February 17, 2013

Volunteer Name-Calling

Posted in Good news stories, Language, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 1:31 am by Sue Hine




I have been collecting a litany of words commonly used as descriptors of volunteering.  There’s quite a selection, and they cover various meanings, from conferring respect and value to some not-so-flattering terms.

Volunteers make the world go round          Backbone of society

Local heroes      Salt of the earth      Good sorts       People power

       Glue / Fabric of the community                        Community Builders

Community collective    Spirit of Community    Community Champions

     Not-for-Profit Institution  Non-Government Organisation

Third sector

              Freebies                Do-gooder                        Lady Bountiful

No doubt there are a few more to add (please do!)  The one that is grabbing my attention at present is Unsung Heroes, a television programme on TVNZ.   Yes, really!  Volunteers are featuring on prime time TV, an extended series show-casing the range and variety of volunteer work in New Zealand.

Most of the major NFP organisations in our communities are represented, and there are some nice pieces on less widely-known charities.  Even the Christchurch Student Army gets a look-in.

What a relief from other reality-TV programmes which too often display the sad, the bad and the downright silliness of human behaviour.  Unsung Heroes hits all the right notes, covering the real activities undertaken by volunteers and including off-the-cuff comments on their motivation.  Mostly the latter is about the feel-good benefits for the volunteer, or the doing-good-in-the-community effect, and once or twice because the volunteer had experienced help from the organisation they have joined.

And yet….  It’s all very well showing off the worthiness of volunteer work, and the achievements of volunteers – but if you haven’t got the background of the organisation, and what it takes to getting a volunteer on the job then you are getting less than half the story.  There’s no show yet of a manager of volunteers, nor the extensive training undertaken by emergency service volunteers and telephone counsellors.  Training has not had a mention in any context.  Or even an induction and orientation.  The series, thus far, has excluded that vast array of informal volunteering that goes under the radar and which really does make the world go round.  It would be nice to see something of Mahi Aroha, and the volunteer effort generated by migrant and refugee communities for supporting their own and for sustaining their cultures.

OK – we can’t have everything, and we should be congratulating NZ On Air for commissioning the programme.  But still I think – why not go a bit further?

What about creating a series based on the drama that is ever present in the life of a manager of volunteers?  Synopsis: follow a valiant manager who herds a bunch of aspiring volunteers through the process of recruitment, training and placement, and what happens to them on the job.  Now there’s a scenario to put management of volunteers on the map!  Because they are our real Unsung Heroes.

December 10, 2012

Obligatory Volunteering

Posted in Language, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , at 3:21 am by Sue Hine

I dug myself a bit of a hole recently when I referred to ‘obligatory volunteering’ during a workshop presentation.  I was using a collective term to include internships, court imposed community sentences, and conditions for receiving welfare payments.  Woops – ‘obligation’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath is too much like coercion, and I was presented very smartly with examples to demonstrate that ‘obligatory volunteering’ is a contradiction in terms.

It seems I have challenged the accepted principles of volunteering: that it is unpaid activity undertaken by choice, for the direct benefit of the community or organisation and to the volunteer.   So now I am ‘obliged’ to justify my choice of words.

  • Volunteer Internships with community organisations can be a training requirement for many professional occupations, or for gaining university ‘credits’.  Volunteering England describes a volunteer internship as

a time-limited volunteer placement that allows a person to gain practical experience by undertaking an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment, individuals or groups other than(or in addition to) close relatives.

  •  Hours of Community Service, as sentenced by the Courts.  There is certainly some compulsion here, in terms of penalties for non-compliance.  But the work is intended to benefit the community and it is unpaid.
  • Welfare beneficiaries: in New Zealand volunteering is encouraged as “a great way to get work experience, learn new skills and help a community”.  But it is also clear that welfare payments are subject to obligations that come with sanctions.

Volunteer Centres can take a lead role in the placement of people coming to volunteering by these different routes.  A purist may argue there is limited or no free will in these contexts, yet people still retain the choice of what sort of work, and which organisation they will work for.  Indeed, they can come knocking at the door to ask about opportunities.  Certainly there is mutual benefit to both volunteer and organisation and many continue volunteering long after the external ‘obligations’ have been met.

Are these conditions so very different from engaging volunteers who come from other directions with a different range of motivations?

