June 27, 2015

The Week That Was

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 10:51 pm by Sue Hine

NVW 2015

Volunteering is for anyone and everyone!  That’s the celebrating we have been doing for this week.  The theme for National Volunteer Week, as the banner says, is ‘There is a place for you to volunteer’, ‘He wahi mohou hei tuao’.  And you just had to cast your eye over press releases and newspaper inserts and social media posts to notice how much volunteering is going on, and how widespread it is across our communities.

Volunteering is nothing less than diversity, in volunteer opportunities, the volunteers themselves, and in the impacts of volunteering.

There’s a young mum and her infant daughter who go visiting at a rest home; you can live a boyhood dream as an engine driver; there are countless opportunities to get outdoors into conservation projects; you can pay it forward in volunteering with emergency services or a health sector organisation; become a best buddy to people who want a bit more social contact; be the key support person to help a refugee family find a place in their community; try to make a dent in the effects of poverty or violence, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Volunteers are found in schools and hospitals and all the big institutions.  They keep sports clubs going, drive emergency services, environment and heritage conservation.  They make national and local events and festivals the best ever.  They just keep on keeping on, whatever and wherever.  (You can read more about the importance of diversity in a volunteer programme here.)

Yes, you know all that.

Of course we are thanking volunteers every day, in all sorts of ways.  But on this one week of the year, what are we thanking them for?  The litany of platitudes still gets paraded:

Thanks to our wonderful volunteers

We couldn’t manage without you

We really need you

You help us make a difference (to what? I might ask)

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation

Much better, and more enlightening, are the messages coming through that tell something of what volunteers do for the organisation:

Thank you to all the volunteers ….

…..who work hard to ensure safe, enjoyable experiences in New Zealand’s outdoors for us all.

…..for helping to give more than 4000 individuals and families a hand up during the past year.

…..for supporting skilled migrants in their search for meaningful work.

…..for giving someone a second chance at life.

…..for helping support a life without limits.

…..for skills in providing telephone advice and resources.

Yes, you know all that stuff too.

This year there is a lot more quoting of figures related to volunteer services.  But oh dear, the wide variation makes me wonder what oracles were consulted for the information.

Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector says: “On average there are just over 400,000 kiwis volunteering every week for a charity, adding up to over 1.5 million hours contributed to our communities”.

Another report says nearly 500,000 people volunteer on a weekly basis; or 800,000 hours of work per week.  This rate amounts to 15.5% of the population, per week.  Per annum it is said 1.2 million people volunteer – about 25% of total population.

Different research methodology and different variables make for a confusing mix of information.

I have a bit more confidence in the Quarterly indicators from Department of Internal Affairs for September 2014 (the latest available):

  • Nearly 35 per cent of all respondents volunteered at least one hour of their time. This is the highest volunteering rate of the five years measured.
  • Of those who volunteered, 59 per cent were female and 41 per cent were male.
  • People between the ages of 30-39 volunteered the most.

And now there is a brand new survey from Seek Volunteer New Zealand which sheds a poor light on Wellingtonians: under 19% of working Kiwis in the region currently volunteer, though 38% say they have volunteered previously.   It’s the lack of time, say 69% of those surveyed.   Volunteer Wellington issued a prompt response which tells a different story:

‘Of the approximately 3000 volunteer seekers who come through our matching processes every year, those in the ‘working’ (meaning in full-time employment and part-time) category, have increased over the past few years and is currently nearly a third of our total volunteer seeker cohort.’

‘Annually we work with between 800–1000 employee volunteers who are matched with any one of our 400+ community organisation members to be connected with projects of interest. Last year 87 such projects took place, ranging from physical work to skill based programmes and, with several of these employee volunteering teams, being involved on a weekly basis.’

So while we claim New Zealand has a culture that values and encourages volunteering we are not so good in getting our facts together, or at least determining a consistent base-line for data-gathering.

Small wonder that organisations are being pressed to deliver measurable outcomes for the services delivered through government contracts.  At the beginning of June the Minister of Social Development announces a new Community Investment Strategy to “create a more results-focused and evidence-based approach for purchasing of social services for vulnerable people and communities, and will also be more transparent, targeted, flexible and efficient”.  On the first day of National Volunteer Week a clear warning is issued that more funding cuts are on the horizon.

