February 26, 2017

Thinking about Altruism

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:08 am by Sue Hine

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Over the holiday period I gobbled up a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Well – what else do you do when it’s supposed to be summer and the wind and rain keep pouring into my city? And there was a fair bit of Googling as well, checking out New Year prognostications arising for the non-profit sector.  And trying to comprehend developments in “the new world order”, the term applied here to the reign of the new US President.

I sense a swell of concerns in the voluntary and community sector that have been simmering for some time: competition for funding; changes in government commitment to service provision, forcing organisations to close their doors; a fall of volunteer numbers and increases in paid staff; and in some quarters, a lack of public confidence in non-profit organisations. As always, there’s a refrain, singing for better recognition of volunteers, and for management of volunteers.

There are some other strands emerging too. They’ve also been around for a while, but I’m reluctantly taking some notice of the rise of ‘social enterprise’, a revival of ‘social investment’ (and what impact that might have on existing services), and a movement called ‘Effective Altruism’ promoting ‘how to help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back’.

It’s champion is William MacAskill, and in his book Doing Good Better he offers a disarming self-help manual on how to decide best career choices when you want ‘to make a difference’, what cause to focus on, which charities offer the best outcomes. It’s hard to argue against his reasoning, except that it’s a long way from my basis for making choices when offering to volunteer or to respond to calls for $ donations.  His utilitarian approach has been well-critiqued, not least for ignoring the sticking plaster some charities put on injustices perpetrated by capitalism.

In simple terms, MacAskill advises that ‘the market will make it all work’.  Donors are investors seeking the best return for their money (ROI).  They might also get their name in lights as a worthy philanthropist.  What bothers me is the absence of any attempt by MacAskill to define ‘altruism’ beyond the basic ‘giving’. There is scant attention to other values and moral codes that can influence decisions, and he offers several examples of choices that have made little or no ‘difference’. The only mention of volunteering implies that giving money is a far better option than giving time:

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area which you are helping, which means the benefit you provided might be limited. At the same time you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for. Anecdotally, we have heard from some non-profits that the main reason they use volunteers is because those volunteer subsequently donate back to the charity.

Hands up those who reckon volunteers are more trouble than they are worth!

There is more. Another book picked up by chance is by Nic Frances, a leading supporter of social enterprise. He outlines in The End of Charity how the divide between money-making business and doing-good charities doesn’t really make the world any better. This view is echoed by Don Pallotta who highlights business practice discrimination against non-profit organisations. Frances argues we need to stretch financial values to include social and environmental values, and for business to incorporate these elements into their operations – to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously. Well, yes, but is there any guarantee the outcome will not be like a corporate takeover of the non-profit sector? The ‘end of charity’, indeed.

Let’s go back to that word ‘altruism’, a loaded value-word, and values are notoriously debatable though highly significant in shaping thinking and behaviour. In simple terms ‘altruism’ represents a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and according to a cluster of researchers, altruism is also an integral part of human nature. Altruism can also bring benefits to ourselves – as volunteers well know and evidenced in research.

OK, science is divided between arguments on Darwinian competitiveness and the kind of mutualism (collaboration and coordination) that contributed to human evolution, but genuine altruism is right up front in Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Work done of one’s own free will, unpaid, for the common good.

So I will not be jumping ship and buying into non-profit organisations becoming models of utilitarian business institutions. I will be thinking long and hard about what would be lost, like the passion for a cause, the spirit of community, and the rewards of volunteering. I shall be asking where the ‘common good’ has gone, and whether I still have free will.

Because we have been slow to appreciate the impact of change over the past thirty years. Contracts with government, rules and procedures for funding applications, formalised reporting and accounting for the spending of funds have upped the game of running a community organisation – and lifted standards of transparency and accountability. The shift from grass roots advocacy and action to formalised volunteering has introduced better practice in ‘using’ volunteers, aided through the professional development of volunteer management. In doing so, we have allowed a great divide to open between formal and informal volunteering.

According to altruists we have become corrupted by the modern money system, “an unnatural transactional mentality which establishes competitive relationships, overemphasises individualism, erodes society and fuels consumerism”. At the same time we protest loudly at the lack of recognition, of the true (non-monetary) value of volunteering and the work of community organisations.

