November 16, 2014
The difficulties of volunteer recruitment never seem to go away. The plaints of being short of people or not getting the ‘right sort’ of people keep on being raised. I am still seeing notices in community newspapers or on social media and on websites about ‘wanting’ and ‘needing’ volunteers – which do little more to attract people beyond relying on the organisation’s reputation and public profile.
Well if you have not read the small print in the image above take a look at it now.
This notice reportedly delivered 5000 responses to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s recruitment of a crew for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. The original advertisement has never been located so there is doubt about its authenticity. Nevertheless it is a great story, alongside the subsequent adventures and heroism of the men on the expedition.
Yes, the message is based on men wanted (remember this is pre-Women’s Lib days), but it was the era of Antarctic exploration, and maybe the name of Shackleton drew attention (he had already made a name for himself). Maybe all those men were looking for adventure, not knowing there was a different sort of adventurous expedition that would be announced in just a few months time.
For managers of volunteers the point of any recruitment advertising is (1) grabbing attention and (2) understanding the range of motivations that draw people to volunteer. Add to that some basic principles of marketing, along with the organisation’s well-articulated reasons for engaging with volunteers.
What sort of salvo from a voluntary organisation would deliver the impact that Shackleton achieved?
- Unleash your talents!
- Want to apply your under-utilised skills?
- Opportunity knocks!
- Make friends and influence people
- Join our fun-filled team at….
It’s the impact that counts – one that attracts attention. Offer a taste of the kind of work available – which does not have to be accompanied by the kind of conditions Shackleton was describing. Add in other attractions: the rewards of volunteer work, like Shackleton’s ‘honour and recognition’, or the flexible time arrangements, or the benefits of skill development and work experience. Yes, you can make much of the worthiness of your organisation’s cause, because many volunteers will sign up to pursue their passionate interests. But do avoid messages that sound like you are desperate for help. That plea makes me wonder why volunteers are not signing up and to ask if there is something wrong with the volunteer programme.
All of these suggestions tap into standard volunteer motivations. They are also pretty similar to anything found in Sits Vac columns or job-seeking websites. Let’s not forget that volunteering is a job, is real work – and not simply stuffing envelopes and making cups of tea. And we do it for free, for all sorts of different reasons.
Two more recommendations (but note, there is never a last word on recruitment): (1) include a name, a real person to contact beyond the phone number or email address; and (2) ensure a quick response to messages and expressions of interest. That’s the most important start for a conversation that could lead to a long career as a volunteer.
June 29, 2014
Yes, last week was a blast, a real boost for recognition of volunteers in so many ways. The sincerity of published tributes cannot be doubted; the excitement of award ceremonies and special functions is spread throughout organisations and communities. What could be better?
Something started niggling as I scrolled my way through electronic messages, and scanned newspaper supplements. There was something missing. In all the heaps of praise there was little to tell me what volunteers really do. Have a look at these comments:
We couldn’t manage without you (the most frequent tribute)
Thank you to our army of caring volunteers
Thanks to all our wonderful volunteers for their community work
Volunteers are vital to our work
A big “thumbs up” to all our volunteers – you do an awesome job!
Without our team of dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to achieve half of what we’re able to do
Thank you – you really do make a difference.
If I was a non-volunteer these statements would have gone right under my radar and I would have missed discovering the rainbow of volunteering opportunities out there in our communities.
Messages from organisations which cannot manage without volunteer contributions are confusing. Do they mean the organisation would not exist without volunteers? And if so I’m sure they do not mean volunteer time and effort is being exploited. Why not simply say how valuable the volunteer work is to achieving a goal or a mission and some particulars of the work, instead of a commonplace expression?
What is it that volunteers do, that makes them so awesome, so vital, so dedicated? Please tell me, what is the difference a volunteer makes? That’s what I start wondering. Yes, the stories of volunteer contributions are there, but you have to go looking or know where to look, and then read the fine print. Of course the scope and detail of volunteering is not really the material to cram into a snappy social media post – but it can be done.
Instead there is a tendency to focus on numbers, of volunteers, of their total hours worked, as though counting outputs and putting a $$ value on volunteer effort was the most important information we need to know about volunteering. Yes it is satisfying to claim our place in world surveys, up there with world leaders of volunteering, but still there is little information to tell non-volunteers what all the excitement is about.
So what would I count as real tributes to volunteers? It would be so simple to complete the sentence Thank you for…. and itemise the task the volunteer (or group of volunteers) undertake. Like:
Thanks for turning up each week to look after our kids sports team
Thanks for responding each time we get an emergency callout
Thanks for the hours you spend in care-giving telephone calls, home visits, supporting vulnerable people…….
