March 25, 2017

Lessons from Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 10:30 pm by Sue Hine

A few days ago I got a call from Matthew, one of those volunteer types who like to put up their hand for the next best thing. He had landed the job of recruiting a team of volunteers for a city-wide fund-raising effort and scheduling them into a roster for the day. Not a problem he thought – just ring around the people on the list handed to him – slot them in at their preferred time, perhaps do a bit of juggling with where they wanted to go. Piece of cake. And a nice way to support an organisation he respected.

Except a lot of people did not answer his calls, even after several messages. ‘Should I keep on trying to contact them?’ he asked. Of course my question in reply was ‘What sort of briefing were you given when you took up this job?’ Not much. ‘What did you understand you were asked to do?’ Just ring around a few people. ‘No outline of how to run a conversation?’ Zilch. … And so on.

Matthew was not very happy.

Neither was Gina, who volunteered for a branch of a national organisation that had a high reputation in the community. She really wanted to get involved in this work, took up the intensive training, got fired up to give it a go. Loved the work and being involved with people in the community, but hugely disappointed and disillusioned with the organisation. Problem was the other volunteers had all been involved for some years, and they were a very cliquey group. Not at all inclusive when it came to newcomers. And the team leader, the local manager of this branch, was in cahoots with them. You’d go to a meeting and they would spend half the time gossiping about local issues, and even the cases they had been working on. No direction from the manager, no meaningful support, and little guidance when you needed it. Gina stuck it out for a year or so but was pleased to move on to new employment in a different town. She was going to be more cautious about volunteering in the future.

Jess’s problem was somewhat similar. Her volunteering involved supporting families in the community, taking up heaps of time and rather a lot of travel when there were meetings arranged with various agencies. That was OK, really, but Jess was missing the organisation support she had got from volunteering stints with other organisations. Yes, there was an occasional group email with a generic thank-you message, and a list of instructions on what still needed to be done. And yes, there was also a compulsory fortnightly team meeting to attend. But instead of a forum for discussion of ideas and sharing concerns, the manager would go through a list of what Jess and her colleagues were doing wrong. All rather dispiriting. Jess checked out what other people were thinking and feeling and they supported her idea to challenge the manager at their next meeting.

It wasn’t going to be a formal complaint, just setting out what volunteers would appreciate in support and recognition for the work they were doing. Jess was not unaccustomed to laying out facts and examples, but she did not expect the hostile response from the manager. There was no discussion, just a personal attack that made Jess out to be ungrateful, lacking understanding of the organisation and its mission, and totally off the wall in her comments. The other volunteers stayed silent.

Jess has not done any formal volunteering since.

Fortunately I don’t think the experiences of Matthew, Gina and Jess happen frequently, but they are reminders of the real importance of

  • Clear instructions for volunteer tasks via a role description
  • Ensuring an inclusive process for new volunteers
  • Managers of volunteers understanding ethical boundaries and their leadership role
  • Genuine recognition and appreciation of volunteer work
  • Listening to volunteers and their ideas for improvements in the programme

When we listen carefully volunteers can always teach us a thing or two.

July 30, 2016

Righting a Wrong

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities tagged , , , at 11:51 pm by Sue Hine

Right & WrongOh dear – another volunteer has hit the headlines, for all the wrong reasons and then some.

It’s a breach of confidentiality, perhaps a slip of the tongue or maybe an inadvertent blurt about something that did not seem important at the time.  Nothing malicious it seems, nor at whistle-blowing level.

The matter caused the police to lay a complaint with the organisation, because they have a memorandum of understanding which includes the condition of confidentiality.  The organisation is duly obliged to investigate.  In the end no action is taken because there was insufficient evidence to support the complaint.  However, the volunteer called in a lawyer and incurred significant costs, and now looks for compensation and an apology, even though he may have been a bit obstructive in engaging with the investigation.

When a story like this hits national news then it’s something for volunteers and their organisations to sit up and take notice.

