June 1, 2014
In just a couple of weeks it is New Zealand’s turn to hold National Volunteer Week, that opportunity to give some real acknowledgement and appreciation of volunteer work undertaken for organisations and in communities throughout the country. If you did not know about this event already I am giving you advance notice to get cracking and plan something special for the volunteers in your organisation.
I was reminded recently of the sometime lack of understanding of volunteering and the relevance of holding a National Volunteer Week:
I asked audiences of managers of volunteers how executive leadership at their organizations define success regarding volunteer involvement. And one of the answers really disturbed me: It’s successful if no one complains.
That statement is a huge indictment on executive ignorance of volunteering, not to mention any understanding of the skills and professionalism required to manage volunteers. I have to wonder if there was a similar lack of interest in the work of paid staff. I wonder if there is any executive consideration of the relation between the organisation’s structure and function, and outcomes for its users? I don’t think I would enjoy employment in that organisation, in either paid or voluntary capacity.
So I would like National Volunteer Week to be trumpeting not just volunteer virtues, but also the meaning of volunteering and what organisations need to know about volunteering and its management. Here are three questions executives in leadership positions could be asking themselves in the lead-up to NVW.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
How does volunteering contribute to social well-being in our communities?
What do you need to know about managing volunteers?
I’m not going to answer the questions, because that’s the mission for executive managers. Think of it as a treasure hunt, with the potential to bring as much value to the organisation as the next funding grant. Then everyone will be better informed about volunteering, and will be looking to celebrate volunteer achievements. Then we will know the real success of a volunteer programme.
By coincidence there is another post considering the meaning of success for volunteers and management of volunteers. There’s plenty of material available to tell us what a successful volunteer programme looks like – don’t let’s accept excuses like ‘no complaints received’.
You see, if it takes a whole village to raise a child, it can take a whole organisation to make the most of volunteer contributions.
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
October 20, 2013
A respected colleague from a long time ago declared the one trait that is unique to humans is adaptability. Well, circus animals and science show us we do not have this ability on our own. And the whole theory of evolution is based on adapting to the changes in the environment.
These days organisational adaptations are more likely to go by the adage There are no problems, only solutions (attributed to John Lennon, but might have originated from Descartes). In business-speak we don’t talk any more of obstacles in analysing problems: we use words like ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’.
No-one can down-play the demands and challenges of the role of managing volunteers. There are constant stressors of time management, keeping the programme on track, maintaining volunteer loyalty and enthusiasm, and your relationships with them, dealing with the paper work, and, and…. (Fill in your own list of tensions.)
Many of us learn from experience, which can be bruising and sometimes downright harmful. But what if we went out seeking answers to the challenges we face. (See – I’m not using the word ‘problem’ any more.) What if we join with our peers to form a group so we can talk over matters of the moment, and yes, find solutions that would work for us, or for my own particular circumstances.
You can call it peer mentoring, a support group, the MV collective – but the object of sharing information and ideas will be the same. It’s a way of learning a new strategy or ideas to research and to act on. It’s a way to find “a trouble shared is a trouble halved”. It’s a way to learn about refining skills and behaviours. Most of all it is a way of learning without being taught. And even if you prefer one:one supervision or mentoring the process is the same: working through the issues to find your own solutions.
Being professional comes with a responsibility to go on learning, developing knowledge and skills. Supervision or mentoring is one way to do this, in groups or as an individual.
There’s another benefit: you will discover ‘me time’. Having time away from the workplace to reflect on what is happening is not just a brief respite from responding to demands of the job. People who listen with empathy can be refreshing and energising. Reflection is also part of the professional learning process which leads to action.
There is more! Joining with others in your network or community is a means to learn about different organisations, and to open up opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. A collegial community could be just what you need when the going gets tough and a place to report on success and achievements.
September 29, 2013
In just four weeks International Volunteer Managers Day will be all happening. Volunteer Wellington will kick off the day with their usual fun-filled breakfast event, and Volunteering New Zealand is into the act already with their promotional material.
The international theme of Connecting and Inspiring is illustrated in this banner and whakatauki. Here is the inspiration to practice the art of the possible.
Why should we have a special international day? Take a look at what the International Committee says:
We celebrate the profession of volunteer leadership because:
1. Volunteer Managers have the skills and knowledge to help people be part of the solution in meeting community needs. Even in cynical times, they practice the art of the possible.
