April 28, 2013
Volunteers in action, London Olympics; RWC 2011 in New Zealand
No – this is not the last will and testament of volunteering, nor an obituary of the dynamic and thriving social activities in our communities. But I do have something to say about the expectations of long-term outcomes for volunteering at major events.
This week there are media reports from the UK headlining Legacy of London 2012 volunteers is ‘fizzling out’, and declaring there is “no clear plan for capitalising on the contribution Games Makers can make to other volunteering initiatives”.
Like the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, the London Games engaged volunteers (70,000 of them) who made a huge contribution to the success of the Games. There are lessons here for all of us, about event management – especially the volunteer programme, about long-term volunteer outcomes – especially around volunteer engagement and retention, and about ‘the legacy’.
Talk of the London Legacy began early, some five years before the Games began. There were promises declared, including the intention to “inspire a generation of young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity”. The knowledge, skills and experience of managers of volunteers did not rate a mention. Defining a legacy was, I suppose, a way to justify the huge expenditure on hosting the Olympics, and to indicate there would be some return on the investment.
There have been reams of commentary, before and since the Games. One volunteer sector writer notes the shortcomings in the planning and management of the volunteer programme, and prefers to describe what was learned from the Games rather than extolling the Legacy. Another identifies the hurdles for sustaining a legacy on the volunteer front, namely ignoring basic principles of volunteer recruitment and retention.
Like the London Games, oversight of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was also a government responsibility, though much of the leg-work was done by the NZRU and Sport NZ. Leaders in the community sector were disappointed they were not consulted or directly involved in the planning for the volunteer programme. But it turned out well-planned and well-managed, and a huge success for the tournament, for the visitors and rugby supporters, and for the volunteers.
And, we’ve got the evidence, because research on the event was commissioned right at the start to monitor volunteer experiences. Six months after the event the survey indicates there may be positive impacts on future volunteering, though less impact on sports participation. There have also been positive outcomes for youth, and potential social benefits as volunteers keep in touch with friends they have made. A further follow-up report is due in the near future.
In the UK results of a recent survey are less promising. Only 2 per cent of adults have started volunteering since the Olympic Games; 70 per cent do not want to start, or do more volunteering.
Legacy? What Legacy? We are not talking about something that is gifted in a will, nor about a ‘baton’ being handed on to others even though there is no doubt volunteers will carry good memories of their experience for a long time.
“To be involved and a part of the ABs Victory Parade the day after the final – the public accolade the volunteers received was overwhelming!! A magical, historical day I will never forget!!!”
“My participation as a volunteer in the RCW is the best contribution to my family, community, and New Zealand as a whole.”
The Victory Parade is an emotional triumph for Volunteers
But is a major national event really an occasion to showcase volunteering and attract new recruits? Surely it was more about New Zealand winning that Cup!
I have been on the sharp end of event management a few times. I know about chaos and stress and long hours, and about the glow of success. More important is what I have learned about the support, enthusiasm and dedication shown by volunteers in their commitment to the project. They’ll go for it, 100%, and they will revel in the occasion and appreciate the ‘after-match’ party. Most will agree to be kept on the database for another time but will drift away if there is no ongoing communication and contact. Very few will come forward to ask about other volunteer opportunities.
This is not an issue of retention. We do not hold these events as a recruitment drive for long-term engagement. That’s unrealistic when current trends are showing short-term task-focussed assignments are preferred. After all the hype and excitement of a major national or local event the options for ordinary volunteering will seem somewhat pedestrian. I would sooner we acknowledged there are sprinters and there are marathon runners; there are horses for different courses, and (dragging out that old cliché again) one size does not fit all volunteers.
Volunteers I know do not think of their achievements at events or in their work for community-based services in terms of legacies. I do not regard my volunteering experience as a bequest from my parents’ example. It is simply something I choose because I belong in a community. That is the real nature of volunteering.
April 14, 2013
For too long I have been listening to these words, how “they” just do not understand volunteering and management of volunteers. Now I am sitting up to ask the question “What do we mean by getting volunteering – what do we want ‘them’ to get?”
And I’m running into trouble when I go looking for answers.
I could recite the litany of volunteer motivations; describe the history of community organisations and their rise to national and corporate status. I could tell the stories of volunteers, and there are millions to document ‘making the difference’ for individuals and communities. I’m not so keen on citing the record of hours worked and assumed $$ contributions, because that information does not seem to wash further than input/output statistics in the annual accounts – volunteers are just another resource to draw on. And anyway, we have gone down all these roads, many times.
What is it, what is the real deal that would get staff and organisation executives and government departments and corporate bosses to open their eyes to a real Ah-Ha moment about volunteering?
For starters it would help if “they”
Have had personal experience of volunteering and an understanding of the relevance of community in the wider fields of political and social action.
Work in an organisation structure and culture where volunteers are physically located in staff work-spaces, and which integrates the volunteer programme in service delivery plans and processes.
Employee volunteering is another option to open eyes to the richness and diversity of community organisations, and to their needs.
Yet these experiences do not seem to work for everyone in all places. The stories keep recurring about a lack of support for volunteers and their managers, and about organisations not taking volunteering seriously. It’s a low cost investment, nice to have, but not something to be worried about nor included when it comes to planning and strategic development.
Of course what the bosses and bureaucrats should be doing is paying attention to Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.
It is encouraging to note increasing awareness and activism among managers of volunteers and associated groups. We are talking up impact and outcome measurement of volunteer services, advocating for volunteering within our organisations. But following this path is simply trying to prove the worth of volunteering on “their” terms, a linear logic that can be described with numbers on paper.