Thanks for being such an enthusiastic fundraiser
Make the message simple, sincere and specific to the organisation. Adding in service-user feedback comment could highlight volunteer effort, illustrating what really makes a difference. Other messages could focus on why the organisation engages volunteers, what makes them so vital and valuable.
That’s the kind of communication that connects with a wider public, that demonstrates what is involved in volunteering, and which can encourage more people to put up their hands to volunteer.
May 18, 2014
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.
April 6, 2014
I am no musician, though I enjoy listening to a variety of music. This week I have come across two new variations on the theme of volunteering. When you think about it there’s quite a catalogue of words playing on ‘volunteering’. Let me introduce you to the old, the new and my own inventions.
Volun-Told – I start with this term, because that’s how I got involved in volunteering, years and years ago when my mother roped me in to help with a fund-raising event. I was about eight years old, and you did what mother said in those days. It was a while before I understood fully what volunteering is about. Today it’s ‘work-for-the-dole’ and community service sentencing that keeps ‘volun-told’ alive.
Volun-Tourist – Another familiar term, referring to those (like Grey Nomads) who take up a spot of volunteering while on holiday, or to spend time helping on a development programme in foreign parts. Nice work, as long as there is benefit to local people.
Micro-volunteer – The new kid off the block, offering multiple opportunities for time-poor people, for virtually anything. But not well understood in my neck of the woods.
Shadow-volunteer – Here’s a newcomer, courtesy of Gisborne Volunteer Centre (March 31). Could be a new way to induct new volunteers, or a ‘try-and-buy’ recruitment option.
Volunt-Hear – From Volunteer Canada, running a hotline for North America’s National Volunteer week, for people to shout out about volunteers and their efforts. Possible spin-off: organisations create in-house opportunities to appreciate volunteers.
Now here are my novel terms:
Vol-Intern – Bring this word into common parlance and we would be rid of arguments on whether an intern is a volunteer or not.
Volun-Corp – Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring of importance as ‘corporate volunteers’, but at least it puts the volunteering context up front.
Volun-Finders – Raising cheers for all the Volunteer Centres that facilitate volunteer engagement between organisations and the volunteer aspirant.
Volun-Funders – They’re a special breed, going all out to support organisations of their choice. They are the elves to the Fundraising Manager’s shoemaker.
Volun-Tired and Volunt-Tried – Here is a bit of word-play, referring to the long-standing volunteer, or to the volunteer on trial (and/or found wanting). Or maybe the volunteer who contacted the organisation and never got a reply; or the volunteer who has not enjoyed a good experience. Take your pick.
Volun-Steering – I like this one, referring to the manager/leader of volunteers. Not only steering the programme, but negotiating organisation waters that can sometimes be troubled. Could apply equally to volunteer peak bodies.
There is one word omitted from this list: I refuse to include ‘Vollies’. It may be a colloquial term of endearment, but I see it more as word used in a patronising tone, one you might apply to a domestic pet.
That’s enough to go on with; there are plenty more variations to conjure up (suggestions welcomed!). ‘Volunteering’ is a generalist term, covering a multitude of activities and roles. It’s a bit like an orchestra, a collection of very different instruments that collectively can make a beautiful noise. Let’s keep it that way, because in being inclusive we can demonstrate the strength of volunteer actions and the organisations that engage with volunteers. We might yet “become the change we want to see in the world”.
March 2, 2014
I’ve written quite a lot about definitions and meanings of ‘volunteering’ over my blogging years. And I have to keep thinking about questions of ‘who is a volunteer’ as the word’s connotations expand to embrace corporate volunteering, internships and community service. Now I have been snared yet again into debating with myself about the work I have been doing this week.
For the past few days I have been helping my daughter get her house in order for putting it up for sale. She did not ask for my help: I offered. I did not receive any monetary payment. I gave my time freely without expectations of reward. I gained enormous satisfaction from cleaning up the garden and washing windows, and seeing the improvements I achieved. And I toned up a lot of muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I got lots of hugs of appreciation. I would volunteer likewise for friends and neighbours too. And I have done the same sort of work when engaged as a volunteer for an organisation supporting new settlers in my community.
By many accounts, what I have described fits generally accepted criteria for ‘volunteering’ – except when I go looking, I find variations in definitions and additional conditions to determine the use of ‘volunteer’.
Volunteering England would exclude my efforts to help my daughter from definitions of volunteering. It’s ‘informal volunteering’, which extends to all such unpaid help to someone who is not a relative.
So I need to understand there is a distinction between being a ‘helper’ and a ‘volunteer’, and a formal / informal dichotomy of volunteering, even when I am doing the same sort of work.
Volunteering Australia goes further, in restricting ‘formal’ volunteering to an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations, and in designated volunteer positions only. That sounds like a higher status is attached to formal volunteering. Or, that the work I used to do freely and on my own initiative in my local community has become institutionalised as an economic resource, as unpaid labour.
