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.
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
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.
April 28, 2014
The current issue of e-volunteerism is devoted to the purpose and futures of Volunteer Centres. I’ve been reading the critiques and the caveats, and the challenges for a sustainable future, drawn from all around the (western) world.
There’s a tension between Volunteer Centres and managers of volunteers, say Susan J Ellis and Rob Jackson. VCs are competing with community organisations for funding; they are not working with basic community needs as much as they could; and they are slow to take up on-line technology that could cut across their traditional brokerage role. Changing times means VCs need to adapt to shifts in the way the world of the community and voluntary sector (and government policy) works.
For volunteering and Volunteer Centres the discussion is more than interesting reading. It has spurred me to reflect on my own connections and experiences with Volunteer Centres in New Zealand.
I get to read newsletters from around the country and to keep up with their Facebook posts. My direct experience is mostly with Volunteer Wellington. (It is their logo at the top of this post.) In my early days as a manager of volunteers their lunchtime training sessions were a life-saver, an opportunity to connect with other organisations and to share common experiences – and to learn from each other. More recently I have facilitated a few training sessions, still seeing managers of volunteers hungry for knowledge and skill development. Volunteer Wellington’s Employees in the Community programme is a boon for community organisations, not just for the work corporate businesses can offer. Their brokerage process avoids the embarrassment for managers of volunteers when unsolicited offers of assistance have to be declined – because you don’t have a job for them, and certainly not for large numbers at a time, or the request is to do something next week, if not tomorrow.
I have worked alongside VC managers on the Volunteering NZ project which produced the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations and Competencies for Managers of Volunteers. They know their stuff, the organisations they work with, and they whole-heartedly support the role and practice of managers of volunteers.
But how does the performance of Volunteer Centres in New Zealand stack up against the questions raised in e-volunteerism commentaries?
I have heard wary comments about engaging with on-line technology. The traditional process of brokerage based on face-to-face interviews and phone-call liaison with organisations risks getting side-stepped if there is ready access to an on-line database of volunteer opportunities. Yet local evidence suggests personal contact and meetings are highly productive for both prospective volunteers and for organisations.
Centres may not be taking full advantage of social media yet, and micro-volunteering appears to be a step too far at this stage. That’s begging the question of whether they are keeping up with other trends in volunteering, related to generational differences for example.
I have been impressed with Volunteer Wellington’s good relations with local government and their efforts to promote community engagement. They work hard to build on existing relationships with their members. But is this enough? Are they working on behalf of volunteers and volunteering, or for their member organisations? This is where I refer to the e-volunteerism commentary by Cees M. van den Bos (Netherlands). He describes the difference between formal and informal volunteering as ‘system world’ and ‘life world’, and makes a case for a broader outlook and strategic development to incorporate both. Here is the challenge for Volunteer Centres, to extend collaboration and make a shift to ‘community development’ practice models.
Volunteer Wellington’s statistics show they work with a wide age range and a variety of cultures which mirror the region’s ethnic population distribution. But it seems people of the 60+ age cohort go elsewhere to find volunteer opportunities, or they are failing to get engaged. It’s a pity the Centre’s record of working with disabled people is not publicly available.
My reflections draw on examples from Volunteer Wellington, though my comments are generalised. New Zealand’s contribution to the e-volunteerism article from Cheryll Martin extols Volunteer Centre achievements, and their range of activities. There is much to ponder from other commentators in the article, and nothing is more certain than significant change is imminent.
The e-volunteerism article opens with this statement: “Volunteer Centres are vital to build and sustain local and regional volunteer ecosystems”. I would like to think our small population and social interconnectedness creates advantages that will sustain volunteer ecosystems into the future.
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.