August 21, 2016
There is something going on in the business world that looks awfully like the principles of volunteer management.
I’ve been reading stuff on improving paid staff engagement, on increasing employee diversity (instead of hiring a bunch of clones), on how more people are placing importance on values and company purpose in their job-seeking than on the size of salary or climbing a career ladder. And when employees quit research is showing it’s mostly because organisation goals and action plans have got out of kilter with its vision and mission. Employees also want recognition and appreciation that isn’t just a monetary bonus for reaching pre-determined goals.
How come business is usurping all the best practices the volunteer industry has been developing for decades? And how dare they, without acknowledging this important intellectual property!
I congratulate those businesses that recognise employees are people before economic inputs, and that ‘work’ is not simply labour in exchange for pay. And this is where I see opportunity to get recognition for volunteers up where it belongs.
For years we have struggled to get organisations and stakeholders to ‘get’ volunteering. In recent times we have encouraged strategic development of volunteer programmes and management as a way to achieve full recognition of volunteer contributions. Now I think business interest in people development over labour units provides an opportunity for a real alignment between volunteering and organisation structure, policies, practice and culture.
This move may involve a bit of a seismic shift, because the role of manager of volunteers will either change dramatically, or be disestablished. Please read on before you rain down hellfire and damnation for such heresy.
At least two large volunteer-involving organisations in my city have changed their ways. Both have diverse spheres of work, with paid staff engaged in different operations. Both no longer have a position for a manager of volunteers directly responsible for the volunteers, and volunteers are directly assigned to different operational teams. So the team leader is expected to engage, train and oversee the volunteer in his/her charge. Here is where integration and a unified approach to the work of the organisation can begin. Here is where to find the embedding of volunteers into a people-centred culture. And the bricks-and-mortar strength of this culture goes a long way towards achieving organisation mission and vision.
When volunteers are an add-on, a nice-to-have extra assistance for the organisation’s services there’s a distance between volunteer work and the real stuff undertaken by paid staff. Yes, volunteers can be essential for successful fundraising and promotion events, but these aren’t really the main events for the organisation. It’s like the volunteer programme is a parallel universe to the real life of the organisation.
Yes, I know all the arguments about volunteer management being different from human resource management. Yet increasing regulation in recent years says volunteers are tied to more rules than they faced in the past – think police vetting, health and safety legislation, and even codes of conduct and signed agreements.
Change of the magnitude I am suggesting brings resistance and anxiety for paid staff, not to mention grizzles about additional responsibilities. Organisation change is unsettling at any time. In this case it is more about staff inexperience in leading volunteers, and volunteers may lament the loss of their friendly go-to manager who could move mountains and do anything. Everyone is obliged to develop new relationships.
But think of the opportunities! For team development, for collaboration and integration of different ways of working; for volunteers to step up to leadership roles in support of paid staff. Think of the potential for relationship-building, improved people-management, and the intrinsic rewards for both paid staff and volunteers.
I reckon this future is like investing in Lego – you know, those colourful interlocking bricks that are endlessly creative and that hold together, no matter how many add-ons. When volunteering is embedded into a well-structured and solid organisation there’s a better chance that both volunteers and paid staff will flourish.
December 3, 2015
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Volunteering New Zealand Conference e tu, where we heard a lot about the progress champion organisations have made through adopting the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations. Results are impressive, for managers of volunteers, for volunteers, and for the whole organisation.
I got excited to learn about a new set of values developed by St John New Zealand. Because organisation values have been a long-standing academic and applied interest for me. Here’s some thoughts I wrote three years ago.
In that blog I was concerned about the distance between words adopted as values and their meaning, and about organisational response to the importance of values.
Not every organisation displays their values on a website or their letterhead. Questions about organisation values are rarely asked in recruitment interviews. Monitoring behaviour against the meaning of value words is a low priority. Could this lack of attention explain the ease of ‘mission creep’ and ‘marketisation’ of many organisations over recent times?
What got me excited about St John’s innovation is the language used, avoiding the usual high-level abstract virtues:
Our five Values guide how we do things together as One St John. These are:
We do the Right Thing – Whakaaro Tika We take responsibility. Make the tough calls. Think of others.
We stand Side by Side – Whakakoha We respect, value and support what others contribute.
We Make it Better – Whakawerohia We find solutions- step up, own it, do it.
We have Open Minds – Whakahangahanga We listen openly. Encourage ideas. Welcome feedback.
