October 19, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand held a workshop for managers of volunteers in Wellington last week. Raising the Bar was the first of a number to be held around the country, drawing on the Best Practice Guidelines to ask What does Best Practice look like and how do we get there?
My long memory recalls the origins of this workshop, the tiny germs of ideas that got translated over time into a working group, to a VNZ project, to publishing the Guidelines, and now to working on getting them implemented.
Back in 2009 the VNZ Conference theme was Volunteering Unleashed, and there were two streams: Volunteering Tomorrow and Inspiring Leaders – two sides of the same coin you might say. With presentations like ‘Unmasking the role of volunteer management’ and ‘Awaken the hero leader in you’ there was plenty to inspire and unleash imaginations for future effort. At the final session I asked “What happens next?” to which there was a smart reply: “What would you like to happen?”
A few weeks later a meeting was convened with a bunch of other people who were asking the same question. The Management of Volunteers Development Group was born, if not right then, but over the next few meetings. I’ve written about its progress several times:
Raising the Bar was the theme for VNZ’s conference in 2011, and a principal stream was devoted to ‘Developing the Leaders’. Sessions covered a range of regular practice for managers of volunteers, and included focus on leadership – because managing volunteers is nothing without leadership.
The present round of workshops on Raising the Bar is another step to encourage managers of volunteers to take on strategic leadership, and to advocate for implementation of the Best Practice Guidelines. At the same time there is a parallel effort going into nominating champions of managing volunteers, the executives of organisations that demonstrate and promote understanding and recognition of volunteering and its management. Yes, we need to promote these champions so others may raise their sights, to include the value of volunteers and their managers in their vision.
The workshop this past week raised a real buzz, a community of managers of volunteers sharing concerns and their ideas and information, using the material of the Best Practice Guidelines. There was plenty of diversity in this group, both in size of organisation and in sector interests. The old hands mixed with the newbies, and there was learning for everyone.
At the end of the day what happens next is up to participants. They’ve got their take-home message and intent for action, but we’ll have to wait to see results. Strategic leadership for change and development takes skill, courage and determination. And time.
How high does the bar have to go? We’ll know when we get there, for sure.
July 6, 2014
It’s the sort of thing you don’t know exists until you are told you’ve done wrong. It’s not written into an organisation’s code of practice, or the house rules, and never in your employment contract.
But still you learn pretty smartly when you have stepped over a line.
The line in the sand is collectively ‘professional boundaries’, not something we get to talk about over a brief coffee break. And lines drawn in the sand mostly get washed over in the next tide, so we forget about the boundary rules until the next time, when the rule seems to have changed, or we encounter a different one.
A colleague has been reminded about professional boundaries recently. Light-hearted banter with a volunteer led to an idea to introduce a bit of comedy into the workplace. It did not happen because the boss called in to say “this was not the type of professional image we wish to project in our organisation”.
Hmmmm…. Professional image? What does that look like? How would we know it? And why didn’t we get inducted to expectations when we started in the job?
The image is all part of a professionalism package. Professional values deem the expected behaviour, in relationships, and work responsibilities. Anything from the dress code to communication style can be included, along with conventions around loyalty, confidentiality, respect and trust. In other words, a professional image is a set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character, as judged by your key constituents (work colleagues, volunteers, members of your community network).
While my colleague discovers she has transgressed a professional boundary, she has also learned volunteers are attracted to the organisation through her reputation as a competent and professional manager for the volunteer programme. Which adds a bit more confusion to the line in the sand.
There’s a bigger question for me when I start thinking about volunteers and boundaries (professional or otherwise), especially for volunteers engaged in interpersonal work. Training will cover the importance of confidentiality and privacy provisions, but how many new volunteers get to consider the line between being ‘friendly’ and ‘friendship’, or discussing the difference between a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ relationship? When does accurate information turn into advice of the “if-I-were-you” kind? That’s another good reason to provide regular support and ongoing training for volunteers, and for managers of volunteers to engage in a mentoring process. We need to talk more about boundary issues.
But why can’t we get a fixed line in the sand?
Because, like the tide that washes away my sand-artwork, determining professional boundaries is a fluid process. Crossing the line is a matter of degree, a perception or judgement that is made too often by someone else. Yes, we learn from experience. But knowing the traps, and how to avoid them would give us a head start.
May 25, 2014
From time to time over past decades flags have been waved about professionalism in managers of volunteers. Country-wide and regional associations to promote the profession have been founded, and foundered. Certification and credentials and National Standards have struggled to gain a foothold. In New Zealand we have developed Best Practice Guidelines, and a Competency pathway, as a means to support managers of volunteers and to gain recognition of their roles. Now UK’s Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is generating a renewed discussion on professionalism. Here’s an opening paragraph on the context for the arguments:
Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.
More recent presentations have covered a case for a Code of Practice; distinctions between a job, an occupation and a profession; and some of the questions and risks that need to be discussed.
