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.
April 20, 2014
Screening and interviewing prospective volunteers is that most basic of tasks for managers of volunteers. My take on what to do and how to go about it is a bit different to most of the reams of available information.
I like to get a head start by asking searching questions on the application form, as I described in a previous blog. Get beyond contact details. Ask about motivation, personal qualities appropriate for the work of the organisation, skills and relevant previous experience, and of course availability and preferred time commitment. Not quite a CV, but information that offers a great deal about the applicant.
Of course this approach assumes we are clear on what we want to know about applicants, and why. Beyond their capacity to undertake volunteer roles we will be assessing the fit of volunteer and organisation expectations, and best get the latter sorted before starting the recruitment process.
I gave up individual interviews years ago, mostly because spending an hour with each applicant would have taken up more of my part-time working week than I could afford. I adopted a group screening and orientation process, two two-hour sessions held a week apart. Mostly there are between twelve and twenty participants.
In the first session introductions and ice-breakers and then a couple of key questions on motivation can demonstrate people’s ability to relate easily with each other, and to understand more about the nature of volunteering. The presence of an experienced volunteer or staff member to act as an observer at this session allows a ‘second opinion’ on the qualities of participants.
Because volunteer roles involve interaction with patients and families it is important applicants can cope with stress, so a role-play engages them in exploring depths of emotion they might encounter in themselves and others. It’s a powerful tool that prepares them for volunteer work. Or else it shows this organisation is not for them.
The other side of screening is orientation to the organisation, helping people understand how it works, a bit of its history and discussion on its values and their meanings.
Few applicants withdraw from this process. They receive a folder of information to reinforce their learning so far. Following referee and police checks they will be partnered with a buddy to introduce them to their volunteer role and tasks. A 16-hour training programme comes later, and this brief experience has primed them for what they want to learn.
Now you have a brief outline of my alternative to individual interviews. It works, on several levels. Applicants are presenting themselves to their peers as well as organisation representatives, and there is less opportunity to fudge answers to direct questions. It is a learning process, about volunteering and the organisation, and also about themselves and each other. There is opportunity for group bonding which gets renewed at organisation functions.
It may not work for all organisations. When volunteers are engaged in extended term 1:1 relationships with clients it is likely further screening is needed, and the group process may not be appropriate. Facilitating the sessions also requires skilled experience, being able to draw on human resource principles, social work and community development practice – but isn’t that all the stuff that makes a manager of volunteers?
Give it a go – group screening is a great way to discover the best in volunteering potential.
January 26, 2014
In all the on-line chatter between managers of volunteers it seems strange we do not raise ethical issues very often. Yes we can get hot under the collar about job substitution or whether mandatory service is really volunteering – but I do not recall discussion about privacy and confidentiality or codes of conduct. It’s like we – and volunteers – have a built-in recognition and sense of ethical responsibility for such matters.
Yet I am quite certain this does not mean volunteers are all perfect and we never have cause to deal with breaches of privacy.
I spent the first half of my life in a small town where my name and pedigree were widely known. My face was familiar to storekeepers without having to present an ID card. Youthful indiscretions could be reported to parents before I got home. Later, my children were bewildered by the number of pauses I made in walking down the street to greet and chat with all the people I knew. Back then the idea of individual privacy and confidentiality was nothing to worry about. Why would you, in such an open and inclusive community?
But still there are slips of the tongue, sometimes unthinking. Sometimes there is gossip-mongering. So what is a manager of volunteers to do?
A story is fed back to me that a couple of volunteers were overheard chatting about their work in the queue at the supermarket. The volunteers are not identified, and there is no major transgression evident. I choose to put up a sign in the volunteers’ office: Loose Lips Sinks Ships, and in the next newsletter I include a reminder of the importance of protecting client privacy. I can also reinforce this message at a volunteer support meeting.
On another occasion a staff member hears a volunteer in conversation with a service user about another part of her volunteer work, disclosing information about another client’s condition. When the volunteer is known I say thank goodness for the volunteer code of conduct. I can remind her of the clause about confidentiality, and about the potential impact of the private information getting back to the client. It’s not quite a disciplinary matter, and the direct approach is usually sufficient to avoid a repeat.
