October 27, 2013
News headlines this week have not been pretty stories. Blue Mountain country in New South Wales (Australia) has been devastated by the worst bush fires in forty-five years. The pictures of a wall of flame are succeeded by burnt-out homes and grieving residents. Acres of bush are laid waste.
The Rural Fire Service has rightly won praise and gratitude for its heroic efforts, working 12-hour shifts and staying overnight in dense bushland when required, snatching a rest when they can. Need I add that most of them are volunteers?
I don’t think I would make a good fireman. I’d have to get really fit, do hard yards at training, and wear all that clobber, and work long hours mostly at unfriendly times, cope with emotional and distraught people and be involved in those big disasters that turn up without warning. It’s a big commitment.
Only twice in my volunteering career have I been asked to commit to a minimum length of service. One was for two years, and another for just six months. The latter, in reality, was just time to complete the basic assignment, and it took another two years before it was really done. I’ve no doubt the rationale was to ensure a return from the investment in training and support, and to send a message that this was not a fly-by-night undertaking.
Should we spell out expectations for length of volunteer service?
The stories of loyal and long-serving volunteers are legend. It is not unusual to find people who have been working for the same organisation for twenty-five or thirty years. When people resign within five years it is usually for legitimate reasons: going overseas, relocating to another town, a change of employment, having babies, or a family crisis.
We all know what keeps volunteers keeping on, so my observations suggest we are doing things right: ensure volunteers enjoy a good experience with your organisation and they will stay loyal and enthusiastic. That ‘good experience’ may vary according to organisation mission and the work of the volunteer programme.
Key indicators to maintain volunteer commitment would include:
- Philosophy and policies that integrate volunteers throughout the organisation
- Good relations with staff and senior management
- Strong relationship with the manager of volunteers
- Congruence between personal values and organisation mission and values
- Ongoing communication, in various forms
- Options for skill development
- Recognition and rewards that highlight non-monetary value of volunteer contributions
Now I start thinking about that trend noted over the past couple of years, that preference for time-limited, task-focussed volunteering. Sure, this sort of volunteering has always been available, particularly for fund-raising or events and projects, and a creative manager of volunteers knows how to find ways to engage a skilled volunteer for a few weeks or months.
I am not hearing about increases in turnover of volunteers, but if that should happen – if there is a fall-off in staying power – then prospects could be dire for volunteer programmes based around on-going services and relationships. I can’t imagine a volunteer fireman being taken on for a six month stint. Nor a volunteer for ambulance services, or civil defence. Short-term volunteering would make unviable those programmes that revolve around support relationships and befriending vulnerable people.
Or does the interest in short-term volunteering stem from the rise of practical motivations, like graduate internships, work experience, ‘obligatory’ volunteering and corporate volunteering? Is it attracting a different sort of volunteer from the stayers?
Should I be worried?
October 20, 2013
A respected colleague from a long time ago declared the one trait that is unique to humans is adaptability. Well, circus animals and science show us we do not have this ability on our own. And the whole theory of evolution is based on adapting to the changes in the environment.
These days organisational adaptations are more likely to go by the adage There are no problems, only solutions (attributed to John Lennon, but might have originated from Descartes). In business-speak we don’t talk any more of obstacles in analysing problems: we use words like ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’.
No-one can down-play the demands and challenges of the role of managing volunteers. There are constant stressors of time management, keeping the programme on track, maintaining volunteer loyalty and enthusiasm, and your relationships with them, dealing with the paper work, and, and…. (Fill in your own list of tensions.)
Many of us learn from experience, which can be bruising and sometimes downright harmful. But what if we went out seeking answers to the challenges we face. (See – I’m not using the word ‘problem’ any more.) What if we join with our peers to form a group so we can talk over matters of the moment, and yes, find solutions that would work for us, or for my own particular circumstances.
