April 22, 2017

Community & Voluntary Sector: What Do We Mean?

Posted in Civil Society, Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity tagged , , at 11:34 pm by Sue Hine

CVS-banner

The collective noun of Community & Voluntary Sector is widely used. The words trip of the tongue whenever we want to make a point of how important the sector is, or to argue the significance of volunteer contribution to organisations and communities. Or to point out that this or that organisation is getting a raw deal.

Trouble is, ‘community’ invokes anything from my local neighbourhood, to a particular set of organisations or particular groups of people, and then links with the broader term of Civil Society. It’s a blanket word used so loosely we risk drowning the distinctions – and the voices – that are collectively represented in ‘community’.

You can read all about the facts and values of ‘community’ in Raymond Plant’s Community and Ideology: an Essay in Applied Philosophy (1974). (OK, it’s an oldie but still a goodie.) Plant argues there is no overall definition of community because there is always a value element implicit in using the word: when we talk about what a community is we are also inferring what a community ought to be like, and we may be talking about several different forms of community at the same time. Forty years later we can add ‘networks’ to the meaning of ‘community’, and ‘online communities’ and even global ones.

The Community & Voluntary Sector is also beset with a number of non-titles, like NGOs, NPIs, NFPs, or it is an also-ran as Third (and sometimes Fourth) Sector. Then there is the legal status of organisations: registered charity, incorporated society, or simply a non-entity, a neighbourhood group that organises an informal street clean-up. Or you can categorise organisations by their field of activity, and there are twelve fields according to New Zealand definitions for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (2009). You could also say organisations contracted to provide services on behalf of government are yet another category, one that tends to dominate conversations about the sector.

I wish we could find another way of expressing a ‘community’ voice that does not lump us all in together, obscuring all the myriad services and groups catering for human diversity and their interests.

Now think about ‘voluntary’, another word used loosely, and then some. Yes, there is a fundamental applied definition of ‘work that is freely given without expectation of reward’, but then count all the different ways of volunteering, the different sectors of interest – and vested interests – and the diversity of volunteers and their motivations.  No wonder we run up against people and organisations that do not ‘get’ volunteering, that do not understand the word’s real meaning.

Volunteering is both a verb and a philosophic concept.  Our beliefs about people and our community relationships will flavour the sort of volunteering we undertake and why we volunteer. Yet too often organisations engaging volunteers have not thought beyond ‘unpaid labour’. There’s a lot more behind ‘working for free’ than donating one’s time.

Consider the different forms of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can be both formal (engaged with an organisation) and informal (helping people outside family obligations).
  • Volunteering can be regular or episodic, short- or long-term.
  • Volunteering can be undertaken as part of Corporate Social Responsibility by employees.
  • Volunteering includes activism for social or political change.
  • Volunteering as obligation, a civic duty.

And the roles undertaken by volunteers:

  • Governance
  • Personal support, befriending
  • Team leadership
  • Event organisation and participation (including fundraising)
  • Administration, from reception and clerical input to accounting
  • Pro bono professional services
  • Research
  • Exploring new approaches to service delivery – innovation

Or the drivers for volunteers:

  • Supporting a cause
  • A desire to connect, to belong in a community, to be useful
  • Gaining work experience (for Interns and unemployed people)

So next time a report is issued on numbers of volunteers, the hours they contribute and the $ value of their contribution to the organisation (or to GDP), start asking a few questions about what the volunteers are working at, and what they achieve. Think about just what sort of difference they make, and exactly why ‘you could not manage without them’.

And then do some hard thinking about how you talk about ‘community and voluntary sector’.  Is its purpose to contribute to GDP, or to social well-being and community cohesion – to be part of a strong Civil Society? Or is this sector largely the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff of economic and social inequity?

February 26, 2017

Thinking about Altruism

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:08 am by Sue Hine

new-picture

Over the holiday period I gobbled up a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Well – what else do you do when it’s supposed to be summer and the wind and rain keep pouring into my city? And there was a fair bit of Googling as well, checking out New Year prognostications arising for the non-profit sector.  And trying to comprehend developments in “the new world order”, the term applied here to the reign of the new US President.