In an ideal world people would not need to be reminded of this ‘duty of care’. We would know the limits of what to share, with whom and how. Even better, we can learn to say quite firmly We shouldn’t be talking about this, or Hey, that information is private. And when I say I can’t tell you – it would be breaching the Privacy Act, I am sending a clear reminder of the rules we need to follow.
And then you will point out the paradox. In the world of journalism and internet social media there are no boundaries. We chase the gossip about celebrities and crave the latest details of personal and public tragedies. Social media offer a platform for disclosing personal information and sharing it widely. My small town village pump gossip has not gone away – it’s gone global, along with inherent risks of abuse.
Yet privacy law remains a benchmark for organisations, their staff and volunteers. Personal information is given by the individual; it is held for organisation purposes; and disclosure elsewhere needs individual permission. Let’s keep it that way, as a principle of our professional ethics.
November 17, 2013
Sometimes we can hang on to old mantras and take them for granted. ‘Thou shalt not replace paid workers with volunteers’: of course, I’ve known that for years! Put volunteers into former paid positions and you are exploiting unpaid labour, not to mention engaging the ire (or worse) of unions and other paid staff. So it’s a no-no, no question.
And then I encounter a situation that causes a rethink, a consideration of how hard and fast those principles really need to be. I have been asked if a volunteer is available to cover for an administration employee on sick leave. I ask questions about what happens when other staff go on leave, and isn’t there a pool of casual staff to call on, and why now, and don’t you know volunteers do not replace paid staff, period. I feel uncomfortable, because it’s a short term assignment, it’s helping the organisation over a difficulty, and there are volunteers well able and available to undertake the tasks.
That’s when I start searching for confirmation on this business of not replacing paid staff with volunteers. There is nothing in Codes of Ethics on management of volunteers, nor in Codes of Practice. Nowhere do I find a clause referring to job substitution. So is the ban on replacing paid staff with volunteers merely a convention?
At last I find a reference in the Government Policy on Volunteering (2002), in which the Government recognises that “volunteers should not replace paid workers”. Note the government merely recognises, and should does not signify a legal requirement. There is more in Guidelines for Appropriate Volunteer Positions, describing ‘factors which tend to make involvement of volunteers appropriate / inappropriate’. As a steer on volunteer encroachment into paid employment territory the clauses are pretty much common sense, and again not cast-iron regulation.
So I cast my search net beyond a New Zealand context and land some pretty good fish.
Susan J Ellis asks pertinent questions like “Who is making rules about what is and isn’t legitimate volunteer work—and on what grounds?” And what about the obverse to staff displacement: “When and how is it legitimate to place employees into roles traditionally held by volunteers?” We don’t think about that too often.
There’s a bunch of myths around job substitution by volunteers, says this UK article. We all know the involvement of volunteers should complement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service. But when times are tough and loss of funding causes staff cuts, engaging volunteers to fill the gaps is replacing staff, not displacement.
If you still have doubts there’s a guide to avoiding job substitution, describing a process to be followed. Or take in this UK report on the health and social care sector: the authors conclude that rather than thinking of volunteering as a means for cutting costs, providers of all kinds should focus on volunteering as a means of improving quality by resourcing volunteer management appropriately. Now there’s a good steer for action!
It looks like my concerns about a volunteer covering for staff are better answered through a strategic vision and policy on volunteering. When we have constructive relations between paid staff and volunteers (and the manager of volunteers), when the volunteer programme is integrated with wider services of the organisation, and when volunteer contributions are understood and appreciated for the added value they bring – then we will have no need to follow advice that begins “Thou shalt not….”.
That’s what I call a shift in focus, turning negativity into positive direction.
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.
October 13, 2013
We are counting down to IVMDay now. Just three weeks to go to the big day on November 5. There are notices about events and functions turning up on Facebook, invitations coming by email, and information broadcast about awards for best practice. All of these are designed of course “to connect and inspire”, our theme for this year.
