March 23, 2014
How do we perceive volunteering? Let me count the ways that people present requests for volunteer help and to offer volunteer time:
- Can you find a volunteer to clean up after staff meetings?
- We’d like to place volunteers with you for 15 to 30 hours per week for work experience.
- This care-giving service agency is being cut back and we’d like your organisation to provide volunteers to do this work.
- Please can you find volunteers to clean out this house, because commercial cleaners refuse to do it.
- I’ve got a couple of hours to fill in each week, I don’t mind what I do. What’s that? (Indignant tone) I don’t need any training or induction, I’ve got experience. I thought you’d welcome some extra help.
- We’ve got a team of volunteers ready to help, anything you need, for tomorrow
- There’s a fundraising event this weekend – we need several teams of volunteers
These requests and offers can come from internal staff or external agencies and individuals. Each statement offers different assumptions about volunteers and volunteering. Volunteers are menial hand-maidens, suitable for domestic work; organisations are desperate for volunteer help; and volunteers are readily available at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it is evident that when contracts are cut back volunteers from another organisation are expected to step up to roles that were formerly undertaken by paid staff. The eye of many a beholder reflects mistaken perceptions of volunteering.
Of course managers of volunteers are renowned for their flexibility and creative innovation when it comes to engaging and placement of volunteers. And some of the list above may not be out of tune with regular practice. More often I am seeing a mismatch between perception and the reality of 21st century volunteering.
Fifty years ago anybody who raised a hand to volunteer would be welcome. Fifty years ago there were always willing working bees turning out to fix up premises, clear a section, do a paint job or run a fundraising event. Regular cake stalls did the trick to pay for rented space and supplies. Fifty years ago there were no interviewing, training or police checks. Fifty years ago groups of volunteers were available even at short notice. There was little recognition of a volunteer sector: organisations were lumped together as ‘voluntary associations’.
This kind of volunteering has not gone away. Spontaneous volunteers appear in great numbers during disaster emergencies: nobody is asked, they all come to help, to look out for each other in times of need. People still gather in groups for a cause, an idea, to create a community garden or for a new community development initiative.
It’s the organisations that have changed, and formal volunteering for service provision has become one end of a long continuum covering the donation of freely given time.
Formalised volunteering is accompanied by obligations, regulations, recording, reporting and measuring. Volunteering has its own international and political associations. If volunteers are not counted as professional, their managers surely own to professional status. Volunteering in this context is big business.
There’s a set of rules now, except the rules of engagement can vary, depending on the organisation’s purpose, in-house structure and level of activity. No wonder there is confusion. No wonder managers of volunteers are pressed to explain over and over why they cannot meet the requests that fall outside designated programmes and responsibilities.
What to do?
Here’s my list of priorities:
- A clear statement on why volunteers are involved in the organisation, indicating what roles volunteers undertake
- A fully-developed policy on the volunteering programme
- Orientation for all paid staff includes time with the manager of volunteers
- Full information about the volunteering programme on the organisation’s website
- Spend time advising details of the volunteer programme to related agencies (Volunteer Centres, funders and corporate sponsors)
There are no guarantees these suggestions will change perceptions of volunteering overnight. But raising levels of understanding of volunteering under 21st century conditions will mean fewer inappropriate requests for volunteers.
March 16, 2014
News media are regularly reporting leaks of information, not always on the scale of an Assange or a Snowden. This past week an Auckland institution has had some of its domestic linen waved around in public. The Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) has been around for more than 50 years. It was started by volunteers and continues to be supported by volunteers who work on restoration and maintenance of exhibits as well as hosting visitors. Auckland ratepayers contribute $12 million in annual funding. There is also a history of troubled relationships between the founding Motat Society and the museum’s governance. This time the headline reads:
The deputy board chairman at Motat has resigned and 20 volunteers have walked out as troubles grow deeper at the country’s largest transport museum.
The walk-out is related to a confidential review tabled two years ago which has now been leaked, revealing the museum is in crisis, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘childish’, facing irrelevance and closing if there is no change in direction. These words are pretty damning, even though a new strategic vision is about to be launched.
Organisation change is difficult at the best of times and needs careful management. Motat’s director recognises “Not everyone will want to come on this journey. Some will be threatened by it. You get an element of disaffection or insecurity that comes out of change. There are some people who will feel exposed.”
I don’t know details of volunteer dissension at Motat, but I do know how long-standing volunteers can feel they own their work and the organisation as an intimate part of their life. And I’ve lived through enough organisational change to know how uncomfortable it can be for employees as well as volunteers.