It would be rare for a volunteer-involving organisation to have a contract or code of conduct for volunteers that does not include confidentiality.  But the issues around confidentiality are complex.  At the top end are things like intellectual property and ‘commercial sensitivity’ and personal privacy which might invoke expensive prosecution if a breach occurs.  At the other end of the scale a volunteer might simply make an unthinking comment.

Given the seriousness of privacy when working with vulnerable people or the organisation’s business, how much discussion on confidentiality takes place in a volunteer training session?  What would be considered a breach of confidentiality?  Are there limits of confidentiality when it comes to client/users health and welfare issues? What’s a volunteer to do if they learn of criminal activities?  Here’s the place to introduce discussion on confidentiality and the ethics around confidential issues.  And to make sure everyone is familiar with privacy legislation.  This kind of protection for volunteers and the organisation is just as important as the measures for physical safety.

And after all that do we ever spell out the process for investigating and dealing with an actual or potential breach?  Is there a policy and procedure in place?  And are the possible remedies included?  For example, minor breaches can be dealt with a reminder or a verbal warning, or possibly a flag on your personal file.   Investigation of a serious breach may lead to dismissal.

I am not suggesting we go to the lengths of a volunteer equivalent of employment tribunals and courts.  But we can avoid such drastic measures when we ensure the full implications of confidentiality and consequences of a breach are fully explained and understood.

Prevention is better than cure, right?

May 15, 2016

Make Time for NVW 2016

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , at 3:51 am by Sue Hine

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I am going to be out of the country when National Volunteer Week happens in New Zealand.  I shall be in places that are not country members of IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) – though I have no doubt there is a lot of volunteering going on.  So I shall Make Time now to do some promoting for the event, and to take a good look at that theme of Making Time.

Let’s find out first what National Volunteer Week is all about.  It was a Canadian invention, according to this bit of history.  Back in 1943, this was a week to celebrate efforts made to the war effort by women on the home front.  After a post-war decline it got revived in the 1960s and spread in popularity to the United States, to become from 1974 an annual Presidential Proclamation.  In this first year, President Richard Nixon declared a National Volunteer Week to be dedicated to those who give their time to charity:

“I urge all Americans to observe that week by seeking out an area in their community in which they can give to a needy individual or worthy cause by devoting a few hours, or more, to volunteer service.”

By this decree National Volunteer Week becomes the original call to Make Time, as well as recognising and celebrating the efforts of volunteers.  It is now a feature on the calendar for UK, Australia and New Zealand organisations.

Volunteering New Zealand introduces its 2016 campaign as a call for action:

Lack of time is the most commonly cited reason why people don’t volunteer, both in NZ and internationally. We believe that for volunteering to flourish, and the various benefits of volunteering to be realised, people are increasingly going to need to make time, now and into the future.

Complaints about recruitment difficulties have been going on for years.  In recent times being ‘time poor’ is a continuing refrain, along with organisations reporting ‘can’t get the skills we need’, and ‘can’t get people to stay on’.  And yet, statistics from various sources (and various methodologies) indicate around one third of our population make time to volunteer, and the people who volunteer the most, arguably those in the midst of child-rearing and career commitments, are those in the 30-39 age cohort.

Of course we cannot literally create more time.  But look how we have learned to squeeze more into each day, to pursue not just household management and holding down paid employment and getting our share of a good night’s sleep.  We make time to watch TV, play sport, socialise with friends, and even to read a book.  Adding in a slice of volunteering is, like those activities, a matter of choice.

Choosing to volunteer can come from a cultural obligation, a passion for a cause, a belief in community, a need to belong, and simply because you want a diversion from your day job – as well as those drivers like looking for work experience, learning new skills and for learning about the local community and its resources.

And if volunteers do make that choice, if they do Make Time, they want it to be worthwhile.  So organisations have to up their game, offer ‘bespoke’ volunteer opportunities, positions tailored to the interests and skills of the volunteer.  Requests for short-term assignments are a challenge for organisations accustomed to the forever-volunteer, requiring adjustment to training schedules, planning for continuity as well as constant change.  Paid staff working with volunteers need to Make Time to identify volunteer opportunities and to be creative in how volunteers could be engaged.