We are Straight Up – Whakapono We act with honesty, courage and kindness.
Yes, there is still some abstraction. But note how Inclusive is present throughout the iteration: We do things together, and each value is a declaration of intent prefaced by We, indicating again that everyone in the organisation is involved. Instead of the word Integrity, widely invoked as a value in the sector, each value resounds with responsible ethical practice. Dignity isn’t there either, but inferred in Think of others, Respect what others contribute, Acting with kindness. No need to talk of Excellence – striving for the best is inherent in every one of those values.
Note also how each value is underpinned by behavioural expectations. These are the benchmarks that will steer all operations throughout the organisation. No longer are values something for the Board and the Senior Management Team to worry about: all staff and volunteers are responsible for aligning their actions with the stated intent of the values. There’s accountability for you, and potentially an indicator of performance and impact.
Anyone who has been involved in culture change in an organisation will know what an enormous undertaking this can be, taking a long time, overcoming resistance, and downright frustrating at times for all parties. St John New Zealand, an organisation that serves communities throughout the country, with staff and volunteers numbering thousands, has made the process look straightforward.
When an organisation establishes a new strategic plan and finds the old values are out of touch it is time for change. St John set up a steering group of representatives ‘from the shop floor’, to canvass people in all parts of the country on the values that were significant in their work. Yes, there was an external agency involved, but it was the steering group that led discussions and gathered feedback. There was a high level of engagement throughout, and it took months.
Once the preferred values were identified and named another round of meetings ensued, presenting results, encouraging understanding and buy-in of the new look line-up of values. Additional information and resources were available too, including a badge to pin on uniform shirts.
And all the time St John kept an eye on the Best Practice Guidelines, monitoring performance against changes observed and responses to the new values.
Thank you, St John New Zealand, for showing the way to implement change, and thank you Volunteering New Zealand for providing the platform.
November 9, 2014
I’ve never thought too much about job satisfaction in my working life. I’ve taken the rough with the smooth, got on with it, and found small pleasures where I could. And most of the time the roles I’ve undertaken have offered scope for applying skills and finding creative responses to all the challenges. I don’t think I would be amongst the 40% of New Zealand’s workforce that are reportedly unhappy in their jobs these days.
But I am not surprised by this figure. The nature of work and employment has been changing for decades. Full employment went out the window more than 30 years ago and worker rights keep on being eroded. Technology has changed the level of knowledge and skills required for the greater part of the workforce, and unskilled work gets harder and harder to find.
The bit in the news report that got my attention was this:
[P]art-timers seemed to hold less attachment to their job and were more likely to look for a new role or career in the pursuit of happiness.
For those employing large numbers of part-time staff, it is vital to build a culture of inclusion and make sure employees feel their contribution is valued in order to inspire loyalty and retain good staff.
Of course! Managers of volunteers have known that forever, haven’t we? Our job is all about ‘part-timers’. We work hard to ensure volunteers feel their contribution is valued; inclusion is what you do to help people feel they belong to the organisation. Hence the attention paid to interpersonal communication, and all the newsletters and social media posts aimed at keeping in touch.
Because for a volunteer the counterpoint of being valued and included in an organisation amounts to dissatisfaction and departure – and a risk to the organisation’s reputation in the community.
From where I sit it seems employers of part-time staff could learn a lot from managers of volunteers and their approach to good relations with volunteers. Go ask them: they’ll show you how to enhance part-timer commitment and job satisfaction.
This claim is supported by research that showed paid staff wanted improvements to provision of career development, the work environment (particularly culture and morale), and to their welfare (stress levels, feeling appreciated and engaged). Such negativity resulted in 32% of the research sample intending to leave their jobs in the next three months. The most important traits employees wanted in their managers were openness, honesty, and good communication skills.
Of course there are plenty of executive managers who can demonstrate these qualities (see this post). I’ve also commented a few times on employer practice that offers lessons for managers of volunteers (see here, here and here) – and vice versa.
These principles are even more important for organisations involved in the voluntary and community sector. Good people management is not just for staff and volunteer job satisfaction – these skills are also essential for working with service users and in wider community relations.
So while the manager of volunteers makes every effort to develop volunteer inclusiveness and job satisfaction, I hope the organisation’s executive managers are also working to ensure a happiness culture for everyone.