I sense a swell of concerns in the voluntary and community sector that have been simmering for some time: competition for funding; changes in government commitment to service provision, forcing organisations to close their doors; a fall of volunteer numbers and increases in paid staff; and in some quarters, a lack of public confidence in non-profit organisations. As always, there’s a refrain, singing for better recognition of volunteers, and for management of volunteers.

There are some other strands emerging too. They’ve also been around for a while, but I’m reluctantly taking some notice of the rise of ‘social enterprise’, a revival of ‘social investment’ (and what impact that might have on existing services), and a movement called ‘Effective Altruism’ promoting ‘how to help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back’.

Its champion is William MacAskill, and in his book Doing Good Better he offers a disarming self-help manual on how to decide best career choices when you want ‘to make a difference’, what cause to focus on, which charities offer the best outcomes. It’s hard to argue against his reasoning, except that it’s a long way from my basis for making choices when offering to volunteer or to respond to calls for $ donations.  His utilitarian approach has been well-critiqued, not least for ignoring the sticking plaster some charities put on injustices perpetrated by capitalism.

In simple terms, MacAskill advises that ‘the market will make it all work’.  Donors are investors seeking the best return for their money (ROI).  They might also get their name in lights as a worthy philanthropist.  What bothers me is the absence of any attempt by MacAskill to define ‘altruism’ beyond the basic ‘giving’. There is scant attention to other values and moral codes that can influence decisions, and he offers several examples of choices that have made little or no ‘difference’. The only mention of volunteering implies that giving money is a far better option than giving time:

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area which you are helping, which means the benefit you provided might be limited. At the same time you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for. Anecdotally, we have heard from some non-profits that the main reason they use volunteers is because those volunteer subsequently donate back to the charity.

Hands up those who reckon volunteers are more trouble than they are worth!

There is more. Another book picked up by chance is by Nic Frances, a leading supporter of social enterprise. He outlines in The End of Charity how the divide between money-making business and doing-good charities doesn’t really make the world any better. This view is echoed by Don Pallotta who highlights business practice discrimination against non-profit organisations. Frances argues we need to stretch financial values to include social and environmental values, and for business to incorporate these elements into their operations – to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously. Well, yes, but is there any guarantee the outcome will not be like a corporate takeover of the non-profit sector? The ‘end of charity’, indeed.

Let’s go back to that word ‘altruism’, a loaded value-word, and values are notoriously debatable though highly significant in shaping thinking and behaviour. In simple terms ‘altruism’ represents a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and according to a cluster of researchers, altruism is also an integral part of human nature. Altruism can also bring benefits to ourselves – as volunteers well know and evidenced in research.

OK, science is divided between arguments on Darwinian competitiveness and the kind of mutualism (collaboration and coordination) that contributed to human evolution, but genuine altruism is right up front in Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Work done of one’s own free will, unpaid, for the common good.

So I will not be jumping ship and buying into non-profit organisations becoming models of utilitarian business institutions. I will be thinking long and hard about what would be lost, like the passion for a cause, the spirit of community, and the rewards of volunteering. I shall be asking where the ‘common good’ has gone, and whether I still have free will.

Because we have been slow to appreciate the impact of change over the past thirty years. Contracts with government, rules and procedures for funding applications, formalised reporting and accounting for the spending of funds have upped the game of running a community organisation – and lifted standards of transparency and accountability. The shift from grass roots advocacy and action to formalised volunteering has introduced better practice in ‘using’ volunteers, aided through the professional development of volunteer management. In doing so, we have allowed a great divide to open between formal and informal volunteering.

According to altruists we have become corrupted by the modern money system, “an unnatural transactional mentality which establishes competitive relationships, overemphasises individualism, erodes society and fuels consumerism”. At the same time we protest loudly at the lack of recognition, of the true (non-monetary) value of volunteering and the work of community organisations.

While MacAskill and his colleagues preach ‘effective altruism’ I shall continue to beat the drum for the gift economy and relationships based on respect, empathy and cooperation. Without a strong volunteer presence, without thousands of organisations and people serving their communities through sport, arts and leisure pursuits, health and welfare support, emergency response, environment advocacy and all the stuff that goes on under the radar, the world would be a poor place to live.

That’s why we keep on volunteering, and doing the right thing in managing volunteers. Right? What actions would demonstrate our true worth?