And paid staff will also need to Make Time to establish relationships with volunteers, to orient them to their work, and to provide support if necessary.  If you say you just don’t have the time then you will miss a whole lot of added value that volunteers can bring to your daily work.  And you might even miss finding the volunteer who could save you a whole load of time.

So to keep volunteers Making Time, adopt these words to show your appreciation for what volunteers can do:

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And thank you for Making Time to read this blog.

 

April 10, 2016

The Volunteer Voice

Posted in Best Practice, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:53 am by Sue Hine

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In all the chatter (and the writing) about volunteers and volunteering, about community organisations and their services, about governance and fundraising and publicity and professionalism, I do not often hear voices raised about the experience of volunteering.

Yes, there’s many a volunteer’s story to tell, usually a glowing account of being involved in the community, being passionate about a cause, learning new skills which accessed paid work, but less about the role and tasks, and the direct experience of being a volunteer.

There are plenty of examples of volunteer profiling, by age, gender, ethnicity, education – all the demographics which might indicate trends, but which do not tell us anything about what it is like to volunteer.  Likewise, the boasting of volunteer programmes by numbers of volunteers, their donated hours and a little of the tasks they undertake for an organisation is not a real picture of volunteer experience.

There’s all the research that shows off the health and social benefits of volunteering – we can live longer and continue being active in our communities.  Volunteering is also the way for new migrants to become engaged, and to improve language skills.  But what is it really like to be a volunteer?

We do the recognition and rewards through annual events, and say ‘thank you’ plenty of times in everyday practice.  But when do we ask volunteers what it is like for them?

And yes, there are exit interviews or questionnaires when a volunteer leaves an organisation.  Not a universal practice, and not always capturing what the experience has meant for the volunteer.  It’s too easy for the volunteer to fudge responses to the questions, or to not answer at all.

So I’m looking out for the studies, or for someone to take on research, which addresses the question:

WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF VOLUNTEERING?

OK, it’s complex.  What sort of sample is needed?  Which sector or sectors to include?  Which location(s)?  Include all ‘types’ of volunteers – from governance to fundraising and events, as well as regular roles – or be selective?  And what are the questions to ask?

In 2012, Volunteering Auckland published Martin J Cowling’s suggestions to consider the way volunteering impacts on volunteers:

Have you asked your volunteers what volunteering has done for them? Many will describe the impact of the services they have given, the people they have touched and the difference they feel they have made.

There’s a lot more to find out, as Susan J Ellis wrote in 2006.  She asked Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Really Know, arguing that volunteering is so complex that ‘a simplistic overview of aggregate numbers is not enough for us to understand what is going on’.  The article includes a raft of potential questions that could offer some serious data on volunteer experience.

And then there is a report published by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in 2004 on Understanding Canadian Volunteers.  While this document is aimed at people new to management of volunteers (and it’s got some good data and advice for a volunteer programme), the benefit of understanding volunteer experience helps to consider:

  • the obstacles you may encounter in recruitment and retention;
  • the challenges you may face in job design and scheduling;
  • the issues that may arise as you develop your volunteer training programs; and,
  • how best to recognize volunteers through recognition activities.

Yes, these issues are important for a volunteer programme to be effective.  More than the trappings of motivation, I want to see what it really takes to keep a volunteer keeping on.  Maybe then we will get to understand and appreciate the full contributions of volunteers to our organisations and communities, and their real value.  We will cease ‘using’ volunteers; we will ensure meaningful work; and we will honour their work in a hundred ways, for the value added to the organisation’s mission and for what they have shown us about the spirit of giving.

March 13, 2016

Staying Engaged

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Relationships, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 2:46 am by Sue Hine

After the excitement of the recruitment phase and the pronouncements of a new intake of volunteers, what are the factors that will keep them on track and stay engaged?

There are many laments from organisations about the ready dis-engagement of volunteers, and their apparent lack of commitment, as reported in Volunteering New Zealand’s first report on the State of Volunteering.

