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

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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

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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?

December 10, 2016

Volunteers’ Day in the Sun

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 11:47 pm by Sue Hine

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There wasn’t a lot of sun around on Monday last week (December 5 2016) in New Zealand. International Volunteer Day seemed more muted than usual. Yes, there were tea parties and picnics and presentation of volunteer awards around the country, but fewer media statements from previous years and less shouting-out on social media.

A very big thunder rolled across our sky when the Prime Minister announced his intention to resign, taking too much of our airspace. And the coach of our Phoenix football team resigned too, after losing a match which took them to the bottom of the table.

On the other hand there was a great news story about the rescue of 340 campervans and rental vehicles stranded in Kaikoura after their renters had left town – by ship, helicopter or plane in the aftermath of the earthquake. About eighty volunteers from the NZ Motor Caravan Association put in a ten-hour day, travelling by bus to the town, and returning in convoy over a road that still has some hairy spots to negotiate. Pity there wasn’t a mention that the first journey took place on International Volunteer Day.

But there was enough during the day to give me a glow, and a deal of pride in the value of volunteering. Here is my hit parade:

For starters, the United Nations’ theme for the year Global Applause – Give Volunteers a Hand is well captured in a video which also reminds us of the role volunteers play in working towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Our Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector commended the volunteer workforce as ‘major contributors to New Zealand topping lists of the world’s best places to live’.

Over the previous weekend more than 800 Flight Centre staff gave 2,200 hours of volunteer time to community projects around Auckland, as part of their ‘Giving Back’ conference. A big tick for corporate volunteering.

Volunteer Centres did their stuff, from a library display to a reminder that New Zealand boasts the highest rate of volunteering in the OECD with kiwis spending an average of 13 minutes a day volunteering. (The global average is just 4 minutes a day.) Volunteer Waikato’s message on Facebook went like this:

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“Thank you is not really enough… without you guys there would be a lot less happening in communities throughout New Zealand… and all over the world. You are not just awesome… You are FREAKIN’ AWESOME (with a Unicorn!)”

There were some great one-liners too:

From a volunteer: ‘I think I needed volunteer work as much as volunteering needed me’.

‘While on this day we think of you we recognise that you have been thinking of others all year.’ (Salvation Army)

‘We acknowledge that there is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.’ (St John New Zealand)

In New Zealand our theme for the day was Together we Can, a tag-line which could be incorporated into a photo of volunteers at work. Here is Gisborne Volunteer Centre’s effort, and incorporated in their message is the best line of the day:

Together we can! Together we DO!

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In this era of external constraints and funding cuts, a day to understand and appreciate the work of volunteers is a small candle for the community and voluntary sector.  Volunteering is never going to disappear, but the future of many organisations looks uncertain. In this last week two long-standing telephone counselling services reported on loss of funding: Lifeline now needs its own lifeline and Youthline will have to reduce services, or even close down. It seems decisions are made with little thought to flow-on consequences.

I am looking for better things in 2017, and I have found a couple of encouragements. In her latest Hot Topic Susan J Ellis reminds me:

When things seem dark and cloudy, history tells us that volunteers can be the bolts of lightning that can turn things around.

For managers of volunteers out there you could start singing the Twelve Pearls of Wisdom, coined for a Thoughtful Thursday post.

And I shall hang on to this quote from John Berger: Remember that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow but a detonator of energy for action today.

………….

For now, I am stepping off my soap-box to enjoy a festive season and summer holidays. Best wishes to all readers.

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

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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!

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

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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.

May 15, 2016

Make Time for NVW 2016

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , at 3:51 am by Sue Hine

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I am going to be out of the country when National Volunteer Week happens in New Zealand.  I shall be in places that are not country members of IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) – though I have no doubt there is a lot of volunteering going on.  So I shall Make Time now to do some promoting for the event, and to take a good look at that theme of Making Time.

Let’s find out first what National Volunteer Week is all about.  It was a Canadian invention, according to this bit of history.  Back in 1943, this was a week to celebrate efforts made to the war effort by women on the home front.  After a post-war decline it got revived in the 1960s and spread in popularity to the United States, to become from 1974 an annual Presidential Proclamation.  In this first year, President Richard Nixon declared a National Volunteer Week to be dedicated to those who give their time to charity:

“I urge all Americans to observe that week by seeking out an area in their community in which they can give to a needy individual or worthy cause by devoting a few hours, or more, to volunteer service.”