October 27, 2016

The Holes in Volunteering

Posted in Politics of volunteering, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 8:42 pm by Sue Hine

black-hole

ComVoices, a network of national organisations in the tangata whenua, community and voluntary sector has just released a new State of the Sector Survey.  In a press release Scott Miller, current Chair of ComVoices (and Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand), writes about the growing holes in the safety net provided by the community sector.

Yes, we’ve seen this coming for a long time now: the increased demand for services, greater complexity of community needs, and government exacting greater compliance regulations every year.  “No-one appears to be listening”, says Scott.

So the ‘inequality’ debate is not only about wealth distribution – it’s also about unequal weighting placed on the community sector to deliver services to stressed communities: a load of expectations without realistic resources to meet them.

And just when you might argue that volunteers will fill the gaps in organisation capacity we find an international decline in volunteer numbers.

Trouble is, we’ve talked up the ‘voluntary sector’ for years, assuming volunteers will pick up the pieces and do what communities do, looking out for each other. Volunteers got organisations going, like Plunket and IHC and Parents Centre and Play Centre, and Surf Life-Saving, and all the local sports teams.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were volunteers responsible for gaining New Zealand women the vote in 1893; volunteers raised funds to build school swimming schools in the 1940s and 50s; volunteers spoke out loudly on domestic violence and rape, till the government offered funding, in return for a more muted voice.

These days, volunteers are much less likely to be life-time devotees to a cause.  It’s not just because we are time-poor: we are preferring the short-term stint that offers a real job to do. Organisations face competition in attracting volunteers, and there is a great deal more these days to managing a volunteer programme than getting the numbers on board. At the same time the spread of volunteer opportunities has widened: from beach clean-ups to work experience, from ‘getting to know the community’ for new settlers to volunteering for English-speaking practice, from supporting a community garden to making breakfasts or lunches for the local school.

Mainstream organisations have become non-profit businesses, focused on employing professional staff and building relations with key funders as well as government. There is a sense that volunteering has become professionalised as well, given the structure and maintenance needed to ensure a well-functioning volunteer programme.  (Though note how the manager of the programme is not worth nearly as much (salary-wise) as the Funding and Marketing manager.) Of course the “we could not manage without you” platitude is real, but the roles offered to volunteers are too often for amateurs, pitted against the professionals. I wonder how many of those volunteers are otherwise engaged in professional careers.

Volunteering is not going to disappear any time soon.  But the symptoms outlined in the ComVoices report are as damaging to volunteering as they are to the organisations. A collapse in service delivery does not bear thinking about. And we cannot rely on volunteers (nor expect them) to pick up the pieces.  We have moved a long way from the roots of the organisations that are now in thrall to government contracts and philanthropic grants.

Early next week Volunteering New Zealand’s conference will focus on the links between vision and action.  Promoting, supporting and advocating for volunteering is the mission, ensuring volunteers are engaged effectively, that volunteering is visible, with sound leadership.

Volunteering lives. Let’s keep it that way!

October 3, 2016

Think Global, Act Local

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 9:55 pm by Sue Hine

think-global-act-localBack in the early 2000s I was doing post-grad study on Development, the word applied to ‘Low-Income Countries’ and the aid programmes that might raise their economies.  Up in bright lights were the Millenium Development Goals, the United Nations’ aspirations for achievement by the year 2015.  A year ago UN replaced the MDGs with a new sustainable development agenda. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), embracing a global approach to social, economic and environmental development.  These goals are for everyone, not just a catch-up for developing countries.

In New Zealand ‘sustainability’ is never far from our news headlines, as in fishing quotas and predator-free zones, in recycling and renewable energy.  There is plenty of opportunity to be engaged, locally and globally, in supporting SDGs.  There is a part to play for governments, the private sector, and civil society (including our community and voluntary sector).

Alongside the SDGs comes the UN State of the World Volunteering Report, also published in 2015. Volunteering New Zealand has compiled a review of the SWVR2015 and links findings with SDGs.  In their response, published in June this year, they note that

SWVR 2015 focuses on ‘transforming governance’, because good governance is critical for sustainable development.

In case you are wondering, ‘governance’ is broader than the responsibilities of an organisation’s Board:

[Governance is] the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.                Source: UNDP 1997.