Management practice for a volunteer programme may require volunteers to sign a contract related to their work.  There are plenty of codes of practice describing the boundaries of volunteering.  Or there are Rights and Responsibilities charters where expected ‘obligations’ are spelled out for both volunteers and the organisation.

These measures do not carry the weight of a legal contract, nor are they like the marketing ploy of “free quote, no obligation”.  They are simply the means to protect volunteers and the organisation, and service users.

There’s another sense of ‘obligation’ that helps broaden thinking about volunteering.  It’s that age-old moral code of social responsibility – our obligations to each other in our communities.  Survival depended on interdependence in pre-historic times, and still does, in the face of war, famine or natural disaster.  An obligation can also be termed a promise, a duty and a moral commitment.

When you think about it, ‘obligatory volunteering’ comes in different forms and is but one strand of a wide range of activities that we call volunteering.

So let’s be expansive in our interpretations of volunteering, as encouraged by a UNV / Civicus publication Broadening Civic Space through voluntary action: 

a wide range of activities, including traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, formal service delivery and other forms of civic participation, undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor (UN 2001).

I reckon this scope allows me to include ‘obligatory volunteering’ in the discourse.  I think it is quite useful as a figure of speech to apply to some forms of volunteering.


This post is the last for 2012.  I’ll be back with New Year reflections late in January.

November 25, 2012

A Passionate Affair

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Managers Matter, Motivation tagged , , , , , at 3:24 am by Sue Hine

Scenario: you are interviewing a candidate for a position to manage volunteers, and you want to check out the level of passion they would bring to the role.  How would you frame the questions?

I am not looking for answers right now.  I’m going off on a tangent to investigate the meanings of ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’.  I want to question why these words should feature so frequently in the context of volunteering.

They turn up in promotional material, in organisation newsletters and in recruitment adverts.  ‘Thank you’ speeches at Volunteer recognition functions are peppered with references to appreciation for volunteers’ ‘passion’.  Volunteer Centres and national umbrella organisations and even international leaders in our field find ways to insert ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ into their writing.  Even government publications don’t shy away from such emotive language where volunteers are involved.

Here are a few examples of slogans you can find without looking very far:

Show us your passion

Your passion, our nation, volunteer now!

Volunteer leadership is “passion management.”

They are examples of language used to attract and encourage volunteering, and to proclaim the good intentions and aspirations of managers of volunteers.

‘Passion’ means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.  It comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to suffer’.  OK, I know how ‘intense desire’ can be experienced as suffering, though this interpretation is better applied outside the province of volunteering and management of volunteers, despite frustrations experienced too often by the latter.  The passion of volunteering and the management of volunteer services is more about ‘intense enthusiasm’.

There is nothing the matter with being passionate, and to be fair, the word is also prominent in the for-profit sector.  But we do need to be clear what we mean, otherwise the word becomes a cliché and its currency devalued.  ‘Passion’ risks turning into a platitude, like ‘commitment’ and ‘making a difference’.  ‘Passion’ is a word too big and too important to turn into a shorthand slogan.

When we use ‘passion’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath we are referring to values held about people and communities and belonging and relationships, about service and mutual support, and about meeting needs.  Values are those beliefs and principles that are prized and cherished, and they are demonstrated every day in our behaviour.  We don’t have to declare we are passionate about volunteering: we can show you, all the time.

Being passionate about volunteering is relative to the cause of the organisation and its mission.  That’s how many a community organisation started in the first place.  Of course these days people can be more pragmatic about why they volunteer, yet there’s many a story about less-than-enthusiastic volunteers finding their ‘passion’ and becoming ardent supporters of an organisation.

Why should ‘passion’ be an important attribute for managers of volunteers?  For starters you have to be pretty keen (if not ‘intensely enthusiastic’) about volunteering to make the most of the position.  Passion contributes to raised performance standards, job satisfaction, and effective leadership of volunteers – which may include harnessing their passion when it becomes indiscriminate.  Sometimes passion is needed in gaining a recognised stake in the organisation.

But what if you overplay your hand?  There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic and becoming a fanatic.  It’s a line between getting people to listen to well-reasoned arguments and in the way the emotional speech can turn into an eye-rolling, here-she-goes-again response.  Too much overt passion can end up like Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: Each man kills the thing he loves.