No question that community social service organisations are under threat.  I’d like to think the prospect of significant change creates a real opportunity to put volunteering up where it belongs.  Former Prime Minister Helen Clark understood the importance of volunteering when she said “without volunteers New Zealand would stop”.  (She repeated the tenor of this comment on Twitter on International Volunteer Day in 2014, as head of UNDP).

Volunteering will not go away any time soon.  The adaptations to changing conditions will continue, innovation and enterprise will keep on creating new ways of responding to diverse situations – as people have done for millennia.

Seek Volunteer NZ might have got its figures wrong, but they have produced excellent presentations of real volunteers and the reality of volunteering.  And included is the best line of the whole week, said by a volunteer about her work, illustrating yet another dimension of volunteering – the personal value:

You can’t put a price on the feeling of what you can get out of it – you can’t.

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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’.

November 30, 2014

Let the Tall Poppies Grow

Posted in Celebrations, Community Development, Good news stories, Impact Measurement, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:30 am by Sue Hine

4871271[1]‘Tis the season for proclaiming the virtues of volunteering.

This week there’s that global day to honour volunteers (IYV), and I’ll be joining the crowd in Wellington to hear our praises sung and the inspiring stories about volunteer journeys.

Right now there’s also a raft of KiwiBank medals being awarded throughout New Zealand to Local Heroes, those people doing extraordinary things in their local communities.

We’ve even got our own set of awards for Wellingtonians – the Welly’s – which include an award for Community Service.

And Volunteer Centre websites are carrying regular pages for Featured Volunteers, or Volunteer Testimonials, or Volunteer Profiles.

Fantastic!  To shout out about volunteers and volunteering, and rewarding people for their service to a cause, or their creative initiative, or for the difference they have made in their communities – for all these reasons it’s important to ensure we give public recognition where it is due.  A newspaper editorial (Dominion Post, November 22, 2014) puts it like this:

New Zealand has a long tradition of modesty.  Not for us the big-noting of brasher cultures.  Strutting, boasting celebrities who too often are all sizzle and no sausage are unwelcome.  Instead, achievements should speak for themselves.  Which is all well and good, but sometimes it is important to praise those among us who have succeeded.

Yes indeed.  At last the Tall Poppy Syndrome is on the wane.  We can get rid of that fateful Kiwi term, the Clobbering Machine.  Some time ago I wanted to nominate a volunteer for an award, but the idea was vetoed because you can’t single out one volunteer, you must not imply that one is above the rest.  So the whole volunteer programme misses out on being noticed, and neither is the impact of volunteering on community well-being.

Sometimes volunteering awards appear to be given out on the basis of length of service.  Working for the same organisation for twenty or thirty years is admirable of course, but I hope it is the particular achievements over time that are being recognised, not just longevity and loyalty.

The citations of awards bring to public attention a great deal of the volunteer activity in our communities, including the whole range of volunteering fields – sport, working with youth or needy families and disabled people, a training course in prisons, emergency services, local communities and environment issues, or the arts.  Recipients are also as diverse as the volunteer population: young people gain as many awards as older people; disabled people and an ethnic mix are included.  These unsung heroes are our Tall Poppies, demonstrating what can be achieved.

So let us rejoice, and cheer on all volunteers – whether they win awards or not.  Their stories need to be told, because here is all the raw data to illustrate the outcomes and impact of volunteering.  Get the measuring process right, and we’ll be able to find out just how valuable volunteering can be.

Let’s keep on telling the stories and making sure the poppies grow tall. 

May 12, 2013

A Shift in the Wind

Posted in Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Politics of volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

sailing-3[1]Earlier this week Volunteering New Zealand issued an invitation on FaceBook to consider the ethos of volunteering and the meaning of ‘giving time’ for the common good.  It was in response to a news item about Christchurch youth who had pledged four hours of volunteering in return for tickets to a music festival –The Concert – held late last year.  Except around 600 pledges have not been fulfilled, and according to the terms and conditions of the pledge (clearly stated) they are to be named and shamed.  They can expect to be outed on The Concert’s website.

There is absolutely no doubt the people who have participated in Student Army projects deserve recognition and a thanksgiving for the work they have been doing in quake-ravaged Christchurch.  From all accounts the concert was a great success.