If you are still wondering what you could organise there’s a comprehensive list on the IMVDay website – something there to encourage everyone to action.
What I am enjoying most in the run-up to the day are the cartoons being fed into our networks. They are reminders of the little things that add up to best practice in managing a volunteer programme, in being professional in our work.
Here are some other examples of the simple things that can help connect and inspire volunteers, and staff:
- Saying Thank You – and you can embroider that a thousand ways: ‘That was a job well done’; ‘I hope you are proud of your achievement’; [to staff] ‘Good to have your support’.
- Knowing volunteers as people who lead other lives outside volunteering. So you will remember to ask about the job interview, the sick pet, the anniversary, the workplace function, the holiday.
- Getting some regular communication going – a newsletter or telephone tree, and even better via social media.
- Or meetings / in-service seminars at intervals determined by the volunteers.
- Checking out volunteer job satisfaction and interest in extending skills or experience.
- Getting feedback from staff: ‘Is this volunteer contribution working for you?’; ‘Are there ways we could extend the service’.
OK – these suggestions are likely to be part of your everyday practice. They are still simple and easy ways to maintain engagement with volunteers: that’s what connecting and inspiring is all about.
But let’s not forget the aim of IVMDay is to recognise how managers of volunteers enhance and enable the spirit of volunteerism – and to thank them, to give them the recognition they deserve. In the events listed on Facebook most are organized by ‘Volunteer Centre’ groups, and no doubt there will be speeches of appreciation, and maybe there will be a few Board Members and even Executives in attendance. I do not see as yet a national not-for-profit or community service organization acknowledging in a tangible way the achievements of the managers of volunteers in all their branches. That would be really ‘connecting and inspiring’ for the organization and their volunteer services.
Now here is a real-life ‘simple thing’ story.
About ten or twelve years ago, before IMVDay got to be part of the calendar in New Zealand, I got invited to join my Chief Executive and two Personal Assistants for lunch at a down-town café. It was Secretaries’ Day you see, a bit like IMVDay, for those people who do extraordinary things to keep an organisation going in day-to-day administration, the vital nuts-and-bolts stuff. I was invited, the CE said, because I was another person on the staff who was often unsung for my work. Well, the good food and a glass of very nice wine were duly appreciated – but what I remember best is the recognition that the work of managing volunteers is a valued and important part of the organisation’s services. And – more importantly – recognition of the non-monetary value volunteers bring to the organisation.
That’s the in-house connection and inspiration I would want for all managers of volunteers and their teams.
August 18, 2013
In Wellington this year the month of July turned on weather that was 2 degrees warmer than usual midwinter temperatures. Indeed national results are showing this year was the fourth-warmest July in 100 years of New Zealand records. No-one is yet claiming this result as evidence for climate change – we just welcome the period without dreary grey skies and three-day southerly storms direct from the Antarctic. The mild weather continues this month, encouraging an early rise of the dawn chorus, increased frequency for lawn-mowing and an abundance of spring flowering – though a couple of sharp earthquakes has shaken any complacency we might have enjoyed.
I have never seen any graphs that track volunteering like weather patterns or earthquakes, not by numbers, nor by demographics or spread of organisation. Mostly the information is collated in intermittent reports (most recent is 2008) with little comparative analysis. The best studies are the publications for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project.
It’s the same for managing volunteers, an occupation we like to call a profession. I’d like to think a graph of better management practice would show significant progress over the past forty years, mostly a slow and steady upward slope that gets a little steeper in more recent times. Factors contributing to momentum are international organisations like IAVE, international conferences, the burst of technology that allows global communication in all sorts of forms: electronic journals, newsletters and webinars, bloggers like me, twitter and face-book discussion groups. International Volunteer Manager Day (November 5) and National Volunteer Week (June) also attract plenty of attention from both inside the sector and without. Possibly the biggest impetus for programme managers has come from government contracting out services to non-profit community-based organisations (though this move has produced its own fish-hooks). At ground level Volunteer Centres are right up there offering support and training sessions for managers of volunteers, and the idea of mentoring as a means for professional development is slowly starting to get some traction.