So when it comes to interviewing prospective managers of volunteers I would be steering away from emotional rhetoric and asking about practical applications. Examples of practice will demonstrate just how ‘committed’ to ‘making a difference’ and the degree of ‘passion’ is held by the candidate.

September 23, 2012

Why Else Would You Volunteer?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language, Motivation, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 4:46 am by Sue Hine

At the beginning of this month I was extolling the nature and philosophy of volunteering, quoting words like Citizenship, Engagement, Generosity, and a Felt Sense of Community.  No question, these words represent the best concepts of volunteering.

Except….  Unless….  Until….  I start thinking about the other reasons why, in this day and age, people give their time and skills and energies, for free, for community benefit.

I have banged on a lot about the Gift Relationship, spoken in hushed words about the virtues of Altruism and the Spirit of Community.  You see, all these words (they deserve no less than Capital Letters) are the true representations of volunteering.  Except….  Unless….  Until….

Now it is time to get real, time to see just how inclusive volunteering and volunteer programmes can be, outside the Goodwill and Community Solidarity philosophy.

At the local Op-Shop the customer service volunteers are pretty much all older people.  They tell me their time here is the social highlight of their week.  Yes, they are unpaid, and all there by free will, though their ulterior motive is socialisation, to meet and greet people, have a conversation and a bit of a laugh.  And maybe a chance to pick up a bargain as well.

Also on the staff at this Shop are the sorters and cleaners, a right mix of volunteers.   There are young people looking for work experience to put on their CVs.  There are migrants and refugees practising English language skills.  There are the people working off community sentences.   Others are there as evidence of job-seeking in order to retain their welfare payments.

In the administration office of another organisation I meet the ‘interns’, mostly students on placement for their applied degree qualification, and a fair smattering of new migrants.  Unpaid internships are welcomed as work experience to improve job prospects, especially for these groups.

And then I come across the team of Corporate Volunteers who are out on their ‘day-release’ programme, that annual event that demonstrates ‘corporate social responsibility’.  They have engaged with the Department of Conservation to check out bait traps in a protected reserve.  Whoa, I think.  The exercise is likely to be a whole bit of hiking, and possibly encounters with some health and safety hazards in the not-so-nice parts of the day when dealing with captives in the traps.  It is quite a bit different from their day job.  Next time they might prefer to offer pro bono services of their professional skills in governance, or in organisational management and administration.

Volunteering is not what it used to be.  The ideas of ‘free will’ and ‘compulsion’ have been mixed and stirred in a blender.  (I can even confess to volunteering as an escape from tele-marketing calls.) Take a look at Volunteering Tasmania and how they are describing volunteering for our new age:

  • It has a direct benefit to the community and the volunteer (whether the benefit is tangible or intangible);
  • It is undertaken by choice; and
  • It is unpaid. (However, the volunteer may receive reasonable or appropriate reimbursement for expenses incurred that are associated with the role, and/or may receive a monetary or other incentive/reward.)

That’s the commonsense reality of volunteering in the 21st century for you.  Volunteering is always a two-way stretch of reciprocal benefits.

Because, whatever the reason for volunteering, the experience of working for nothing is also an exposure to community services, to the values and commitment supporting development in our communities.  Many a volunteer has extended self-interest to an employment career in the community and voluntary sector.  Or a corporate volunteer programme has introduced people to organisations and opportunities for on-going volunteering.

Understanding these details gives you a head start in recruiting volunteers, and in knowing how to reinforce the rewards, and how to retain volunteer support.

August 19, 2012


Posted in A Bigger Picture, Conference communication, Language tagged , , , , at 4:47 am by Sue Hine

There were two days this week of intensive concentration. Two days of learning new ways of expressing old ideas, two days of interpreting new inspirations for a new age.

There were two events: one was a national conference, and the other a brief breakfast session at Parliament hosted by Jacinda Adern MP, on behalf of ComVoices. Both covered common elements: community engagement and citizenship; the business of funding community projects and enterprise; and different models of operation.

Nothing is forever. We live in a world of constant change. There’s something new every day. Yes, I know all the clichés. But there is something more going on here.

The meanings of ordinary words are revitalised:
Citizenship is you and me and the responsibilities we have to our community and to each other;
Participation is being engaged in our communities and networks, and engaged in the process of change;
Sustainability is creating something that is not just a one-off attempt, and it is also the big word in better management of our environment;
Collaboration and Partnership will drive the operations of community groups in times of austerity; and are the key facilitators in developing a social enterprise.