While MacAskill and his colleagues preach ‘effective altruism’ I shall continue to beat the drum for the gift economy and relationships based on respect, empathy and cooperation. Without a strong volunteer presence, without thousands of organisations and people serving their communities through sport, arts and leisure pursuits, health and welfare support, emergency response, environment advocacy and all the stuff that goes on under the radar, the world would be a poor place to live.

That’s why we keep on volunteering, and doing the right thing in managing volunteers. Right? What actions would demonstrate our true worth?

October 3, 2016

Think Global, Act Local

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 9:55 pm by Sue Hine

think-global-act-localBack in the early 2000s I was doing post-grad study on Development, the word applied to ‘Low-Income Countries’ and the aid programmes that might raise their economies.  Up in bright lights were the Millenium Development Goals, the United Nations’ aspirations for achievement by the year 2015.  A year ago UN replaced the MDGs with a new sustainable development agenda. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), embracing a global approach to social, economic and environmental development.  These goals are for everyone, not just a catch-up for developing countries.

In New Zealand ‘sustainability’ is never far from our news headlines, as in fishing quotas and predator-free zones, in recycling and renewable energy.  There is plenty of opportunity to be engaged, locally and globally, in supporting SDGs.  There is a part to play for governments, the private sector, and civil society (including our community and voluntary sector).

Alongside the SDGs comes the UN State of the World Volunteering Report, also published in 2015. Volunteering New Zealand has compiled a review of the SWVR2015 and links findings with SDGs.  In their response, published in June this year, they note that

SWVR 2015 focuses on ‘transforming governance’, because good governance is critical for sustainable development.

In case you are wondering, ‘governance’ is broader than the responsibilities of an organisation’s Board:

[Governance is] the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.                Source: UNDP 1997.

According to SWVR2015 the three pillars of governance where volunteerism can have the greatest impact are voice and participation, accountability and responsiveness. Volunteers at the local level build peoples’ capacity; governments can create greater space for volunteerism to enhance social inclusion; and global volunteer networks promote voice, participation, accountability and responsiveness. This model of governance will lead to success for the SDGs.

While SWVR2015 applies the pillars of governance at a national and international level I think there is a model here that could be applied to volunteers and organisations at a local level. Consider:

  • What level of voice and participation do volunteers enjoy in your organisation? Are they invited to staff meetings, training and social events? Are in-house newsletters circulated to volunteers? Do volunteers have a say in planning and development of the organisation? Are their new ideas and initiatives welcomed? These questions could be the litmus test for volunteer inclusiveness and diversity in the organisation.
  • Allowing a volunteer voice and participation requires responsiveness on your organisation’s part. It requires listening and being receptive to views, and a willingness to modify decision-making to enable volunteer initiatives. Are the appropriate mechanisms and processes in place to be responsive to good ideas?
  • Then there is accountability, the obligation to take responsibility for decisions and actions. How does your organisation respond when ‘called to account’? There are plenty of training opportunities for Board members to cope with increasing pressures for organisation accountability and performance. In terms of accountability to volunteers, does the board of your organisation include a portfolio responsibility for the interests of volunteers?

Thinking Big about volunteers and volunteering can make a huge difference at a local level.  Just think what this kind of wave could create on the global stage.

SWVR2015 calls for much greater engagement with volunteers and volunteerism in all its forms – formal (including international volunteering) and informal – and at all levels from the local to the global. This engagement requires raising our understanding of the needs and rights of volunteers, and finding ways to resource, support and actively engage with volunteer work to improve governance. There is the challenge, so how shall we respond?

August 21, 2016

The Next Big Challenge

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership, Managing Change, Managing Volunteers, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 2:42 am by Sue Hine

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There is something going on in the business world that looks awfully like the principles of volunteer management.

 

I’ve been reading stuff on improving paid staff engagement, on increasing employee diversity (instead of hiring a bunch of clones), on how more people are placing importance on values and company purpose in their job-seeking than on the size of salary or climbing a career ladder. And when employees quit research is showing it’s mostly because organisation goals and action plans have got out of kilter with its vision and mission. Employees also want recognition and appreciation that isn’t just a monetary bonus for reaching pre-determined goals.

How come business is usurping all the best practices the volunteer industry has been developing for decades? And how dare they, without acknowledging this important intellectual property!

I congratulate those businesses that recognise employees are people before economic inputs, and that ‘work’ is not simply labour in exchange for pay. And this is where I see opportunity to get recognition for volunteers up where it belongs.