According to SWVR2015 the three pillars of governance where volunteerism can have the greatest impact are voice and participation, accountability and responsiveness. Volunteers at the local level build peoples’ capacity; governments can create greater space for volunteerism to enhance social inclusion; and global volunteer networks promote voice, participation, accountability and responsiveness. This model of governance will lead to success for the SDGs.

While SWVR2015 applies the pillars of governance at a national and international level I think there is a model here that could be applied to volunteers and organisations at a local level. Consider:

  • What level of voice and participation do volunteers enjoy in your organisation? Are they invited to staff meetings, training and social events? Are in-house newsletters circulated to volunteers? Do volunteers have a say in planning and development of the organisation? Are their new ideas and initiatives welcomed? These questions could be the litmus test for volunteer inclusiveness and diversity in the organisation.
  • Allowing a volunteer voice and participation requires responsiveness on your organisation’s part. It requires listening and being receptive to views, and a willingness to modify decision-making to enable volunteer initiatives. Are the appropriate mechanisms and processes in place to be responsive to good ideas?
  • Then there is accountability, the obligation to take responsibility for decisions and actions. How does your organisation respond when ‘called to account’? There are plenty of training opportunities for Board members to cope with increasing pressures for organisation accountability and performance. In terms of accountability to volunteers, does the board of your organisation include a portfolio responsibility for the interests of volunteers?

Thinking Big about volunteers and volunteering can make a huge difference at a local level.  Just think what this kind of wave could create on the global stage.

SWVR2015 calls for much greater engagement with volunteers and volunteerism in all its forms – formal (including international volunteering) and informal – and at all levels from the local to the global. This engagement requires raising our understanding of the needs and rights of volunteers, and finding ways to resource, support and actively engage with volunteer work to improve governance. There is the challenge, so how shall we respond?

August 21, 2016

The Next Big Challenge

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership, Managing Change, Managing Volunteers, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 2:42 am by Sue Hine

lego-shop

 

 

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.

November 10, 2015

Another Way of Seeing

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Politics of volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 7:52 pm by Sue Hine

290411 News Photo NASA Runoff from heavy rains, combined with wave action along the coast, increased the turbidity of New Zealand’s waters when this image was acquired on April 29, 2011. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of sediment flowing in the Pacific Ocean. The volume of sediment in the water hints at rough seas. Distinctive plumes arise from pulsing rivers, while the halo of turquoise around both islands is likely sediment swept up to the ocean surface by powerful waves. The plumes fan out and fade from tan to green and blue with water depth and distance from the shore. Cook Strait, the narrow strip of water separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, has a reputation for being among the world’s roughest stretches of water. The islands lie within the “Roaring Forties,” a belt of winds that circles the globe around 40 degrees south. The westerlies hit the islands side on and run into the mountain ranges. Cook Strait is the only opening for the winds, so the channel becomes something of a wind tunnel. Strong winds produce high waves, and they erode the shore as shown in the image. However, sediment may not be causing all of the color. The waters around New Zealand are rich in nutrients, so it is likely that phytoplankton are contributing to some of the fanciful swirls in the image. Mixing currents bring nutrients to the ocean’s surface, providing a prime environment for plankton blooms. Made up of millions of tiny plant-like organisms, the blooms routinely color the ocean with broad strokes of green and blue. Phytoplankton are important to New Zealand because the organisms are the base of the ocean food chain. In places where phytoplankton flourish, fish also gather. Commercial fishing is New Zealand’s fourth largest industry. References Ministry for the Environment. (2007, September 17). Importance of oceans to New Zealand. New Zealand Government. Accessed May 13, 2011. New Zealand History Online. (2009, January 12). Rough crossings—Cook Strait ferries. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Accessed May 13, 2011. NASA image courtesy Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team. Caption by Holli Riebeek. Instrument: Aqua - MODIS

A couple of months ago I spent a few days in Iran, a country of different culture and politics from my own.  I was wowed by the friendliness and hospitality of the locals, always interested in where I had come from, wanting to know what I enjoyed about Iran and where I was heading to.  Visitors to New Zealand get similar questions.

Which has given me pause to think about the similarities and differences in our community and voluntary sectors, and to look at New Zealand through the other end of the telescope.