2. Volunteer Managers change lives — both the lives of volunteers themselves and of those served by well-led volunteers. It is a life-changing profession. Volunteer managers provide the leadership and direction that allows people to build a good and just society and to mend the social fabric. Without professional leadership, people’s time, talents and efforts could be wasted.
3. A well-run volunteer program shows the community, including potential donors, that the organization is not afraid of public scrutiny and involvement and endeavors to make the most efficient use of monetary assets.
4. Well-led volunteers become an advocacy and public relations force for an agency or program — a force no amount of money could buy.
What can you do to celebrate your profession? It’s pretty hard to pat yourself on the back: somehow the shoulder joint won’t oblige properly. Much nicer if other people would come along and do it for you, showing how they respect and value the work you do. But take a leaf out of an activist’s book and do some creative promotion. Here are some ideas:
- Be not-so-subtle by taking copies of this post (or somesuch) to distribute round your organisation so they get to diary this celebration.
- Get volunteers on your side to do some trumpeting.
- Invite a staff member to give a few hours to shadowing your daily routine, so they can learn more of your work and the skills required in the job.
- Put up a message on Facebook, or even a video.
- Call up your network of colleagues to collaborate on some event planning.
- Connect with community radio and newspapers to get an interview. Or at least send them a press release.
- On the day, e-mail a jaunty message round the organisation: Do you know what today is, and why it is important?
- It’s not too late to enter the AAMoV Volunteer Manager Award for Excellence. Be quick: closing date is now October 11. Besides the individual award there is also a new team award to recognise a team or group of volunteer managers who have worked together on a programme or special project.
Go, Managers of Volunteers!
September 8, 2013
Yes, that’s what you do. That’s the big task for a manager of volunteers. Advocating for volunteers they call it, every day, all the time. Being the go-between, riding the boundary between paid staff and the freely-given time of willing volunteers, negotiating your way inside the strata and up and down the silos of the organisation.
You can do it in the nicest possible way. You can find ways to be creative in the roles for volunteers. You can get stroppy and assertive and pushy. You might get devious and just go your own way with volunteers. Or end up with a battered brow.
When a body gets crushed into a corner, when nobody wants to know the value of volunteer work and their contribution to the organisation, and when your efforts to make a real difference to the volunteer programme are ignored – what’s there to do except give up, resign, go somewhere else?
I have become a broken record over the past couple of years, bleating on about best practice and promoting a volunteer programme, resources available for managers of volunteers, a survival kit, professional development and what volunteers appreciate. I have repeated a mantra learned from experience many years ago: If you do not take care of yourself you cannot look after others.
Here is a shorthand version of survival strategies:
- Identify allies within the organisation and build good relationships
- Work up a supportive network in the community
- Look at what Volunteer Centres can offer
- Find a mentor or mentoring group you can join, or take up formal supervision
- Identify learning needs and go find appropriate training
All of this is saying You do not have to go it alone.
And do not live in hope everything will get better in time. The time to take action is when the niggles and doubts begin, not months down the track when you have lost all enthusiasm for the job. Work up an action plan for change, and do it!
September 1, 2013
In yet another week of hearing tales of managers of volunteers under stress, close to burn-out and writing letters of resignation I have to raise my voice again. I shall talk a bit louder this time in yet another effort to get the messages through, this time to paid staff and executives.
I should not have to do this. All that is needed is a copy of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteering-Involving Organisations. It offers a very good steer on what is good practice and why good practice is important for the whole organisation.
Volunteering doesn’t happen in a vacuum; volunteers and managers of volunteers are part of the wider unit that is the organisation. Contributions of volunteers, and from those responsible for volunteers, enable the organisation to achieve its goals.
Here’s the best practice rubric:
The whole organisation works to involve and recognise volunteers.
And here is why it is important:
- Because it is not OK when staff treat volunteers as unskilled amateurs and fail to engage with them in their work.
- Because it is not OK when staff fail to understand why volunteers are involved and how the organisation benefits.
- Because it’s not OK when staff ignore the knowledge and experience of the manager of volunteers and the extent of the role.
- Because it’s not OK when the manager of volunteers is not treated as a professional equal.
- Because it’s not OK when the funds allocated for volunteers are not sufficient to cover programme costs.
- Because it’s not OK when the manager of volunteers is not encouraged and supported to seek professional development.
- Because it’s not OK to employ a person to fulfil a job description that can’t possibly be accomplished by one person in the allotted paid hours.
