February 23, 2014
Two items referring to volunteering turned up in my news reading this past week. One cast a slur on the meaning of ‘volunteer’ and the other described volunteers as ‘committed staff’.
The bad news story is about a man who drove a pub’s courtesy van and undertook other tasks on request from staff. He was paid $50 per shift, but did not have an employment contract despite repeated requests. The hotel’s new owner decided the man’s services were no longer required and a text message was sent to that effect. However, our man took his case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to claim unpaid wages and compensation for unfair dismissal. The hotel owner argued the man was “just a lonely elderly volunteer”.
To be dismissive of volunteers in this way is enough to start a protest march, a vigil outside the hotel, or a boycott of the pub’s services. Or all three! The protest can be generated on several counts:
- Nobody is ever ‘just a volunteer’
- Not all volunteers are lonely and elderly
- Neither are all older volunteers lonely
- Not to mention demonstrably shoddy HR practice
There is a good ending to this story. The ERA decided our man was a regular on-call casual employee: he was paid regularly for regular work days and he answered to a manager. The dismissal was found to be unjustified and monetary compensation duly awarded.
I am hoping that the hotel’s owner will heed two important messages from this experience. Firstly, volunteer work is not to be taken lightly: it is an honourable commitment that should be valued regardless of age and status. Secondly, and possibly more important, is the fair and professional practice of HR management. Volunteers and paid workers might be simply the labour inputs for a business, but employers need to apply a duty of care to both those resources.
The next story offers much better news. The International Rugby Sevens was hosted in Wellington a couple of weeks ago, an annual party event that has been going on for fifteen years. This year misbehaviour and drunkenness by a small proportion of the crowd got more media attention than New Zealand’s team carrying off another tournament win. Yet the event was still counted a success, attributed to “300 committed staff … the vast majority of them volunteers”. There speaks a manager who understands the parity status of paid employees and volunteers. He adds:
“All of them are dedicated to our values – being passionate about Wellington; delivering excellence (which includes learning from our mistakes) and teamwork.”
There will be many managers of volunteers who can applaud the people they work with for the similar qualities. Wouldn’t it be great if more organisations could proclaim equal status on these grounds for volunteers and their paid staff?
February 16, 2014
Stand up the manager of volunteers who does not have a worry about volunteer recruitment, staff-volunteer relations, establishing a new volunteer role, training and equipment for volunteers, getting funding for recognition events, maintaining database records, writing reports, and making time to check out volunteer satisfaction. OK – perhaps not everything at once, but maybe one or two that are fast turning into Problem Pumpkins. You come slap-bang up against something related to policy or practice you have not thought about. Like: you are all for diversity in recruiting volunteers, but are you open to all comers? Or you encounter that curly organisational infection you wish would go away. Like: how do I turn around the organisation’s view of volunteers as economic saviours for the organisation?
Oh dear, is there no-one to claim they are worry-free? So you are all suffering sleepless nights, chewed-off fingernails, failing to give full attention to volunteers, missing important deadlines? These options are not to be wished on anybody. What to do?
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
Well, that’s not much help when you have to go find the recipe for making lemonade. Better go find your local network of managers of volunteers, the peer support group you belong to or your favourite online group. You ask for some answers, aka solutions. Do not be surprised if people come back smartly to ask What is the lemon?
That’s the trick, you see, getting to look at the lemon on the outside and the inside, to smell that tangy citrus, to taste the acid of the juice on your tongue. Your peers are asking questions, getting you to explain, get into detail, digging to find out why this thing is a lemon. Stick with this process, because you will discover the eureka moment that reveals the recipe for making lemonade. Now you can see how the solution to the problem was there all the time.
No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (Voltaire)
Of course you have to frame the problem to fit with your circumstances. It is not for other people to tell you what it’s like for you. When that lemon fits the frame it’s amazing how clear the picture becomes: you can see what needs to happens, and all you need now is to work out how to get there. You’ve got some ideas, but let’s go ask your peers about possible actions.
Caution: walk away if people start saying ‘If I were you I’d………’, or ‘What you need to do is………..’ Solutions have to fit with your scenario and your style, not according to other people’s quick-fixes.
A Trouble Shared is a Trouble Halved
OK – a proverb is not always a truism. Extended metaphors might be useful illustrations of a process, but you still have to get down to doing something, to deal with the other half of the trouble. Supportive peers will offer suggestions like ‘When I had a similar experience I found this helpful……….’ Someone else might be able to share written material, like a policy or a template. Another person refers you to useful on-line resources.
Enough! Time to return to your desk, to draw up the plan and plot the strategy to deal with this lemon once and for all. Some lemons are larger than others and take time and constant resolve to get them to the done-and-dusted phase. Some lemons need collective action, so your first step might be to find allies for the purpose.
When you report an outcome to the peer group you will also tell them what you have learned from this experience: No-one has to go it alone.
The quote comes from Lennon’s song: Watching the Wheels
February 9, 2014
Ask a reasonable question about why volunteers are involved in non-profit organisations and don’t be surprised if the answer is To Save Money! It’s there in writing as well, in comments about budget constraints which ‘increase reliance on volunteer support’, and in ‘saving on administration costs’.