You can call it peer mentoring, a support group, the MV collective – but the object of sharing information and ideas will be the same. It’s a way of learning a new strategy or ideas to research and to act on. It’s a way to find “a trouble shared is a trouble halved”. It’s a way to learn about refining skills and behaviours. Most of all it is a way of learning without being taught. And even if you prefer one:one supervision or mentoring the process is the same: working through the issues to find your own solutions.
Being professional comes with a responsibility to go on learning, developing knowledge and skills. Supervision or mentoring is one way to do this, in groups or as an individual.
There’s another benefit: you will discover ‘me time’. Having time away from the workplace to reflect on what is happening is not just a brief respite from responding to demands of the job. People who listen with empathy can be refreshing and energising. Reflection is also part of the professional learning process which leads to action.
There is more! Joining with others in your network or community is a means to learn about different organisations, and to open up opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. A collegial community could be just what you need when the going gets tough and a place to report on success and achievements.
October 13, 2013
We are counting down to IVMDay now. Just three weeks to go to the big day on November 5. There are notices about events and functions turning up on Facebook, invitations coming by email, and information broadcast about awards for best practice. All of these are designed of course “to connect and inspire”, our theme for this year.
If you are still wondering what you could organise there’s a comprehensive list on the IMVDay website – something there to encourage everyone to action.
What I am enjoying most in the run-up to the day are the cartoons being fed into our networks. They are reminders of the little things that add up to best practice in managing a volunteer programme, in being professional in our work.
Here are some other examples of the simple things that can help connect and inspire volunteers, and staff:
- Saying Thank You – and you can embroider that a thousand ways: ‘That was a job well done’; ‘I hope you are proud of your achievement’; [to staff] ‘Good to have your support’.
- Knowing volunteers as people who lead other lives outside volunteering. So you will remember to ask about the job interview, the sick pet, the anniversary, the workplace function, the holiday.
- Getting some regular communication going – a newsletter or telephone tree, and even better via social media.
- Or meetings / in-service seminars at intervals determined by the volunteers.
- Checking out volunteer job satisfaction and interest in extending skills or experience.
- Getting feedback from staff: ‘Is this volunteer contribution working for you?’; ‘Are there ways we could extend the service’.
OK – these suggestions are likely to be part of your everyday practice. They are still simple and easy ways to maintain engagement with volunteers: that’s what connecting and inspiring is all about.
But let’s not forget the aim of IVMDay is to recognise how managers of volunteers enhance and enable the spirit of volunteerism – and to thank them, to give them the recognition they deserve. In the events listed on Facebook most are organized by ‘Volunteer Centre’ groups, and no doubt there will be speeches of appreciation, and maybe there will be a few Board Members and even Executives in attendance. I do not see as yet a national not-for-profit or community service organization acknowledging in a tangible way the achievements of the managers of volunteers in all their branches. That would be really ‘connecting and inspiring’ for the organization and their volunteer services.
Now here is a real-life ‘simple thing’ story.
About ten or twelve years ago, before IMVDay got to be part of the calendar in New Zealand, I got invited to join my Chief Executive and two Personal Assistants for lunch at a down-town café. It was Secretaries’ Day you see, a bit like IMVDay, for those people who do extraordinary things to keep an organisation going in day-to-day administration, the vital nuts-and-bolts stuff. I was invited, the CE said, because I was another person on the staff who was often unsung for my work. Well, the good food and a glass of very nice wine were duly appreciated – but what I remember best is the recognition that the work of managing volunteers is a valued and important part of the organisation’s services. And – more importantly – recognition of the non-monetary value volunteers bring to the organisation.
That’s the in-house connection and inspiration I would want for all managers of volunteers and their teams.
October 6, 2013
Ask a group of managers of volunteers what they like most about their job and nine out of ten will say “working with volunteers”. I forget what the tenth person says, because I have started thinking and wondering why and how volunteers make their manager feel so good about their work.