For years we have struggled to get organisations and stakeholders to ‘get’ volunteering. In recent times we have encouraged strategic development of volunteer programmes and management as a way to achieve full recognition of volunteer contributions. Now I think business interest in people development over labour units provides an opportunity for a real alignment between volunteering and organisation structure, policies, practice and culture.

This move may involve a bit of a seismic shift, because the role of manager of volunteers will either change dramatically, or be disestablished. Please read on before you rain down hellfire and damnation for such heresy.

At least two large volunteer-involving organisations in my city have changed their ways. Both have diverse spheres of work, with paid staff engaged in different operations. Both no longer have a position for a manager of volunteers directly responsible for the volunteers, and volunteers are directly assigned to different operational teams.  So the team leader is expected to engage, train and oversee the volunteer in his/her charge. Here is where integration and a unified approach to the work of the organisation can begin.  Here is where to find the embedding of volunteers into a people-centred culture. And the bricks-and-mortar strength of this culture goes a long way towards achieving organisation mission and vision.

When volunteers are an add-on, a nice-to-have extra assistance for the organisation’s services there’s a distance between volunteer work and the real stuff undertaken by paid staff. Yes, volunteers can be essential for successful fundraising and promotion events, but these aren’t really the main events for the organisation. It’s like the volunteer programme is a parallel universe to the real life of the organisation.

Yes, I know all the arguments about volunteer management being different from human resource management. Yet increasing regulation in recent years says volunteers are tied to more rules than they faced in the past – think police vetting, health and safety legislation, and even codes of conduct and signed agreements.

Change of the magnitude I am suggesting brings resistance and anxiety for paid staff, not to mention grizzles about additional responsibilities. Organisation change is unsettling at any time.  In this case it is more about staff inexperience in leading volunteers, and volunteers may lament the loss of their friendly go-to manager who could move mountains and do anything. Everyone is obliged to develop new relationships.

But think of the opportunities! For team development, for collaboration and integration of different ways of working; for volunteers to step up to leadership roles in support of paid staff. Think of the potential for relationship-building, improved people-management, and the intrinsic rewards for both paid staff and volunteers.

I reckon this future is like investing in Lego – you know, those colourful interlocking bricks that are endlessly creative and that hold together, no matter how many add-ons. When volunteering is embedded into a well-structured and solid organisation there’s a better chance that both volunteers and paid staff will flourish.

November 10, 2015

Another Way of Seeing

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Politics of volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 7:52 pm by Sue Hine

290411 News Photo NASA Runoff from heavy rains, combined with wave action along the coast, increased the turbidity of New Zealand’s waters when this image was acquired on April 29, 2011. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of sediment flowing in the Pacific Ocean. The volume of sediment in the water hints at rough seas. Distinctive plumes arise from pulsing rivers, while the halo of turquoise around both islands is likely sediment swept up to the ocean surface by powerful waves. The plumes fan out and fade from tan to green and blue with water depth and distance from the shore. Cook Strait, the narrow strip of water separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, has a reputation for being among the world’s roughest stretches of water. The islands lie within the “Roaring Forties,” a belt of winds that circles the globe around 40 degrees south. The westerlies hit the islands side on and run into the mountain ranges. Cook Strait is the only opening for the winds, so the channel becomes something of a wind tunnel. Strong winds produce high waves, and they erode the shore as shown in the image. However, sediment may not be causing all of the color. The waters around New Zealand are rich in nutrients, so it is likely that phytoplankton are contributing to some of the fanciful swirls in the image. Mixing currents bring nutrients to the ocean’s surface, providing a prime environment for plankton blooms. Made up of millions of tiny plant-like organisms, the blooms routinely color the ocean with broad strokes of green and blue. Phytoplankton are important to New Zealand because the organisms are the base of the ocean food chain. In places where phytoplankton flourish, fish also gather. Commercial fishing is New Zealand’s fourth largest industry. References Ministry for the Environment. (2007, September 17). Importance of oceans to New Zealand. New Zealand Government. Accessed May 13, 2011. New Zealand History Online. (2009, January 12). Rough crossings—Cook Strait ferries. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Accessed May 13, 2011. NASA image courtesy Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team. Caption by Holli Riebeek. Instrument: Aqua - MODIS

A couple of months ago I spent a few days in Iran, a country of different culture and politics from my own.  I was wowed by the friendliness and hospitality of the locals, always interested in where I had come from, wanting to know what I enjoyed about Iran and where I was heading to.  Visitors to New Zealand get similar questions.

