March 13, 2016
After the excitement of the recruitment phase and the pronouncements of a new intake of volunteers, what are the factors that will keep them on track and stay engaged?
There are many laments from organisations about the ready dis-engagement of volunteers, and their apparent lack of commitment, as reported in Volunteering New Zealand’s first report on the State of Volunteering.
Yes, you can feel miffed that volunteers go through the application and screening process and then don’t show up for training. Yes, it can be costly to train volunteers only to find they don’t sign up for a role, or a make short-lived appearance. Yes, it is disappointing when people volunteer in order to gain work experience only to shoot off when they get a job.
Yes, the nature of volunteering is changing: more people look for task-focussed and time-limited assignments. But that does not mean volunteer effort is always a ‘one-off’ or short-lived.
It all gets a bit difficult when there’s so much to do in running a volunteer programme and the volunteers come and go. So what are the initiatives that could counter all these glum pronouncements? Here’s a list of best tips to make the most of volunteers, whether they are short-term or stayers.
- Being very clear about expectations is a good start, especially with role definitions and time commitment – yet allowing space for negotiation on how and when the time and tasks will be given.
- Show volunteers, in a hundred different ways, that they are valued and their work appreciated.
- Exit Interviews can be a means to explore reasons for leaving and feedback on the volunteer experience and programme management. Whether in a questionnaire format or a face-to-face meeting, finding out more about the volunteer’s experience and inviting feedback on the programme can show where improvements could be made. You might have to be a bit searching to uncover comments like ‘don’t like the work’, ‘nobody talks to me’, ‘too many rules’, ‘not what I expected’ that underlie the ‘no time’ reasons.
- Offer alternatives to those who talk of leaving, such as less frequent assignments, or different roles, or ways to keep their interest like receiving newsletters or joining a ‘Friends of’ group. Because even if those young people and busy parents of young children don’t stay long they have been exposed to volunteering and to the organisation’s services, and chances are they will come back to volunteering at some stage.
- Develop a plan for volunteer ‘career development’, as in assigning team leadership roles. Offer extra training, or ‘support group’ meetings. One of my best volunteer experiences was a regular check-in on how things were going, creating a bonding with other volunteers and enhancing links with the organisation.
- Work on new initiatives, designed for volunteers to try out new ways of service delivery. And take up volunteer suggestions and good ideas. That is how many an organisation got started, and maybe it is time for a re-boot.
Of course none of us take for granted that each new volunteer will stay forever. The question is: what are we doing to keep them engaged, and how can we adjust organisation needs to maintain volunteer commitment?
Like all relationships, whether romantic engagements or employment contracts, it takes thought and effort to keep volunteers keeping on. Don’t let them give up with easy excuses.
February 14, 2016
I take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like. Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.
I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training. We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word. But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.
I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’. Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.
Except it seems this is not so simple. Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.
I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.
If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’
If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up. A job description is not always available.
When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.
I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.
And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made. I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.
Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check. It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation. And it does not do volunteerism any good.
So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers? Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above. Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.
This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle. And that’s just the beginning. Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.
We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement. All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities. We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience. When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.
Of course the engagement is just the beginning. Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated. Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving. Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation. In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.
None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish. It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills. But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector? And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.
January 18, 2015
From time to time I have wondered about absence of ‘organisation theory’ in training courses for managers of volunteers. The focus continues to be devoted to the components and processes of a volunteer programme and getting them right. Yet all the while we live and breathe within a structure that contains and at times constrains the work we do. The struggles a manager of volunteers can encounter are well-recorded and debated, but rarely set in the context of organisational realities. It’s as though we should know about organisations by osmosis – after all, we live all our lives in one form of them or other.
So when I discovered recently that Charles Handy had published a book outlining the characteristics of voluntary organisations I pounced on the old and tattered copy found in my public library. Handy was a go-to management guru of the late 20th century, the person who did for organisations what Myers-Briggs (and others) has done for our understanding of personality types. Who could resist Handy’s typology of organisations based on the characteristics of ancient Greek gods? (See Gods of Management, 1978.)
