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?

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.

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

Quote-marks[1]

 

 

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’.

September 28, 2014

Volunteer Effort in Conference

Posted in Civil Society, Community Development, Conference communication, Politics of volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:44 am by Sue Hine

 

10517-IAVE-Website-Banner-update[1]

IAVE is the organisation that exists to promote, strengthen and celebrate the development of volunteering worldwide. At the Gold Coast in Australia in mid-September the 23rd IAVE conference was indeed a worldwide gathering.

Plenary and breakout sessions offered a menu that was both mouth-watering and bordering on indigestible. I could choose between the trials and triumphs of local organisations or listen to the political arguments around structural issues for the sector.

The hot topics for our age were well canvassed. Corporate volunteering, partnerships and collaboration, working with government, marketing and engaging with technology were the popular subjects in the programme outline.

Practice issues did not feature so prominently. Presentations considered engaging with youth and aged populations, with diversity – or rather inclusion, with building communities, and with emergency and event volunteering.  Even less attention was offered to management of volunteers and the importance of leadership, and I heard no voice raised by volunteers themselves.

The message that came through loudest was the tension between government and business involvement in the community and voluntary sector, and sector organisations struggling to be heard and respected as an equal partner.

It seems economic analysis is more important than social policy. *

Comments like this one reflect prevailing political ideology, that economic development is the best route to social development and community wellbeing. Opposition was forthright:

Government does not own volunteers: nobody does!

Government involvement with NGOs is a contradiction in terms!

Western democracy is afraid to cede power to community.  

There were plenty of references to social capital, to capacity building and development, yet never accompanied by objectives or expected outcomes. I should not be surprised.   It seems like volunteering /volunteerism is being colonised by public and private sectors. Efforts to build Civil Society are being subjected to business and government interests.  On the other hand:

What is the nature of engagement we want with government? 

Government should offer enabling frameworks, should stimulate but not step in further.

Yet New South Wales government steps up and funds a Time-Banking programme. By contrast, the UK minister (now former) for civil society told UK charities “to stick to your knitting and keep out of politics”.

However, positive collaboration can happen. South Australia offers an impressive example where state and local government, the business sector and the Volunteering peak body, Volunteering SA&NT have developed a state-wide volunteering strategy designed to bring improvements to volunteer experience.  Read about it here.

While the question of relationships between sectors looks like being the debate of the decade (and beyond), another stream raised important voices.

Professionalised human service delivery has pushed volunteering aside – volunteers are not being involved in decision-making.

What is the real purpose of volunteering?

We need to sell volunteering through telling volunteer stories.

The keynote address at the beginning of the conference, given by the Hon. Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia, was an inspiring challenge.  It’s easy to admire volunteering, he said, in schools, in Rotary, in surf life-saving, but what are the things we are not talking about today?  Where are the unpopular causes?  What’s the next big thing?  We all have a duty to defend human dignity.  Responses were pretty immediate:

Get volunteering included in the constitution! (Australia)

Volunteering is the badge of freedom hard won

So it was fitting that a final forum for the conference was about Volunteers and Advocacy – Challenging the Status Quo.  We heard about Every Australian Counts, a campaign for the rights of disabled people, about Australia’s First Peoples and their struggle for inclusion, and about improving conditions for AIDS caregivers in Africa.

Advocacy is about connecting with others – you can’t do it on your own.

Advocates are ‘creative extremists’.

That was a good note to end the conference. There is a lot more to be said, but I have brought home a headful of reflections, and an Einstein quote raised by a speaker:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

I just have to figure out how to change the way I think!

………………..

*  All statements in italics are direct quotes.

See the Michael Kirby address here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sarXb_aTzuk

August 24, 2014

The End is Nigh

Posted in Civil Society, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , at 3:49 am by Sue Hine

jan24_forgoodforprofit

The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector.  And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments.  Here are some variations on his theme:

A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.

Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.

The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.

These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand.  I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:

The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like.  It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.  (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)

Volunteer sector service providers are under public management.  The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined  efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.

There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement.   There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.

I have bleated about these themes in various ways, considering the ‘business’ of NGOs, the future of volunteering, and the two-tier status of community organisations.

A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society.  We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time.  When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector.  When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice.  When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.

“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly.  But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”.  It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”.  Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community.  We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.

None of these views are new.  You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector.  This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:

….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline.  This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.

It is time now to get beyond outrage.  We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place.  The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.