Well, here’s a story that illustrates organisation change and a less-than-disastrous outcome:
There’s an Op Shop that’s been operating for years, a social enterprise and excellent source of funding for a well-known national organisation. A new manager is appointed. She’s got business experience and nous for the industry of second-hand, pre-loved, re-cycled goods. “We’ve got to up our game”, she says to the volunteer staff. “We need better displays of our goods and we need to offer excellent customer service. We’ve got to be up-to-the-minute with our marketing because there is lots of competition out there.” She adds “Our organisation is looking to us to increase the funding base so we can maintain services to clients.
A development plan is presented for discussion. “Have your say”, invites the manager.
Of course there is much mumbling and grumbling among the volunteers. “You can’t do that”, one says, “It won’t work”. Another says “We’ve always done it this way and your way doesn’t look any better”. There is a tide of objections and opposition.
A bunch of volunteers resign, saying they cannot work with the new manager and certainly not with her new-fangled ideas. That’s the price of organisation change, though at least there are no redundancy payments for volunteers. Yes, there may have been some negative tattling in the community, but no newspaper headlines exposed dissension in the ranks of volunteers.
The manager gets on with introducing the changes, engaging volunteers in each step of the way, providing extra training if warranted. New volunteers come knocking at the door when they hear about new opportunities. Customer count rises, drawn to attractive window displays, and word-of-mouth conversations about helpful volunteer staff. And of course the ultimate goal of increased income is a monthly cause for celebration.
And then, in ones and twos, and then more – the old volunteers start to return. They are impressed with what they see and they hear good things about the new manager – how she listens to volunteers and is willing to try out their suggestions. They do not ask for their old jobs back: they want to give the organisation another go, to join what looks like a fun place to work. And they miss the social camaraderie that goes with the job.
This story is not a fiction, though I have embroidered the details. It does not describe change of the magnitude Motat is likely to be looking at, nor does it give assurance that Motat volunteers will accept the changes ahead of them. But it does tell me that even if you lose some in the process of change, you can also win them back.
For more on long-term volunteers see this Thoughtful Thursdays blog and discussion.
March 9, 2014
Whenever I hear the sad tale of a manager of volunteers who is wrung out by overwork and lack of support, who is under-appreciated and sometimes un-noticed, I get reminded of that old folk tale that turns up in every generation as a child’s reader. You know the story: how the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat, asks the farmyard animals to help plant it and when they refuse she says “Then I’ll do it myself”.
(If you have forgotten the tale, see this beautifully illustrated version.)
What I hear in my mind is not the moral of caring and sharing and helping each other. I hear the tone of the Little Red Hen as she says “Then I’ll do it myself”, repeated at each stage of the growing and harvesting of wheat. I can see her puffing up her chest, giving a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, and her tone of voice is one of martyred self-righteousness.
I’m sure that is not how a manager of volunteers reacts, though some may feel like it. So let me tell another version of the LRH story to see how life could be turned around for those who are over-burdened…..
LRH sighs when yet another task lands on her* desk. Maybe there is something here that would interest volunteers. She asks around, but there are no takers. Not this week please; not really my thing; I want to stick with what I’m doing; sounds interesting, hope you find someone: these replies make LRH even more depressed.
Enter Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who waves a wand and says: “Let’s look at this job you’ve got to do – or think about your current tasks that could be handed over to a volunteer. What’s involved – tasks, time, responsibilities, skills required? Let’s work up a job description and see if there is an existing volunteer who might fit the bill. If not where could we go to find one? You’ve got to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, not send out vague messages about needing help.”
LRH protests: “That takes time, and then I have to do a screening and orientation and training and monitor what the volunteer does on the job, and I’m tired and I just don’t have the energy”. FG has to do some straight-talking about excuses that mean nothing will ever change, and trusting volunteers to do a good job. “I mean”, says FG with a rather intense stare, “what’s the point of running a volunteer programme if you have to keep such a tight hold on the reins?”
LRH buckles under the charm of FG and before long she has engaged the volunteer of her dreams: enthusiastic, willing, skilled in all the right places, and experienced. “You just need to know how to make time and see new possibilities” she tells her peer support group.
She’s fired up now. She devolves to volunteers responsibility for a lot of daily administration, managing social media posts, collating items for a newsletter, even gets a volunteer on the organisation’s Health & Safety Committee where they get to meet and participate with paid staff. Soon she is going to find a volunteer competent enough to interview new recruits.