You can find out a bit more about these gods in Understanding Voluntary Organisations. And so much more about how to make organisations function effectively. This book is about organisations, not management, on the principle that better understanding will lead to better practice. As Handy suggests in this advice:
It is as foolish to try to run things without organisational understanding as it would be to go mountain climbing without the proper clothing and equipment.
The first part of the book is devoted to people in organisations. Handy writes about individual motivation, casting aside conventional theories on volunteering based on needs and focusing on our self-concepts. He reminds us that people like targets, they like to feel good and that we are all different: truisms that fit well with what we learn very quickly about volunteers. When it comes to ‘roles’, Handy shows how complex they can be: overlapping, confused, ambiguous, conflicting, and overloaded. “People in roles talk to other people in roles”, affecting our thinking and behaviour. When we slot people into role pigeon-holes we can get blinded by our expectations and forget to see the person in the role. There we have an explanation for the sometimes poor relations between paid staff and volunteers.
The chapter on groups covers standard theory and practice on teams, committees and group process, putting a framework on the do’s and don’ts of group work. The longest chapter in this section is on power and influence – forbidden topics, according to Handy, “especially in voluntary organisations”. Handy brings them into the light, both the negative and positive aspects, and calls for a better understanding based around democracy. There are plenty of cues here to support the practice of managers of volunteers.
Part Two is all about organising the organisation. Here you can find a chapter on the cultures of the Greek gods, with the proviso that organisations are not culturally pure, just like one’s dominant personality type is infused with others. Factors of size, work flow, environment and history can influence the cultural style.
The shape of organisation structures is determined according to division of labour, accountability and coherence. A structure is the skeleton which comes alive with people and groups and tasks “to get the blood running and the nerves and sinews working” – which implies the need to find ways to integrate different parts of the structure, something well-understood by managers of volunteers, even if we do not always know why or how to achieve integration.
Organisation systems are never more at risk of fall-out than when communications are distorted, by either sender or receiver, or a lack of clarity and distance. (How many volunteer offices are located down the far end of the building, some distance from the executive wing – and what does that communicate?)
The numbers game for accountability is just as fraught, depending on different levels of success and how to measure them. Handy’s answer is to be very clear about purpose; to be specific about tasks related to that purpose; and to establish a set of measures indicating what will mean success for each task – that’s the role of numbers. He emphasises the importance of numbers: neglecting this part of the system will distort organisational effort. There’s a message here for organisations struggling to find ways to measure outcomes and effectiveness.
The final chapter covers organisational change, that drive for growth and development that can also bring dislocation and disruption. We adopt blinkers to block change; we prefer predictability – and organisations rely on predictability to ensure efficiency – which just inhibits experimentation, innovation and creativity. Handy sets out the ‘levers of change’ which are the key elements of an organisation he has described previously: task, systems, structures and people. They are all interconnected, so change in one part will impact on all others (that is basic systems theory). He does not present a manual for change but does say:
If you want an exciting, developing, changing organisation, look for one where the individuals are themselves encouraged to be exciting, developing and changing.
Leadership, in case you are wondering, permeates all chapters in the book. It’s there in discussion on groups, on power and influence, on communication, and on organisational change and development. Handy points out that the word ‘management’ is found only in English, and its use in everyday contexts is not confined to organisations or running a business. Management theory is based on engineering models, he says, implying that “control of people is similar to the control of things, that people are resources to be counted, deployed and utilised.” Non-profit organisations are not immune to treating people this way.
Handy urges us to adopt the new metaphors of political theory, in thinking of organisations as societies or communities rather than as machines or warehouses. Look how we are currently investing more usage and practice on words like ‘networks and alliances’, ‘shared values’, ‘power and influence’ and ‘leadership’. Is it time to drop the word ‘management’ from our understanding of volunteer programmes and our job title?
Handy offers an explanation of voluntary organisations that tells us why things are as they are: he is not just repeating what we already know. There are times when lines between formal and informal organisations are blurred. Perhaps the book sketches the world we inhabit rather too lightly, and its publication date means there is no account of sector developments over the past 25 years. Yet the key messages resonate still, about people, tasks, structures and systems that make up our organisations. Understanding Voluntary Organisations is a short and easy read with plenty of examples and box inserts. Go find a copy if you can – it’s worth a read.