______________________

Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone   24/01/13

June 15, 2014

National Volunteer Week 2014

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Good news stories, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , , at 4:39 am by Sue Hine

NVW 2014

Volunteering New Zealand have done it again!  Here’s another National Volunteer Week banner, together with a message to inspire volunteers and their organisations.  You can learn more about the whakatauki and its theme here.

The buzz about NVW has started already, with postings and notifications for events to come.  And some nice little tasters, like this piece from Volunteer Wellington’s June newsletter:

According to recent OECD statistics people in this country spend an average of 13 minutes per day volunteering, compared with four minutes in other countries.  The stats go on to say this results in higher ‘happiness’ ratings plus longer life expectancy.

Nice one – New Zealand leads the way in yet another field of endeavour!  It’s worth reading this OECD report for its background introduction, as well as finding out more on the data.

Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Studies show that time spent with friends is associated with a higher average level of positive feelings and a lower average level of negative feelings than time spent in other ways.

Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society.

A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as access to jobs, services and other material opportunities.  […]  A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation.

It’s a long time since I have seen such well-rounded reasoning for building strong and healthy communities, and how volunteering is part of that healthy status.

Volunteering NZ reviews other global and local reports which indicate a downward trend in volunteering and in monetary donations.  No explanations for these trends are offered.  Nor can I find explicit definitions of volunteering that informed the surveys.

In the week ahead I’m hoping to read some great stories about volunteers and volunteering, about the good experience they enjoyed, and the difference they made for people or the environment, and the fun they had in the process.  I’m hoping there will be stories too about good relationships between paid staff and volunteers, and praise for staff who support volunteer effort.  And that’s where the managers of volunteers might get a tiny acknowledgement.

And maybe, somewhere, even in a postscript, there will be a nod to the nature of volunteering, and what it represents, and why volunteering is important in our communities and within organisations.  That is worth thinking about, in the course of this week.

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 18, 2014

The Power of Volunteering

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Leadership, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine

8[2]Congratulations to Volunteering Australia who celebrated last week their 25th year of National Volunteer Week (NVW).  That is some achievement.  And always (as in New  Zealand too, next month) it is a great opportunity to hold special events for acknowledging and saying ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people for their contributions and commitment to all parts of our communities.

This year the promotional theme for Australian volunteer-involving organisations was The Power of Volunteering.  But forgive me, country cousins – I am trying to figure what you mean by ‘the power of volunteering’.

‘Power’ is a word I associate with leadership and influence, with strength and a force to reckon with, and with achievement and change.  Given that volunteering/volunteerism operates along a continuum from political action to small informal volunteer groups pursuing community interest projects, what are the manifestations of strength and influence in the sphere of volunteering?

What change has resulted from street marches on poverty, domestic violence, or low-wage occupations?  Will global protests really help to “Bring Back Our Girls”?  Yes, there are a heap of good intentions in protest marches and demonstrations – but I cannot recall any direct political change from such actions.  Even the constant pressure of protests in 1981 could not put a stop to the South African Rugby tour of New Zealand.

I am talking here about civic action, expressions of community interest, seeking change of some sort.  But if nothing changes where is the power of this kind of volunteering?

Volunteer responses in times of disaster can achieve great things.  I have written twice under the heading of People Power – in praise of the volunteer response to Christchurch earthquakes and the beach pollution of the Rena grounding.  That’s the power of spontaneous collective action, based on humanitarian and environmental values.  I’ve praised the staying power of volunteer fire-fighters who sustain their essential service, along with volunteers in other emergency services.  That’s demonstrating the power of volunteer commitment.

It is different in everyday volunteer workforce contributions to community support services – environmental, education, disability, health and welfare, arts and leisure and sporting activities.  Volunteering in these contexts is formalised, organised, programmed, contained – and constrained.  By their numbers they are a powerhouse for the voluntary sector.  But let’s not fool ourselves: volunteers are a utilitarian labour resource for organisations serving the interests of government, business, and community.

That is what we acknowledge during our National Volunteer Week.  It is not the power of volunteering; it is the goodwill, the giving of time, energy, skills, and personal commitment to organisational missions and values that we wish to honour.

Yet there is a kind of power in the intrinsic benefits of volunteering, where volunteers gain for themselves.  Engaging with an organisation can be a way of finding that sense of belonging in a community, of being respected.  Volunteering can raise self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence, and don’t forget – volunteering is good for your health.  Volunteering is attractive for people seeking work experience (whether as graduate interns or unemployed people), for developing skills, for migrants and refugees to improve language proficiency.

So while I have doubts about volunteering being a power of ‘irresistible force’, there is much to be said for the work of volunteers in the way it signifies a strong and healthy civil society.

May 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.

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