Yes, you can feel miffed that volunteers go through the application and screening process and then don’t show up for training.  Yes, it can be costly to train volunteers only to find they don’t sign up for a role, or a make short-lived appearance.  Yes, it is disappointing when people volunteer in order to gain work experience only to shoot off when they get a job.

Yes, the nature of volunteering is changing: more people look for task-focussed and time-limited assignments.  But that does not mean volunteer effort is always a ‘one-off’ or short-lived.

It all gets a bit difficult when there’s so much to do in running a volunteer programme and the volunteers come and go. So what are the initiatives that could counter all these glum pronouncements?  Here’s a list of best tips to make the most of volunteers, whether they are short-term or stayers.

  • Being very clear about expectations is a good start, especially with role definitions and time commitment – yet allowing space for negotiation on how and when the time and tasks will be given.
  • Show volunteers, in a hundred different ways, that they are valued and their work appreciated.
  • Exit Interviews can be a means to explore reasons for leaving and feedback on the volunteer experience and programme management.  Whether in a questionnaire format or a face-to-face meeting, finding out more about the volunteer’s experience and inviting feedback on the programme can show where improvements could be made.  You might have to be a bit searching to uncover comments like ‘don’t like the work’, ‘nobody talks to me’, ‘too many rules’, ‘not what I expected’ that underlie the ‘no time’ reasons.
  • Offer alternatives to those who talk of leaving, such as less frequent assignments, or different roles, or ways to keep their interest like receiving newsletters or joining a ‘Friends of’ group.  Because even if those young people and busy parents of young children don’t stay long they have been exposed to volunteering and to the organisation’s services, and chances are they will come back to volunteering at some stage.
  • Develop a plan for volunteer ‘career development’, as in assigning team leadership roles.  Offer extra training, or ‘support group’ meetings.  One of my best volunteer experiences was a regular check-in on how things were going, creating a bonding with other volunteers and enhancing links with the organisation.
  • Work on new initiatives, designed for volunteers to try out new ways of service delivery.  And take up volunteer suggestions and good ideas.  That is how many an organisation got started, and maybe it is time for a re-boot.

Of course none of us take for granted that each new volunteer will stay forever.   The question is: what are we doing to keep them engaged, and how can we adjust organisation needs to maintain volunteer commitment?

Like all relationships, whether romantic engagements or employment contracts, it takes thought and effort to keep volunteers keeping on.  Don’t let them give up with easy excuses.

February 14, 2016

Getting Engaged

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Recognition of Volunteering, Relationships, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 3:52 am by Sue Hine

all_about_relationshipsI take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like.  Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.

I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training.  We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word.  But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.

I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’.  Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.

Except it seems this is not so simple.  Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.

I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.

If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’

If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up.  A job description is not always available.

When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.

I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.

And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made.   I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.

Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check.  It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation.  And it does not do volunteerism any good.

So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers?  Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above.  Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.

This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle.  And that’s just the beginning.  Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.

We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement.  All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities.  We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience.  When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.

Of course the engagement is just the beginning.  Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated.  Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving.  Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation.  In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.

None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish.  It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills.  But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector?  And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers  and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.

December 3, 2015

Champions Show the Way

Posted in Best Practice, Good news stories, Leadership, Managing Change, Organisation Development tagged , , , , at 1:03 am by Sue Hine

Values Strip

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Volunteering New Zealand Conference e tu, where we heard a lot about the progress champion organisations have made through adopting the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.  Results are impressive, for managers of volunteers, for volunteers, and for the whole organisation.

I got excited to learn about a new set of values developed by St John New Zealand.  Because organisation values have been a long-standing academic and applied interest for me. Here’s some thoughts I wrote three years ago.

In that blog I was concerned about the distance between words adopted as values and their meaning, and about organisational response to the importance of values.

Not every organisation displays their values on a website or their letterhead.  Questions about organisation values are rarely asked in recruitment interviews.  Monitoring behaviour against the meaning of value words is a low priority.  Could this lack of attention explain the ease of ‘mission creep’ and ‘marketisation’ of many organisations over recent times?