By this decree National Volunteer Week becomes the original call to Make Time, as well as recognising and celebrating the efforts of volunteers.  It is now a feature on the calendar for UK, Australia and New Zealand organisations.

Volunteering New Zealand introduces its 2016 campaign as a call for action:

Lack of time is the most commonly cited reason why people don’t volunteer, both in NZ and internationally. We believe that for volunteering to flourish, and the various benefits of volunteering to be realised, people are increasingly going to need to make time, now and into the future.

Complaints about recruitment difficulties have been going on for years.  In recent times being ‘time poor’ is a continuing refrain, along with organisations reporting ‘can’t get the skills we need’, and ‘can’t get people to stay on’.  And yet, statistics from various sources (and various methodologies) indicate around one third of our population make time to volunteer, and the people who volunteer the most, arguably those in the midst of child-rearing and career commitments, are those in the 30-39 age cohort.

Of course we cannot literally create more time.  But look how we have learned to squeeze more into each day, to pursue not just household management and holding down paid employment and getting our share of a good night’s sleep.  We make time to watch TV, play sport, socialise with friends, and even to read a book.  Adding in a slice of volunteering is, like those activities, a matter of choice.

Choosing to volunteer can come from a cultural obligation, a passion for a cause, a belief in community, a need to belong, and simply because you want a diversion from your day job – as well as those drivers like looking for work experience, learning new skills and for learning about the local community and its resources.

And if volunteers do make that choice, if they do Make Time, they want it to be worthwhile.  So organisations have to up their game, offer ‘bespoke’ volunteer opportunities, positions tailored to the interests and skills of the volunteer.  Requests for short-term assignments are a challenge for organisations accustomed to the forever-volunteer, requiring adjustment to training schedules, planning for continuity as well as constant change.  Paid staff working with volunteers need to Make Time to identify volunteer opportunities and to be creative in how volunteers could be engaged.

And paid staff will also need to Make Time to establish relationships with volunteers, to orient them to their work, and to provide support if necessary.  If you say you just don’t have the time then you will miss a whole lot of added value that volunteers can bring to your daily work.  And you might even miss finding the volunteer who could save you a whole load of time.

So to keep volunteers Making Time, adopt these words to show your appreciation for what volunteers can do:

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And thank you for Making Time to read this blog.

 

April 10, 2016

The Volunteer Voice

Posted in Best Practice, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:53 am by Sue Hine

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In all the chatter (and the writing) about volunteers and volunteering, about community organisations and their services, about governance and fundraising and publicity and professionalism, I do not often hear voices raised about the experience of volunteering.

Yes, there’s many a volunteer’s story to tell, usually a glowing account of being involved in the community, being passionate about a cause, learning new skills which accessed paid work, but less about the role and tasks, and the direct experience of being a volunteer.

There are plenty of examples of volunteer profiling, by age, gender, ethnicity, education – all the demographics which might indicate trends, but which do not tell us anything about what it is like to volunteer.  Likewise, the boasting of volunteer programmes by numbers of volunteers, their donated hours and a little of the tasks they undertake for an organisation is not a real picture of volunteer experience.

There’s all the research that shows off the health and social benefits of volunteering – we can live longer and continue being active in our communities.  Volunteering is also the way for new migrants to become engaged, and to improve language skills.  But what is it really like to be a volunteer?

We do the recognition and rewards through annual events, and say ‘thank you’ plenty of times in everyday practice.  But when do we ask volunteers what it is like for them?

And yes, there are exit interviews or questionnaires when a volunteer leaves an organisation.  Not a universal practice, and not always capturing what the experience has meant for the volunteer.  It’s too easy for the volunteer to fudge responses to the questions, or to not answer at all.

So I’m looking out for the studies, or for someone to take on research, which addresses the question:

WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF VOLUNTEERING?

OK, it’s complex.  What sort of sample is needed?  Which sector or sectors to include?  Which location(s)?  Include all ‘types’ of volunteers – from governance to fundraising and events, as well as regular roles – or be selective?  And what are the questions to ask?