Handy, Charles (1988) Understanding Voluntary Organisations: How to Make Them Function Effectively. Penguin
November 2, 2014
We all know there are a few principles (quite a few!) to follow in leading volunteers. So when you are asked for your best tips, what you have learned from experience, what would you be putting at the top of your list?
A couple of people presented me with acronyms recently. Just a couple of single-syllable words that say pretty much everything we need to note in relationships with volunteers.
CARE: Communicate; Appreciate; Respect; Engage
CLAP: Communication; Listening; Acknowledgement; Participation
Pretty simple, huh? We care about volunteers, right? And we want to clap and cheer them for their work? So what do we need to know about the words that make up the acronyms?
Communication comes at the top of just about everybody’s list. Volunteers want to know and understand what is expected of them. Some volunteers work well being told in person what the specific tasks are, others enjoy working off a list on the whiteboard. Some (oh joy!) like to use their initiative to identify other tasks that might also need to be done – that is when you chalk up real value-added service. A huge part of communication comes from the manager knowing and understanding the volunteer, in listening and really hearing what is being said, in getting to know the person, warts ‘n’ all, not simply as more grist for the organisation mill. Communication is the art of connecting with people, more than regular news updates about organisation matters.
The importance of showing appreciation and acknowledging the work of volunteers can never be underestimated. Saying ‘thank you’ with meaning, in as many ways as possible should never be an add-on chore. A special email sent out after a particular job is completed, a small note left on the board with a smiley face or a surprise plate of biscuits can all remind a volunteer that ‘yes’ the organisation appreciates their contribution.
Treating everyone with respect, regardless of their position or the hours and the effort they put in goes without saying. When the manager leads by example in demonstrating respect, the standard is set for everyone else.
Engaging with your volunteers shows that you are an integrated team, working towards the same goals. That means you don’t shy away from working alongside them, or checking in on how the weekend went or what the family is up to these days.
Because ultimately, volunteers are in and of the community, and participation in a community-based organisation enhances the connection between them. Volunteering is a way to realise our existence in a wider world.
So here’s a big thank you to Tara and Laura for encapsulating a big part of the role of managers of volunteer in well-crafted acronyms. Here is an alliterative last word from Tara:
Clap for the victorious vital volunteers, for their valued vigilant vivaciousness!
And when it comes to November 5 this week, we will be letting off a few fireworks in praise of managers of volunteers in our communities, and doing some clapping for the way they care for volunteers.
October 26, 2014
Celebrations for the fifteenth international day for managers of volunteers will happen at a place near you on November 5. It’s a day to acknowledge the skills, talents, leadership and downright doggedness of managing volunteers. And by proxy, to understand how volunteering makes magic happen in our communities, in organisations and in all the services supported by volunteers.
On Facebook we are spurred to consider what elements of volunteer management drives our passion. And what is our vision for an ideal world of managing volunteers?
It’s all very well to dream up future scenarios, and to repeat that quote attributed to GB Shaw:
You see things and you ask “Why?” But I dream things that never were, and I ask “Why not?”
Well – Susan J Ellis taught me a long time ago how the history of volunteering is the history of the lunatic fringe: volunteers often work at the cutting edge of change. Managers of volunteers are part of that fringe, forever seeking new chemistry that will enable volunteering to adapt to changing conditions.
For the moment I am keeping my feet on the ground. I am thinking about the drivers that keep managers of volunteers keeping on. What is it that the stayers among managers of volunteers love about their work? Here is my sampling:
- When the shy and nervous volunteer turns into a confident and well-respected member of the team.
- When you are charged with organising a huge event, and the volunteers just keep on turning up and turning their hands to what needs doing. They know how to manage themselves.
- When you find heads nodding in a training session covering organisation mission and values – not because people are falling asleep or because it’s boring – because the mission and values is what has attracted them to the organisation in the first place.
- When thank you letters from grateful clients are sent to the Chief Executive, and they include volunteers alongside paid staff. It’s even better when they mention the volunteer by name.
- When a volunteer steps up to manage an unexpected crisis situation, showing how all that training and support pays off.
- When staff get to understand they have responsibility to support and guide volunteers on their team, and they cease running to the manager with complaints about volunteer performance.
