November 30, 2017

International Volunteer Day 2017

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Good news stories, Leading Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 11:03 pm by Sue Hine

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All hail to volunteers on this day. May you enjoy being feted in various ways, and feel real warmth in the thanks and appreciation that is showered on you. Of course, I would like to think you get the respect you deserve throughout the year, and not all at once.

For the past seven years I have paid tribute to volunteers and volunteering through this blog, and railed against the platitudes of ‘couldn’t manage without you’ and ‘you help us make a difference’ and ‘volunteers are the life-blood of our organisation’.

I have also written about the benefits of volunteering – to national economy, to social well-being, and to all the community-based organisations offering services around people and animals and the environment and all the rest of human activity. And of course I have bleated and challenged and pounded the table on best practice in leading volunteers – to the point where I begin to repeat myself. Now it is time to bring a full stop to my blogging, and this post is my last.

For this IVDay I give thanks and appreciation to volunteers for what I learned from them, and for what I gained in my time as a manager and leader of volunteers.

I did not ‘own’ volunteers or refer to them as ‘my’ volunteers. I was not their best buddy, and never a ‘nanny-manager’. But the office door was ever open, to say hello and thank you, to be the support when volunteer work wasn’t going well and to listen when there were grievances that were getting in the way of their work. I loved the recruitment process of discovering new talent, new enthusiasms, and helping the shy and nervous to blossom.

Working with volunteers affirmed my faith in human nature. Their energy and commitment and their collective action showed me how community spirit is still alive and well. They gave freely without expectation of reward – and then discovered all the intangibles that make volunteer work a reward in itself.

To volunteers I have worked with, and to those all over who contribute so much to social well-being I give my sincere appreciation in a paraphrase of an oft-quoted saying:  “I have forgotten much of what you said and did, forgotten names and perhaps what you looked like, but I still remember how great it was to work alongside you.”

Ten years ago I wrote the short personal essay which follows. For me it reveals fundamental lesson – I wonder if it rings bells for other leaders, managers, coordinators of volunteers?

My Season for Hugs

I left paid employment as a manager of volunteers some two years ago.  Didn’t miss the work routines a jot, nor the morning and evening lemming-rush of commuters.  There were a few regrets for the loss of warm relationships with people in my workplace, but these passed as I became re-tyred and got a new life as far as I wanted to travel.  Until there was a call to fill the vacuum created by my successor’s extended sick leave.  I had to go back, because the organisation was not yet ready to cope with leaderless volunteers.

What I do not foresee is the welcome I receive on my return.  There are greetings and smiles close to cheers from the paid staff.  There is a big bear-hug from bear-like Brian who has been a stalwart volunteer forever.  I am spied by Jane and Stephanie whom I met first as diffident and anxious volunteer applicants.  They are now accomplished in their supportive roles with clients, love their work and are well-liked by staff.  There are cries of delight and acclamations at seeing me again, and more close hugging.  Later in the day another Jane, who wears shyness wrapped round her like a muffler, becomes more animated than I have known before: she too is pleased I have returned.

I know how rapidly the waters close over the departure of a staff member, no matter how well respected.  I’ve spent much of my life in community volunteering, social working and counselling and never paid much attention to my inter-personal contribution in the roles I have undertaken, despite knowing about its impact in communication and relationships.  This welcome from staff and volunteers is over-the-top, I think.  Then I remember one of the quotes I used to jot down from books I have read, the sentences that leap off the page, representing perhaps small coinage in the currency of my life at the time.  In Brazzaville Beach William Boyd writes “You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people”.  Now I know this truth.  I am honoured and humbled in the way I have been greeted in my brief return to the workplace.  I wish I could unravel the code of the effect I have on others, so that I may not always be the last to know.

………………………..

International Volunteer Day is an annual event held on December 5. The global theme for 2017 is “Volunteers Act First. Here. Everywhere.” – recognising volunteer efforts around the world, as well as a tribute to the support volunteers provide in times of instability, disasters or humanitarian crises. The banner photos are showing off New Zealand Emergency Services.

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October 25, 2017

The Great Big Shout-Out

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 9:07 pm by Sue Hine

On November 5 we will celebrate International Volunteer Managers’ Day, as we have done in various ways since 1999. This year a global effort is attracting pledges for action from leaders of volunteer programmes from north and south, east and west. There is also an opportunity for bloggers to share perspectives and ideas about being a voice. Here is my contribution.

I’m going to shout out about how the role of leading volunteers and managing a volunteer programme is where personal interests and attributes, professional standing and political commitment are rolled into one.

The Personal

It has become a truism that you need to be a ‘people person’ to lead volunteers. You like working with people and communities. You are good at building supportive relationships and developing people’s skills and confidence. Communication is everything in leading volunteers, from public speaking and facilitating group meetings to writing newsletters and the intimacies of 1:1 conversations. You know a lot about your community and its resources, and the value of networking. You are pretty self-aware, of your human frailties as well as your strengths. You recognise the importance of seeking out further training and support from your peers, or a mentor.