October 19, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand held a workshop for managers of volunteers in Wellington last week. Raising the Bar was the first of a number to be held around the country, drawing on the Best Practice Guidelines to ask What does Best Practice look like and how do we get there?
My long memory recalls the origins of this workshop, the tiny germs of ideas that got translated over time into a working group, to a VNZ project, to publishing the Guidelines, and now to working on getting them implemented.
Back in 2009 the VNZ Conference theme was Volunteering Unleashed, and there were two streams: Volunteering Tomorrow and Inspiring Leaders – two sides of the same coin you might say. With presentations like ‘Unmasking the role of volunteer management’ and ‘Awaken the hero leader in you’ there was plenty to inspire and unleash imaginations for future effort. At the final session I asked “What happens next?” to which there was a smart reply: “What would you like to happen?”
A few weeks later a meeting was convened with a bunch of other people who were asking the same question. The Management of Volunteers Development Group was born, if not right then, but over the next few meetings. I’ve written about its progress several times:
Raising the Bar was the theme for VNZ’s conference in 2011, and a principal stream was devoted to ‘Developing the Leaders’. Sessions covered a range of regular practice for managers of volunteers, and included focus on leadership – because managing volunteers is nothing without leadership.
The present round of workshops on Raising the Bar is another step to encourage managers of volunteers to take on strategic leadership, and to advocate for implementation of the Best Practice Guidelines. At the same time there is a parallel effort going into nominating champions of managing volunteers, the executives of organisations that demonstrate and promote understanding and recognition of volunteering and its management. Yes, we need to promote these champions so others may raise their sights, to include the value of volunteers and their managers in their vision.
The workshop this past week raised a real buzz, a community of managers of volunteers sharing concerns and their ideas and information, using the material of the Best Practice Guidelines. There was plenty of diversity in this group, both in size of organisation and in sector interests. The old hands mixed with the newbies, and there was learning for everyone.
At the end of the day what happens next is up to participants. They’ve got their take-home message and intent for action, but we’ll have to wait to see results. Strategic leadership for change and development takes skill, courage and determination. And time.
How high does the bar have to go? We’ll know when we get there, for sure.
October 5, 2014
I’ve seen a few job vacancies lately, opportunities that make me sit up and take notice. These are senior positions in national organisations, charged with strategic management and development of volunteer programmes.
Words and phrases like ‘leadership’ and ‘integrating volunteer work with service delivery’ and ‘best practice processes and resources to maximise voluntary service’ leap out of the published blurbs. These jobs are close to Executive Team level, offering opportunities to lift the profile of volunteering and its contribution to organisation operations. Candidates are expected to competent in strategic planning and project implementation, and in leading transformational change. Being able to undertake surveys and analysis could be useful too. And of course, being experienced in developing and maintaining good relationships with both internal and external stakeholders is another given.
Yay! Management of volunteers has come of age! At last, there is recognition for the rightful place of volunteering within organisations. And yes, the relevance of strategic leadership, as outlined in Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, gets acknowledged.
And then I start looking at the fine print. What are the qualities and qualifications these organisations are expecting in candidates? “A relevant tertiary qualification” can be anything from community development to health, including human resources and psychology. Or in research and evaluation. Or in ‘social services’, or management. Take your pick. Your experience is likely to count for more – say a minimum of four years in social service management. The list of desired experience includes leadership and people management. Desired communication skills extend to coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. While all these skills and experience are relevant and important, any reference to direct experience in managing volunteers is a lesser consideration.
By now you might be able to sense my raised eyebrows.
Yes, I know there are people out there with qualifications and experience that could foot any of these positions.
And yes, management is management, and leadership likewise, regardless of the field.
And yet, a toehold at executive management level is still precarious for volunteering.
Unless the executive team has their own experience of volunteering, unless they understand fully what volunteering is about, the new strategic manager is still in the position of advocating for volunteers, still arguing their cause and how to engage fully with them. That’s a hard road, where expectations and big ideals can get sidelined when the organisations are struggling to meet contract obligations and to secure funding to cover the shortfall. It is even harder if the appointee is not steeped in volunteering philosophy and practice.
What if the new position is more about taking control and command of volunteering, ‘using’ volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision? That’s a risk, specially without direct experience of volunteering. And volunteering will be the poorer for that.
