October 6, 2013

Why Managers of Volunteers Love their Work

Posted in Leadership, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 2:54 am by Sue Hine

thinking-out-loud-banner[1]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.

  1. 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?

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi Sue! Ah, the big obvious is so hard to dissect when we are in the middle of it. Should we poll volunteers and study their responses? Should we ask corporate experts to sit down with in-the-trenches volunteer managers? We need to challenge someone to help us find out the specifics of volunteer management or else administrators of the organizations we serve will continue to believe that managing volunteers is like ordering a pizza.

    Like

  2. Sue Hine said,

    You mean ‘people skills’ and managing volunteers are as simple as a template for mass-produced pizza?? !!

    Like


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