If only “they” could look the other way to see the true value of volunteering. Here is what I would want “them” to see:
Volunteers complement the organisation’s delivery of services.
Volunteers add value to services, providing extras that are never going to be funded, and which enhance the holistic experience of users/clients.
Volunteers are ambassadors for the organisation. With a good experience volunteers can be the best marketing agent ever. If that experience is not so good they will do the worst possible damage to your reputation in the community, making it difficult to recruit new volunteers, and putting significant limitations on the success of fundraising projects.
Community organisations are said to be driven by values. No matter the mission you will find words like respect, dignity, communication, family-whanau/people-centred, community inclusiveness featuring on the masthead. Values represent beliefs and attitudes we hold dear, and we know them by the way they are exhibited in behaviour. Regardless of the reasons why people volunteer their behaviour generally reflects the ideals of the organisation.
So when we try to measure volunteering according to business plans and key performance indicators and impact measurement we get stuck on things like courtesy and goodwill, like relationships and understanding, like social connections and community development and individual and collective strengths. Volunteering is about people, by people and for people.
The value of volunteering is not less than the organisation’s ability to reach targets and to show a return on investment. Volunteering is a different sort of value. So, for “them” to ‘get volunteering’ requires understanding a different culture.
The beauty of understanding and accepting cultural difference is the new relationship that forms, based on each others’ strengths and a willingness to learn how to work together. That’s when I shall know “they” really get volunteering.
April 7, 2013
A recently reported research study is titled Fears, constraints and contracts: the democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector. The results are hard-hitting, lifting a lid on current experience for organisations whose voice has been largely silenced by the political shift over the past forty years, to neo-liberal economics and the out-sourcing of social services to the community sector.
The survey covers both NGO and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, all fields of social service provision, and both large national organisations and small community groups with no paid staff and no external funding. The promise of confidentiality and privacy allowed a freedom to respond to questions in an open and direct way. The results will not be surprising to those of us engaged in the community and voluntary sector, but the tenor and directness of the quoted statements leave us in no doubt of a depth of disappointment and frustration behind the words. For example (p 57):
NGOs play a unique and crucial role in New Zealand. Their contribution to political decision-making in NZ is currently undervalued and under-utilised. They are under-resourced and therefore undermined. (Emphasis added)
Small wonder these words deserved underscoring.
The report deserves to be read in full, to get the picture of how we have come to this pretty pass, and to note the references to earlier studies raising questions and alarm bells.
Those with long memories will recall the shifts we had to make in New Zealand from the early 1980s. Let me remind you:
A simple ‘begging letter’ to a philanthropic or trust fund changed to formal application requirements and for reports on spending and demonstrable benefits or gains. Organisations were forced to hire people to spend their days making funding applications, thus increasing overhead costs. And philanthropic funders got into cahoots to determine which social issue of the moment deserved the most attention.
Contracts for health and social services devolved from government responsibility might have brought funding security, but the new environment came with fish-hooks like health and safety regulations; like additional responsibilities and accountability for volunteer governance, not to mention compliance costs. What was previously a mission-based civil society endeavour changed to dancing to the tune of government direction.
Consultation quickly became a dirty word as proposals were presented with invitation to comment, only to find policy directions had already been decided. Very little notice was taken of community responses no matter the expressed outrage. Neither were organisations given time or resources to present community views to government.
These are the bones now cemented into the community and voluntary sector. Fundraising has become a professional occupation, accompanied by the marketing experts so that organisations compete for the charity dollar and corporate sponsorship. Contracts with government are confidential and a gagging clause ensures docile compliance. These days it seems a consultation document is issued one week and turned into a political or regulatory edict just a few weeks later.
The government’s ‘relationship’ with the community and voluntary sector bound in the Kia Tutahi document counts for nothing against the control imposed by the contracting environment. Adding to this disregard of communities the Charities Commission is disestablished, its responsibilities now determined and regulated by a government department. The rules change and over a thousand organisations lose their charitable status and their ability to raise funds via the carrot of tax rebates. Advocacy is out, so longstanding organisations like Greenpeace and National Council of Women (NCW) are no longer deemed charities. In ‘the good old days’ NCW was a political force to be reckoned with, up there with Federated Farmers and the Federation of Labour.
Here is the sound of the silence of democratic dissent.
And this reality happens, the report’s findings say, regardless of which political party heads the government. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.
A few people will recognise a parallel universe in the way organisations can undervalue the work of managers of volunteers, and under-appreciate volunteer contributions to oiling social wheels and to maintaining community wellbeing in many different spheres. I could suggest this is a function of a trickle-down pecking order. I would sooner we took a stand to exercise our democratic voice, for volunteers and for the organisations that serve our communities.
There was plenty of encouragement to do just this at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Management of Volunteers. Focus Up! was a key message. Recognise our roles as Leaders, Educators, Movers and Shakers and do something! Even if it means getting out of comfort zones, causing a stir, sticking heads over parapets. We owe it to volunteers and to our communities.
April 1, 2013
What do you reckon? How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does? What is your performance rating? Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale? Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?
There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game. Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat? Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?
When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment. There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding. It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors. Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board? To the tune of the latest marketing programme? Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?
The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures. But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.
Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.
It’s still much the same these days. Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth. Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.
The impact of services like these goes in several directions. Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future. The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements. Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits. There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services. Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved. The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements. That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.
We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society. We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change. Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels. As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business. Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.
But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change. We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.