Which has given me pause to think about the similarities and differences in our community and voluntary sectors, and to look at New Zealand through the other end of the telescope.

Iran has been out of international favour for three decades now.  Its nuclear programme brought sanctions from USA in 1979, and later from UN and EU.  The country has been ‘demonised by the West’ says one commentator, with devastating effect on Iran’s internal economy.  This troubled history does not tell us much about their civil society.  We have heard little of the pressure of women’s groups, a major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side.  Widespread protests in 2009 against presidential election results brought a government response in which hundreds were killed and thousands imprisoned.  These events did not register on my radar at the time.

The number of non-profit organisations in Iran and the informal support at community level is comparable to what we would expect in Western civil societies, though rights and restrictions on charities and non-government organisations have fluctuated over time according to presidential decree.  The current president, Hassan Rouhani, declared on election that he would prepare a “civil rights charter” and restore the economy, yet the struggle for a more robust civil society is stifled by hardliners in the Iranian parliament. The population becomes more submissive and cautious, and fearful about the chaos across its borders and government repression of protest.

The high rates of drug addiction and prostitution, and the highest rate in the world for internet pornography are not statistics Iranians want to proclaim.  On the other hand the recent détente of sorts with the US is a significant achievement.  Iranians I met were excited about the potential to free up trade and improve the economy.

So where are the connections with New Zealand in this scenario?  On one hand we enjoy a history of social and community achievements, votes for women and introduction of old age pensions in the late 19th century, and for Welfare State provisions from 1935.  The community and voluntary sector has been active right from colonial times, and just keeps on growing and adapting to changing conditions.

On the other hand, New Zealand has had its moments of insurrection and protest.  Think Land Wars of the 1860s, Te Kooti’s rampage in 1868, the invasion of Parihaka in 1881, and the police raid on Rua Kenana’s settlement at Maungapohatu in 1916.  Yes, there has been armed opposition from government (Massey’s Cossacks in 1913), shootings and injuries (Waihi Miners’ Strike), and plenty of arrests.  Political and civil rights were suspended in 1951, in the course of crushing the strike by the Waterside Workers Union.  In modern times we have had the Land March (1975), and the long occupation of Bastion Point (1977).  We have protested loudly against nuclear warships, the Vietnam War, changes in employment law and latterly the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty and Inequality.  The Tour (1981) still represents a benchmark for real civil unrest.   Serious enough for our small islands, though nothing like the wholesale deaths and arrests and ongoing repression which occurs in Iran.

But serious enough for me to consider what is presently at risk for Civil Society in New Zealand.

Protest by community and voluntary sector organisations has taken a muted tone in recent times.  When organisations rely on government funding contracts which include gagging clauses there’s a full stop, period.  When contract requirements are so onerous (though recent changes negotiated with the sector are welcome) there is no time or energy for protest.  There is little consideration for the impact on communities when organisations are forced to close because government priorities have changed.

We are weary from the effort of presenting submissions on relevant legislation or regulation and then finding the interests of the community are ignored.  Words like ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘disconnect’ get spoken and written about, and low voter turnout at both government and local body elections means democratic apathy is all around.

The thing is, I have always thought civil society as ‘the third leg of the stool’, up there with the public and private sectors in creating the sort of society and communities we want to enjoy.  Civil Society – all those organisations that deliver services, run the sporting sector, create healthy and resilient communities, foster neighbourhood groups – represents a different perspective from the economic and the political.  Which is not to assume civil society should be apolitical – Courts are deciding that yes, charities do have an advocacy role to play, as this quote argues:

An ‘effective’ (often known as ‘vibrant’) civil society is fundamental to any society’s capability to provide for its members’ needs and meet their aspirations, guide and hold its political and economic leaders and power-holders to account, and to embody the complex web of interactions between and among people and peoples, and between people and the state, which is such an essential feature of resilience in the face of political, environmental, social or economic shocks.

In today’s reality civil society has been drawn into the public and private sector practices.  Community and voluntary organisations are marketised, and volunteers used to deliver services, for government purposes.  Corporate sponsorship, even with the best intentions and some welcome funding, can turn into a re-branding exercise for an organisation.  A flow-on effect for civil society organisations is falling confidence in their accountability, level of trust and ethical practice (Dominion Post, November 4), and consequently less donor support.