Because at bottom there are big distinctions between working for pay and working as a volunteer. I need to earn a living, so a paid job is a necessity. When I volunteer it is by choice, to follow an interest or to support a cause. There are set hours for paid work; volunteer work can happen at all hours, including weekends. Volunteers set their own ‘leave’ schedules; paid workers must apply to take time off. Paid workers fit into designated positions, limited by organisation budgets; volunteers will be assigned to particular roles, but these are limitless. Numbers of volunteers can outweigh paid staff 5:1 and more.
So there are big challenges for the person taking on an organisation’s strategic development of volunteering. How to meet the challenges is a story for another time.
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.
November 24, 2013
Dear Volunteering New Zealand –
Now that the conference is over and a welcome summer break is on the horizon I hope you are reflecting with pride on what a remarkable year 2013 has been for the community and voluntary sector, and particularly for VNZ. Indeed, over the past three years progress in promoting understanding and practice in volunteering and management of volunteers has been amazing.
The Management of Volunteers Programme may have been an initial spur through engaging with individuals and organisations across the sector. It was like we had been waiting for someone to take the lead and provide the forum to plan and implement what we were looking for. Thank you for rising to the challenge, and for the resulting publications.
VNZ’s enhanced promotion and publicity throughout this year has boosted the core business of promoting and valuing volunteering. Communication technology has been exploited to showcase issues and achievements, and to publish local and global news. Attracting volunteers and interns for projects and research demonstrates to the wider community your confidence in volunteer skills and attributes to support your work programmes.
You are illustrating the practice of collaboration and partnership most visibly in sharing office space and in the partnership agreement with ANGOA, Social Development Partners and Community Research. The Collaborative Kōrero* conference this week was another step in show-casing how working together can produce outstanding outcomes.
It was a bold move to call for questions, inviting participants to shape the content, rather than people like me submitting abstracts on their pet topics. The Conference Committee did well to distil a programme that covered standard concerns (recruitment, technology, HR vs MV, and measuring impact) yet giving space and a novel approach to listen and discuss these topics in different ways. I look forward to revisiting plenary sessions on YouTube. The Kōrero continued outside the workshops, swapping stories and learning from each other. I wonder if anyone has noticed the conversations were not so much about volunteering, or civil society or fundraising and marketing – the focus was squarely on responsibilities of managing volunteers and leading volunteer programmes. As the by-line says, “great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky”.
I think you would be the first to admit that none of these successes have happened in isolation. They drew impetus from improved use and scope of technology, on the surge of corporate social responsibility and business volunteering, on developing working relations with government ministries, on (sadly) events like Christchurch earthquakes and the Rena oil spill, and on international connections through attending conferences and on-line networks.
At your AGM earlier this week I was surprised there were no supporting comments from the floor for the work you have done and the achievements that were noted in reports. So I have taken time and a few more words to express my appreciation. Of course there is still much to do, and I wish you well for the good ideas that will turn into projects and further successes.
Your Independent Advocate
November 3, 2013
Taking a leap, despite a safety harness and all the instruction is always a risk. But look how much fun it could be, what a different perspective to be gained, and how one achievement could lead to new adventures.
Taking tips from the business world could be another version of bungy-jumping for managers of volunteers – a leap of faith beyond experience. I’m taking tips from a former corporate chief executive this week, ideas that can apply equally well to community organisations and the practice of managing volunteers. Here are some quotes from a recent newspaper interview.
“I suspect many smaller companies hit a barrier, where they can’t unlock that next phase of potential growth. They can’t get past that ‘Kiwi-ness’ and they can’t get past the founder who wants to be part of everything and can’t let go.”
Well maybe we are not all into business growth and export markets, but keeping our organisation alive and flourishing is important. So configuring a strategic plan that strengthens what we do well is important. Take a visionary look into future development for the volunteering programme, cultivate the art of the possible. That means responding to trends in volunteering, population change and social change, and being alert to shifts in political winds. We cannot rely on the same-old ways forever.
“I like to be accessible.”
This ex-CE was head of around 11,000 staff. There are no reports on how many employees got to meet him, but he built a reputation for being communicative and approachable. That’s how managers of volunteers like to see themselves. So best practice will include an open-door policy, regular communication through a variety of media, and being responsive to emails and telephone messages. Those leadership and people skills really do matter.
What is needed is a leadership mentality based on risk-taking, innovation and “disruptive change”. Too often management gives employees “permission to fail”. Too many New Zealand organisations have a fear of failure in innovation. It’s human. I always said: ‘It’s much better to get out and try new ways of serving customers and to stuff up, than to do everything right’.