So I think it is fair to claim the practice of managing volunteers is quite a few degrees warmer than it was twenty years ago.
However, there is still a fair way to go in that other meaning of ‘degree’, referring to tertiary education qualifications. There is no single qualification for management of volunteers, though a raft of training programmes is available, from day-long workshops to on-line courses of varying duration and intensity. University programmes are offered for ‘non-profit management’, and while they may include relevant material for management of volunteers the focus is generally on organisation-wide management.
This lack of academic attention is compounded by the different training and experience people bring to management of volunteers, and by the scope of responsibilities in the role. It is not surprising that a lack of an identified career-path also leads to short-term engagements in managing volunteers for a good proportion of our numbers.
All is not lost! Volunteering New Zealand published its comprehensive document on competencies for management of volunteers in June this year. There are tools to help determine learning needs, and a long list of opportunities for study at various levels and topics of generic management. Or go directly to options for assessment of prior learning (APL) which could lead to a formal qualification.
Unlike the debate on climate change I think the evidence is clear for current and future growth in prospects for managers of volunteers, whether by degrees or otherwise.
May 5, 2013
Going on three years ago I wrote about someone else’s bad volunteer experience, and regretted it ever since. Because every year this post is the most viewed, by a wide margin. Every day someone has Googled the words and they end up on my blog site. I’ve tried in several different ways to highlight what volunteers appreciate, but good news stories do not attract the same attention.
So the tales of volunteers being under-valued and unappreciated, and treated badly, continue to mount up. And now Australian volunteers are invited to register violations of their rights or inappropriate treatment.
Two problems here. One, I don’t know of any cast iron document on volunteer rights relating to ‘inappropriate treatment’. Which means, secondly, there is not much legal protection for volunteers (in New Zealand) beyond privacy and health and safety regulations and the non-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act. ‘Volunteer rights’ are more in the realm of ethical and best practice procedures.
There are various Codes of Practice for managing volunteers. There are various Rights and Responsibilities documents outlining reciprocal obligations for volunteers and organisations. There is, if you did not know already, a Code of Ethics for managers of volunteers. In 2001 (remember that year?) a “Universal Declaration on the Profession of Leading and Managing Volunteers” was developed by an international working group, including New Zealand representation. These hallmarks of a profession are clearly not sufficiently embedded to address the wrongs experienced by volunteers.
The regulatory environment in most jurisdictions will include volunteers within health and safety, privacy and human rights. Volunteers are excluded from employment law of course, though there is a grey area when we start talking about being ‘a good employer’ (see this post).
So from a volunteer’s perspective there is not much comeback if they get bullied, or mucked around, or ignored – all that personal insult stuff that is so hard to argue. There is no formal means of redress, unless the organisation’s HR policies and their ‘good employer’ commitment includes volunteers in their complaints and disciplinary procedures, and in annual review processes which offer a two-way consideration of both the volunteer programme and volunteer contributions. To go further into ‘workplace protection’ would jeopardise the meaning and status of volunteering.
In 2009 serious breaches of trust between volunteers and the organisations they volunteered for led to Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The outcome called on organisations to sign up to the 3R Promise, promoting and protecting and taking responsibility for volunteer experience and raising standards of management of volunteers, and reconciliation when things go wrong. Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations is another model, outlining opportunities for organisation development and change to develop and maintain a programme that offers volunteers the best possible experience.
But the fundamentals of that best experience is based on good communication, effective working relationships, high standards of training and induction, ongoing support, demonstrative appreciation and being valued for contributing to the organisation’s mission and to the community. (Have I missed anything here?) These are matters of professional standards and ethics and values. They are ‘people-centred’, involving relationships of mutual respect and trust.
If we listened to ‘what volunteers want’ we would not have to set up complaint registers or to promise commitments, or guidelines for organisations. If we listened to volunteers we would not be pushed to concern for protecting their rights. We might even become the profession we ought to be.
And – we’ll get more pictures of happy and satisfied volunteers.