October 26, 2014
Celebrations for the fifteenth international day for managers of volunteers will happen at a place near you on November 5. It’s a day to acknowledge the skills, talents, leadership and downright doggedness of managing volunteers. And by proxy, to understand how volunteering makes magic happen in our communities, in organisations and in all the services supported by volunteers.
On Facebook we are spurred to consider what elements of volunteer management drives our passion. And what is our vision for an ideal world of managing volunteers?
It’s all very well to dream up future scenarios, and to repeat that quote attributed to GB Shaw:
You see things and you ask “Why?” But I dream things that never were, and I ask “Why not?”
Well – Susan J Ellis taught me a long time ago how the history of volunteering is the history of the lunatic fringe: volunteers often work at the cutting edge of change. Managers of volunteers are part of that fringe, forever seeking new chemistry that will enable volunteering to adapt to changing conditions.
For the moment I am keeping my feet on the ground. I am thinking about the drivers that keep managers of volunteers keeping on. What is it that the stayers among managers of volunteers love about their work? Here is my sampling:
- When the shy and nervous volunteer turns into a confident and well-respected member of the team.
- When you are charged with organising a huge event, and the volunteers just keep on turning up and turning their hands to what needs doing. They know how to manage themselves.
- When you find heads nodding in a training session covering organisation mission and values – not because people are falling asleep or because it’s boring – because the mission and values is what has attracted them to the organisation in the first place.
- When thank you letters from grateful clients are sent to the Chief Executive, and they include volunteers alongside paid staff. It’s even better when they mention the volunteer by name.
- When a volunteer steps up to manage an unexpected crisis situation, showing how all that training and support pays off.
- When staff get to understand they have responsibility to support and guide volunteers on their team, and they cease running to the manager with complaints about volunteer performance.
- When International Volunteers’ Day or National Volunteer Week happen, and staff and senior managers organise an appreciation function for volunteers. Or they set up a Post-it board to pin up messages of goodwill and recognition of good work.
- When volunteers get due acknowledgement at Annual Meetings, and in the Annual Report – more than a few words or a last page paragraph.
- When people stop saying how wonderful volunteers are and uttering platitudes – when they start talking about the real work and accomplishments of volunteers.
- When we finally get a means to measure the impact of volunteer work that is more than a record of outputs translated into $ values.
You will notice this litany is all about the product of managing volunteers, not what has to happen to achieve these credits. But that’s just it – job satisfaction comes from the outcomes, seeing how the manager’s ground work produces great results. You will also see how volunteering is people-centred, dependent on personal service and performance. And at last, get to understand how great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky: it takes a visionary manager to make them happen.
October 19, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand held a workshop for managers of volunteers in Wellington last week. Raising the Bar was the first of a number to be held around the country, drawing on the Best Practice Guidelines to ask What does Best Practice look like and how do we get there?
My long memory recalls the origins of this workshop, the tiny germs of ideas that got translated over time into a working group, to a VNZ project, to publishing the Guidelines, and now to working on getting them implemented.
Back in 2009 the VNZ Conference theme was Volunteering Unleashed, and there were two streams: Volunteering Tomorrow and Inspiring Leaders – two sides of the same coin you might say. With presentations like ‘Unmasking the role of volunteer management’ and ‘Awaken the hero leader in you’ there was plenty to inspire and unleash imaginations for future effort. At the final session I asked “What happens next?” to which there was a smart reply: “What would you like to happen?”
A few weeks later a meeting was convened with a bunch of other people who were asking the same question. The Management of Volunteers Development Group was born, if not right then, but over the next few meetings. I’ve written about its progress several times:
Raising the Bar was the theme for VNZ’s conference in 2011, and a principal stream was devoted to ‘Developing the Leaders’. Sessions covered a range of regular practice for managers of volunteers, and included focus on leadership – because managing volunteers is nothing without leadership.
The present round of workshops on Raising the Bar is another step to encourage managers of volunteers to take on strategic leadership, and to advocate for implementation of the Best Practice Guidelines. At the same time there is a parallel effort going into nominating champions of managing volunteers, the executives of organisations that demonstrate and promote understanding and recognition of volunteering and its management. Yes, we need to promote these champions so others may raise their sights, to include the value of volunteers and their managers in their vision.
The workshop this past week raised a real buzz, a community of managers of volunteers sharing concerns and their ideas and information, using the material of the Best Practice Guidelines. There was plenty of diversity in this group, both in size of organisation and in sector interests. The old hands mixed with the newbies, and there was learning for everyone.
At the end of the day what happens next is up to participants. They’ve got their take-home message and intent for action, but we’ll have to wait to see results. Strategic leadership for change and development takes skill, courage and determination. And time.
How high does the bar have to go? We’ll know when we get there, for sure.
October 5, 2014
I’ve seen a few job vacancies lately, opportunities that make me sit up and take notice. These are senior positions in national organisations, charged with strategic management and development of volunteer programmes.
Words and phrases like ‘leadership’ and ‘integrating volunteer work with service delivery’ and ‘best practice processes and resources to maximise voluntary service’ leap out of the published blurbs. These jobs are close to Executive Team level, offering opportunities to lift the profile of volunteering and its contribution to organisation operations. Candidates are expected to competent in strategic planning and project implementation, and in leading transformational change. Being able to undertake surveys and analysis could be useful too. And of course, being experienced in developing and maintaining good relationships with both internal and external stakeholders is another given.
Yay! Management of volunteers has come of age! At last, there is recognition for the rightful place of volunteering within organisations. And yes, the relevance of strategic leadership, as outlined in Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, gets acknowledged.
And then I start looking at the fine print. What are the qualities and qualifications these organisations are expecting in candidates? “A relevant tertiary qualification” can be anything from community development to health, including human resources and psychology. Or in research and evaluation. Or in ‘social services’, or management. Take your pick. Your experience is likely to count for more – say a minimum of four years in social service management. The list of desired experience includes leadership and people management. Desired communication skills extend to coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. While all these skills and experience are relevant and important, any reference to direct experience in managing volunteers is a lesser consideration.
By now you might be able to sense my raised eyebrows.
Yes, I know there are people out there with qualifications and experience that could foot any of these positions.
And yes, management is management, and leadership likewise, regardless of the field.
And yet, a toehold at executive management level is still precarious for volunteering.
Unless the executive team has their own experience of volunteering, unless they understand fully what volunteering is about, the new strategic manager is still in the position of advocating for volunteers, still arguing their cause and how to engage fully with them. That’s a hard road, where expectations and big ideals can get sidelined when the organisations are struggling to meet contract obligations and to secure funding to cover the shortfall. It is even harder if the appointee is not steeped in volunteering philosophy and practice.
What if the new position is more about taking control and command of volunteering, ‘using’ volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision? That’s a risk, specially without direct experience of volunteering. And volunteering will be the poorer for that.
Because at bottom there are big distinctions between working for pay and working as a volunteer. I need to earn a living, so a paid job is a necessity. When I volunteer it is by choice, to follow an interest or to support a cause. There are set hours for paid work; volunteer work can happen at all hours, including weekends. Volunteers set their own ‘leave’ schedules; paid workers must apply to take time off. Paid workers fit into designated positions, limited by organisation budgets; volunteers will be assigned to particular roles, but these are limitless. Numbers of volunteers can outweigh paid staff 5:1 and more.
So there are big challenges for the person taking on an organisation’s strategic development of volunteering. How to meet the challenges is a story for another time.