May 26, 2013

The Neediness of Volunteer Organisations

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Managers Matter, Marketing, Organisational gains from volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:36 am by Sue Hine

Help wanted on clothes lineI’m on my language hobby-horse again, this time on why we should be careful in using the word need.

Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest.  That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.

I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations.  Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services.  Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time.  The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.

Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010).  It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.

Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas.  This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help?  Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo.  Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.

NeedHelp – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers.  British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea.  Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation.  Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.

What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?

For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people.  Not because you need or want them to help.  You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested.  There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling.  We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages.   Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet.  Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.

I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations.  There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.

When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities.  And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.

It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.

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May 19, 2013

Unpacking ‘Communication’

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Leading Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 4:21 am by Sue Hine

communication-pattern[1]A member of parliament resigned this week, in disgrace.  For ten days the news media communicated to the public arena all the ill-chosen words that were spoken, emailed and twittered, plus as many details as they could extract from the Prime Minister.   The MP could not have managed better his exit from the political stage.  All because what he said, the way he said it and the medium he used compounded his errors.  His resignation and departure saves the coalition government’s slender majority, and shows us all how critical the choice of words and the way they are said can be.

Put a bunch of managers of volunteers together, ask them to nominate the most important principle in leading volunteers, and 80% will tell you it’s Communication.

Of course!  Except Communication is a really big carpet-bag word, stuffed full of a range of meanings and processes and practice – and technologies.  It’s time we unpacked the implications of the word and understand how it is best used in the context of a volunteer programme.

Communication is about Exchange of Information   Yes, the sending and receiving of accurate information is all-important to help volunteers into the organisation and for on-going retention.  Ensuring information about volunteers and the volunteer programme is spread to other staff and senior managers is also important.  And – being timely in responding to queries and messages: there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting to hear back from someone, even if it is simply an acknowledgement your message has been received.

Because Communication is also about Relationships   It’s about creating personal connections, getting to know people and their circumstances.  It’s about getting alongside paid staff, creating goodwill, and their understanding and appreciation of volunteer work.  And you don’t get good relationships going without being a Listener.  You have to be really genuine in meeting and greeting and appreciating volunteers – they will see through formulaic responses very smartly.

Communication is about inter-connectedness   Communication is the way to create links with communities, to network with other managers of volunteers, and to open up intra-organisation channels.  Beware the pitfalls of ‘talking past each other’ whether in cross-cultural communication or in everyday exchanges.  It’s the intimacy of interpersonal interaction that counts towards real connections.

Communication is a leadership dynamic   A leader’s support, encouragement, enthusiasm and inspiration do not happen in isolation – by definition there is always a following team.  So a leader is tuned to know which buttons to press and when and what words to use, and how to draw in the reluctant player, or to spur the confidence of the shy and retiring volunteer, or to find new ways to develop volunteer talents.  A good communicator will also demonstrate the value of a volunteer programme to the organisation.

You cannot not communicate    There’s a truism for you!  The experts can demonstrate how just 10% of a message is conveyed in words.  The rest is non-verbal, the body language, the tone of voice, the facial expression.  So even a tight-lipped poker-face is sending a message, whether they mean to or not.

Hang on a minute – a heck of a lot of our communication these days is not face-to-face.  You’ve got everything from formal letters, newsletters and written planning and policy papers, to email and social media, to websites and webinars.  So the written word is still a primary tool for communicating ideas and information.

Being a communicator and minding our language comes with the territory of managing volunteers. I reckon we could teach foolish MPs a thing or two.

May 12, 2013

A Shift in the Wind

Posted in Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Politics of volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

sailing-3[1]Earlier this week Volunteering New Zealand issued an invitation on FaceBook to consider the ethos of volunteering and the meaning of ‘giving time’ for the common good.  It was in response to a news item about Christchurch youth who had pledged four hours of volunteering in return for tickets to a music festival –The Concert – held late last year.  Except around 600 pledges have not been fulfilled, and according to the terms and conditions of the pledge (clearly stated) they are to be named and shamed.  They can expect to be outed on The Concert’s website.

There is absolutely no doubt the people who have participated in Student Army projects deserve recognition and a thanksgiving for the work they have been doing in quake-ravaged Christchurch.  From all accounts the concert was a great success.

The website includes clear information on whys and wherefores, including a FAQ section which defines volunteering as performing a service freely and for no charge.

Here’s the rub.  There may be no fees for volunteering, though there is always an opportunity cost for the donation of time.  The pay-back for that time can be offered in a huge number of ways, from a regular smile and ‘thank you’ to formal functions and speechifying, not to mention a lot of feel-good factors and personal gains.  But to offer a tangible (and highly desirable) carrot suggests the volunteering response is not given altogether freely.  What to do when the offer is not fulfilled?  Just let it go and mumble-mumble about free-loaders, or do the public name-and-shame?  To be fair, the 600 unfulfilled pledges represent only 7.5% of the 8000 people who created 50,000 hours of volunteer service.  And if they are outed, will public humiliation put them off volunteering for ever?  Will that matter?   Is going public with non-volunteering so different from the bad-mouthing that a poorly- managed volunteer programme can attract?

Alternatively, will volunteers elsewhere now expect enticing carrots when they offer their time, something a bit beyond the annual Christmas party?