There’s a challenge for organisations and managers of volunteers! Sometimes it feels like we have become so risk-averse we dare not step outside a safety zone. We hesitate at pushing boundaries, seizing opportunities and creating innovative services. We have lost the crusading zeal that established many a community organisation and community services. Do we really fear failure and stuff-ups, or is it the fear of losing funding and service delivery contracts that matters most?
‘Push for change. We need to make more mistakes, because from them we learn so much about what particular customers value’.
Of course! Making mistakes is the best teacher in managing volunteers, as in life. So be honest, acknowledge the error, apologise, and rectify. And move on.
And if you are thinking this is all too much, take courage from recent UK postings. Be an adventurous manager of volunteers. Go bungy-jumping.
And don’t forget to make November 5 Your Day!
October 6, 2013
Ask a group of managers of volunteers what they like most about their job and nine out of ten will say “working with volunteers”. I forget what the tenth person says, because I have started thinking and wondering why and how volunteers make their manager feel so good about their work.
It’s the people thing, isn’t it? Those interpersonal relationships, the people skills. We get to know volunteers in quite intimate ways, which enhances our ability to involve them effectively, to encourage skill development, to help move them to greater performance. It’s a virtuous circle, really.
It’s also a bit soft and mushy. There has to be more than simply being on good terms with each other.
Enlightenment has come to me this week from several different sources.
- Look at the words for Volunteering New Zealand’s whakatauki for IVM Day:
Ma mua ka kete a muri, Those who lead give sight to those who follow;
Ma muri ka ora a mua. Those who follow give life to those who lead.
There’s that mutual benefit of the reciprocal relationship again, a self-reinforcing cycle. There are also imputations of ‘leadership’: leaders enable their followers; they model desired behaviour and practice. And followers affirm their belief in and support for their leaders.
So people who manage volunteer programmes are really leaders. Yes, we know that – but what are the ingredients of leadership?
2. That’s where a recent issue of NZ Listener spotlighting ‘influentials’ offers some leads.
“Today’s complexities demand new forms of leadership and influence across private, public and non-profit spheres.” Great to have the community sector included here, with examples like the Student Army efforts post-Christchurch earthquake. “This is an example of the kind of bottom-up, adaptive influence that can channel the resources and energy of ordinary people with something to contribute, and turn it into effective action that improves lives” (Brad Jackson, co-director of New Zealand Leadership Institute).
Yes, a manager can be influential in the way volunteers achieve effective action, so ‘influence’ is surely one part of a leader’s tool-kit. I am cautious about using this word, however, because ‘influence’ has connotations of that P-word that can produce hugely negative results. But when there is a common cause it is not so difficult to channel ‘the resources and energy of ordinary people’. I know how the common cause also facilitates harnessing the diversity of ages and skills and interests among volunteers.
There is a huge literature on leadership, including masses of research, though not a lot spills into the volunteer management domain. Contemporary thinking appears to be less concerned with individual personality profiles: it’s the ability to take the initiative and responsibility for the purpose of the cause that matters. So the role of the leader is to ensure common interests, shared goals and collective commitment: these drivers have been forever the means for development of community organisations. There is also a shift from individual accountability to mutual accountability, a change from ‘I know best’ to ‘we know how’, says Chris Johnson, Auckland leadership consultant. Leadership becomes Teamwork, as the America’s Cup racing in San Francisco has demonstrated – by both Team New Zealand and Oracle. The role of each team member is integrated into a seamless collaboration.
Yes again: these points will be familiar to managers of volunteers.
However, on the employment front research shows that only about 20% of the average workforce is ‘highly engaged’ – that is, motivated and committed to the organisation’s purpose (according to Johnson). That would never happen in a volunteer programme: if volunteers are not highly engaged they will be walking elsewhere. And there we have a very big distinction between paid staff and volunteers.
Today’s leaders have to trust the people who work for them (Johnson). Again, this is nothing new to managers of volunteers. Trust is probably the biggest attribute in their tool-box, contributing to their positive relationships with volunteers. We know that too, don’t we?
3. Here is affirmation for managers of volunteers, coming from an unexpected quarter:
Volunteering – A Great Way To Learn Real Executive Leadership
Young corporate managers are urged to do volunteer work early in their careers, because the type of leadership at the top is akin to being a leader of volunteers. It is not about carrots and sticks but about persuasion and getting people to grasp and follow your vision. [Emphasis added]
The article acknowledges the challenging environment for managers in volunteer organisations. It refers to ‘permission leadership’, in which managers have to earn the trust and respect of people they are supervising.
