March 16, 2014

Volunteers, and Organisation Change

Posted in Good news stories, Leading Volunteers, Managing Change tagged , , , , at 1:49 am by Sue Hine

????????????????????????????????????????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:

Motat boss quits as volunteers walk out

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.

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