Hackneyed terms and phrases are revisited and rephrased:
• The old catch-cry of Making a Difference morphs into Doing Real Good, implying there are tangible results in what you do. (And begging the question of defining what we mean by ‘Real Good’.) Well, we are learning fast about outcomes and results-based funding conditions.
Community gets to be described and understood as a philosophy, a collective value, and not just a blanket neutral term for everyone out there, or the generalisation for why our organisation exists. There are many different forms of ‘community’.

When we turn these words and ideas into action there is a whole new vocabulary to learn, and new ways of doing business. The new vocabulary begins with Social Enterprise, and the new business model is based on collaboration and partnership between business, philanthropy, government agencies and communities and community organisations.

That’s the beauty of the new ways of thinking: we can escape from our silos of Public, Private and Third or Non-Profit Sectors (and eliminate perceptions of community as third-rate, or non-anything) to find the new view and new solutions. It’s happening now, somewhere close to you. Go find out more, and be a part of the change. Or read about the international trend for NGOs to embrace profit-making social enterprises.

Going on three hundred and fifty years ago there was an earlier Enlightenment, a period of awakening in Europe, of the beginnings of formal science, philosophy, economics and the rise of capitalism and industrialisation. It was also called the Age of Reason, because it was argued that rational thinking provided more answers to the mysteries of life than religious beliefs. One of the facilitators of this new age was the invention of the Coffee House, where you could enjoy the new stimulant brought by the merchant traders from Africa and South America. Here was the place where intellectuals met to discuss the issues of the day, to form political policies and to plot the French Revolution.

Next time you go to a business meeting at your favourite café give some thought to how your discussion might influence the new Enlightenment.

August 12, 2012

Possession …

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Leading Volunteers tagged at 4:39 am by Sue Hine

… Is a grand novel by A S Byatt, which turned into a pretty good movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow

… Is the title of several other movies, and songs

… Is a word of many different connotations, like:

Possession is nine-tenths of the law.  (That is, the question of ownership is more likely to be settled in a legal context by ‘possession’.)

We have pronouns, my / mine, your / yours, our/ ours and theirs, to indicate ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’ of everything between material property and ‘things’, to inspirited passion and hearts’ desires, to great ideas and intellectual property.

The question is: who owns volunteers?


I am asking because twice in one week I have been at workshops where I was hearing about my volunteers, my board of trustees, my volunteer programme.  That possessive pronoun was working overtime.

Here are my arguments on why we should avoid talking about my volunteers:

  • “Owning” people went out with the demise of feudalism.  Slavery is outlawed too, though we still have to be vigilant re People Trafficking.
  • Volunteers are their own persons; they are exercising their free will to engage with the organisation.
  • They engage with the organisation, not exclusively with the manager of volunteers.
  • Volunteers undertake a range of roles, tasks and responsibilities across the organisation, generally accountable to different section or team managers, not directly to the manager of volunteers.
  • Even where the manager of volunteers is leading a team, this happens on behalf of the organisation.  So better to refer to ‘our’ volunteers, or the more neutral ‘the’ volunteer programme / service.
  • ‘Our volunteers’ still hints of possessiveness, yet embraces volunteering as an integral part of the organisation.  And if you say ‘our volunteers’ with pride in your voice you are saying heaps about your sincere appreciation of their work.
  • Relationships and Communication are key elements of leading volunteers.  Yes, managers of volunteers need to establish personal connections with volunteers, but we also need to set the boundaries of these relationships.  Becoming ‘over-involved’ is a sure route to trouble, and a big no-no for professional reputations and credibility.

So this is my litany.  I am quibbling with a simple linguistic usage.  Yet if we can change a few simple words in our language we can change a whole lot of perceptions and make a world of difference.  Read Alison’s story to see what can happen when you drop my from your references to volunteers.

July 21, 2012

Getting it Together

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language tagged , , , , , at 11:11 pm by Sue Hine

There’s an old word getting serious attention these days, giving me pause for some serious thinking.

Collaboration is a word that denotes ‘working together’, for a common goal. It is a word that connotes shared interests, which can lead to shared resources.