Here’s the virtuous circle again. Relationships do matter: leadership (and management) is all about people skills.
So what? I hear people thinking, if not saying. We’ve always known the importance of ‘people skills’, and by extension the precepts of leadership.
I am thinking aloud, you understand, unravelling the obvious, just a little. What is still an open question is the detail in ‘people skills’ and how we get to learn them. Where can I find some answers?
April 28, 2013
Volunteers in action, London Olympics; RWC 2011 in New Zealand
No – this is not the last will and testament of volunteering, nor an obituary of the dynamic and thriving social activities in our communities. But I do have something to say about the expectations of long-term outcomes for volunteering at major events.
This week there are media reports from the UK headlining Legacy of London 2012 volunteers is ‘fizzling out’, and declaring there is “no clear plan for capitalising on the contribution Games Makers can make to other volunteering initiatives”.
Like the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, the London Games engaged volunteers (70,000 of them) who made a huge contribution to the success of the Games. There are lessons here for all of us, about event management – especially the volunteer programme, about long-term volunteer outcomes – especially around volunteer engagement and retention, and about ‘the legacy’.
Talk of the London Legacy began early, some five years before the Games began. There were promises declared, including the intention to “inspire a generation of young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity”. The knowledge, skills and experience of managers of volunteers did not rate a mention. Defining a legacy was, I suppose, a way to justify the huge expenditure on hosting the Olympics, and to indicate there would be some return on the investment.
There have been reams of commentary, before and since the Games. One volunteer sector writer notes the shortcomings in the planning and management of the volunteer programme, and prefers to describe what was learned from the Games rather than extolling the Legacy. Another identifies the hurdles for sustaining a legacy on the volunteer front, namely ignoring basic principles of volunteer recruitment and retention.
Like the London Games, oversight of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was also a government responsibility, though much of the leg-work was done by the NZRU and Sport NZ. Leaders in the community sector were disappointed they were not consulted or directly involved in the planning for the volunteer programme. But it turned out well-planned and well-managed, and a huge success for the tournament, for the visitors and rugby supporters, and for the volunteers.
And, we’ve got the evidence, because research on the event was commissioned right at the start to monitor volunteer experiences. Six months after the event the survey indicates there may be positive impacts on future volunteering, though less impact on sports participation. There have also been positive outcomes for youth, and potential social benefits as volunteers keep in touch with friends they have made. A further follow-up report is due in the near future.
In the UK results of a recent survey are less promising. Only 2 per cent of adults have started volunteering since the Olympic Games; 70 per cent do not want to start, or do more volunteering.
Legacy? What Legacy? We are not talking about something that is gifted in a will, nor about a ‘baton’ being handed on to others even though there is no doubt volunteers will carry good memories of their experience for a long time.
“To be involved and a part of the ABs Victory Parade the day after the final – the public accolade the volunteers received was overwhelming!! A magical, historical day I will never forget!!!”
“My participation as a volunteer in the RCW is the best contribution to my family, community, and New Zealand as a whole.”
The Victory Parade is an emotional triumph for Volunteers
But is a major national event really an occasion to showcase volunteering and attract new recruits? Surely it was more about New Zealand winning that Cup!
I have been on the sharp end of event management a few times. I know about chaos and stress and long hours, and about the glow of success. More important is what I have learned about the support, enthusiasm and dedication shown by volunteers in their commitment to the project. They’ll go for it, 100%, and they will revel in the occasion and appreciate the ‘after-match’ party. Most will agree to be kept on the database for another time but will drift away if there is no ongoing communication and contact. Very few will come forward to ask about other volunteer opportunities.
This is not an issue of retention. We do not hold these events as a recruitment drive for long-term engagement. That’s unrealistic when current trends are showing short-term task-focussed assignments are preferred. After all the hype and excitement of a major national or local event the options for ordinary volunteering will seem somewhat pedestrian. I would sooner we acknowledged there are sprinters and there are marathon runners; there are horses for different courses, and (dragging out that old cliché again) one size does not fit all volunteers.
Volunteers I know do not think of their achievements at events or in their work for community-based services in terms of legacies. I do not regard my volunteering experience as a bequest from my parents’ example. It is simply something I choose because I belong in a community. That is the real nature of volunteering.