The website includes clear information on whys and wherefores, including a FAQ section which defines volunteering as performing a service freely and for no charge.

Here’s the rub.  There may be no fees for volunteering, though there is always an opportunity cost for the donation of time.  The pay-back for that time can be offered in a huge number of ways, from a regular smile and ‘thank you’ to formal functions and speechifying, not to mention a lot of feel-good factors and personal gains.  But to offer a tangible (and highly desirable) carrot suggests the volunteering response is not given altogether freely.  What to do when the offer is not fulfilled?  Just let it go and mumble-mumble about free-loaders, or do the public name-and-shame?  To be fair, the 600 unfulfilled pledges represent only 7.5% of the 8000 people who created 50,000 hours of volunteer service.  And if they are outed, will public humiliation put them off volunteering for ever?  Will that matter?   Is going public with non-volunteering so different from the bad-mouthing that a poorly- managed volunteer programme can attract?

Alternatively, will volunteers elsewhere now expect enticing carrots when they offer their time, something a bit beyond the annual Christmas party?

Let me add these questions to voluntary sector conditions I have been noting in my posts in recent months:

  • A Register for violations of Volunteer Rights is suggested for Australia.  (Leading to a Union of Volunteers, as one comment has suggested?)
  • A major event is politicised to create a legacy for volunteering, to the point where £5million Lottery Funds are allocated “to be spent on Olympic inspired volunteering schemes”.
  • New ways to fund and provide social services (Social Bonds, Social Finance) are being discussed, without consideration of volunteer input.
  • Lack of understanding and appreciation of volunteers and the potential of volunteering are highlighted in recent academic research.
  • The focus on measuring social service impact and outcomes is not doing any favours for volunteering, specially where the quality of relationships makes the critical difference to outcomes for individuals.
  • The rise of Obligatory Volunteering is also evident, including internships, compulsory community service and conditional welfare entitlements.  Which is where the Christchurch Concert pledge fits in:  ‘free will’ is not so free after all.
  • Corporate responsibility and ‘workplace volunteering’ can sometimes be more self-serving than real social responsibility.
  • In addition we should take into account trends in volunteer preferences, like micro-volunteering, time-limited and task-focused assignments, and time-banking.

There we have a heap of shifts in practice to impact on the ethos of volunteering, and many of them influenced by Government directives.   Government is even supporting a new approach to community development with funding and advice.  It is disappointing to see how the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector is ignoring the long history and proud achievements of ‘community-led development’ that happens without any form of government intervention.

So it seems the ethos of volunteering has enlarged its sphere to include more formalised, more structured practice, and a variety of practice modes.  Volunteering is certainly less central to service delivery for many NGOs than the volunteering I grew up with, decades ago.  That’s OK – nothing is forever, and I’m getting used to living with constant change, in organisations and in volunteering.

But, and it’s a big but: formalised volunteering programmes, complete with policies and professional management of volunteers, are pretty small bikkies in NFP statistics.  Ninety per cent of volunteer organisations in New Zealand do not employ paid staff.  Think about it: that’s close to 90,000 organisations that do their own thing, working in their communities for the common good, and doing good, pitching in where needs must, scratching for funds, and keeping  their services going anyway.

So the ethos of volunteering, performing a service freely and for no charge, has not gone away.  It has just got a bit larger.  Denouncing volunteers who do not fulfil commitments is not yet within the boundaries of regular practice, not yet in the spirit of volunteering, even though volunteers are free to tarnish an organisation’s reputation if they don’t get the experience they expect.

As any yachtie knows, a shift in the wind means you have to trim the sails, and adjust the course to make the most of the wind-power.  That’s the excitement of sailing, being at the mercy of wind and ocean currents, and mastering your way around these forces.  Volunteering can shift with the wind too, yet will keep enough of its core to maintain a true course.

April 21, 2013

What’s to Become of Volunteering?

Posted in Civil Society, Funding and Finance, Impact Measurement, Marketing, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:04 am by Sue Hine

jan24_forgoodforprofit

There’s my question for the week, something to puzzle over after reading the headline Some community social services could be funded privately in future, under a new agreement with the Government.   This is the first public statement on Social Bonds from a New Zealand government minister.