None of these views are new, and for a really good global summary see State of Civil Society 2015, which includes the following statement:

The power of civil society is recognised through a back-handed compliment, when elites try to suppress civil society’s essential role of speaking truth to power. In many contexts, civil society is attacked when it seeks to uphold human rights, advocate for policy change or exercise accountability over political and economic elites.

Or take in the introduction to the State of the World Volunteering Report 2015, where our former Prime Minister Helen Clark says:

The report suggests that the ability of volunteers to support development progress depends on the willingness of national governments to ensure that the space and supportive environments which encourage their participation and initiatives are available. (Emphasis added)

So there we have it.  We may not suffer the extremes of repression experienced by civil society groups in Iran, but in New Zealand we too are burdened by elements of control.

September 14, 2014

Is it Time to Change the Rules?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 3:55 am by Sue Hine

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New Zealand’s All Black top-of-the-game rugby coach has earned another headline: Rip up the rulebook and write another! He is complaining about numerous laws of the game and their complexity which gives referees leeway in their interpretation. Spectator fans are infuriated when they see the game and rule infringements treated differently from their own expectations.

Well, I’ve found a rule for volunteering that seems quite out of sync with contemporary practice. Included under a heading Factors which tend to make the involvement of volunteers inappropriate is this item:

Where the work is for the benefit of a profit-making organisation.

OK – it’s not really a rule, merely a recommendation that volunteers in for-profit organisations is not a good look. But what does it imply, and how does it work out in practice?

I guess the ‘rule’ is related to that other no-no: volunteers must not displace paid staff positions. That is, it is assumed volunteering in a for-profit business has to be taking employment from someone else.  Not so, given the unpaid internship opportunities for new graduates in a range of corporate organisations.

Or are we being a bit precious about volunteering, not wanting to be tainted by profit motives? Volunteering belongs to the community, it stands outside the public and private sectors.  Get too cosy with them and Civil Society gets lost – is that what ‘rule-makers’ are thinking?

Let’s do a reality-check with contemporary practices.

Contracts for service provision have encouraged a number of NGOs to become large corporate-like organisations, in which volunteering becomes less central to core business. When budget cuts result in service reduction organisations overlook how volunteer time could be just as valuable and productive as the $$ equivalent.

Sponsorship and partnerships are bringing the commercial world closer to non-profit organisations. Corporate social responsibility has spawned widespread employee volunteering and Not-for-profits welcome their contributions, both practical and professional.   Why should volunteers be excluded from a reciprocal arrangement?

These days many NGOs are setting up fund-raising enterprises as subsidiary businesses. Think op-shops, able to raise significant income through donated goods and volunteer time.  Trade Aid is a NFP, operating as a retailer, importer and wholesaler agency – staffed by volunteers.  Oxfam has generated an income stream from offering consultancy to businesses wanting to move into developing countries.  If there are no barriers for NFPs to run a business which includes a volunteer programme, it does not make sense to frown on volunteer involvement in a for-profit business.

Rest homes and private hospitals have run volunteer programmes for many years, recognising all the different ways voluntary action can support the personal and relationship needs of older people. Yes, the provision of rest homes for the burgeoning aged population is a growth industry, showing significant profits for shareholders.  Volunteers are welcomed in private sector rest homes, in recognition of the ‘added value’ for residents that paid staff do not have the luxury of time to offer.

There is widespread volunteer involvement in the public sector too.   Schools, courts and prisons, conservation services, museums and public hospitals all enjoy significant support from volunteers, sometimes through subsidiary NFP organisations.  Emergency services with large volunteer programmes are operating a public service.  No-one is raising objections here, even though public sector organisations are operating under vastly different conditions from NFPs.

Consider too, those large sporting events, tourist operations and expos run by private event management operators. There’s no question of volunteer involvement in these circumstances – the volunteers become the public face of the event.

It looks like volunteers are engaged in a whole range of organisations across all sectors. Maybe not so much in manufacturing businesses – though Victim Support is on hand as a free service when an industrial accident occurs.  Volunteering is characterised by innovation and flexibility, so anything is possible in the future.  Let’s not short-change the scope and influence of volunteering by holding to a premise which is no longer working.

