September 29, 2013
In just four weeks International Volunteer Managers Day will be all happening. Volunteer Wellington will kick off the day with their usual fun-filled breakfast event, and Volunteering New Zealand is into the act already with their promotional material.
The international theme of Connecting and Inspiring is illustrated in this banner and whakatauki. Here is the inspiration to practice the art of the possible.
Why should we have a special international day? Take a look at what the International Committee says:
We celebrate the profession of volunteer leadership because:
1. Volunteer Managers have the skills and knowledge to help people be part of the solution in meeting community needs. Even in cynical times, they practice the art of the possible.
2. Volunteer Managers change lives — both the lives of volunteers themselves and of those served by well-led volunteers. It is a life-changing profession. Volunteer managers provide the leadership and direction that allows people to build a good and just society and to mend the social fabric. Without professional leadership, people’s time, talents and efforts could be wasted.
3. A well-run volunteer program shows the community, including potential donors, that the organization is not afraid of public scrutiny and involvement and endeavors to make the most efficient use of monetary assets.
4. Well-led volunteers become an advocacy and public relations force for an agency or program — a force no amount of money could buy.
What can you do to celebrate your profession? It’s pretty hard to pat yourself on the back: somehow the shoulder joint won’t oblige properly. Much nicer if other people would come along and do it for you, showing how they respect and value the work you do. But take a leaf out of an activist’s book and do some creative promotion. Here are some ideas:
- Be not-so-subtle by taking copies of this post (or somesuch) to distribute round your organisation so they get to diary this celebration.
- Get volunteers on your side to do some trumpeting.
- Invite a staff member to give a few hours to shadowing your daily routine, so they can learn more of your work and the skills required in the job.
- Put up a message on Facebook, or even a video.
- Call up your network of colleagues to collaborate on some event planning.
- Connect with community radio and newspapers to get an interview. Or at least send them a press release.
- On the day, e-mail a jaunty message round the organisation: Do you know what today is, and why it is important?
- It’s not too late to enter the AAMoV Volunteer Manager Award for Excellence. Be quick: closing date is now October 11. Besides the individual award there is also a new team award to recognise a team or group of volunteer managers who have worked together on a programme or special project.
Go, Managers of Volunteers!
September 22, 2013
Here’s a title that just has to be grabbed off the shelf. And it turns into a read that clears out the attics of conventional thinking on volunteer programmes and the practice of managing volunteers. It’s talking big picture stuff, the whole sociology and philosophy of community association and relations with government and business interests. And you can’t do that without thinking and arguing politics.
For Eliasoph, a professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, the starting point is the relationship between democracy and the business of ‘civic associations’ and ‘civic engagement’. Democracy, taking a simple definition, is a way to organise civic associations in which each member has a say (civic engagement). These terms embrace ‘volunteering’ and ‘activism’ which are placed on a continuum. We volunteer to fill a need in the community, and then get to asking why this need exists and what we can do to change the circumstances. Think Disability Rights, and the way we now take for granted accessible buildings and kneeling buses and inclusive education – these changes happened through ‘politicising’ the issues: the advocates became activists. I am reminded too of the feminist slogan: ‘the personal is the political’.
So I need no convincing of the connection between volunteering and activism that leads to social change, even though I recognise the distance between a once-a-month volunteer assignment to help at the local drop-in centre and the activist practice of civil disobedience.
Eliasoph offers plenty of examples to illustrate the harm organisations and volunteers can do, as well as the good. Bottom-of-the-cliff band aids on social blights and individual distress do not create social change. It takes time and energy and hard work to launch and run a campaign, and success might be years ahead. Trouble is, we know well how inequality of income and opportunity can shrivel that ability to have a say and to speak out, and to become an active volunteer.
Which lead us to connections and relations between Civic Association, the Market and Government. Here are a couple of choice quotes from the book:
The willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom’s greatest safeguards. It ensures that caring remains free from political control. (Margaret Thatcher, 1981)
Government funding ‘contaminates’ volunteering. (US non-profit executive, 1970s)
It is assumed that enlisting voluntary associations to solve social problems is morally better, of better quality and better for the whole society. The argument for state de-regulation of the economy comes in here: less government will mean both more vibrant associations and a better economy. Neo-liberal ideas that deem the market and people’s rational choices will show us what organisations are worth supporting. Oh dear – tell that to organisations struggling to stay afloat, and show me the evidence that volunteers will take up the slack when the state shifts responsibilities and out-sources social services.