It’s the people thing, isn’t it? Those interpersonal relationships, the people skills. We get to know volunteers in quite intimate ways, which enhances our ability to involve them effectively, to encourage skill development, to help move them to greater performance. It’s a virtuous circle, really.
It’s also a bit soft and mushy. There has to be more than simply being on good terms with each other.
Enlightenment has come to me this week from several different sources.
- Look at the words for Volunteering New Zealand’s whakatauki for IVM Day:
Ma mua ka kete a muri, Those who lead give sight to those who follow;
Ma muri ka ora a mua. Those who follow give life to those who lead.
There’s that mutual benefit of the reciprocal relationship again, a self-reinforcing cycle. There are also imputations of ‘leadership’: leaders enable their followers; they model desired behaviour and practice. And followers affirm their belief in and support for their leaders.
So people who manage volunteer programmes are really leaders. Yes, we know that – but what are the ingredients of leadership?
2. That’s where a recent issue of NZ Listener spotlighting ‘influentials’ offers some leads.
“Today’s complexities demand new forms of leadership and influence across private, public and non-profit spheres.” Great to have the community sector included here, with examples like the Student Army efforts post-Christchurch earthquake. “This is an example of the kind of bottom-up, adaptive influence that can channel the resources and energy of ordinary people with something to contribute, and turn it into effective action that improves lives” (Brad Jackson, co-director of New Zealand Leadership Institute).
Yes, a manager can be influential in the way volunteers achieve effective action, so ‘influence’ is surely one part of a leader’s tool-kit. I am cautious about using this word, however, because ‘influence’ has connotations of that P-word that can produce hugely negative results. But when there is a common cause it is not so difficult to channel ‘the resources and energy of ordinary people’. I know how the common cause also facilitates harnessing the diversity of ages and skills and interests among volunteers.
There is a huge literature on leadership, including masses of research, though not a lot spills into the volunteer management domain. Contemporary thinking appears to be less concerned with individual personality profiles: it’s the ability to take the initiative and responsibility for the purpose of the cause that matters. So the role of the leader is to ensure common interests, shared goals and collective commitment: these drivers have been forever the means for development of community organisations. There is also a shift from individual accountability to mutual accountability, a change from ‘I know best’ to ‘we know how’, says Chris Johnson, Auckland leadership consultant. Leadership becomes Teamwork, as the America’s Cup racing in San Francisco has demonstrated – by both Team New Zealand and Oracle. The role of each team member is integrated into a seamless collaboration.
Yes again: these points will be familiar to managers of volunteers.
However, on the employment front research shows that only about 20% of the average workforce is ‘highly engaged’ – that is, motivated and committed to the organisation’s purpose (according to Johnson). That would never happen in a volunteer programme: if volunteers are not highly engaged they will be walking elsewhere. And there we have a very big distinction between paid staff and volunteers.
Today’s leaders have to trust the people who work for them (Johnson). Again, this is nothing new to managers of volunteers. Trust is probably the biggest attribute in their tool-box, contributing to their positive relationships with volunteers. We know that too, don’t we?
3. Here is affirmation for managers of volunteers, coming from an unexpected quarter:
Volunteering – A Great Way To Learn Real Executive Leadership
Young corporate managers are urged to do volunteer work early in their careers, because the type of leadership at the top is akin to being a leader of volunteers. It is not about carrots and sticks but about persuasion and getting people to grasp and follow your vision. [Emphasis added]
The article acknowledges the challenging environment for managers in volunteer organisations. It refers to ‘permission leadership’, in which managers have to earn the trust and respect of people they are supervising.
Here’s the virtuous circle again. Relationships do matter: leadership (and management) is all about people skills.
So what? I hear people thinking, if not saying. We’ve always known the importance of ‘people skills’, and by extension the precepts of leadership.
I am thinking aloud, you understand, unravelling the obvious, just a little. What is still an open question is the detail in ‘people skills’ and how we get to learn them. Where can I find some answers?