November 3, 2013

The Adventurous Manager of Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , at 3:27 am by Sue Hine

new_zealand-bungy_jumping[1]Taking a leap, despite a safety harness and all the instruction is always a risk.  But look how much fun it could be, what a different perspective to be gained, and how one achievement could lead to new adventures.

Taking tips from the business world could be another version of bungy-jumping for managers of volunteers – a leap of faith beyond experience.  I’m taking tips from a former corporate chief executive this week, ideas that can apply equally well to community organisations and the practice of managing volunteers.  Here are some quotes from a recent newspaper interview.

“I suspect many smaller companies hit a barrier, where they can’t unlock that next phase of potential growth. They can’t get past that ‘Kiwi-ness’ and they can’t get past the founder who wants to be part of everything and can’t let go.”

Well maybe we are not all into business growth and export markets, but keeping our organisation alive and flourishing is important.  So configuring a strategic plan that strengthens what we do well is important.  Take a visionary look into future development for the volunteering programme, cultivate the art of the possible.  That means responding to trends in volunteering, population change and social change, and being alert to shifts in political winds.  We cannot rely on the same-old ways forever.

 “I like to be accessible.”

This ex-CE was head of around 11,000 staff.  There are no reports on how many employees got to meet him, but he built a reputation for being communicative and approachable.  That’s how managers of volunteers like to see themselves.  So best practice will include an open-door policy, regular communication through a variety of media, and being responsive to emails and telephone messages.   Those leadership and people skills really do matter.

What is needed is a leadership mentality based on risk-taking, innovation and “disruptive change”.  Too often management gives employees “permission to fail”. Too many New Zealand organisations have a fear of failure in innovation. It’s human. I always said: ‘It’s much better to get out and try new ways of serving customers and to stuff up, than to do everything right’.

There’s a challenge for organisations and managers of volunteers!  Sometimes it feels like we have become so risk-averse we dare not step outside a safety zone.  We hesitate at pushing boundaries, seizing opportunities and creating innovative services.  We have lost the crusading zeal that established many a community organisation and community services.  Do we really fear failure and stuff-ups, or is it the fear of losing funding and service delivery contracts that matters most?

‘Push for change. We need to make more mistakes, because from them we learn so much about what particular customers value’.

Of course!  Making mistakes is the best teacher in managing volunteers, as in life.  So be honest, acknowledge the error, apologise, and rectify.  And move on.

And if you are thinking this is all too much, take courage from recent UK postings.  Be an adventurous manager of volunteers.  Go bungy-jumping.

And don’t forget to make November 5 Your Day!


  1. Carthage said,

    Bungy jumping is an excellent metaphor. I remember when I did my first jump of the Auckland harbour bridge. I was petrified and I had so many negative thoughts going through my mind. I was about to back out when I heard a lot of cheering from a group who were walking the bridge. The cheering distracted me long enough to clear my mind of all other thoughts. I then committed to the jump and took the plunge. So many of my self-limitations were shattered that day.

    In management, every situation is different. You just have to decide what you think is the best course of action, clear your mind of everything else and take the plunge. It pays to remember that unlike bungee jumping, if it doesn’t work out, you get to try something different.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your story Carthage, reminding us not to be bound by self-imposed limitations.


  2. The philosophy of the organization I work for centers around volunteering, in fact 100% of the employees volunteer. I have seen it unlock tremendous potential in people I would have never otherwise have seen in the work place. Employees love working here because of the culture, it’s just awesome!


  3. Great post Sue! Volunteers and volunteer managers have great ideas that often sit idly due to the fear of reprimand. I’ve always found that bringing an idea already shown to work gets quick approval. Go with your gut instincts and take a chance and adopt the motto, “Proceed Until Apprehended!”


    • Sue Hine said,

      Love it! Yes, try it, then they’ll buy it. Thanks Meridian.


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