When the balance between civic, state and market forces gets out of whack activists will demonstrate their opposition, as the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring events have shown. At another level non-profit organisations can run lively campaigns for fundraising or to highlight a local issue – much as community organisers operated in the 1960s. Enter, warns Eliasoph, the impact of social inequality. Instead of ‘grass roots’ activism we get elite ‘Astroturfs’ in which wealthy corporations and individuals spend money to produce the appearance of grass roots movements. Examples include international environmental campaigns and big business PR under the guise of corporate social responsibility in their sponsorship of civic associations.
In an unequal playing field non-elites are less likely to participate in civic associations, voting and other public affairs. Inequality spawns powerlessness; it is difficult to dig oneself out of apathy, to find a place to give voice to complaints and ideas, and to be articulate in doing so. Ways to open up civic participation range from consensus-based groups to internet activism and ‘participatory democracy forums’. Hmmm – the latter, which I know as ‘consultation’, have been more like organisers paying lip-service to public interest rather than genuine public inclusion and influence on decision-making.
The book makes only one reference to ‘volunteer programmes’ and there is no mention of ‘volunteer management’. Yet it is not difficult to recognise the everyday politics in volunteering and the work of managers of volunteers. Nor can non-profit organisations stand outside politics when confronted by expectations and contract conditions set by philanthropists and governments. By aligning democracy with civic associations, with volunteering and activism, Eliasoph is reminding us how volunteering is part of a much wider endeavour.
Eliasoph, Nina. (2013) The Politics of Volunteering. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
September 15, 2013
An excerpt from a NFP newsletter dropped into my inbox recently. The headline read We are not Volunteers. The author preferred the term unpaid appointees on the basis that such people were ‘nominated’ by community organisations, rather than ‘putting up their hands’ to volunteer. In all other respects these unpaid appointees followed standard volunteer programme practices in being interviewed, attending a training programme and orientation. On completion of all this they were gazetted and sworn in to undertake their roles as Justices of the Peace. That was the bit that put them beyond being called volunteers.
Oh dear – here we go again on the definitions and principles of volunteering.
Are volunteers for emergency services, for surf life-saving and fisheries protection to be deemed a different category from JPs?
What about the work-for-the-dole programmes, and community sentencing? That’s ‘compulsory’ work for nothing, people say, not volunteering!
When I give my time and accept tickets for a concert in return is that volunteering, or incentivised something? Time-Banking raises another curly question: for all its popularity it’s more about exchanging services, a trading arrangement, isn’t it?
Then there’s the business of ‘informal volunteering’, being a family care giver for aged or disabled people, or being a good neighbour. This sort of volunteering simply goes under the radar, uncounted and unrecognised. But it is suggested that foster care, which is paid, could be termed volunteering under a ‘moral contract’.
And even if organisations involved in advocacy and activism are not eligible for charitable status, their workforce embodies significant volunteer commitment.
Some of these instances were debated in a panel discussion on the scope and definition of volunteering at the recent Australian National Conference on Volunteering. Opinions diverged of course, but there was a point of agreement on the way forward:
Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering is the outstanding challenge
This undervaluing of volunteering is evident in both NFP and Government sectors, said the CEO of Volunteering South Australia/Northern Territory. Recent research in New Zealand drew similar conclusions. It does not take much to see the flow-on effect in low respect and appreciation for the work of managers of volunteers.
So debate and discussion on what constitutes volunteering is a very big red herring. The real issue here is finding a voice that speaks out about the value of volunteering, and I don’t mean in economic terms. Volunteering is a force to be reckoned with, and we owe it to volunteers and our communities to demonstrate why and how.
The collective “We” includes organisations and their leaders, the movers and shakers in our communities, and managers of volunteers. By creating alliances and developing collaboration we will find a unified voice, telling the story of volunteers and volunteering like it is.