- Because it is not OK, ever, to fail in ethical responsibilities for a ‘duty of care’ towards an employee and their well-being in the workplace.
This litany is strongly-worded, yet each clause indicates where change and improvements can be made. And it’s these conditions that the Guidelines have been designed to change. I acknowledge the 12 – 18 month turnover of volunteer management positions is not universal. But when it is happening then it is hugely damaging to (1) the volunteer programme, in loss of leadership and direct oversight and support for volunteers; (2) the organisation, in recruitment costs and operational interruptions; and (3) the organisation’s reputation in the community, possibly jeopardising funding sources. There will be an impact on volunteers too – resignations and retirements, and recruiting replacement volunteers adds another burden to a new manager of volunteers.
So please, turn some attention to what is happening to volunteers and their management in your organisation. Make sure the manager of volunteers feels competent and supported in the role. Begin to know and understand the nature of volunteering and to truly value what volunteers bring to and do for your organisation. Without that appreciation you do not deserve them.
There is a flip-side of course. Why can’t managers of volunteers speak out for themselves? Why can’t they take action on their grievances before it gets to the stage of walking away from the problems? Answering these questions is a story for another time.
August 18, 2013
In Wellington this year the month of July turned on weather that was 2 degrees warmer than usual midwinter temperatures. Indeed national results are showing this year was the fourth-warmest July in 100 years of New Zealand records. No-one is yet claiming this result as evidence for climate change – we just welcome the period without dreary grey skies and three-day southerly storms direct from the Antarctic. The mild weather continues this month, encouraging an early rise of the dawn chorus, increased frequency for lawn-mowing and an abundance of spring flowering – though a couple of sharp earthquakes has shaken any complacency we might have enjoyed.
I have never seen any graphs that track volunteering like weather patterns or earthquakes, not by numbers, nor by demographics or spread of organisation. Mostly the information is collated in intermittent reports (most recent is 2008) with little comparative analysis. The best studies are the publications for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project.
It’s the same for managing volunteers, an occupation we like to call a profession. I’d like to think a graph of better management practice would show significant progress over the past forty years, mostly a slow and steady upward slope that gets a little steeper in more recent times. Factors contributing to momentum are international organisations like IAVE, international conferences, the burst of technology that allows global communication in all sorts of forms: electronic journals, newsletters and webinars, bloggers like me, twitter and face-book discussion groups. International Volunteer Manager Day (November 5) and National Volunteer Week (June) also attract plenty of attention from both inside the sector and without. Possibly the biggest impetus for programme managers has come from government contracting out services to non-profit community-based organisations (though this move has produced its own fish-hooks). At ground level Volunteer Centres are right up there offering support and training sessions for managers of volunteers, and the idea of mentoring as a means for professional development is slowly starting to get some traction.
So I think it is fair to claim the practice of managing volunteers is quite a few degrees warmer than it was twenty years ago.
However, there is still a fair way to go in that other meaning of ‘degree’, referring to tertiary education qualifications. There is no single qualification for management of volunteers, though a raft of training programmes is available, from day-long workshops to on-line courses of varying duration and intensity. University programmes are offered for ‘non-profit management’, and while they may include relevant material for management of volunteers the focus is generally on organisation-wide management.
This lack of academic attention is compounded by the different training and experience people bring to management of volunteers, and by the scope of responsibilities in the role. It is not surprising that a lack of an identified career-path also leads to short-term engagements in managing volunteers for a good proportion of our numbers.
All is not lost! Volunteering New Zealand published its comprehensive document on competencies for management of volunteers in June this year. There are tools to help determine learning needs, and a long list of opportunities for study at various levels and topics of generic management. Or go directly to options for assessment of prior learning (APL) which could lead to a formal qualification.
Unlike the debate on climate change I think the evidence is clear for current and future growth in prospects for managers of volunteers, whether by degrees or otherwise.
May 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.
May 5, 2013
Going on three years ago I wrote about someone else’s bad volunteer experience, and regretted it ever since. Because every year this post is the most viewed, by a wide margin. Every day someone has Googled the words and they end up on my blog site. I’ve tried in several different ways to highlight what volunteers appreciate, but good news stories do not attract the same attention.
So the tales of volunteers being under-valued and unappreciated, and treated badly, continue to mount up. And now Australian volunteers are invited to register violations of their rights or inappropriate treatment.