- When International Volunteers’ Day or National Volunteer Week happen, and staff and senior managers organise an appreciation function for volunteers. Or they set up a Post-it board to pin up messages of goodwill and recognition of good work.
- When volunteers get due acknowledgement at Annual Meetings, and in the Annual Report – more than a few words or a last page paragraph.
- When people stop saying how wonderful volunteers are and uttering platitudes – when they start talking about the real work and accomplishments of volunteers.
- When we finally get a means to measure the impact of volunteer work that is more than a record of outputs translated into $ values.
You will notice this litany is all about the product of managing volunteers, not what has to happen to achieve these credits. But that’s just it – job satisfaction comes from the outcomes, seeing how the manager’s ground work produces great results. You will also see how volunteering is people-centred, dependent on personal service and performance. And at last, get to understand how great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky: it takes a visionary manager to make them happen.
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.
March 16, 2014
News media are regularly reporting leaks of information, not always on the scale of an Assange or a Snowden. This past week an Auckland institution has had some of its domestic linen waved around in public. The Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) has been around for more than 50 years. It was started by volunteers and continues to be supported by volunteers who work on restoration and maintenance of exhibits as well as hosting visitors. Auckland ratepayers contribute $12 million in annual funding. There is also a history of troubled relationships between the founding Motat Society and the museum’s governance. This time the headline reads:
The deputy board chairman at Motat has resigned and 20 volunteers have walked out as troubles grow deeper at the country’s largest transport museum.
The walk-out is related to a confidential review tabled two years ago which has now been leaked, revealing the museum is in crisis, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘childish’, facing irrelevance and closing if there is no change in direction. These words are pretty damning, even though a new strategic vision is about to be launched.
Organisation change is difficult at the best of times and needs careful management. Motat’s director recognises “Not everyone will want to come on this journey. Some will be threatened by it. You get an element of disaffection or insecurity that comes out of change. There are some people who will feel exposed.”
I don’t know details of volunteer dissension at Motat, but I do know how long-standing volunteers can feel they own their work and the organisation as an intimate part of their life. And I’ve lived through enough organisational change to know how uncomfortable it can be for employees as well as volunteers.
Well, here’s a story that illustrates organisation change and a less-than-disastrous outcome:
There’s an Op Shop that’s been operating for years, a social enterprise and excellent source of funding for a well-known national organisation. A new manager is appointed. She’s got business experience and nous for the industry of second-hand, pre-loved, re-cycled goods. “We’ve got to up our game”, she says to the volunteer staff. “We need better displays of our goods and we need to offer excellent customer service. We’ve got to be up-to-the-minute with our marketing because there is lots of competition out there.” She adds “Our organisation is looking to us to increase the funding base so we can maintain services to clients.
A development plan is presented for discussion. “Have your say”, invites the manager.
Of course there is much mumbling and grumbling among the volunteers. “You can’t do that”, one says, “It won’t work”. Another says “We’ve always done it this way and your way doesn’t look any better”. There is a tide of objections and opposition.
A bunch of volunteers resign, saying they cannot work with the new manager and certainly not with her new-fangled ideas. That’s the price of organisation change, though at least there are no redundancy payments for volunteers. Yes, there may have been some negative tattling in the community, but no newspaper headlines exposed dissension in the ranks of volunteers.
The manager gets on with introducing the changes, engaging volunteers in each step of the way, providing extra training if warranted. New volunteers come knocking at the door when they hear about new opportunities. Customer count rises, drawn to attractive window displays, and word-of-mouth conversations about helpful volunteer staff. And of course the ultimate goal of increased income is a monthly cause for celebration.
And then, in ones and twos, and then more – the old volunteers start to return. They are impressed with what they see and they hear good things about the new manager – how she listens to volunteers and is willing to try out their suggestions. They do not ask for their old jobs back: they want to give the organisation another go, to join what looks like a fun place to work. And they miss the social camaraderie that goes with the job.
This story is not a fiction, though I have embroidered the details. It does not describe change of the magnitude Motat is likely to be looking at, nor does it give assurance that Motat volunteers will accept the changes ahead of them. But it does tell me that even if you lose some in the process of change, you can also win them back.
