and competent managers of volunteers has been a universal catch-cry for decades, alongside attaining due recognition and appreciation for the work entailed in enabling volunteers to play such a huge role in delivering community services. We are not alone in raising the concerns we have in New Zealand.
The project started from a vision that Managers/Leaders of Volunteers should be valued, well-resourced and competent professionals. Research and stories of experience was showing managers of volunteers were (and are) struggling for recognition and for resources for professional development. The flow-on effect was that volunteers may not get the best possible experience from their work, thus impacting on job satisfaction and recruitment, and not least on the services they provide in community organisations. We were also keen to put paid to the self image of being just a volunteer or just a volunteer manager, phrases which carry the imputation of lesser value than others in the organisation.
What took us so long – in getting to start the project, and then three years of consultation and debate? The original cry was Enough! following a Volunteering New Zealand conference. Then we engaged in a collective debate to determine goals and lots of sharing skills and knowledge. It was an empowering process, encouraging people to respond to the challenges and to think about breaching some of the barriers. Good things take time, and given the diversity of volunteering and community organisations it was important to discuss plans as widely as possible.
Of course getting a learning pathway to publication stage is not the end of the mission. Follow-up promotion will be needed, pressing for acceptance and action on recommended practice. There are plenty of opportunities to meet a range of training needs, but maybe some persuasion will be needed for organisations to see the benefits of supporting professional development – through fee reimbursement or paid study leave, for example. Managers of volunteers who may be reluctant to take on formal study, can note they could gain credits via Assessment of Prior Learning (APL).
So what will we be seeing in a year’s time? At the very least, there will be wide-ranging conversations about recognition and training for managers of volunteers. At the very least, organisations could be acknowledging the relevance and importance of their volunteer programmes, and considering how to enhance them.
Whether by small steps or big strides Volunteering New Zealand has started something that could end up being a whole lot bigger.