In my mind Collaboration is associated with Cooperation, Consideration of others, Collectives, and of course, Community.  The idea of Collaboration invokes team-work, collective problem-solving, multi-party representation and partnerships.  At the end of the day Collaboration has the potential to offer a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Collaboration has been turning up in different contexts, so it is starting to look like a trend.  Here’s the evidence:

  • The practice of Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) is not a new form of collaboration, though it is a hot topic in New Zealand at present.
  • I am following the rise and rise of social enterprise, and the partnerships negotiated between business and community organisations, between government and community.
  • I note one philanthropic funding source is encouraging joint ventures for community-based services.
  • The influence of community organisations on government policy is limited by the diversity of organisations, and I hear a passionate plea for collaboration, at least at a national level.  Dammit, we need to get our act together.
  • Genuine partnerships between Not for Profits and Government, corporates and clients are “crucial to the achievement of positive social outcomes”, is the theme for a conference in Western Australia later this year.
  • Volunteering New Zealand’s Management of Volunteers Project has certainly benefited from shared information and a collective approach to developing the programme.  There is a great deal of collaboration from diverse interests to achieve an outcome that will be mutually beneficial. The Draft Competencies are now out for consultation.  (Note how ‘consultation’ can also be interpreted as a relation of ‘collaboration’.)

What is going on here?  I know we can all be ground down in efforts to be heard, so “if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em”.  I know how funding pressures can push an organisation into new collaborative ventures with another party, outside the regular frame of reference – or out of existence altogether.

I also know about ‘patch protection’, how proposals for economies of scale like sharing back-room functions with other organisations never go anywhere, and how a ‘silo mentality’ can blinker many a community organisation to the potential benefits of shared interests and collaboration with others.

Because the way the world works is through competition, right?  Evolution determines survival of the fittest.  Supply and demand in the market place predicates which product, which business wins out.  Business mergers are more about swallowing and destroying competitors than a re-invention of enterprise. Politics is all about winning over rivals, or the other party.  Right now we are heading into the opening of the London Olympics and a few weeks of achieving individual glory and national rivalry to top the medal tally tables, no matter how much we talk up the spirit of internationalism.  All of which is the antithesis of collaboration.

I daresay the business of competition will never go away.  We will still want to cheer the All Blacks to another World Cup, and to climb a few pegs on international tables.

Yet, the signs of collaboration on the radar suggest there are some new dynamics entering the business of political, social and economic organisation.  The opportunities for ‘doing good’, for achieving qualitative and positive social change are there if we go look.  As Tom Levitt says in the preface to his book Partners for Good, “In today’s Big Society it is said that ‘we are all in this together’”.

Does anyone notice there is never a mention of volunteers and volunteering?  Nor of managers of volunteers who have been practising collaboration for years, working with volunteers to get great outcomes wherever they are engaged.


July 15, 2012

Volunteering and its Variations

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language tagged , , , , , , at 4:30 am by Sue Hine

Last week I attended a fund-raising function organised by former refugees from the Kachin State in Myanmar.  Most of them have not been here longer than 5 years.  In very short order they learned about living in their new environment.  They bonded as a group, like seeking like, as you do in strange territory.  They learned from each other, finding out how to access resources, and supporting those who needed extra help.   And the leaders among them established a national network to share local information and to keep in touch with homeland politics.

This function entertained both old and new Kiwi supporters with song and dance, and then provided a meal for 200 people.  It was a superb demonstration of event management organisation and spirited goodwill: a totally awesome display of volunteering.  Now they have raised a goodly sum to provide medical supplies and mosquito nets to send to the remote and primitive camps for displaced people in their homeland.

This story got me thinking of all the different representations of volunteering: there are a lot of related words and phrases in common parlance these days.

The Kindness of Strangers turns up as a book title, over and over.  It’s there on You Tube presentations and in song lyrics, and a TV programme.  It’s the title of a scientific study, which includes reference to that archetypal model of a kind stranger, the Good Samaritan.  Pay it Forward is a variation on this theme – a practice that has been around a lot longer than the movie of this title.  A Guardian (UK) article claims “a civil society needs the kindness of strangers and acquaintances”, and cites another report from the Young Foundation , which argues that

Civility is the largely invisible ‘glue’ that holds communities together, and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact of people’s sense of social health than crime statistics. Perhaps most significantly it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is ‘contagious’.

