January 26, 2014

In Confidence

Posted in Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism tagged , , , , at 3:14 am by Sue Hine

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In all the on-line chatter between managers of volunteers it seems strange we do not raise ethical issues very often.  Yes we can get hot under the collar about job substitution or whether mandatory service is really volunteering – but I do not recall discussion about privacy and confidentiality or codes of conduct.  It’s like we – and volunteers – have a built-in recognition and sense of ethical responsibility for such matters.

Yet I am quite certain this does not mean volunteers are all perfect and we never have cause to deal with breaches of privacy.

I spent the first half of my life in a small town where my name and pedigree were widely known.  My face was familiar to storekeepers without having to present an ID card.  Youthful indiscretions could be reported to parents before I got home.  Later, my children were bewildered by the number of pauses I made in walking down the street to greet and chat with all the people I knew.  Back then the idea of individual privacy and confidentiality was nothing to worry about.  Why would you, in such an open and inclusive community?

Time passes.  Population increases and urban migration ramp up the pace of living.  Global technology speeds up communication and multiplies the means of interaction – and also the opportunities for information-sharing.  The value of personal privacy is coded into legal rights and protections, and no voluntary agency can afford to be without a privacy policy, which can include reference to personal information held on volunteer databases.  Confidentiality and privacy boundaries will be included in volunteer training.  It’s all about trust and integrity, especially when volunteers are engaged in people support services.  Confidentiality is also important to maintaining the integrity of the organisation and its standing in the community.

But still there are slips of the tongue, sometimes unthinking.  Sometimes there is gossip-mongering.  So what is a manager of volunteers to do?

A story is fed back to me that a couple of volunteers were overheard chatting about their work in the queue at the supermarket.  The volunteers are not identified, and there is no major transgression evident.  I choose to put up a sign in the volunteers’ office:  Loose Lips Sinks Ships, and in the next newsletter I include a reminder of the importance of protecting client privacy.  I can also reinforce this message at a volunteer support meeting.

On another occasion a staff member hears a volunteer in conversation with a service user about another part of her volunteer work, disclosing information about another client’s condition.  When the volunteer is known I say thank goodness for the volunteer code of conduct.   I can remind her of the clause about confidentiality, and about the potential impact of the private information getting back to the client.  It’s not quite a disciplinary matter, and the direct approach is usually sufficient to avoid a repeat.

In an ideal world people would not need to be reminded of this ‘duty of care’.  We would know the limits of what to share, with whom and how.  Even better, we can learn to say quite firmly We shouldn’t be talking about this, or Hey, that information is private.  And when I say I can’t tell you – it would be breaching the Privacy Act, I am sending a clear reminder of the rules we need to follow.

And then you will point out the paradox.  In the world of journalism and internet social media there are no boundaries.  We chase the gossip about celebrities and crave the latest details of personal and public tragedies.  Social media offer a platform for disclosing personal information and sharing it widely.  My small town village pump gossip has not gone away – it’s gone global, along with inherent risks of abuse.

Yet privacy law remains a benchmark for organisations, their staff and volunteers.  Personal information is given by the individual; it is held for organisation purposes; and disclosure elsewhere needs individual permission.   Let’s keep it that way, as a principle of our professional ethics.

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January 18, 2014

Unseasonable Doubt

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , , at 10:43 pm by Sue Hine

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On New Year’s Day 2014 I was far from windy and wet Wellington.  Beachcombing on a wide bay under a hot sun was just the tonic to clear the head.

I had a few things to sort out about developments in volunteering, social services and the community sector.

I have been mightily impressed with the promotion of volunteering during the past year.  The work of Volunteering New Zealand for National Volunteer Week (June) and the International Days in November and December was truly encouraging.  The model of NGO partnership between Volunteering New Zealand, ANGOA and Social Development Partners is one to follow for other organisations, for economies of scale if nothing else.  I would like to think such a partnership will enhance the status and influence of the community sector on political decision-making.  I also noted how managers of volunteers got to find greater confidence in undertaking their roles, and the value of meeting and learning from each other – the VNZ Conference in November was testimony to that.

But the devil in my mind is in a bigger picture, not the detail.

The growth and status of NGOs                After thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and devolution of government I should not be surprised to find organisations tending to act like corporate businesses.  Of course they needed to lift their game, to become more businesslike in governance and financial management and to comply with all the regulations that filtered through government contracts and obligations to philanthropic funding.  Of course time and changing social conditions can alter an organisation’s focus on its mission and vision.  But the trend to seek sponsors and partnership arrangements with private sector business, and the rise and rise of corporate employee volunteering is another dimension that risks turning NGOs into ‘subsidiary businesses’.

Three matters of concern arise from this trend.

Ongoing lack of understanding about volunteering  The commercial and consumerist world has trouble accommodating the idea and practice of time, skill and effort given freely for the benefit of others.  We get platitudes of appreciation, not genuine understanding.  It seems the wealth of volunteer action cannot be counted therefore it must be of little value.  Which explains why so many managers of volunteers remain poorly paid and of low status, while fundraising and marketing personnel are the rising stars.  The resulting outcome is to find pursuit of sustainable funding sources taking priority over connections with the communities organisations purport to serve.

Volunteering is a utilitarian tool  Volunteers have all sorts of reasons to volunteer, and it’s good to be open about wanting work experience, social interaction, practice in speaking English, to be job-seeking or doing court-ordered community service.  Altruism has always involved a reciprocal benefit, even if it was a simple feel-good factor.  But we are close to perceiving volunteering as an asset to be exploited, to be traded like any other commodity.

Two-tiered non-profit sector  All this business development for NGOs has led to overlooking what is happening in the rest of the sector.  We should not need to be reminded there are thousands of not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) keeping communities keeping on mostly without the benefit of government contracts and philanthropists’ largesse.  Outspoken concern from writers, researchers and commentators on poverty and inequality during the past year has highlighted the distance between government rhetoric and social reality in many parts of our communities.  The words ‘democratic disconnect’ resonate, emphasising voter apathy and a populace focussed more on survival needs than on gathering people power.  ‘Democratic deficit’ highlights government opposition to criticism and a lack of real consultation which pressures NGOs into silence for fear of jeopardising their funding arrangements.

So where does all this leave managers of volunteers?  In the spirit of New Year optimism I think there are heaps of indicators for a positive future.  The role of managing volunteers might have emerged in concert with the growth of NGOs and the sector, yet over the last ten years the profession has made huge strides in defining the role and articulating best practice.  Technology and the internet have fostered global and local communication.  There are opportunities for training and development.  There is an established sense of identity and collegial fraternity among practitioners which extends to supporting people new to the role.

The challenge for now will be to protect volunteer programmes from the encroachments of utilitarian managerialism, to maintain that spirit of volunteering we have taken as an article of faith for generations.  Or shall we accept a radical shift in our ideology and go with the flow of larger interests?