For more on long-term volunteers see this Thoughtful Thursdays blog and discussion.
March 9, 2014
Whenever I hear the sad tale of a manager of volunteers who is wrung out by overwork and lack of support, who is under-appreciated and sometimes un-noticed, I get reminded of that old folk tale that turns up in every generation as a child’s reader. You know the story: how the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat, asks the farmyard animals to help plant it and when they refuse she says “Then I’ll do it myself”.
(If you have forgotten the tale, see this beautifully illustrated version.)
What I hear in my mind is not the moral of caring and sharing and helping each other. I hear the tone of the Little Red Hen as she says “Then I’ll do it myself”, repeated at each stage of the growing and harvesting of wheat. I can see her puffing up her chest, giving a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, and her tone of voice is one of martyred self-righteousness.
I’m sure that is not how a manager of volunteers reacts, though some may feel like it. So let me tell another version of the LRH story to see how life could be turned around for those who are over-burdened…..
LRH sighs when yet another task lands on her* desk. Maybe there is something here that would interest volunteers. She asks around, but there are no takers. Not this week please; not really my thing; I want to stick with what I’m doing; sounds interesting, hope you find someone: these replies make LRH even more depressed.
Enter Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who waves a wand and says: “Let’s look at this job you’ve got to do – or think about your current tasks that could be handed over to a volunteer. What’s involved – tasks, time, responsibilities, skills required? Let’s work up a job description and see if there is an existing volunteer who might fit the bill. If not where could we go to find one? You’ve got to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, not send out vague messages about needing help.”
LRH protests: “That takes time, and then I have to do a screening and orientation and training and monitor what the volunteer does on the job, and I’m tired and I just don’t have the energy”. FG has to do some straight-talking about excuses that mean nothing will ever change, and trusting volunteers to do a good job. “I mean”, says FG with a rather intense stare, “what’s the point of running a volunteer programme if you have to keep such a tight hold on the reins?”
LRH buckles under the charm of FG and before long she has engaged the volunteer of her dreams: enthusiastic, willing, skilled in all the right places, and experienced. “You just need to know how to make time and see new possibilities” she tells her peer support group.
She’s fired up now. She devolves to volunteers responsibility for a lot of daily administration, managing social media posts, collating items for a newsletter, even gets a volunteer on the organisation’s Health & Safety Committee where they get to meet and participate with paid staff. Soon she is going to find a volunteer competent enough to interview new recruits.
LRH is not so much a manager now, pulling all the strings to her tune. She’s a leader, supporting and nurturing her team to be the best volunteers they can be. And they are. They love their work; they are sharing in the creation and development of the volunteer programme, and even better, demonstrating to the wider organisation what powerful contributions volunteers can make to its mission.
No longer does LRH get excuses when she invites a volunteer to take on a new role. She has turned around from potential burn-out, and no longer has to puff up her chest, give a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, or say in a tone of martyred self-righteousness “Then I’ll do it myself”. And when it comes time to eat the loaf of bread, the fruit of all her efforts, she does not do that alone in the time-honoured ending of the folk tale. Instead she holds a joyous celebration for all volunteers who have shared in the undertaking.
* Yes, I know a hen is always female, and yes, I know there are many men who manage volunteers – so please take this narration as gender-neutral.
February 16, 2014
Stand up the manager of volunteers who does not have a worry about volunteer recruitment, staff-volunteer relations, establishing a new volunteer role, training and equipment for volunteers, getting funding for recognition events, maintaining database records, writing reports, and making time to check out volunteer satisfaction. OK – perhaps not everything at once, but maybe one or two that are fast turning into Problem Pumpkins. You come slap-bang up against something related to policy or practice you have not thought about. Like: you are all for diversity in recruiting volunteers, but are you open to all comers? Or you encounter that curly organisational infection you wish would go away. Like: how do I turn around the organisation’s view of volunteers as economic saviours for the organisation?
Oh dear, is there no-one to claim they are worry-free? So you are all suffering sleepless nights, chewed-off fingernails, failing to give full attention to volunteers, missing important deadlines? These options are not to be wished on anybody. What to do?