Volunteering is also touted as a glue to hold communities together; and ‘civility’ reminds me of Civil Society – which is just the term to embrace volunteering and all the ways we talk about community and people.  Like this:

Civil society activity meets fundamental human wants and needs, and provides an expression for hopes and aspirations. It reaches parts of our lives and souls that are beyond the state and business. It takes much of what we care about most in our private lives and gives it shape and structure, helping us to amplify care, compassion and hope.  (Making Good Society, 2010)

The Gift Economy is another variant of the concept of volunteering, that ancient practice of exchange and sharing that kept the wheels on communities before we got hooked into market-economy drivers.   And the Gift Economy is still a big one.  Pacific Nations can enjoy remittances from emigrants that total more than local economies.  Maori consciousness of collective wellbeing and responsibility means ‘volunteering’ in the accepted definition has no equivalent in their language.  So we refer to mahi aroha – “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring”, which is part of everyday cultural life within family/whanau, and marae communities.  Nor should we forget that New Zealand’s 4.9% contribution to GDP by the community and volunteer sector is another constituent of the Gift Economy.

And then I think of Altruism, a virtue demonstrating a selfless concern for others, the opposite of Selfishness. It is a huge topic, involving religion, philosophy and pretty much all of the social sciences.   Volunteering is a form of altruism, given the normative definition of free will and no financial reward.  And wouldn’t you know it – research is showing a strong correlation between volunteering and personal health and well-being.  Volunteering, as a Gift Relationship, is always a two-way stretch.

One more piece in the jigsaw of volunteering is Philanthropy, that munificent gesture that is going to keep an organisation solvent for another year.  Etymologists will recognise the Greek origins of this word, meaning ‘love of humanity’.  It’s another way to reinforce all the interpretations of volunteering I have highlighted.  Philanthropy is about private initiatives for public good, operating outside government and business.  You could say Philanthropy embraces all the elements above, writ large.

I learn from these reflections that “volunteering” is a fundamental element of being human, of belonging to a community of family and friends and to wider connections.  Long may this premise remain without corruption.

June 24, 2012

The Week That Was

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Language, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

Whew!  The excitement and hype of Volunteer Awareness Week has come to an end – though I hope the messages of appreciation have gone far and wide, and will linger in the ears of volunteers for a while to come.

This year the Week generated more participation and enthusiasm than I have seen in years.  Press releases continued to be issued throughout the week, from such diverse organisations as Department of Conservation, Age Concern, and Coast Guards.  On Facebook there were dozens of daily entries inviting you to check the ‘like’ box, because they were highlighting an event or acknowledging the extent of volunteer service.  Newspapers ran articles on volunteering and management of volunteers, and occasional stories of volunteer experience.  There were also advertisements of appreciation, from a wide range of organisations, alongside invitations to volunteer.

There was little public proclamation from volunteers themselves. You had to be at one of those functions where awards were handed out and where the stories were told.

“It’s very nice to be appreciated,” said recipient Brenda Segar, 71, of Parklands.  That was on the front page of The Press, about Volunteer Canterbury’s award ceremony.  Another item reported on the 82 year old woman who was too busy volunteering to accept an award for her work.  “I don’t do it for reward”.  She likes doing things for others. “This is most enjoyable. I get home on a bit of a high afterwards.”

I wish we heard more from all those younger generations of volunteers who are filling the ranks in increasing numbers.  Volunteering is not just for the olds!

The story of matching organisation need with corporate interest and volunteer support was recounted at a Wellington function to celebrate the Nikau Foundation Corporate Challenge 2012. There could not have been a more literal example of building communities than the alliance between Habitat for Humanity, and the volunteer engineers from Beca.

In all the hoop-la and speechifying I could still hear the platitudes and clichés about volunteers and volunteering.  There were some new buzzwords too.  I wish we could find the slogans that offer genuine meanings of volunteering.

However, my media-scanning over the past week has gleaned some thoughtful and honest representations of volunteering and the relationship between volunteers and the organisations they serve.

Volunteers make the world go round, which is another way of saying Volunteering is Fun; it’s going and doing.  Volunteering is not the last word saving the world or being indispensible: it is being human, and being involved in community.