Iran has been out of international favour for three decades now.  Its nuclear programme brought sanctions from USA in 1979, and later from UN and EU.  The country has been ‘demonised by the West’ says one commentator, with devastating effect on Iran’s internal economy.  This troubled history does not tell us much about their civil society.  We have heard little of the pressure of women’s groups, a major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side.  Widespread protests in 2009 against presidential election results brought a government response in which hundreds were killed and thousands imprisoned.  These events did not register on my radar at the time.

The number of non-profit organisations in Iran and the informal support at community level is comparable to what we would expect in Western civil societies, though rights and restrictions on charities and non-government organisations have fluctuated over time according to presidential decree.  The current president, Hassan Rouhani, declared on election that he would prepare a “civil rights charter” and restore the economy, yet the struggle for a more robust civil society is stifled by hardliners in the Iranian parliament. The population becomes more submissive and cautious, and fearful about the chaos across its borders and government repression of protest.

The high rates of drug addiction and prostitution, and the highest rate in the world for internet pornography are not statistics Iranians want to proclaim.  On the other hand the recent détente of sorts with the US is a significant achievement.  Iranians I met were excited about the potential to free up trade and improve the economy.

So where are the connections with New Zealand in this scenario?  On one hand we enjoy a history of social and community achievements, votes for women and introduction of old age pensions in the late 19th century, and for Welfare State provisions from 1935.  The community and voluntary sector has been active right from colonial times, and just keeps on growing and adapting to changing conditions.

On the other hand, New Zealand has had its moments of insurrection and protest.  Think Land Wars of the 1860s, Te Kooti’s rampage in 1868, the invasion of Parihaka in 1881, and the police raid on Rua Kenana’s settlement at Maungapohatu in 1916.  Yes, there has been armed opposition from government (Massey’s Cossacks in 1913), shootings and injuries (Waihi Miners’ Strike), and plenty of arrests.  Political and civil rights were suspended in 1951, in the course of crushing the strike by the Waterside Workers Union.  In modern times we have had the Land March (1975), and the long occupation of Bastion Point (1977).  We have protested loudly against nuclear warships, the Vietnam War, changes in employment law and latterly the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty and Inequality.  The Tour (1981) still represents a benchmark for real civil unrest.   Serious enough for our small islands, though nothing like the wholesale deaths and arrests and ongoing repression which occurs in Iran.

But serious enough for me to consider what is presently at risk for Civil Society in New Zealand.

Protest by community and voluntary sector organisations has taken a muted tone in recent times.  When organisations rely on government funding contracts which include gagging clauses there’s a full stop, period.  When contract requirements are so onerous (though recent changes negotiated with the sector are welcome) there is no time or energy for protest.  There is little consideration for the impact on communities when organisations are forced to close because government priorities have changed.

We are weary from the effort of presenting submissions on relevant legislation or regulation and then finding the interests of the community are ignored.  Words like ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘disconnect’ get spoken and written about, and low voter turnout at both government and local body elections means democratic apathy is all around.

The thing is, I have always thought civil society as ‘the third leg of the stool’, up there with the public and private sectors in creating the sort of society and communities we want to enjoy.  Civil Society – all those organisations that deliver services, run the sporting sector, create healthy and resilient communities, foster neighbourhood groups – represents a different perspective from the economic and the political.  Which is not to assume civil society should be apolitical – Courts are deciding that yes, charities do have an advocacy role to play, as this quote argues:

An ‘effective’ (often known as ‘vibrant’) civil society is fundamental to any society’s capability to provide for its members’ needs and meet their aspirations, guide and hold its political and economic leaders and power-holders to account, and to embody the complex web of interactions between and among people and peoples, and between people and the state, which is such an essential feature of resilience in the face of political, environmental, social or economic shocks.

In today’s reality civil society has been drawn into the public and private sector practices.  Community and voluntary organisations are marketised, and volunteers used to deliver services, for government purposes.  Corporate sponsorship, even with the best intentions and some welcome funding, can turn into a re-branding exercise for an organisation.  A flow-on effect for civil society organisations is falling confidence in their accountability, level of trust and ethical practice (Dominion Post, November 4), and consequently less donor support.