That’s when warning signs light up contradictions. NGO contracts with government rarely include funding for the costs of volunteer programmes, like a manager’s salary or reimbursement for volunteer out-of-pocket expenses. Neither does ‘formal volunteering’ guarantee recognition and status for volunteers and the manager of the volunteer programme within the organisation.
In the meantime my informal volunteering continues to go un-noticed and uncounted. A colleague reminded me of the words ‘natural support’ to describe all that child-rearing, house-keeping, befriending, good neighbourliness that goes on and on in our communities. So if all that volunteering is ‘natural’, does that mean there is something ‘unnatural’ about formal volunteering? That might sound flippant, but I have to ask the question.
One place where volunteering is not designated formal or informal is the data collected during a Census. In New Zealand we are asked to record details about ‘unpaid work’, those activities performed in the four weeks before the census date, without payment, for people living either in the same household, or outside. Statistics NZ describe volunteering as:
“Voluntary work supports groups and organisations whose activities contribute to social well-being. Volunteers give their time and skills to help others and give back to their community.”
Maybe this description is too simplistic for purists. Yet the concept of ‘unpaid work’ enables an overall account of the scope of freely given activity in our communities wherever and however it occurs. ‘Formal volunteering’ is a label that has evolved with the growth of the NGO sector. It is a pity that institutional understanding and appreciation of volunteering and its management within organisations has not grown with the label.
Some years ago Andy Fryar raised similar questions about definitions of volunteering:
- Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
- Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?
These questions are not so silly, and there are no easy or even silly answers. We are continually tripped by meanings attached to different types of volunteer involvement. It’s worth having a look at Volunteering Vocabulary (see inset p5) to see how many ways there are to use ‘volunteer’.
‘Volunteering’ is a word that has grown in use and expanded in meaning alongside social, political and economic change in our communities. To confine ‘freely given time, skills and energy for the common good’ within the boundaries of a rigid definition could restrict our willingness to give so freely.
September 15, 2013
An excerpt from a NFP newsletter dropped into my inbox recently. The headline read We are not Volunteers. The author preferred the term unpaid appointees on the basis that such people were ‘nominated’ by community organisations, rather than ‘putting up their hands’ to volunteer. In all other respects these unpaid appointees followed standard volunteer programme practices in being interviewed, attending a training programme and orientation. On completion of all this they were gazetted and sworn in to undertake their roles as Justices of the Peace. That was the bit that put them beyond being called volunteers.
Oh dear – here we go again on the definitions and principles of volunteering.
Are volunteers for emergency services, for surf life-saving and fisheries protection to be deemed a different category from JPs?
What about the work-for-the-dole programmes, and community sentencing? That’s ‘compulsory’ work for nothing, people say, not volunteering!
When I give my time and accept tickets for a concert in return is that volunteering, or incentivised something? Time-Banking raises another curly question: for all its popularity it’s more about exchanging services, a trading arrangement, isn’t it?
Then there’s the business of ‘informal volunteering’, being a family care giver for aged or disabled people, or being a good neighbour. This sort of volunteering simply goes under the radar, uncounted and unrecognised. But it is suggested that foster care, which is paid, could be termed volunteering under a ‘moral contract’.
And even if organisations involved in advocacy and activism are not eligible for charitable status, their workforce embodies significant volunteer commitment.
Some of these instances were debated in a panel discussion on the scope and definition of volunteering at the recent Australian National Conference on Volunteering. Opinions diverged of course, but there was a point of agreement on the way forward:
Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering is the outstanding challenge
This undervaluing of volunteering is evident in both NFP and Government sectors, said the CEO of Volunteering South Australia/Northern Territory. Recent research in New Zealand drew similar conclusions. It does not take much to see the flow-on effect in low respect and appreciation for the work of managers of volunteers.
So debate and discussion on what constitutes volunteering is a very big red herring. The real issue here is finding a voice that speaks out about the value of volunteering, and I don’t mean in economic terms. Volunteering is a force to be reckoned with, and we owe it to volunteers and our communities to demonstrate why and how.
The collective “We” includes organisations and their leaders, the movers and shakers in our communities, and managers of volunteers. By creating alliances and developing collaboration we will find a unified voice, telling the story of volunteers and volunteering like it is.
There’s encouragement to be found in the latest Thoughtful Thursdays posting. Susan Ellis acknowledges the busyness of managers of volunteers and reviews some reasons why we do not speak out. The real challenge is to find ways to present volunteering as a vital part of civil society, within organisations as well as in the wider community.
August 11, 2013
There are always stories to tell after travel adventures. I did not go looking for volunteers and volunteering on my recent OE, but the following tale was overheard during a long day on the bus. It was related by a big man with a big voice. We all got to hear what he had to say.