Let me add these questions to voluntary sector conditions I have been noting in my posts in recent months:

  • A Register for violations of Volunteer Rights is suggested for Australia.  (Leading to a Union of Volunteers, as one comment has suggested?)
  • A major event is politicised to create a legacy for volunteering, to the point where £5million Lottery Funds are allocated “to be spent on Olympic inspired volunteering schemes”.
  • New ways to fund and provide social services (Social Bonds, Social Finance) are being discussed, without consideration of volunteer input.
  • Lack of understanding and appreciation of volunteers and the potential of volunteering are highlighted in recent academic research.
  • The focus on measuring social service impact and outcomes is not doing any favours for volunteering, specially where the quality of relationships makes the critical difference to outcomes for individuals.
  • The rise of Obligatory Volunteering is also evident, including internships, compulsory community service and conditional welfare entitlements.  Which is where the Christchurch Concert pledge fits in:  ‘free will’ is not so free after all.
  • Corporate responsibility and ‘workplace volunteering’ can sometimes be more self-serving than real social responsibility.
  • In addition we should take into account trends in volunteer preferences, like micro-volunteering, time-limited and task-focused assignments, and time-banking.

There we have a heap of shifts in practice to impact on the ethos of volunteering, and many of them influenced by Government directives.   Government is even supporting a new approach to community development with funding and advice.  It is disappointing to see how the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector is ignoring the long history and proud achievements of ‘community-led development’ that happens without any form of government intervention.

So it seems the ethos of volunteering has enlarged its sphere to include more formalised, more structured practice, and a variety of practice modes.  Volunteering is certainly less central to service delivery for many NGOs than the volunteering I grew up with, decades ago.  That’s OK – nothing is forever, and I’m getting used to living with constant change, in organisations and in volunteering.

But, and it’s a big but: formalised volunteering programmes, complete with policies and professional management of volunteers, are pretty small bikkies in NFP statistics.  Ninety per cent of volunteer organisations in New Zealand do not employ paid staff.  Think about it: that’s close to 90,000 organisations that do their own thing, working in their communities for the common good, and doing good, pitching in where needs must, scratching for funds, and keeping  their services going anyway.

So the ethos of volunteering, performing a service freely and for no charge, has not gone away.  It has just got a bit larger.  Denouncing volunteers who do not fulfil commitments is not yet within the boundaries of regular practice, not yet in the spirit of volunteering, even though volunteers are free to tarnish an organisation’s reputation if they don’t get the experience they expect.

As any yachtie knows, a shift in the wind means you have to trim the sails, and adjust the course to make the most of the wind-power.  That’s the excitement of sailing, being at the mercy of wind and ocean currents, and mastering your way around these forces.  Volunteering can shift with the wind too, yet will keep enough of its core to maintain a true course.

May 5, 2013

The Totally Best Volunteer Experience

Posted in Best Practice, Good news stories, Managers Matter, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 3:20 am by Sue Hine

volunteering-300x242[1]Going on three years ago I wrote about someone else’s bad volunteer experience, and regretted it ever since.  Because every year this post is the most viewed, by a wide margin.  Every day someone has Googled the words and they end up on my blog site.  I’ve tried in several different ways to highlight what volunteers appreciate, but good news stories do not attract the same attention.

So the tales of volunteers being under-valued and unappreciated, and treated badly, continue to mount up.  And now Australian volunteers are invited to register violations of their rights or inappropriate treatment.

Two problems here.  One, I don’t know of any cast iron document on volunteer rights relating to ‘inappropriate treatment’.  Which means, secondly, there is not much legal protection for volunteers (in New Zealand) beyond privacy and health and safety regulations and the non-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act.  ‘Volunteer rights’ are more in the realm of ethical and best practice procedures.

There are various Codes of Practice for managing volunteers.  There are various Rights and Responsibilities documents outlining reciprocal obligations for volunteers and organisations.  There is, if you did not know already, a Code of Ethics for managers of volunteers.  In 2001 (remember that year?) a “Universal Declaration on the Profession of Leading and Managing Volunteers”   was developed by an international working group, including New Zealand representation.   These hallmarks of a profession are clearly not sufficiently embedded to address the wrongs experienced by volunteers.

The regulatory environment in most jurisdictions will include volunteers within health and safety, privacy and human rights.  Volunteers are excluded from employment law of course, though there is a grey area when we start talking about being ‘a good employer’ (see this post).

So from a volunteer’s perspective there is not much comeback if they get bullied, or mucked around, or ignored – all that personal insult stuff that is so hard to argue.  There is no formal means of redress, unless the organisation’s HR policies and their ‘good employer’ commitment includes volunteers in their complaints and disciplinary procedures, and in annual review processes which offer a two-way consideration of both the volunteer programme and volunteer contributions.  To go further into ‘workplace protection’ would jeopardise the meaning and status of volunteering.

In 2009 serious breaches of trust between volunteers and the organisations they volunteered for led to Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry.  The outcome called on organisations to sign up to the 3R Promise, promoting and protecting and taking responsibility for volunteer experience and raising standards of management of volunteers, and reconciliation when things go wrong. Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations is another model, outlining opportunities for organisation development and change to develop and maintain a programme that offers volunteers the best possible experience.

But the fundamentals of that best experience is based on good communication, effective working  relationships, high standards of training and induction, ongoing support, demonstrative appreciation and being valued for contributing to the organisation’s mission and to the community.  (Have I missed anything here?)  These are matters of professional standards and ethics and values.  They are ‘people-centred’, involving relationships of mutual respect and trust.

Volunteers can tell us what they want, what they think is their best experience in all sorts of ways.  See what I wrote a few months ago.   Or consider this account from another writer.

If we listened to ‘what volunteers want’ we would not have to set up complaint registers or to promise commitments, or guidelines for organisations.  If we listened to volunteers we would not be pushed to concern for protecting their rights.  We might even become the profession we ought to be.

And – we’ll get more pictures of happy and satisfied volunteers.