None of these views are new, and for a really good global summary see State of Civil Society 2015, which includes the following statement:

The power of civil society is recognised through a back-handed compliment, when elites try to suppress civil society’s essential role of speaking truth to power. In many contexts, civil society is attacked when it seeks to uphold human rights, advocate for policy change or exercise accountability over political and economic elites.

Or take in the introduction to the State of the World Volunteering Report 2015, where our former Prime Minister Helen Clark says:

The report suggests that the ability of volunteers to support development progress depends on the willingness of national governments to ensure that the space and supportive environments which encourage their participation and initiatives are available. (Emphasis added)

So there we have it.  We may not suffer the extremes of repression experienced by civil society groups in Iran, but in New Zealand we too are burdened by elements of control.

February 7, 2015

A Question of ‘Work’

Posted in Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 10:49 pm by Sue Hine

Work

 

 

Technically, all unpaid work is illegal, unless an employer can show it is a training opportunity.

This sentence leapt out at me recently when reading a columnist’s critique of internships.  The writer was having a go at the dearth of jobs for new graduates, and the creeping elitism of tertiary education when being an unpaid intern is affordable only to children of the rich.

If unpaid work is illegal where does that put volunteering?  Should we be nervous?  And would we ever say ‘volunteering is not working’?

Of course not, except the question exposes – yet again – the looseness of English language.  Have a go at writing synonyms for ‘work’ and I’ll bet in short order you’ll have a list of ten words, without even including ‘employment’.

Trouble is, ‘work’ gets conflated into ‘having a job’, ‘being employed’, ‘being paid for what you do’, and ‘work status’ is a defining personal concept in many contexts.  To admit to being unemployed is not usually something to shout about.  And all the while there are plenty of examples of ‘unpaid work’ that we undertake without question: mowing lawns and gardening, raising kids, ‘housework’, caring for aged parents – though we may not call these tasks ‘volunteering’.

Volunteering is work, no question.  We have job descriptions and tasks to perform.  We put much effort into our endeavours.  The organisation will have policies which support our ‘work’ and recognise our rights, similar to employee conditions.  We like to be included as ‘staff’ of the organisation, and sometimes we are happy to be referred to as ‘staff’, even if we are not paid.  We are not too keen on situations where professional staff regard us as amateurs – that suggests our volunteer work is of lesser value to the organisation.

I am not hearing mumbles about volunteers encroaching on paid staff roles, nor of volunteers being seen as a threat.  (Though there are concerns expressed in this nfpSynergy report, p12.)  How far can we promote volunteering in the non-profit sector before there is a backlash?

But back to taking on an internship.  “Whatever happened to the idea of paying for honest toil?” asks the columnist.  Entry level career opportunities seem to have disappeared: it’s either a volunteer internship or flipping burgers and night-shift office cleaning.  The struggle to get a foot on the employment ladder makes me wonder if gaining university qualifications are worth the effort.  So it is good to see Student Job Search developing proactive partnerships with corporate groups, offering part-time permanent – and paid – positions for graduate students.

There are other anomalies related to ‘work’.  New Zealand’s government office for welfare benefits is called Work & Income.  A programme to get unemployed people into jobs is called Workfare.  Mandatory ‘work for the dole’ is not formalised in New Zealand, and volunteering is a recommended option.  We could not call compulsory ‘work experience’ volunteering, yet Volunteer Centres report growing numbers of unemployed people independently seeking volunteer positions for that purpose.

Internships and work experience placements are just a couple of indicators of changes in the employment market and job opportunities.  The level of required skill has been raised; unskilled paid work is becoming hard to find.  There is no longer a life-long certainty of employment; demand for technological expertise is increasing.  Businesses and organisations get restructured at regular intervals.  Businesses are bought and sold, and down-sized, and reports of staff lay-offs are reported frequently.  So volunteering has become a popular occupation while waiting for the next spell of employment.

Volunteering will never be deemed illegal, yet with the way the world is going we might just see volunteering become an honourable profession.

January 18, 2015

Understanding Voluntary Organisations – A Book Review

Posted in Leading Volunteers, Managing Change, Organisation Development, Organisation responsibilities, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , at 3:27 am by Sue Hine

Charles HandyFrom 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.

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Handy, Charles (1988) Understanding Voluntary Organisations: How to Make Them Function Effectively.  Penguin

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