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
Well, that’s not much help when you have to go find the recipe for making lemonade. Better go find your local network of managers of volunteers, the peer support group you belong to or your favourite online group. You ask for some answers, aka solutions. Do not be surprised if people come back smartly to ask What is the lemon?
That’s the trick, you see, getting to look at the lemon on the outside and the inside, to smell that tangy citrus, to taste the acid of the juice on your tongue. Your peers are asking questions, getting you to explain, get into detail, digging to find out why this thing is a lemon. Stick with this process, because you will discover the eureka moment that reveals the recipe for making lemonade. Now you can see how the solution to the problem was there all the time.
No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (Voltaire)
Of course you have to frame the problem to fit with your circumstances. It is not for other people to tell you what it’s like for you. When that lemon fits the frame it’s amazing how clear the picture becomes: you can see what needs to happens, and all you need now is to work out how to get there. You’ve got some ideas, but let’s go ask your peers about possible actions.
Caution: walk away if people start saying ‘If I were you I’d………’, or ‘What you need to do is………..’ Solutions have to fit with your scenario and your style, not according to other people’s quick-fixes.
A Trouble Shared is a Trouble Halved
OK – a proverb is not always a truism. Extended metaphors might be useful illustrations of a process, but you still have to get down to doing something, to deal with the other half of the trouble. Supportive peers will offer suggestions like ‘When I had a similar experience I found this helpful……….’ Someone else might be able to share written material, like a policy or a template. Another person refers you to useful on-line resources.
Enough! Time to return to your desk, to draw up the plan and plot the strategy to deal with this lemon once and for all. Some lemons are larger than others and take time and constant resolve to get them to the done-and-dusted phase. Some lemons need collective action, so your first step might be to find allies for the purpose.
When you report an outcome to the peer group you will also tell them what you have learned from this experience: No-one has to go it alone.
The quote comes from Lennon’s song: Watching the Wheels
November 10, 2013
The party is over. We’ve done with celebratory teas and garden parties and early morning speed-meets and day-long twittering. We’ve seen the creative videos and the loads of goodwill messages via Facebook and emails. For a few hours we connected with colleagues in relaxed and informal ways. What happens next?
Please don’t tell me you’ve hurried back to your desk and you are now in catch-up mode. Please make time to reflect on IVM Day, time to figure about the connections you made, and what you found inspiring.
Here’s my take on the Volunteer Wellington function I attended:
- The crowd was bigger than last year.
- There was a wider representation of organisations and agencies, including Board members and executives.
- The meet-and-greet phase saw people circulating, not hanging back, connecting with people they had not met previously.
- Absolutely no hesitation in the participatory exercise where the question of what inspires you about volunteers and volunteering was the topic for a four minute discussion.
- And again people connected, learning about organisations not part of their regular network, finding shared inspiration in the experience of working with volunteers.
- At the end people lingered instead of rushing to catch the next appointment.
- They continued conversations and queued to pick up Volunteering New Zealand publications, and information about Volunteer Wellington’s new Mentoring Programme.
Now is that keen participation not inspiring? This year I am seeing greater confidence among managers of volunteers. They appear to be more comfortable in their leadership role, they have gained understanding and better competence in their practice. They are starting to reach out to others in their profession, networking and finding allies for mutual support if not formal mentoring.
And that, please note, is the first condition for engendering community development. That’s what I find inspiring about this year’s events. There’s an awareness of a community of managers of volunteers, a readiness to shout about it and to take this strength to new levels.
Because there are still miles to go. The gains I have observed are not universal. There are always new managers who need guiding and encouragement. Inside many organisations there is still a black hole when it comes to acknowledging the work of managers of volunteers and recognising the true value and contribution of a well run volunteer programme. Widespread public applause on IVM Day is not yet happening: in New Zealand the sole media statement came from the Minister for the Community Public Sector. She is “thankful that communities can benefit from the work of the skilled, dedicated, professional people who manage volunteers”, and gives an appreciative nod to the work of Volunteering New Zealand for providing support and professional development and training.
So what happens next is an open question. Let’s keep the conversations going. Let’s take the opportunity to talk up ideas and plans for more progress in the management of volunteers.