The Professional

There’s a set of professional standards you have set yourself, even if they are not written down. In the old-fashioned meaning of ‘professional’ you can declare what your values and beliefs are and these are demonstrably evident in your behaviour. That’s the essence of ‘being professional’.

You learn quickly about the knowledge base for leading volunteers: the processes for recruitment, training and placement, the level of support required and how to maintain their involvement. It is not an exclusive body of knowledge like the professions of medicine and law, but you know if you don’t get these things right then neither volunteers nor your organisation will be happy, and you could be missing out on meeting objectives and fulfilling organisation purposes. You know about ethical principles too, about privacy and confidentiality, as well as compliance with all the legal obligations placed on the sector. All the commitment to Professional Ethics in Volunteer Management is laid out for you here.

The Political

We may not be successful yet in establishing strong professional associations for strengthening the status of our role. Nor do we hold collective power to bargain for better pay and conditions of work. But that’s where Being the Voice and becoming political comes in.

To be effective as a leader of volunteers, in managing volunteer programmes, you need to get active – on several fronts. You need to shout out about the nature of volunteering and its significant contribution within organisations and to communities and society at large. You need to make sure organisation executives and the Board (volunteers themselves) ‘get’ volunteering. That means being strategic in building relationships and communicating effectively and often with all parts of the organisation. There may be misconceptions that need to be broken down, to avoid the divisive professional / amateur distinction between paid staff and volunteers for example.

And you do not need to go it alone. Volunteers can be encouraged to speak up about their interests, to present their case to senior management. (Of course they could have been invited in the first place, as a means to engage with the volunteer workforce and to enable their integration into the organisation.)

Another important strategic step is to join with other leaders as peers, for a learning opportunity and for mutual support. Meeting with others also encourages debate and collaboration on common issues. That’s where you could go public, as an independent group speaking about the relevance of the leadership role and the value of volunteers. Social media, opinion pieces, community newsletters – there’s plenty of opportunity to make the public voice of volunteer managers heard loud and clear.

 

There you have it, a tautology that says the Personal is the Professional is the Political. Of course this may not be you right now, but that’s where you can be heading, with your beliefs, your standards and your power. Let’s make sure our Voice is heard.

July 24, 2017

Finding Your Feet

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Professional Development tagged , , , , , at 4:11 am by Sue Hine

New Picture (1)So – you’ve got your dream job, managing a volunteer programme. You are all get up and go, until you discover it’s a pretty complex role and all your previous experience and training really was not enough. And sometimes you get tripped up and stumble with what is expected of you.

That’s tough, and you need to find time to figure out what you need and how to get your feet strong on the ground. Will the organisation give you some back-up, and support (with funding) to attend a worthwhile training programme, or to attend a relevant workshop or conference? No such luck if professional development is not included in the organisation’s employment policies, or if the organisation is a small-size community-led operation with minimal funding.

That’s when you need to start thinking about mentoring, that relationship process that will support you to up your skills, to find confidence and generally reach for your goals on your own terms, on your own feet, in your own time.

This mentoring thing is not a new invention. These days it is widely adopted by business and all sorts of organisations – sports, schools and universities, the arts, professions, start-up business projects, social enterprise. It’s a kind of coaching, a sort of on-the-job training, a form of supervision (clinical and administrative) – perhaps an amalgam of all the above. Mentoring has found favour over other terms which imply authoritative oversight. If it’s good enough for all those other occupations, why not for managers of volunteers?

New Picture (2)

When you look at this image it’s pretty much like what you do as a manager of volunteers: you want to sustain volunteer motivation, you are setting goals for them, giving advice and direction, and you are coaching and supporting them in their roles. Just what you are wishing for too?

So how do you find a mentor? Of course there are people who make mentoring a professional career. If that is beyond your means help could be on hand at your local Volunteer Centre. Try them, tell them what you are looking for, and see what they can come up with.

What can you expect from a mentor? A trusting relationship with somebody who listens, but doesn’t tell you what you ought to be doing. It’s amazing what you can learn just by talking out loud. Somebody who can challenge your ideas and attitudes, yet remain supportive while you figure out what will work best for you. Somebody who knows about good resources, as options to explore, not as imperatives.

As an alternative to 1:1 mentoring you could join a Peer Mentoring group in your own locality. Leaders of volunteers get together to find solutions to common issues, to support colleagues in working through what needs to happen, and to identify training needs, swapping notes and resources on best practice and policy procedures. Peer mentoring is thus a more purposeful form of networking. And a Peer Group could also operate as a professional committee to promote volunteering and the importance of management of volunteers within their network.

Peer groups work best when there is a regular facilitator or external leader, but a rotating facilitator can also help participants practice leadership skills.

Now a word for the people who have worked so hard to make the grade of an experienced programme manager and leader of volunteers: can you put up your hand to be a mentor for others? You’ve learned so much, you know the ropes, you’ve been around the traps – why not help others to get a grip on the ground of managing volunteers?

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

volunteer voice

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.

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