I have been down this road before. Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in debates about registration for social workers in New Zealand. University level programmes had been going for some years, offering academic credentials; a national association was active with newsletters and a quarterly journal. But the arguments on professionalising were about competence and performance appraisal. (I’ve still got the documents, typed in Courier font before the days of computers.) For social workers in government welfare agencies there were statutory responsibilities to worry about; in the health sector social workers were more concerned with raising their status to the level of other Allied Health professionals. Compared with the current position of management of volunteers, social work at this time was streets ahead in developing professional credibility.
I bowed out of the debate, gave up membership of the association, and have never submitted to assessment for registration – in part because I moved to some different fields of work, rather as managers of volunteers will do. Mostly I gave up because being professional was far more important to me than professionalisation.
Professionalisation is a formal process to gain status and credentials, to ensure standards of practice can be maintained. Trouble is, elements of exclusiveness can creep in, and it would be mighty difficult to establish a comprehensive code of practice that would cover all contexts that engage managers of volunteers. See here for an outline of potential consequences of this form of professionalisation. As we have been saying in New Zealand for several years, one size does not fit all.
Being professional, on the other hand, is about demonstrating a set of beliefs and values in behaviour. That’s why the art of managing volunteers includes such emphasis on communication and relationships with volunteers, paid staff and management, with the wider community, and in support and appreciation and recognition of volunteer work. That’s why we work hard at advocating for volunteers and volunteering – and there’s an art in doing that effectively too. Being professional connotes the integrity of our work, a wholeness that comes from articulating beliefs about volunteering and communities, and in acting on those beliefs.
Being professional in this sense is about leadership and personal characteristics. It is different from the administrative and management processes of establishing and maintaining a volunteer programme. These elements can be clearly defined and applied; leadership is the behavioural style of application.
Professionalism in management of volunteers does not fall easily into conventional patterns of professional status. There is no exclusive knowledge base, and our practice skills are not so different from those required in other management positions. There are any number of training and experience routes that bring us to appointment as a manager of volunteers, and there are even more variations in volunteering and volunteer programmes. And, there is no formal career path to follow.
Susan Ellis wrote way back in 1997:
No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.
A professional association can offer a defined set of ethical principles related to management roles and some form of accountability for abiding by those principles. A professional association also has the potential to take collective action, speaking out on controversial issues outside the constraints of our employing organisations. Real professions, says Susan Ellis, have strong associations. I maintain my membership in the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) on the basis of these expectations.
Because, to paraphrase a quote from a long-ago text* on professionalism in social work:
Management of volunteers without service would be lame, without values would be blind, and without professional association will be mute.
*Toren, Nina (1972) Social Work: the Case of a Semi-Profession Sage Publications.
May 11, 2014
A rugby league star switched to rugby union last year, but has failed to make the grade in this different code. He has now returned to rugby league.
Some commentators reckon he was not given enough game time and opportunities to make his mark in rugby.
As an employee he was entitled to receive adequate training to meet team management’s expectations. Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff can perform their roles at high levels, whether in the office or on the sports field. I grabbed at this statement from an employment law specialist in my weekend newspaper.
Because in attending conferences and specialist training programmes I have been surprised at how many managers of volunteers are paying their own way to participate in their own professional development. Three cheers for their personal commitment to on-going learning, even though they were not supported or encouraged by their employing organisations. (On the other hand, equal opportunity becomes a mirage if I cannot afford the cost of the conference or training course.)
Surely it is in the employer’s best interests to enable best possible performance from all staff. Skill maintenance and up-skilling has to be a good investment – for business productivity and for staff retention and job satisfaction. In the absence of organisation support the high turnover rates for management of volunteer positions is not surprising. Like that rugby player who is leaving the game, there is disappointment and disillusionment.
When professional development is not offered to managers of volunteers I have to wonder if the volunteer programme is perceived as merely a nice-to-have optional extra for the organisation’s operations; that managing volunteers is a job anyone can do; and one that does not need specialist training. It means that volunteers are not really appreciated for their contributions, and by extension neither is their manager.
On the other hand, finding a training programme that meets particular or even general needs for managing volunteers can entail a lot of searching. You have to go looking across local and global interconnections, and do the ‘stumble-upon’. You have to know where to look, unless you already know about Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, or their on-line training programme. That’s a good starting point.
There is good value too in connecting with the local Volunteer Centre, usually offering everything from a lunchtime forum to day-long seminars and workshops, extending to opportunities for mentoring.
Yes, say employers, there is a monetary cost to training. But the relatively small investment in conference fees or a short course can reap significant benefits in management confidence and competence, and in developing effective volunteer programmes. Don’t let the manager get choked off like the rugby player, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves.