LRH is not so much a manager now, pulling all the strings to her tune. She’s a leader, supporting and nurturing her team to be the best volunteers they can be. And they are. They love their work; they are sharing in the creation and development of the volunteer programme, and even better, demonstrating to the wider organisation what powerful contributions volunteers can make to its mission.
No longer does LRH get excuses when she invites a volunteer to take on a new role. She has turned around from potential burn-out, and no longer has to puff up her chest, give a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, or say in a tone of martyred self-righteousness “Then I’ll do it myself”. And when it comes time to eat the loaf of bread, the fruit of all her efforts, she does not do that alone in the time-honoured ending of the folk tale. Instead she holds a joyous celebration for all volunteers who have shared in the undertaking.
* Yes, I know a hen is always female, and yes, I know there are many men who manage volunteers – so please take this narration as gender-neutral.
March 2, 2014
I’ve written quite a lot about definitions and meanings of ‘volunteering’ over my blogging years. And I have to keep thinking about questions of ‘who is a volunteer’ as the word’s connotations expand to embrace corporate volunteering, internships and community service. Now I have been snared yet again into debating with myself about the work I have been doing this week.
For the past few days I have been helping my daughter get her house in order for putting it up for sale. She did not ask for my help: I offered. I did not receive any monetary payment. I gave my time freely without expectations of reward. I gained enormous satisfaction from cleaning up the garden and washing windows, and seeing the improvements I achieved. And I toned up a lot of muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I got lots of hugs of appreciation. I would volunteer likewise for friends and neighbours too. And I have done the same sort of work when engaged as a volunteer for an organisation supporting new settlers in my community.
By many accounts, what I have described fits generally accepted criteria for ‘volunteering’ – except when I go looking, I find variations in definitions and additional conditions to determine the use of ‘volunteer’.
Volunteering England would exclude my efforts to help my daughter from definitions of volunteering. It’s ‘informal volunteering’, which extends to all such unpaid help to someone who is not a relative.
So I need to understand there is a distinction between being a ‘helper’ and a ‘volunteer’, and a formal / informal dichotomy of volunteering, even when I am doing the same sort of work.
Volunteering Australia goes further, in restricting ‘formal’ volunteering to an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations, and in designated volunteer positions only. That sounds like a higher status is attached to formal volunteering. Or, that the work I used to do freely and on my own initiative in my local community has become institutionalised as an economic resource, as unpaid labour.
That’s when warning signs light up contradictions. NGO contracts with government rarely include funding for the costs of volunteer programmes, like a manager’s salary or reimbursement for volunteer out-of-pocket expenses. Neither does ‘formal volunteering’ guarantee recognition and status for volunteers and the manager of the volunteer programme within the organisation.
In the meantime my informal volunteering continues to go un-noticed and uncounted. A colleague reminded me of the words ‘natural support’ to describe all that child-rearing, house-keeping, befriending, good neighbourliness that goes on and on in our communities. So if all that volunteering is ‘natural’, does that mean there is something ‘unnatural’ about formal volunteering? That might sound flippant, but I have to ask the question.
One place where volunteering is not designated formal or informal is the data collected during a Census. In New Zealand we are asked to record details about ‘unpaid work’, those activities performed in the four weeks before the census date, without payment, for people living either in the same household, or outside. Statistics NZ describe volunteering as:
“Voluntary work supports groups and organisations whose activities contribute to social well-being. Volunteers give their time and skills to help others and give back to their community.”
Maybe this description is too simplistic for purists. Yet the concept of ‘unpaid work’ enables an overall account of the scope of freely given activity in our communities wherever and however it occurs. ‘Formal volunteering’ is a label that has evolved with the growth of the NGO sector. It is a pity that institutional understanding and appreciation of volunteering and its management within organisations has not grown with the label.
Some years ago Andy Fryar raised similar questions about definitions of volunteering:
- Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
- Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?
These questions are not so silly, and there are no easy or even silly answers. We are continually tripped by meanings attached to different types of volunteer involvement. It’s worth having a look at Volunteering Vocabulary (see inset p5) to see how many ways there are to use ‘volunteer’.
‘Volunteering’ is a word that has grown in use and expanded in meaning alongside social, political and economic change in our communities. To confine ‘freely given time, skills and energy for the common good’ within the boundaries of a rigid definition could restrict our willingness to give so freely.