What got me excited about St John’s innovation is the language used, avoiding the usual high-level abstract virtues:

Our five Values guide how we do things together as One St John.  These are:

We do the Right Thing – Whakaaro Tika We take responsibility. Make the tough calls. Think of others.

We stand Side by Side – Whakakoha We respect, value and support what others contribute.

We Make it Better – Whakawerohia We find solutions- step up, own it, do it.

We have Open Minds – Whakahangahanga We listen openly. Encourage ideas. Welcome feedback.

We are Straight Up – Whakapono We act with honesty, courage and kindness.

Yes, there is still some abstraction.  But note how Inclusive is present throughout the iteration: We do things together, and each value is a declaration of intent prefaced by We, indicating again that everyone in the organisation is involved.  Instead of the word Integrity, widely invoked as a value in the sector, each value resounds with responsible ethical practice.  Dignity isn’t there either, but inferred in Think of others, Respect what others contribute, Acting with kindness. No need to talk of Excellence – striving for the best is inherent in every one of those values.

Note also how each value is underpinned by behavioural expectations.  These are the benchmarks that will steer all operations throughout the organisation.  No longer are values something for the Board and the Senior Management Team to worry about: all staff and volunteers are responsible for aligning their actions with the stated intent of the values.  There’s accountability for you, and potentially an indicator of performance and impact.

Anyone who has been involved in culture change in an organisation will know what an enormous undertaking this can be, taking a long time, overcoming resistance, and downright frustrating at times for all parties.  St John New Zealand, an organisation that serves communities throughout the country, with staff and volunteers numbering thousands, has made the process look straightforward.

When an organisation establishes a new strategic plan and finds the old values are out of touch it is time for change.  St John set up a steering group of representatives ‘from the shop floor’, to canvass people in all parts of the country on the values that were significant in their work.  Yes, there was an external agency involved, but it was the steering group that led discussions and gathered feedback. There was a high level of engagement throughout, and it took months.

Once the preferred values were identified and named another round of meetings ensued, presenting results, encouraging understanding and buy-in of the new look line-up of values.  Additional information and resources were available too, including a badge to pin on uniform shirts.

And all the time St John kept an eye on the Best Practice Guidelines, monitoring performance against changes observed and responses to the new values.

Thank you, St John New Zealand, for showing the way to implement change, and thank you Volunteering New Zealand for providing the platform.

August 30, 2015

“Get Them While They’re Young”

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity, Youth Volunteering tagged , , at 2:45 am by Sue Hine

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Years ago I heard a claim that if you have not been exposed to volunteering before the age of 15 you are unlikely to volunteer as an adult. I have never been able to find a source, or to know if this assertion can be verified, but I sure am aware of the current level of involvement by young people in volunteer projects of all kinds.

It’s like there is a huge surge of interest, from schools, organisations, communities and young people themselves. Young people create their own organisations, like Canteen, or SADD, or the Student Volunteer Army, or their own specific projects. Young people are the faces of Youthline and UN Youth Aotearoa New Zealand.

The conventional age range for youth is 15-24, but volunteering can start at a much younger age. How about the infant that goes with his Mum to a High School Class to talk about child-rearing and parenting? (It’s the Mum who does the talking of course.) Or the whole families who get involved in fundraising or a beach clean-up? Or you can stretch the age range to 30, and find at least one Volunteer Centre consistently registers its highest proportion of volunteers in the 20-29 age band.

Yay! Here are another couple of generations coming along to inspire communities, to advocate for and to lead change, and to fill gaps or attend to particular needs – even as older people fade from the volunteering scene.

Student Community Involvement Programmes have been a feature in New Zealand since the early 1990s, developed and promoted by several Volunteer Centres to introduce young people to volunteering and to learn about different parts of their communities.  Establish relations with schools and youth groups and services, negotiate for projects with local organisations and there can be lots of satisfaction all round.

But not if your experience is like this story:

A class of eleven and twelve year olds are assigned to a coastal regeneration programme, clearing the scrubby stuff and replanting the area. ‘Assigned’ sounds like there is not much choice, like it’s not the students’ idea. If you didn’t want to go you had to stick around at school all day with nothing to do. When the students get to the location there is little instruction and not enough tools for everyone. OK – those hanging around can go and do a beach clean-up.

