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.

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