August 25, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Posted in Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:32 am by Sue Hine

This headline heralded the stories of community response to the 6.6 earthquake that shook up Wellington and the northeast of the South Island last Friday.

Some 30% of the population of Seddon (epicentre of the quake) has left the town.  That is balanced by the numbers of volunteers coming in to help with the clean-up of damaged property and to support people under stress.

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In Wellington the ‘flight response’ to the shaking caused a rapid exit of buildings and congregating on the streets.  Frightened people were comforted in the street by other workers, not necessarily from their own workplace.   A mass exit from the city created choked-up roads and the shut-down of the rail network left hundreds of commuters stranded.  That’s when motorists turned up to offer a rides to people trying to get home.  The Wellington Student Volunteer Army got into action for the second time in a month with sound advice on their FB page.

My neighbour was knocking on my door the minute the house stopped its shuddering.  She is not a stranger, but it was good to share what had happened and to laugh with relief that we were OK, and with no obvious damage to our homes.

Volunteers are always there it seems, coming out of the woodwork just when they are needed.  They make great news headlines in times like these.

Yet most of the literature on volunteering (research, reports, conference papers – and the blogs) is concerned with ‘formal volunteering’ where organisations are running structured volunteer programmes.    That’s a pity, because there is a wealth of unpaid work going on under the radar.  ‘Informal volunteers’, the people who help and support family and whanau or community efforts outside the home do not always belong to a particular service or organisation.  They are everywhere, most often doing what comes naturally.

And here’s why:

Volunteerism is a basic expression of human relationships. It is about people’s need to participate in their societies and to feel that they matter to others. We strongly believe that the social relationships intrinsic to volunteer work are critical to individual and community well-being. The ethos of volunteerism is infused with values including solidarity, reciprocity, mutual trust, belonging and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to quality of life.

This paragraph is the opening statement in United Nations’ State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011This overview makes compelling reading: the ideals might be lofty, but the point is the universal embrace of volunteer participation.

So we should not be surprised at the very human responses to an earthquake in Wellington.  Surely the Christchurch experience has taught us a thing or two about the realities of community relationships: the kindness offered at times of stress is not from strangers but from the people of my community.

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August 18, 2013

By Degrees

Posted in Managers Matter, Professional Development, Professionalism tagged , , , , at 8:05 am by Sue Hine

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In Wellington this year the month of July turned on weather that was 2 degrees warmer than usual midwinter temperatures.  Indeed national results are showing this year was the fourth-warmest July in 100 years of New Zealand records.  No-one is yet claiming this result as evidence for climate change – we just welcome the period without dreary grey skies and three-day southerly storms direct from the Antarctic.  The mild weather continues this month, encouraging an early rise of the dawn chorus, increased frequency for lawn-mowing and an abundance of spring flowering – though a couple of sharp earthquakes has shaken any complacency we might have enjoyed.

I have never seen any graphs that track volunteering like weather patterns or earthquakes, not by numbers, nor by demographics or spread of organisation.  Mostly the information is collated in intermittent reports (most recent is 2008) with little comparative analysis.  The best studies are the publications for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project.

It’s the same for managing volunteers, an occupation we like to call a profession.  I’d like to think a graph blue-business-graph[1] of better management practice would show significant progress over the past forty years, mostly a slow and steady upward slope that gets a little steeper in more recent times.  Factors contributing to momentum are international organisations like IAVE, international conferences, the burst of technology that allows global communication in all sorts of forms: electronic journals, newsletters and webinars, bloggers like me, twitter and face-book discussion groups.  International Volunteer Manager Day (November 5) and National Volunteer Week (June) also attract plenty of attention from both inside the sector and without.  Possibly the biggest impetus for programme managers has come from government contracting out services to non-profit community-based organisations (though this move has produced its own fish-hooks).  At ground level Volunteer Centres are right up there offering support and training sessions for managers of volunteers, and the idea of mentoring as a means for professional development is slowly starting to get some traction.

So I think it is fair to claim the practice of managing volunteers is quite a few degrees warmer than it was twenty years ago.

However, there is still a fair way to go in that other meaning of ‘degree’, referring to tertiary education qualifications.  There is no single qualification for management of volunteers, though a raft of training programmes is available, from day-long workshops to on-line courses of varying duration and intensity.  University programmes are offered for ‘non-profit management’, and while they may include relevant material for management of volunteers the focus is generally on organisation-wide management.

This lack of academic attention is compounded by the different training and experience people bring to management of volunteers, and by the scope of responsibilities in the role.  It is not surprising that a lack of an identified career-path also leads to short-term engagements in managing volunteers for a good proportion of our numbers.

All is not lost!  Volunteering New Zealand published its comprehensive document on competencies for management of volunteers in June this year.  There are tools to help determine learning needs, and a long list of opportunities for study at various levels and topics of generic management.  Or go directly to options for assessment of prior learning (APL) which could lead to a formal qualification.

Unlike the debate on climate change I think the evidence is clear for current and future growth in prospects for managers of volunteers, whether by degrees or otherwise.

August 11, 2013

A Traveller’s Tale

Posted in Language, Motivation, volunteer experience tagged , , at 11:07 pm by Sue Hine

DSC08014There are always stories to tell after travel adventures.  I did not go looking for volunteers and volunteering on my recent OE, but the following tale was overheard during a long day on the bus.  It was related by a big man with a big voice.  We all got to hear what he had to say. 

I retired about five years ago.  Best thing I ever did.  I’ve got my hobbies and I go travelling pretty much every year.  I don’t miss the grind of work a jot.  Some people say I should be doing some volunteering: no way!  I’m not going in to do drudge work to help an organisation save a bit of money.  If I am going to volunteer I want to make sure it’s for a mission I believe in and want to help. 

Right on, I said to myself.  That’s the way most people are getting involved in volunteering these days.   After all, volunteering is always about giving time freely and willingly, right?

Hmmm…. Free Will is something philosophers have been debating for centuries.  Does free choice really exist alongside all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ learned during our childhood and reinforced throughout a lifetime? 

For quite a while now it has been clear that the free will of volunteering can be generated by self-interest.  I want some work experience, some credits for my study courses, to get out of the house and enjoy some company, to help me learn about my new community, or to practice speaking English.  About the only real freedom is in engaging with an organisation of my own choosing.  Even those sentenced to Community Service (mandatory volunteering) are able to select where they will work out their time.

The ethics of Duty, Obligation and Civic Responsibility do not feature in our language so much these days.  A recent research publication records the decline over the past two hundred years in the use of words linked to duty and obligation, while words linked to individualism and materialism have increased.  This shift in our mind-sets, says the psychologist researcher, reflects the socio-cultural changes effected by urbanisation, universal education and technology.   It’s also worth noting how volunteering has become more formalised and structured – and the emergence of professional standards for management practice.   

When motivation is a matter of self-interest Free Will can still get exercised in selecting an organisation for volunteer effort – though self-interest carries a responsibility to ensure our expectations match the organisation goals and the available volunteer roles.  I would hope recruitment and orientation procedures would help ensure an appropriate match between organisation and aspiring volunteer.   And if the organisation and the volunteer programme offer the best possible experience then further volunteering is encouraged.

So let us not get precious about definitions and the different paths that bring people to volunteering.  Language changes, and the way we think and behave and relate to our environment and in our communities will continue to change over time.