Annual Reports can include acknowledgement of volunteer numbers and hours contributed translated into monetary value, but rarely any analysis or demonstration of why they are valued and important for the organisation.
This money thing really gets in the way of thinking about volunteers and understanding volunteering.
The people who claim ‘volunteers are priceless’ have not looked at the costs of running a volunteer programme. Somebody should be adding up expenditure on recruitment and training, provision of support and supervision, functions for recognition of volunteer work, and reimbursement of expenses. Hang on, why should we reimburse volunteer expenses? Paid employees don’t get reimbursed for travelling to work, nor their parking fees!
When I hear about organisations saving money by using volunteers I am hearing ‘exploitation’. To ‘use’ volunteers is close to ‘abusing’ their goodwill, and their time and their talents.
If the budget shortfall really means increasing volunteer support what extra work will they do? Taking up jobs that used to be paid? That would mean relaxing some of the current rules that limit volunteer roles like a ban on undertaking personal cares for frail and vulnerable people or the constraints of safety boundaries. And let’s not overlook a potential backlash from worker associations.
What is it that so many people need to understand about volunteering?
For starters, ‘volunteering’ is a modern-day term for an ancient human practice that provided mutual support and protection for the collective group, binding people within their communities. These days we call it ‘Civil Society’, denoting all those activities that bring people together to pursue their mutual interests. Volunteering is noted for its diversity and the wide fields of interests, for large national organisations and small informal and local groups. These days, volunteering is a means for community engagement, for maintaining social relations and stability. Volunteering is also the agency to promote a cause, to bring enlightenment and create change.
So when we get down to organisation level, to the place that employs paid staff, what’s the point of volunteering, if it is not to save money? Here are some pointers to finding an answer:
- At a basic level, volunteer assistance will support staff and enable them to focus on specialist responsibilities.
- Volunteers help to create a positive image of the organisation in the community. As ambassadors they can be a real asset, attracting donors and more volunteers, and being the best-ever marketing agents. (Or, as the worst-ever critics, they could be your biggest liability.)
- Volunteers can bring new insights, energy and time to the organisation. It was probably volunteer enthusiasm and commitment that got it started in the first place. So why not harness that energy to develop and trial new strategies or processes, to push the envelope beyond existing limits. The voluntary sector needs a research and development function as much as manufacturing corporations.
- When volunteers bring a diverse range of skills and experience they enrich the organisation, and help expand community connections which can extend the reach of organisation services.
- At best, volunteers offer added value to the organisation’s vision and contribute to achieving its mission.
These are general points, and will need to be tailored to organisation specifics. More importantly, getting to grips with the real reasons for volunteer involvement will mean you never have to say ‘volunteers are priceless’ or that they save you money. And, you’ll find the words and phrases to give real meaning to volunteering.
February 2, 2014
Volunteers. They are everywhere. You wouldn’t notice them in a crowd. There are no distinctive physical characteristics, nor can they be marked by their age cohort. They are people like you and me, living like you and me in a community, everywhere.
When they are on the job they can be easier to identify, by the badge or the bib or the branded T-shirt, or the full uniform of a volunteer emergency service. Except I can’t remember wearing an ID for any of my volunteer positions, apart from stints of street- collecting, the annual fund-raising event. And that’s the organisation brand being in-your-face, rather than noticing the volunteer giving time and goodwill.
Last weekend I encountered volunteers in two different contexts, and I wasn’t looking at the T-shirt or the name badge. What I noticed before anything else was the quality of their work and their professionalism.
First up is a visit to a scientific and historic reserve, a place for visitors to explore, to get to know native plants and wild-life, and to see how forest restoration is developing. There is no doubt there has been huge growth in the 14 years since I first visited. And all of it started with plantings by volunteers. Now volunteers are involved in maintaining tracks and predator-free status, guiding visitors, and of course in the governance of a charitable trust that oversees management of the reserve. Development here is remarkable for the collaboration between at least three different volunteer organisations and the Department of Conservation.
There are no special IDs for the volunteers we meet. What impresses me is the way they mingle quietly with the visitors, giving us information without being encyclopaedic, helping us understand and appreciate what we are seeing. All friendly and relaxed – just the right touch.
It gets even better when a volunteer invites me and my two young charges to take a look at a special project to establish a breeding colony of Fluttering Shearwater. We get to see the chicks in their burrows, and learn about their care. It’s a big commitment for volunteers: the chicks need to be fed sardine smoothies by syringe, on a daily basis.
The next day we visit an aquarium, a popular place to find and handle local rock pool inhabitants and to view tanks of fish from deeper waters. Volunteers here wear well-labelled T-shirts, and their ages range from teenagers to retirees. Again they are unobtrusive, yet ever ready to answer questions, to show children how to handle the creatures, and tell them something of their life cycle. These volunteers know their stuff too.
The volunteers in these contexts are dedicated enthusiasts for their fields of interest. No doubt newcomers are oriented to responsibilities, and there is a leadership role to ensure organisation protocols are met. It is this autonomous confidence in their role, and enthusiasm for their work, that I would wish all volunteers could experience.