I retired about five years ago. Best thing I ever did. I’ve got my hobbies and I go travelling pretty much every year. I don’t miss the grind of work a jot. Some people say I should be doing some volunteering: no way! I’m not going in to do drudge work to help an organisation save a bit of money. If I am going to volunteer I want to make sure it’s for a mission I believe in and want to help.
Right on, I said to myself. That’s the way most people are getting involved in volunteering these days. After all, volunteering is always about giving time freely and willingly, right?
Hmmm…. Free Will is something philosophers have been debating for centuries. Does free choice really exist alongside all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ learned during our childhood and reinforced throughout a lifetime?
For quite a while now it has been clear that the free will of volunteering can be generated by self-interest. I want some work experience, some credits for my study courses, to get out of the house and enjoy some company, to help me learn about my new community, or to practice speaking English. About the only real freedom is in engaging with an organisation of my own choosing. Even those sentenced to Community Service (mandatory volunteering) are able to select where they will work out their time.
The ethics of Duty, Obligation and Civic Responsibility do not feature in our language so much these days. A recent research publication records the decline over the past two hundred years in the use of words linked to duty and obligation, while words linked to individualism and materialism have increased. This shift in our mind-sets, says the psychologist researcher, reflects the socio-cultural changes effected by urbanisation, universal education and technology. It’s also worth noting how volunteering has become more formalised and structured – and the emergence of professional standards for management practice.
When motivation is a matter of self-interest Free Will can still get exercised in selecting an organisation for volunteer effort – though self-interest carries a responsibility to ensure our expectations match the organisation goals and the available volunteer roles. I would hope recruitment and orientation procedures would help ensure an appropriate match between organisation and aspiring volunteer. And if the organisation and the volunteer programme offer the best possible experience then further volunteering is encouraged.
So let us not get precious about definitions and the different paths that bring people to volunteering. Language changes, and the way we think and behave and relate to our environment and in our communities will continue to change over time.
May 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.
May 19, 2013
A member of parliament resigned this week, in disgrace. For ten days the news media communicated to the public arena all the ill-chosen words that were spoken, emailed and twittered, plus as many details as they could extract from the Prime Minister. The MP could not have managed better his exit from the political stage. All because what he said, the way he said it and the medium he used compounded his errors. His resignation and departure saves the coalition government’s slender majority, and shows us all how critical the choice of words and the way they are said can be.
Put a bunch of managers of volunteers together, ask them to nominate the most important principle in leading volunteers, and 80% will tell you it’s Communication.
Of course! Except Communication is a really big carpet-bag word, stuffed full of a range of meanings and processes and practice – and technologies. It’s time we unpacked the implications of the word and understand how it is best used in the context of a volunteer programme.
Communication is about Exchange of Information Yes, the sending and receiving of accurate information is all-important to help volunteers into the organisation and for on-going retention. Ensuring information about volunteers and the volunteer programme is spread to other staff and senior managers is also important. And – being timely in responding to queries and messages: there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting to hear back from someone, even if it is simply an acknowledgement your message has been received.
Because Communication is also about Relationships It’s about creating personal connections, getting to know people and their circumstances. It’s about getting alongside paid staff, creating goodwill, and their understanding and appreciation of volunteer work. And you don’t get good relationships going without being a Listener. You have to be really genuine in meeting and greeting and appreciating volunteers – they will see through formulaic responses very smartly.
Communication is about inter-connectedness Communication is the way to create links with communities, to network with other managers of volunteers, and to open up intra-organisation channels. Beware the pitfalls of ‘talking past each other’ whether in cross-cultural communication or in everyday exchanges. It’s the intimacy of interpersonal interaction that counts towards real connections.
Communication is a leadership dynamic A leader’s support, encouragement, enthusiasm and inspiration do not happen in isolation – by definition there is always a following team. So a leader is tuned to know which buttons to press and when and what words to use, and how to draw in the reluctant player, or to spur the confidence of the shy and retiring volunteer, or to find new ways to develop volunteer talents. A good communicator will also demonstrate the value of a volunteer programme to the organisation.
You cannot not communicate There’s a truism for you! The experts can demonstrate how just 10% of a message is conveyed in words. The rest is non-verbal, the body language, the tone of voice, the facial expression. So even a tight-lipped poker-face is sending a message, whether they mean to or not.
Hang on a minute – a heck of a lot of our communication these days is not face-to-face. You’ve got everything from formal letters, newsletters and written planning and policy papers, to email and social media, to websites and webinars. So the written word is still a primary tool for communicating ideas and information.
Being a communicator and minding our language comes with the territory of managing volunteers. I reckon we could teach foolish MPs a thing or two.