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