June 8, 2014

The Business of Non-Profit Organisations

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Funding and Finance, Marketing, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , at 2:56 am by Sue Hine

People-first-300x300[1]I nearly bought myself into an argument recently, wanting to defend the claim “Charity organisations are different from a business”.  Now I have done some reflecting and marshalled the points I could have made at the time, as a kind of dialogue with myself.

Of course they are different, given the ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ labels.  But I have never liked the use of ‘charity’ in reference to non-profit organisations and NGOs.  The word has got too many connotations of ‘doing-to’ consumers/users/clients, as many a for-profit business operates.  I prefer the concept of ‘doing-with’ people – groups and individuals in the community.  When I hear concerns expressed about large nonprofits operating like corporate businesses I have to concede my opponents might have a point.

On the other hand it is not an unreasonable expectation that non-profits operate in a businesslike manner, especially in a contracting environment.  Of course non-profits need to be accountable for their financial management.   They also need to prove their value, to demonstrate outcomes and impact, or in current business-speak, to show a social return on investment.  And yes, they need to establish a strategic plan, set policy, outline the programmes and services they will deliver.

But still I cry: they are different from a business.  They do not exist to make a profit.   They deliver services, they fill a gap, provide for a need, or they offer opportunities for healthy lifestyles and leisure interests.  These organisations bring communities together, engage people in activities and actions outside the market-place.  Collectively the non-profit sector and its associations represent Civil Society, acting as a counter-balance to the weight of the private and public sectors.  Otherwise non-profits get swallowed up in politics and the economics of consumerism.

  • That does not excuse them from governance responsibilities and ensuring practice standards are maintained.

Of course not.  If they are not meeting expectations, if they are not offering an environment for member or volunteer satisfaction then the organisation will fold.  Non-profit organisations are different from businesses in their aims and obligations.  They began with a specific mission, and they hold particular values.

  • But so do business organisations. They are no different in holding statements on their vision, mission and values.

Yes, I am reminded of the snappy mission held by Canon: Beat Xerox!  That competition element is a big driver in business, always looking for that niche in the market, and to improve market share.   That is not the business of nonprofits!  Non-profit organisations tend to live by their vision and values.  In business these can be just words and not treated seriously, as the Enron history shows.  Not to mention the shady dealings of finance companies exposed in the Global Financial Crisis.

Non-profit organisations do not compete, they complement each other.  They are fulfilling particular needs for a specific community, at a particular time and place.  And there is much more focus on collaboration, working together and sharing information.  Businesses work to protect their intellectual property and ensure their bottom line is always a good one.

  • And so we should! If it wasn’t for business and our ability to create profits and pay taxes non-profit organisations would not be ‘in business’.

Now you are getting narky.  And also highlighting the fundamental difference between business and non-profit organisations.  Put it this way: business is about making monetary profits which go to shareholders, the investors.  The profit for a non-profit organisation is the benefits and gains seen in community and individual well-being, and in the contributions of a well-run volunteer programme.  That’s why it’s important that we stay different.

You are still not convinced?  Yes, there is plenty more ground to cover in this debate.  What would you have to say?

 

May 4, 2014

Volunteer Centre Realities

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Politics of volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , , at 5:00 am by Sue Hine

partnership-trees[1]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.

April 28, 2014

The Volunteer Centre Experience

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Managing Change, Politics of volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 12:01 am by Sue Hine

 

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The current issue of e-volunteerism is devoted to the purpose and futures of Volunteer Centres.  I’ve been reading the critiques and the caveats, and the challenges for a sustainable future, drawn from all around the (western) world.

 

There’s a tension between Volunteer Centres and managers of volunteers, say Susan J Ellis and Rob Jackson.  VCs are competing with community organisations for funding; they are not working with basic community needs as much as they could; and they are slow to take up on-line technology that could cut across their traditional brokerage role.  Changing times means VCs need to adapt to shifts in the way the world of the community and voluntary sector (and government policy) works.

For volunteering and Volunteer Centres the discussion is more than interesting reading.  It has spurred me to reflect on my own connections and experiences with Volunteer Centres in New Zealand.