Two problems here. One, I don’t know of any cast iron document on volunteer rights relating to ‘inappropriate treatment’. Which means, secondly, there is not much legal protection for volunteers (in New Zealand) beyond privacy and health and safety regulations and the non-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act. ‘Volunteer rights’ are more in the realm of ethical and best practice procedures.
There are various Codes of Practice for managing volunteers. There are various Rights and Responsibilities documents outlining reciprocal obligations for volunteers and organisations. There is, if you did not know already, a Code of Ethics for managers of volunteers. In 2001 (remember that year?) a “Universal Declaration on the Profession of Leading and Managing Volunteers” was developed by an international working group, including New Zealand representation. These hallmarks of a profession are clearly not sufficiently embedded to address the wrongs experienced by volunteers.
The regulatory environment in most jurisdictions will include volunteers within health and safety, privacy and human rights. Volunteers are excluded from employment law of course, though there is a grey area when we start talking about being ‘a good employer’ (see this post).
So from a volunteer’s perspective there is not much comeback if they get bullied, or mucked around, or ignored – all that personal insult stuff that is so hard to argue. There is no formal means of redress, unless the organisation’s HR policies and their ‘good employer’ commitment includes volunteers in their complaints and disciplinary procedures, and in annual review processes which offer a two-way consideration of both the volunteer programme and volunteer contributions. To go further into ‘workplace protection’ would jeopardise the meaning and status of volunteering.
In 2009 serious breaches of trust between volunteers and the organisations they volunteered for led to Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The outcome called on organisations to sign up to the 3R Promise, promoting and protecting and taking responsibility for volunteer experience and raising standards of management of volunteers, and reconciliation when things go wrong. Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations is another model, outlining opportunities for organisation development and change to develop and maintain a programme that offers volunteers the best possible experience.
But the fundamentals of that best experience is based on good communication, effective working relationships, high standards of training and induction, ongoing support, demonstrative appreciation and being valued for contributing to the organisation’s mission and to the community. (Have I missed anything here?) These are matters of professional standards and ethics and values. They are ‘people-centred’, involving relationships of mutual respect and trust.
If we listened to ‘what volunteers want’ we would not have to set up complaint registers or to promise commitments, or guidelines for organisations. If we listened to volunteers we would not be pushed to concern for protecting their rights. We might even become the profession we ought to be.
And – we’ll get more pictures of happy and satisfied volunteers.
February 3, 2013
Molly has volunteered for 25 years, delivering meals-on-wheels in a small country town. She took her turn once a week for two months each year. She’s a farmer living thirty minutes out of town and unable to volunteer more frequently. Molly enjoyed the work and the folk she came to know. Always her work was completed on time, no-one missed out and there were no muddle-ups.
Now Molly is 80 years old and would like to give away her volunteering days. She is all set to advise the volunteer coordinator accordingly. But the coordinator has not phoned, has not made contact, has not enquired about Molly’s well-being or otherwise. So Molly has been cast adrift with never a thank you note to acknowledge the years she has been serving in this rural community.
Too often we hear the tales of agony from managers of volunteers faced with scenarios of elderly volunteers who avoid recognising their age-related deficiencies. But to abandon a volunteer who has not put a foot wrong by simply ignoring them? Not on, I say.
Of course Molly might have picked up the phone herself to let the coordinator know she would not be coming back. Well, I’ve been on the end of such conversations with managers of volunteers and felt the pressure to change my mind, to keep on volunteering because the organisation needs me so badly, is so short of volunteers, and I’m so good at what I do, and the clients just love me. Molly doesn’t need such flattery. Nor is she feeling aggrieved, and is not about to blab about her experience to friends and neighbours. That’s a blessing, because in small town rural New Zealand where people and their business is known to all, that would spell damnation for the coordinator and the service.
The irony is, the coordinator is now delivering meals herself because she is unable to recruit more volunteers. That’s what we should really be concerned about – the colleague who is struggling, who needs support and probably a heap of good advice. And there is no Volunteer Centre to call on. What should we do? Stand back and watch everything go from bad to worse? Or take time, find some resources to lend a hand, or at least offer support?
I’ve got some ideas, because I know the area and there’s one or two contacts I can call on. OK, it could be tricky, but it is important to try.
Because one person’s plight is a bell tolling for all of us in this profession. Managing volunteers is more than running a good programme – it’s also an occupation that needs muscle and political strategising to maintain respect and value for volunteering. We need to look out for each other as well as the volunteers.