In 2012, Volunteering Auckland published Martin J Cowling’s suggestions to consider the way volunteering impacts on volunteers:

Have you asked your volunteers what volunteering has done for them? Many will describe the impact of the services they have given, the people they have touched and the difference they feel they have made.

There’s a lot more to find out, as Susan J Ellis wrote in 2006.  She asked Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Really Know, arguing that volunteering is so complex that ‘a simplistic overview of aggregate numbers is not enough for us to understand what is going on’.  The article includes a raft of potential questions that could offer some serious data on volunteer experience.

And then there is a report published by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in 2004 on Understanding Canadian Volunteers.  While this document is aimed at people new to management of volunteers (and it’s got some good data and advice for a volunteer programme), the benefit of understanding volunteer experience helps to consider:

  • the obstacles you may encounter in recruitment and retention;
  • the challenges you may face in job design and scheduling;
  • the issues that may arise as you develop your volunteer training programs; and,
  • how best to recognize volunteers through recognition activities.

Yes, these issues are important for a volunteer programme to be effective.  More than the trappings of motivation, I want to see what it really takes to keep a volunteer keeping on.  Maybe then we will get to understand and appreciate the full contributions of volunteers to our organisations and communities, and their real value.  We will cease ‘using’ volunteers; we will ensure meaningful work; and we will honour their work in a hundred ways, for the value added to the organisation’s mission and for what they have shown us about the spirit of giving.

March 13, 2016

Staying Engaged

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Relationships, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 2:46 am by Sue Hine

After the excitement of the recruitment phase and the pronouncements of a new intake of volunteers, what are the factors that will keep them on track and stay engaged?

There are many laments from organisations about the ready dis-engagement of volunteers, and their apparent lack of commitment, as reported in Volunteering New Zealand’s first report on the State of Volunteering.

Yes, you can feel miffed that volunteers go through the application and screening process and then don’t show up for training.  Yes, it can be costly to train volunteers only to find they don’t sign up for a role, or a make short-lived appearance.  Yes, it is disappointing when people volunteer in order to gain work experience only to shoot off when they get a job.

Yes, the nature of volunteering is changing: more people look for task-focussed and time-limited assignments.  But that does not mean volunteer effort is always a ‘one-off’ or short-lived.

It all gets a bit difficult when there’s so much to do in running a volunteer programme and the volunteers come and go. So what are the initiatives that could counter all these glum pronouncements?  Here’s a list of best tips to make the most of volunteers, whether they are short-term or stayers.

  • Being very clear about expectations is a good start, especially with role definitions and time commitment – yet allowing space for negotiation on how and when the time and tasks will be given.
  • Show volunteers, in a hundred different ways, that they are valued and their work appreciated.
  • Exit Interviews can be a means to explore reasons for leaving and feedback on the volunteer experience and programme management.  Whether in a questionnaire format or a face-to-face meeting, finding out more about the volunteer’s experience and inviting feedback on the programme can show where improvements could be made.  You might have to be a bit searching to uncover comments like ‘don’t like the work’, ‘nobody talks to me’, ‘too many rules’, ‘not what I expected’ that underlie the ‘no time’ reasons.
  • Offer alternatives to those who talk of leaving, such as less frequent assignments, or different roles, or ways to keep their interest like receiving newsletters or joining a ‘Friends of’ group.  Because even if those young people and busy parents of young children don’t stay long they have been exposed to volunteering and to the organisation’s services, and chances are they will come back to volunteering at some stage.
  • Develop a plan for volunteer ‘career development’, as in assigning team leadership roles.  Offer extra training, or ‘support group’ meetings.  One of my best volunteer experiences was a regular check-in on how things were going, creating a bonding with other volunteers and enhancing links with the organisation.
  • Work on new initiatives, designed for volunteers to try out new ways of service delivery.  And take up volunteer suggestions and good ideas.  That is how many an organisation got started, and maybe it is time for a re-boot.

Of course none of us take for granted that each new volunteer will stay forever.   The question is: what are we doing to keep them engaged, and how can we adjust organisation needs to maintain volunteer commitment?

Like all relationships, whether romantic engagements or employment contracts, it takes thought and effort to keep volunteers keeping on.  Don’t let them give up with easy excuses.

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