‘Social Bonds’ is a process of advancing funds to NGOs by philanthropist groups (‘private providers’) for the term of an outcomes-based contract, and then reimbursed by Government when the NGO delivers on pre-determined targets.  This funding arrangement has been researched and discussed within government in New Zealand since 2009.   Earlier this year a roadshow promotion from Treasury and Ministry of Health travelled the country to inform community organisations, and to start public discussion.

Those of us who do the media watching, monitor trends, and understand the politics of the day will not be overly surprised.  In the UK Social Bonds have been transforming the community and volunteer landscape since Big Society became the favoured social policy of the Coalition Government.  An Australian report indicates ongoing discussion and debate on details of a Social Bond programme.  Maybe we should heed a Canadian view that says “Social Impact Bonds are a new way to privatise public services.”

On the face of it, the intention of a Social Bond arrangement makes a lot of sense – as any venture capitalist would want from investing in a new enterprise.  You put in the money, and you expect to see some real returns on investment, like a reduction in the rate of teen-age pregnancy, fewer smokers, or a drop in criminal re-offending figures.   Social Bonds also link favourably with current developments in New Zealand for user-friendly contracts between government and NGOs, including multi-agency contracting and simple format financial reporting.  Social Bonds sit well with the results-based programme set by Better Public Services – though this ambitious agenda needs to involve all parts of the community and voluntary sector, from the beginning.

Nothing is yet certain, except for evidence of government intentions for change.  In my reactionary moments I see a pincer movement to corral organisations into a private sector model of service delivery, to get the job done in the shortest time at the lowest cost.  There are risks of reduced public accountability.  Worse is how the ethos of a welfare safety net is further eroded, because investor profits will take precedence.  At the work-face performance-based contracting could mean a selective practice devoted to the most ‘deserving’ clients who will boost the return on investment.

Nowhere in the discussion so far has there been a mention of volunteers – neither their existing contributions to NGOs, nor their future potential.  Non-Government Organisations are those which contract with government. To be drawn closer to web and snares of government is to revert to the decades-old acronym of QANGO – a quasi-autonomous non-government organisation, the ‘almost, but not quite’ independent body, a phrase that will fool nobody.

Not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) can be thankful they are outside this net.  Yet they too will be drawn into this new environment, if only in their efforts to secure a share of the charity dollar.  Will philanthropists consider NFP applications favourably alongside a guaranteed return for investing with NGOs?  And, if the ROI from government contracts is lower than finance market rates doesn’t that reduce the size of the over-all funding pool?

What will become of volunteering when government-sponsored community services become the norm?

Well, here’s your example.  There is one institution, developed and run by volunteers for many years.  Since it gained a government contract a few years back there has been a huge growth in paid staff, and volunteers have been side-lined, reduced to wondering what their role is, and whether they are needed any more.  They do not feature on the organisation chart; they are bit-part players, not really essential to the way the organisation is playing out its mission and vision.

If I was writing a fictional scenario for the future I would be describing the growth in NGOs marketing and fundraising departments.  The organisation-wide volunteer programme will be down-graded in favour of ‘greater efficiency’ from paid staff.  Volunteer activities will be confined to promotional and fundraising events.  No need now for managers of volunteers, because HR and FR people know how and can do.

But if I was looking for inspiration I would go straight to Inspiring Communities, where community-led change is still the mantra to follow, where they know about ‘learning by doing’, about community development thinking and action.  Or I would read again the stories from NZ Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

Volunteering shall not die, because it is in our nature to collaborate and to care about our families, neighbours, and communities.  We just need to our voice to be heard, and heeded.

April 1, 2013

Measuring Up

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Technology tagged , , , , at 1:40 am by Sue Hine

0_0_456_http___offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk_News_NST_40E0865A-FE42-BEE6-D70E8E44B24CF408[1]What do you reckon?  How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does?  What is your performance rating?  Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale?  Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?

There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game.  Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat?  Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?

When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment.  There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding.  It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors.  Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board?  To the tune of the latest marketing programme?  Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?

The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures.  But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.

Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.

It’s still much the same these days.  Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth.  Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.

The impact of services like these goes in several directions.  Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future.  The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements.  Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits.  There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services.  Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved.  The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements.  That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.

We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society.  We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change.  Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels.  As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business.  Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.

But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change.  We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.