No wonder there were plenty of gripes and groans from this episode, which was not, I hasten to add, organised through a Volunteer Centre.

So it’s clear the basic principles of a good volunteer programme still apply, regardless of the age of volunteers. Get the planning done, ensure you’ve got adequate resources, and most of all check the project is something young people really want to work on. See this excellent resource, or this one to learn the best practice tricks.

When Student Volunteer Week comes around on September 7 I hope there will be plenty of opportunities to celebrate student volunteer efforts in the community. Let’s acknowledge their initiatives, enthusiasm, commitment and their willingness to pitch in and to ‘make a difference’.

PS   “Get them while they’re young” is a line from the musical Evita, interposed on a paean to   ‘Santa Evita’ sung by a chorus of children.

May 17, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 am by Sue Hine

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If the value of volunteering remains largely out of sight, it is likely also to remain out of mind.

 

Now there’s a sentence to make me sit up and take notice.  It is a conclusion reached by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist for the Bank of England in a speech on the social value of volunteering.  (An edited version is available in e-volunteerism issue for January 2015.)

While Haldane laments the “market failure problem” of volunteering he is also offering a coherent account of the importance of measuring not just labour inputs and an arbitrary economic value: we should include the private value to volunteers (health and social well-being), and its social value.  Even economic dummies like me can see what could be achieved if organisations could afford to hire specialists in social cost-benefit analysis.

I have long wrestled with the issues of measuring volunteer impact, especially in the ‘soft’ social service areas like personal support, the buddy programmes and telephone counselling.  “Not everything that counts can be counted” was Einstein’s take.

But it is not just a lack of accounting that contributes to the low profile of volunteering.  Here is my hit-list of factors that indicate a lack of attention to the nature of volunteering and to recognising and appreciating the value of volunteer contributions.

  • There’s the metaphoric symbolism of locating the volunteer office, and the manager’s desk, in the basement or down the end of a long corridor. That could really put volunteers out of sight and out of mind.
  • The lowly status of a manager of volunteers becomes clear in the job title (‘Volunteer’ manager / coordinator) and a pay scale that can be 20% below other managers in the organisation – though the numbers of volunteers could be ten times the number of paid staff. And too often the manager misses out on strategic planning meetings or management training sessions because “you don’t manage staff”.
  • We all know how volunteers do not come for free, yet too often there is no budget allocation for programme costs. Worse are funder contract terms that expect volunteer engagement to contribute to service delivery, while making no allowance for reimbursing volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Fundraising and marketing offices take precedence in organisation hierarchy these days, and assume that volunteers will be on tap, on time, all the time. Volunteers are a taken-for-granted resource, and the manager is expected to provide the numbers regardless of short notice.
  • When it comes to appreciation, too often the occasions of National Volunteer Week and International Volunteer Day are a brief flare of publicity. Or there’s a raft of awards at local and national levels, and it’s nice to distribute certificates or to host a social gathering for volunteers. But it is rare to get a sense of understanding just what volunteers do and what they have achieved, and why they are ‘so wonderful’ and ‘needed’. Even the organisation’s annual report can leave acknowledging volunteer contributions to a paragraph on the last page.
  • There is much irony in the handwringing that accompanies a funding cut which is then followed by a reduction in services. There is no place for volunteers to pick up responsibilities; it is as though they have been a mere decorative flourish for the organisation. That’s enough to cause the organisation’s founding volunteers to turn in their graves.

If this list is not enough to go on with there is more outrage to be found in the latest Energize Hot Topic.  Or you could start wondering about a UK government pledge to launch a potential 15 million volunteers from the public and corporate sectors for 3 days volunteering per annum.  Note they would be getting paid leave to do so.

In all these examples there is a utilitarian approach to involving volunteers.  Volunteering has become a commodity, a resource to used for what is increasingly perceived as a political, economic and organisational gain while the social and cultural benefits of volunteering and its critical function for a healthy Civil Society are totally ignored.