There’s encouragement to be found in the latest Thoughtful Thursdays posting. Susan Ellis acknowledges the busyness of managers of volunteers and reviews some reasons why we do not speak out. The real challenge is to find ways to present volunteering as a vital part of civil society, within organisations as well as in the wider community.
September 8, 2013
Yes, that’s what you do. That’s the big task for a manager of volunteers. Advocating for volunteers they call it, every day, all the time. Being the go-between, riding the boundary between paid staff and the freely-given time of willing volunteers, negotiating your way inside the strata and up and down the silos of the organisation.
You can do it in the nicest possible way. You can find ways to be creative in the roles for volunteers. You can get stroppy and assertive and pushy. You might get devious and just go your own way with volunteers. Or end up with a battered brow.
When a body gets crushed into a corner, when nobody wants to know the value of volunteer work and their contribution to the organisation, and when your efforts to make a real difference to the volunteer programme are ignored – what’s there to do except give up, resign, go somewhere else?
I have become a broken record over the past couple of years, bleating on about best practice and promoting a volunteer programme, resources available for managers of volunteers, a survival kit, professional development and what volunteers appreciate. I have repeated a mantra learned from experience many years ago: If you do not take care of yourself you cannot look after others.
Here is a shorthand version of survival strategies:
- Identify allies within the organisation and build good relationships
- Work up a supportive network in the community
- Look at what Volunteer Centres can offer
- Find a mentor or mentoring group you can join, or take up formal supervision
- Identify learning needs and go find appropriate training
All of this is saying You do not have to go it alone.
And do not live in hope everything will get better in time. The time to take action is when the niggles and doubts begin, not months down the track when you have lost all enthusiasm for the job. Work up an action plan for change, and do it!
September 1, 2013
In yet another week of hearing tales of managers of volunteers under stress, close to burn-out and writing letters of resignation I have to raise my voice again. I shall talk a bit louder this time in yet another effort to get the messages through, this time to paid staff and executives.
I should not have to do this. All that is needed is a copy of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteering-Involving Organisations. It offers a very good steer on what is good practice and why good practice is important for the whole organisation.
Volunteering doesn’t happen in a vacuum; volunteers and managers of volunteers are part of the wider unit that is the organisation. Contributions of volunteers, and from those responsible for volunteers, enable the organisation to achieve its goals.
Here’s the best practice rubric:
The whole organisation works to involve and recognise volunteers.
And here is why it is important:
- Because it is not OK when staff treat volunteers as unskilled amateurs and fail to engage with them in their work.
- Because it is not OK when staff fail to understand why volunteers are involved and how the organisation benefits.
- Because it’s not OK when staff ignore the knowledge and experience of the manager of volunteers and the extent of the role.
- Because it’s not OK when the manager of volunteers is not treated as a professional equal.
- Because it’s not OK when the funds allocated for volunteers are not sufficient to cover programme costs.
- Because it’s not OK when the manager of volunteers is not encouraged and supported to seek professional development.
- Because it’s not OK to employ a person to fulfil a job description that can’t possibly be accomplished by one person in the allotted paid hours.
- Because it is not OK, ever, to fail in ethical responsibilities for a ‘duty of care’ towards an employee and their well-being in the workplace.
This litany is strongly-worded, yet each clause indicates where change and improvements can be made. And it’s these conditions that the Guidelines have been designed to change. I acknowledge the 12 – 18 month turnover of volunteer management positions is not universal. But when it is happening then it is hugely damaging to (1) the volunteer programme, in loss of leadership and direct oversight and support for volunteers; (2) the organisation, in recruitment costs and operational interruptions; and (3) the organisation’s reputation in the community, possibly jeopardising funding sources. There will be an impact on volunteers too – resignations and retirements, and recruiting replacement volunteers adds another burden to a new manager of volunteers.
So please, turn some attention to what is happening to volunteers and their management in your organisation. Make sure the manager of volunteers feels competent and supported in the role. Begin to know and understand the nature of volunteering and to truly value what volunteers bring to and do for your organisation. Without that appreciation you do not deserve them.
There is a flip-side of course. Why can’t managers of volunteers speak out for themselves? Why can’t they take action on their grievances before it gets to the stage of walking away from the problems? Answering these questions is a story for another time.