I get to read newsletters from around the country and to keep up with their Facebook posts.  My direct experience is mostly with Volunteer Wellington.  (It is their logo at the top of this post.)  In my early days as a manager of volunteers their lunchtime training sessions were a life-saver, an opportunity to connect with other organisations and to share common experiences – and to learn from each other.  More recently I have facilitated a few training sessions, still seeing managers of volunteers hungry for knowledge and skill development.  Volunteer Wellington’s Employees in the Community programme is a boon for community organisations, not just for the work corporate businesses can offer.  Their brokerage process avoids the embarrassment for managers of volunteers when unsolicited offers of assistance have to be declined – because you don’t have a job for them, and certainly not for large numbers at a time, or the request is to do something next week, if not tomorrow.

I have worked alongside VC managers on the Volunteering NZ project which produced the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations and Competencies for Managers of Volunteers.  They know their stuff, the organisations they work with, and they whole-heartedly support the role and practice of managers of volunteers.

But how does the performance of Volunteer Centres in New Zealand stack up against the questions raised in e-volunteerism commentaries?

I have heard wary comments about engaging with on-line technology.  The traditional process of brokerage based on face-to-face interviews and phone-call liaison with organisations risks getting side-stepped if there is ready access to an on-line database of volunteer opportunities.  Yet local evidence suggests personal contact and meetings are highly productive for both prospective volunteers and for organisations.

Centres may not be taking full advantage of social media yet, and micro-volunteering appears to be a step too far at this stage.  That’s begging the question of whether they are keeping up with other trends in volunteering, related to generational differences for example.

I have been impressed with Volunteer Wellington’s good relations with local government and their efforts to promote community engagement.  They work hard to build on existing relationships with their members.  But is this enough?  Are they working on behalf of volunteers and volunteering, or for their member organisations?  This is where I refer to the e-volunteerism commentary by Cees M. van den Bos (Netherlands).  He describes the difference between formal and informal volunteering as ‘system world’ and ‘life world’, and makes a case for a broader outlook and strategic development to incorporate both.  Here is the challenge for Volunteer Centres, to extend collaboration and make a shift to ‘community development’ practice models.

Volunteer Wellington’s statistics show they work with a wide age range and a variety of cultures which mirror the region’s ethnic population distribution.  But it seems people of the 60+ age cohort go elsewhere to find volunteer opportunities, or they are failing to get engaged.  It’s a pity the Centre’s record of working with disabled people is not publicly available.

My reflections draw on examples from Volunteer Wellington, though my comments are generalised.  New Zealand’s contribution to the e-volunteerism article from Cheryll Martin extols Volunteer Centre achievements, and their range of activities.  There is much to ponder from other commentators in the article, and nothing is more certain than significant change is imminent.

The e-volunteerism article opens with this statement: “Volunteer Centres are vital to build and sustain local and regional volunteer ecosystems”.   I would like to think our small population and social interconnectedness creates advantages that will sustain volunteer ecosystems into the future.

April 13, 2014

Managing Volunteers: The Extreme Sport?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Managing Volunteers, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:07 am by Sue Hine

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A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting where a consultant trainer in mentoring declared managing volunteers is an extreme sport. Wow! We are up there with all those dare-devils who go base-jumping, running rapids, going higher, deeper, longer and faster in places I would never venture. I know I’ve advocated being adventurous, taking a risk or two, like bungy-jumping, so we can learn from mistakes, push boundaries and seize opportunities for innovation and creative programme development. Extreme sport? That is something else.

‘Extreme’ in a sporting context means Very High Risk, and death is not an uncommon outcome for participants. I have never heard of a manager of volunteers dying on the job, unless you count burn-out and stress-related resignations. So I go digging for more insight into this comment.

A sport is labelled extreme when there are a high number of uncontrollable variables. Yes, I understand how weather and terrain – wind, snow, water and mountains – inevitably affect the outcome of an activity. Combine uncertainty and risk with human errors of judgement and disaster is a sure result.

So how can the job of managing volunteers be included as an extreme sport?

First there is the sheer number of variables. Numbers of volunteers, their age ranges, the cultural mix, the range of experience and skills they bring as well as the roles they undertake, their flexible time commitment – all these are add up to a mountain of detail that needs to be absorbed into the management process.

Then there are the uncontrolled variables. Human nature in its infinite variety means desired behaviour is not always predictable or guaranteed. This uncertainty applies to relations with staff and organisation management as much as to volunteers. Neither are managers of volunteers immune from errors of judgement.

