May 25, 2014
From time to time over past decades flags have been waved about professionalism in managers of volunteers. Country-wide and regional associations to promote the profession have been founded, and foundered. Certification and credentials and National Standards have struggled to gain a foothold. In New Zealand we have developed Best Practice Guidelines, and a Competency pathway, as a means to support managers of volunteers and to gain recognition of their roles. Now UK’s Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is generating a renewed discussion on professionalism. Here’s an opening paragraph on the context for the arguments:
Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.
More recent presentations have covered a case for a Code of Practice; distinctions between a job, an occupation and a profession; and some of the questions and risks that need to be discussed.
I have been down this road before. Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in debates about registration for social workers in New Zealand. University level programmes had been going for some years, offering academic credentials; a national association was active with newsletters and a quarterly journal. But the arguments on professionalising were about competence and performance appraisal. (I’ve still got the documents, typed in Courier font before the days of computers.) For social workers in government welfare agencies there were statutory responsibilities to worry about; in the health sector social workers were more concerned with raising their status to the level of other Allied Health professionals. Compared with the current position of management of volunteers, social work at this time was streets ahead in developing professional credibility.
I bowed out of the debate, gave up membership of the association, and have never submitted to assessment for registration – in part because I moved to some different fields of work, rather as managers of volunteers will do. Mostly I gave up because being professional was far more important to me than professionalisation.
Professionalisation is a formal process to gain status and credentials, to ensure standards of practice can be maintained. Trouble is, elements of exclusiveness can creep in, and it would be mighty difficult to establish a comprehensive code of practice that would cover all contexts that engage managers of volunteers. See here for an outline of potential consequences of this form of professionalisation. As we have been saying in New Zealand for several years, one size does not fit all.
Being professional, on the other hand, is about demonstrating a set of beliefs and values in behaviour. That’s why the art of managing volunteers includes such emphasis on communication and relationships with volunteers, paid staff and management, with the wider community, and in support and appreciation and recognition of volunteer work. That’s why we work hard at advocating for volunteers and volunteering – and there’s an art in doing that effectively too. Being professional connotes the integrity of our work, a wholeness that comes from articulating beliefs about volunteering and communities, and in acting on those beliefs.
Being professional in this sense is about leadership and personal characteristics. It is different from the administrative and management processes of establishing and maintaining a volunteer programme. These elements can be clearly defined and applied; leadership is the behavioural style of application.
Professionalism in management of volunteers does not fall easily into conventional patterns of professional status. There is no exclusive knowledge base, and our practice skills are not so different from those required in other management positions. There are any number of training and experience routes that bring us to appointment as a manager of volunteers, and there are even more variations in volunteering and volunteer programmes. And, there is no formal career path to follow.
Susan Ellis wrote way back in 1997:
No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.
A professional association can offer a defined set of ethical principles related to management roles and some form of accountability for abiding by those principles. A professional association also has the potential to take collective action, speaking out on controversial issues outside the constraints of our employing organisations. Real professions, says Susan Ellis, have strong associations. I maintain my membership in the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) on the basis of these expectations.
Because, to paraphrase a quote from a long-ago text* on professionalism in social work:
Management of volunteers without service would be lame, without values would be blind, and without professional association will be mute.
*Toren, Nina (1972) Social Work: the Case of a Semi-Profession Sage Publications.
May 18, 2014
Congratulations to Volunteering Australia who celebrated last week their 25th year of National Volunteer Week (NVW). That is some achievement. And always (as in New Zealand too, next month) it is a great opportunity to hold special events for acknowledging and saying ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people for their contributions and commitment to all parts of our communities.
This year the promotional theme for Australian volunteer-involving organisations was The Power of Volunteering. But forgive me, country cousins – I am trying to figure what you mean by ‘the power of volunteering’.
‘Power’ is a word I associate with leadership and influence, with strength and a force to reckon with, and with achievement and change. Given that volunteering/volunteerism operates along a continuum from political action to small informal volunteer groups pursuing community interest projects, what are the manifestations of strength and influence in the sphere of volunteering?
What change has resulted from street marches on poverty, domestic violence, or low-wage occupations? Will global protests really help to “Bring Back Our Girls”? Yes, there are a heap of good intentions in protest marches and demonstrations – but I cannot recall any direct political change from such actions. Even the constant pressure of protests in 1981 could not put a stop to the South African Rugby tour of New Zealand.
I am talking here about civic action, expressions of community interest, seeking change of some sort. But if nothing changes where is the power of this kind of volunteering?
Volunteer responses in times of disaster can achieve great things. I have written twice under the heading of People Power – in praise of the volunteer response to Christchurch earthquakes and the beach pollution of the Rena grounding. That’s the power of spontaneous collective action, based on humanitarian and environmental values. I’ve praised the staying power of volunteer fire-fighters who sustain their essential service, along with volunteers in other emergency services. That’s demonstrating the power of volunteer commitment.
It is different in everyday volunteer workforce contributions to community support services – environmental, education, disability, health and welfare, arts and leisure and sporting activities. Volunteering in these contexts is formalised, organised, programmed, contained – and constrained. By their numbers they are a powerhouse for the voluntary sector. But let’s not fool ourselves: volunteers are a utilitarian labour resource for organisations serving the interests of government, business, and community.