Volunteers demonstrate commitment and dedication and passion and skill, and they choose to show us how. (Plunket Society)

Volunteering and volunteer organisations are an important part of the fabric of New Zealand (Citizens Advice Bureau).  Yes!  A fabric is made up of warp and weft, and colour and design, length and breadth – all the multiple dimensions we can find in our communities.

Connection is the heart of volunteering   There is resonance here: Connection speaks of interaction, and a linking with other parts of societal structures – the political, economic and cultural.  This, from the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector who concludes:

“As a short-cut for describing the outcomes achieved by the volunteering sector, we often use descriptions like ‘improving social cohesion’ and ‘strengthening communities’. What that really means at a personal level is that volunteers are creating relationships and enriching people’s lives, including their own, as they contribute their time and effort to making New Zealand a better place.”

There we have it then, a simple equation:

Volunteers + the organisation (good leadership and management) = Building Communities

May 13, 2012

Management, or Leadership of Volunteers?

Posted in Language, Leadership, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:23 am by Sue Hine

Are you a manager, or a leader of volunteers?   How would you answer such a question?

Yes, and no. 


What’s the diff?

I guess most of us will skip over such a conundrum to keep focused on the important issues of recruiting and training a new bunch of volunteers.  Spirited debate on management of volunteers disappears over the horizon when you are time-poor and multi-tasking and trying to prioritise today’s to-do list.

Please keep reading, because you might just find a germ to keep you motivated as a leader of volunteers.

I know, we have struggled for years to get our management skills recognised, and now we are inserting leadership in the way we talk about running volunteer programmes.

I use ‘management’ for convenience and brevity, instead of a long-hand mouthful of manager / leader / coordinator, and having to explain the differences.  I use the word as a collective noun, including the notion of a ‘volunteer’ volunteer manager/coordinator.

That’s because I am a Both-And kinda person.  A fence-sitter, if you must.  I prefer the metaphor of a boundary-rider up on the range, being able to see both ways.

A manager needs to attend to systems and processes, to get the job done in a timely fashion by the best person, according to the organisation’s strategic plan and operational policies.

A leader needs to stimulate, encourage, inspire, facilitate and enable other people to fulfil a mission, to promote a cause, as in the organisation’s strategic plan and operational policies, as I encouraged last week.

As a both-and person I see virtue in both approaches.  Management is practical and task-focused; leadership is people-centred and focused on relationships.  Surely management and leadership are both important and relevant in managing volunteers?  Well – Peter Drucker, the 20th century management guru, had the answer:

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

Notice how value-laden “the right things” could be, and how you have to think carefully about what you might include in such a category, and how ‘the right thing’ could be different for every organisation.

There is a huge literature on leadership.  Sociologist Max Weber might have been the starting point in his classification of authority: charismatic (personality and leadership), traditional (patriarchy and feudalism) and rational-legal (bureaucracy).  Contemporary theorists talk about transactional and transformational leadership styles.  The former is process-driven, as in the description of a manager above.  The latter is about values and purpose and meaning – about behaviour, about people and their capacity for change and their desire for development.  That sounds to me more like what we do in leading volunteers.

Take Transformational Leadership one step further to Emotional Intelligence (or EQ, as it is often referred to), and this is what the characteristics of an EQ Transformational Leader might look like:

  • Self  Awareness – understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and your values
  • Social Skills – building rapport and relationships
  • Empathy – ability to understand another persons point of view
  • Motivation – a drive to succeed, to develop the best ever volunteer programme.

Yes!  That’s what we do every day isn’t it?  Or where you would like to be?  And where peer  support groups or a leadership training programme could support you into being the best leader you want to be, understanding and using the language of leadership and a whole lot more.


I have done a lot of study in my time.  It included only a brief introduction to formal business management and social service administration, and that was a long time ago. Leadership never entered the frame back then.  But I did learn about, and to practice, a philosophy of ‘helping people to help themselves’.  It was, I thought, “leading from behind”.  If you think that sounds like pushing, as I was firmly told by a colleague, think about what you have to do every day to stir and encourage volunteers, to get paid staff to give a bit of appreciation for volunteer contributions.  Your praise reinforces and shapes behaviour that leads to great things for your organisation and for volunteers.

Here is the platitude you could pin on your wall:

The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his 0wn.     (Benjamin Disraeli)

Previous page · Next page