February 16, 2014
Stand up the manager of volunteers who does not have a worry about volunteer recruitment, staff-volunteer relations, establishing a new volunteer role, training and equipment for volunteers, getting funding for recognition events, maintaining database records, writing reports, and making time to check out volunteer satisfaction. OK – perhaps not everything at once, but maybe one or two that are fast turning into Problem Pumpkins. You come slap-bang up against something related to policy or practice you have not thought about. Like: you are all for diversity in recruiting volunteers, but are you open to all comers? Or you encounter that curly organisational infection you wish would go away. Like: how do I turn around the organisation’s view of volunteers as economic saviours for the organisation?
Oh dear, is there no-one to claim they are worry-free? So you are all suffering sleepless nights, chewed-off fingernails, failing to give full attention to volunteers, missing important deadlines? These options are not to be wished on anybody. What to do?
When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
Well, that’s not much help when you have to go find the recipe for making lemonade. Better go find your local network of managers of volunteers, the peer support group you belong to or your favourite online group. You ask for some answers, aka solutions. Do not be surprised if people come back smartly to ask What is the lemon?
That’s the trick, you see, getting to look at the lemon on the outside and the inside, to smell that tangy citrus, to taste the acid of the juice on your tongue. Your peers are asking questions, getting you to explain, get into detail, digging to find out why this thing is a lemon. Stick with this process, because you will discover the eureka moment that reveals the recipe for making lemonade. Now you can see how the solution to the problem was there all the time.
No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. (Voltaire)
Of course you have to frame the problem to fit with your circumstances. It is not for other people to tell you what it’s like for you. When that lemon fits the frame it’s amazing how clear the picture becomes: you can see what needs to happens, and all you need now is to work out how to get there. You’ve got some ideas, but let’s go ask your peers about possible actions.
Caution: walk away if people start saying ‘If I were you I’d………’, or ‘What you need to do is………..’ Solutions have to fit with your scenario and your style, not according to other people’s quick-fixes.
A Trouble Shared is a Trouble Halved
OK – a proverb is not always a truism. Extended metaphors might be useful illustrations of a process, but you still have to get down to doing something, to deal with the other half of the trouble. Supportive peers will offer suggestions like ‘When I had a similar experience I found this helpful……….’ Someone else might be able to share written material, like a policy or a template. Another person refers you to useful on-line resources.
Enough! Time to return to your desk, to draw up the plan and plot the strategy to deal with this lemon once and for all. Some lemons are larger than others and take time and constant resolve to get them to the done-and-dusted phase. Some lemons need collective action, so your first step might be to find allies for the purpose.
When you report an outcome to the peer group you will also tell them what you have learned from this experience: No-one has to go it alone.
The quote comes from Lennon’s song: Watching the Wheels
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 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.
March 3, 2013
March is the month for the beginning of autumn in my southern hemisphere, though current sunshine levels have not yet arrived at the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. We are getting close however, to harvesting a project begun more than three years ago. In a couple of months Volunteering New Zealand will publish the Learning and Development Pathway, a guide to professional development for managers of volunteers. This document will sit alongside the Best Practice Guidelines for volunteer-involving organisations.
The need for skilled and competent managers of volunteers has been a universal catch-cry for decades, alongside attaining due recognition and appreciation for the work entailed in enabling volunteers to play such a huge role in delivering community services. We are not alone in raising the concerns we have in New Zealand.
The project started from a vision that Managers/Leaders of Volunteers should be valued, well-resourced and competent professionals. Research and stories of experience was showing managers of volunteers were (and are) struggling for recognition and for resources for professional development. The flow-on effect was that volunteers may not get the best possible experience from their work, thus impacting on job satisfaction and recruitment, and not least on the services they provide in community organisations. We were also keen to put paid to the self image of being just a volunteer or just a volunteer manager, phrases which carry the imputation of lesser value than others in the organisation.
What took us so long – in getting to start the project, and then three years of consultation and debate? The original cry was Enough! following a Volunteering New Zealand conference. Then we engaged in a collective debate to determine goals and lots of sharing skills and knowledge. It was an empowering process, encouraging people to respond to the challenges and to think about breaching some of the barriers. Good things take time, and given the diversity of volunteering and community organisations it was important to discuss plans as widely as possible.
Of course getting a learning pathway to publication stage is not the end of the mission. Follow-up promotion will be needed, pressing for acceptance and action on recommended practice. There are plenty of opportunities to meet a range of training needs, but maybe some persuasion will be needed for organisations to see the benefits of supporting professional development – through fee reimbursement or paid study leave, for example. Managers of volunteers who may be reluctant to take on formal study, can note they could gain credits via Assessment of Prior Learning (APL).
So what will we be seeing in a year’s time? At the very least, there will be wide-ranging conversations about recognition and training for managers of volunteers. At the very least, organisations could be acknowledging the relevance and importance of their volunteer programmes, and considering how to enhance them.
Whether by small steps or big strides Volunteering New Zealand has started something that could end up being a whole lot bigger.