That is what we acknowledge during our National Volunteer Week. It is not the power of volunteering; it is the goodwill, the giving of time, energy, skills, and personal commitment to organisational missions and values that we wish to honour.
Yet there is a kind of power in the intrinsic benefits of volunteering, where volunteers gain for themselves. Engaging with an organisation can be a way of finding that sense of belonging in a community, of being respected. Volunteering can raise self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence, and don’t forget – volunteering is good for your health. Volunteering is attractive for people seeking work experience (whether as graduate interns or unemployed people), for developing skills, for migrants and refugees to improve language proficiency.
So while I have doubts about volunteering being a power of ‘irresistible force’, there is much to be said for the work of volunteers in the way it signifies a strong and healthy civil society.
May 11, 2014
A rugby league star switched to rugby union last year, but has failed to make the grade in this different code. He has now returned to rugby league.
Some commentators reckon he was not given enough game time and opportunities to make his mark in rugby.
As an employee he was entitled to receive adequate training to meet team management’s expectations. Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff can perform their roles at high levels, whether in the office or on the sports field. I grabbed at this statement from an employment law specialist in my weekend newspaper.
Because in attending conferences and specialist training programmes I have been surprised at how many managers of volunteers are paying their own way to participate in their own professional development. Three cheers for their personal commitment to on-going learning, even though they were not supported or encouraged by their employing organisations. (On the other hand, equal opportunity becomes a mirage if I cannot afford the cost of the conference or training course.)
Surely it is in the employer’s best interests to enable best possible performance from all staff. Skill maintenance and up-skilling has to be a good investment – for business productivity and for staff retention and job satisfaction. In the absence of organisation support the high turnover rates for management of volunteer positions is not surprising. Like that rugby player who is leaving the game, there is disappointment and disillusionment.
When professional development is not offered to managers of volunteers I have to wonder if the volunteer programme is perceived as merely a nice-to-have optional extra for the organisation’s operations; that managing volunteers is a job anyone can do; and one that does not need specialist training. It means that volunteers are not really appreciated for their contributions, and by extension neither is their manager.
On the other hand, finding a training programme that meets particular or even general needs for managing volunteers can entail a lot of searching. You have to go looking across local and global interconnections, and do the ‘stumble-upon’. You have to know where to look, unless you already know about Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, or their on-line training programme. That’s a good starting point.
There is good value too in connecting with the local Volunteer Centre, usually offering everything from a lunchtime forum to day-long seminars and workshops, extending to opportunities for mentoring.
Yes, say employers, there is a monetary cost to training. But the relatively small investment in conference fees or a short course can reap significant benefits in management confidence and competence, and in developing effective volunteer programmes. Don’t let the manager get choked off like the rugby player, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves.
May 4, 2014
In continuing the vein of last week’s blog, I am picking up on the distinction between formal and informal volunteer organisations. Because this is where Volunteer Centres might have got a bit stuck between the rock of government-funding obligations and the hard-place needs of organisations and communities, and the wider net of volunteering and community-led development.
Trends of recent decades have drawn the ‘formal volunteering sector’ into the market economy, into competition for services and project funding, has shaped activities to meet performance criteria, and has notched up business practice standards. Read the history of global developments in ‘volunteering infrastructure’ in this e-volunteerism article.
As we know, 90% of ‘voluntary organisations’ in New Zealand are not formally registered charities, and though most of them will have formal structures and purposes many fall outside the purview of government funding contracts. Thus we get a division in the community and voluntary sector, between NGOs and NFPs, even if the former are still non-profit organisations. In this broad-brush and diverse context the question is where best to place Volunteer Centre energies. Are they here for ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ organisations, or for volunteers? Of course in practice all three are important.
Volunteer Centres in New Zealand emerged independently around the country from the mid-1980s. Each one has a slightly different take on their vision and purpose which can be summarised as To promote, support and advocate for volunteering. In practice this allows for working and liaising with community organisations and local government. Supporting managers of volunteers comes with the territory, to ensure volunteers get a good experience and organisations understand and appreciate the work of volunteers. So the infrastructure is there, as a sound base to support volunteering. To offer a rounded ecosystem we should add in the work of engaging with business interests around employee volunteering (and sponsorship), and with philanthropic funders (for Centre funding as well as promoting volunteer causes).
It’s a huge mandate to cover all those interests, indicating Volunteer Centres are running a sophisticated consultancy business. But there are some questions a hard-headed auditor might want to ask:
- Why should funds be allocated for volunteer brokerage when there is potential for it to be adequately managed through an on-line programme?
- When national awards for volunteering are handed out how many of them go to individuals or organisations that have been supported by Volunteer Centres?
- How good are you (or other statistical surveys) at counting voluntary effort? Isn’t it time to get beyond counting to evaluating quality of the effort, and to capture the extent of ‘informal’ volunteering?
- If 34% of New Zealand’s population are engaged in volunteering, what would it take to raise that proportion to 40% or higher?
- Advocacy is specialist work – what successes can be reported on promoting volunteering with government (local and central) and philanthropists?
These are the questions Volunteer Centres could be addressing. See how Centres around the world are adapting to new environments in another article in e-volunteerism.