Before I get run out of town for such dismal views, let me say I know they do not have universal application.  Let me give credit to those organisations who involve volunteers in positive and valued ways, who ‘understand’ the nature of volunteering.  And then I ask, why can’t others learn from these best practice examples?

Having said all this just offers reinforced support for getting momentum on measuring the true economic, private and social value of volunteering. In New Zealand we can apply the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.  Volunteering Australia launched this week its updated National Standards for Volunteer Involvement. Both documents offer the essentials of good practice and an audit tool to illustrate performance.  The publication of The Economic, Social and Cultural Value of Volunteering to Tasmania is another example of efforts being made to calculate the full extent of volunteering contributions.

These are small steps to measuring the scale of volunteering, and a start to taking giant leaps to make volunteering visible and a ‘market success’.

March 16, 2015

Playing Safe

Posted in Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities tagged , , , at 2:12 am by Sue Hine

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A bunch of leaflets landed in my letterbox this week.  They were inside an envelope from a UK publisher of academic works who keeps hoping I will purchase another book.  This time the promotion was all about new publications on safety in the workplace.  I groaned.

I am, at best, ambivalent about safety and the regulatory environment that is imposed in workplaces.  I grew up learning the consequences of climbing trees without a safety net, and there was never a playground swing sheathed in protective rubber.  I cycled everywhere on open roads without a care (or a helmet) and later drove a car with a few elements of recklessness.  I learned my risk-taking limits through practical experience and without any disastrous consequences.  So when I find a person in a hi-viz vest is designated sole responsibility to shepherd pedestrians round a bit of roadworks, I confess to being offended by the assumption that I have no common sense, don’t know my road rules and that I will deliberately create mischief for the roading project.

Of course the flip side of this kind of over-protection is the high accident rate in farming and forestry industries, in manufacturing and on our wharves, resulting in serious injury and death.  It seems there is enough management and worker carelessness out there to give cowboys a bad name.

I take a closer look at those leaflets and the blurbs that tell me a little about the content of the books.  There’s a whole library of them, all more or less dealing with safety in the workplace, with titles like The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’; The Past and Future of Safety Management; and The Human Contribution.  The common point seems to be the ‘human factors’ that contribute to accidents.  Even company bonuses have potential for perverse consequences when attention to major hazard risk is diverted to financial incentives – that’s the book titled Risky Rewards.

There are also a number of titles about ‘resilience engineering’, as in changing human behaviour.  Being resilient is all about shifting safety from being protective to becoming productive, increasing the number of things that people do right instead of engendering risk.  In my earthquake-risk city resilience is not a new concept: we have been urged for some years now to prepare ‘for when the big one comes’.

One book blurb reminds us that even if humans are the major hazard in a safety system, they can also be the heroes, as a documentary on the Christchurch earthquake demonstrated.  Here’s another reason to broaden our thinking beyond the blame and punishment regimes of safety regulations.

The reform of workplace health and safety in New Zealand has caused much concern for the community and voluntary sector, mostly for the extended responsibilities of employers and board members, and increased financial penalties if found at fault.   Yet for most non-profit organisations and NGOs this is also an opportunity to review current obligations and practice, and to start encouraging a culture of ‘looking out for each other’, and speaking out about hazards and safe practice.  That would go a long way to keep us all safe, much better than ‘turning a blind eye’ and thinking ‘that’s not my problem’.

Hang on a minute.  Isn’t this ‘resilience engineering’ just the stuff of developing and managing a volunteer programme?  In the selection and training process there is a constant assessment of individual risk elements, and the degree of risk that might impact on the volunteer roles and tasks to which they are assigned.  We look out for the well-being of volunteers, for job satisfaction and retention as well as their safety.  And volunteers, even if it is not their primary motivation, will find that the pleasure of participation and connectedness will also contribute to their resilience and their safety in the workplace.

The key to excellent health and safety management for volunteers, says a Factsheet on Volunteers, is good planning and good communication.  But before you sit back with a got-it-sorted grin, best to check out how good you really are and whether all bases are covered.

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