The environment, in this case the community and social and political context of the organisation can also be unpredictable. In a world of constant change how can we be certain of the efficacy of this policy or that strategy and the intended outcome of a particular programme?

By these conditions I reckon management of volunteers qualifies for membership in the Extreme Sports Hall of Fame. Welcome to the club!

You can’t quite see how you make the grade? Sure, you would never find me gliding in a wing-suit or scaling high rise buildings and doing back-flips on a narrow board when I get to the top. But think about the basic tasks for management of volunteers: they are pretty-much focused on minimising risk. Policies and processes to cover recruitment, training, on-going support and communication – all these are designed to ensure the safety of volunteers and the organisation and as far as possible a programme that functions without hitches.

But of course the hitches and glitches turn up, every day. No amount of planning can guarantee a smooth path. Volunteers and organisations, let me remind you, do not run on prescribed channels like cans of peas on a manufacturing production line. So the constant juggling of multiple demands, the flexibility, the political nous, the mental stamina – all desirable qualities for managers of volunteers – add up to create an extreme sports participant.

I have chosen surfing extreme waves as my image of an extreme sport. After all, managing volunteers is about riding the highs and lows of a turbulent environment, and we keep on climbing back on board after the tumbles.

March 30, 2014

All About Community

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , , at 3:02 am by Sue Hine

High%20res%20logo%20no%20date[1] This weekend ‘Neighbours Day’ was celebrated throughout New Zealand Aotearoa. Two days of street parties, suburban fairs and celebrations – and they will continue throughout the coming week. I went to a party hosted on my suburb’s community marae, Nga Hau e Wha o Papararangi. City Council dignitaries and the local MP attended and addressed participants. There was entertainment and games, a hangi, and display stalls from local organisations.

Why would we need a week-long event to get to know our neighbours? Well, it matters, says the blurb on the Neighbours’ Day website, because:

Through fostering better connected neighbourhoods and more everyday ‘neighbourliness’, Kiwi communities can be stronger and more resilient and the wellbeing of individuals, family/whanau and community will be significantly enhanced.

Yes – I understand the importance of resilience and wellbeing: security for our citizenry is a matter of public policy. Yes – I know we are many generations distant from the days of closed communities and in-grained neighbourliness. But I wish we could pay more attention to what we mean by ‘community’.

That word ‘community’ carries a whole lot of baggage, has thousands of applications and is freely used and abused.

As a generalised reference ‘the community’ is so vague and broad the term becomes meaningless. ‘The Community and Voluntary Sector’ is likewise a broad-brush term, but at least we can understand it in relation to the Public and Private Sectors – though we too often forget that people engaged in the latter are also members of ‘the community’.

Community organisations can talk up ‘Community Engagement’, without recognising they are part of that community themselves. Governments also like to engage with communities to consult on new policies, though the outcome of consultation is not always to the community’s liking.

Let us also acknowledge the diversity of the Community and Voluntary Sector. We refer to NGOs and NFPs, to community groups and associations and to charities.* Let us note that the Voluntary sector serves the community – that is, serves a particular community of interest. And it’s this range of interests that we ignore when we refer to them with the blanket term ‘community’.

Trouble is, says a local political commentator, our sense of community has withered because of diversity. He is referring to the decline of ‘people like me’ sense of community in favour of the unequal relations of ‘us and them’. There we have yet another interpretation of ‘community’ where you can be either in, or out.

Social and political histories point to the division of labour, the evolution of the state, the development of mass urban society as significant contributions to the fragmentation of our sense of ‘community’. At the same time the human aspiration of being and belonging has not gone away. The idea of ‘community’ is a contrast to the impersonality of large scale organisation, whether it is political, economic or social: we use ‘community’ as a counterpoint to the alienation of modern life. **

My Neighbours Day gathering brought out nostalgic reminiscences for the old days, the time before urban migration and mobility of the latter half of the 20th century, before the busyness of modern living kicked in, before health and safety regulations proscribed the freedoms we enjoyed in childhood. There is no going back, even though we cling to the old ideas. Neighbours Day activities remind us there are still new ways to interpret new meanings of ‘community’.

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* For classification of New Zealand’s non-profit sector see this publication.

** See Plant, Raymond (1974) Community and Ideology, an Essay in Applied Social Philosophy London: Routledge, Keegan Paul Ltd.

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