May 12, 2013

A Shift in the Wind

Posted in Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Politics of volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

sailing-3[1]Earlier this week Volunteering New Zealand issued an invitation on FaceBook to consider the ethos of volunteering and the meaning of ‘giving time’ for the common good.  It was in response to a news item about Christchurch youth who had pledged four hours of volunteering in return for tickets to a music festival –The Concert – held late last year.  Except around 600 pledges have not been fulfilled, and according to the terms and conditions of the pledge (clearly stated) they are to be named and shamed.  They can expect to be outed on The Concert’s website.

There is absolutely no doubt the people who have participated in Student Army projects deserve recognition and a thanksgiving for the work they have been doing in quake-ravaged Christchurch.  From all accounts the concert was a great success.

The website includes clear information on whys and wherefores, including a FAQ section which defines volunteering as performing a service freely and for no charge.

Here’s the rub.  There may be no fees for volunteering, though there is always an opportunity cost for the donation of time.  The pay-back for that time can be offered in a huge number of ways, from a regular smile and ‘thank you’ to formal functions and speechifying, not to mention a lot of feel-good factors and personal gains.  But to offer a tangible (and highly desirable) carrot suggests the volunteering response is not given altogether freely.  What to do when the offer is not fulfilled?  Just let it go and mumble-mumble about free-loaders, or do the public name-and-shame?  To be fair, the 600 unfulfilled pledges represent only 7.5% of the 8000 people who created 50,000 hours of volunteer service.  And if they are outed, will public humiliation put them off volunteering for ever?  Will that matter?   Is going public with non-volunteering so different from the bad-mouthing that a poorly- managed volunteer programme can attract?

Alternatively, will volunteers elsewhere now expect enticing carrots when they offer their time, something a bit beyond the annual Christmas party?

Let me add these questions to voluntary sector conditions I have been noting in my posts in recent months:

  • A Register for violations of Volunteer Rights is suggested for Australia.  (Leading to a Union of Volunteers, as one comment has suggested?)
  • A major event is politicised to create a legacy for volunteering, to the point where £5million Lottery Funds are allocated “to be spent on Olympic inspired volunteering schemes”.
  • New ways to fund and provide social services (Social Bonds, Social Finance) are being discussed, without consideration of volunteer input.
  • Lack of understanding and appreciation of volunteers and the potential of volunteering are highlighted in recent academic research.
  • The focus on measuring social service impact and outcomes is not doing any favours for volunteering, specially where the quality of relationships makes the critical difference to outcomes for individuals.
  • The rise of Obligatory Volunteering is also evident, including internships, compulsory community service and conditional welfare entitlements.  Which is where the Christchurch Concert pledge fits in:  ‘free will’ is not so free after all.
  • Corporate responsibility and ‘workplace volunteering’ can sometimes be more self-serving than real social responsibility.
  • In addition we should take into account trends in volunteer preferences, like micro-volunteering, time-limited and task-focused assignments, and time-banking.

There we have a heap of shifts in practice to impact on the ethos of volunteering, and many of them influenced by Government directives.   Government is even supporting a new approach to community development with funding and advice.  It is disappointing to see how the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector is ignoring the long history and proud achievements of ‘community-led development’ that happens without any form of government intervention.

So it seems the ethos of volunteering has enlarged its sphere to include more formalised, more structured practice, and a variety of practice modes.  Volunteering is certainly less central to service delivery for many NGOs than the volunteering I grew up with, decades ago.  That’s OK – nothing is forever, and I’m getting used to living with constant change, in organisations and in volunteering.

But, and it’s a big but: formalised volunteering programmes, complete with policies and professional management of volunteers, are pretty small bikkies in NFP statistics.  Ninety per cent of volunteer organisations in New Zealand do not employ paid staff.  Think about it: that’s close to 90,000 organisations that do their own thing, working in their communities for the common good, and doing good, pitching in where needs must, scratching for funds, and keeping  their services going anyway.

So the ethos of volunteering, performing a service freely and for no charge, has not gone away.  It has just got a bit larger.  Denouncing volunteers who do not fulfil commitments is not yet within the boundaries of regular practice, not yet in the spirit of volunteering, even though volunteers are free to tarnish an organisation’s reputation if they don’t get the experience they expect.

As any yachtie knows, a shift in the wind means you have to trim the sails, and adjust the course to make the most of the wind-power.  That’s the excitement of sailing, being at the mercy of wind and ocean currents, and mastering your way around these forces.  Volunteering can shift with the wind too, yet will keep enough of its core to maintain a true course.

May 6, 2012

Whose Side are You On?

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter, Organisational gains from volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 1:19 am by Sue Hine

We can talk about management of volunteers forever.  We can have endless conversations that wander through the ins and outs of competence and tasks.  We can venture into the thickets of community issues and political pressures and questions about sustainable funding.  We can do a moan about the lack of recognition for our work (and volunteers).  But it’s not very often that we stop to figure out the fundamentals of the role of a manager of volunteers.

What is the purpose of the role?

Last year I wrote a clear statement:

The purpose of being a Manager of Volunteers is to contribute to the organisation’s mission, to facilitate delivery of services. So my role function is to attract, train and support (etc) volunteers to carry out tasks that will do just that.

Now I want to take the opposite position:

The purpose of the role of Manager of Volunteers is to develop the very best team of volunteers and to ensure they have the very best experience of volunteering.

A good volunteer experience takes precedence over the organisation’s mission and delivery of services?  Yes, absolutely.

So the volunteer benefits at the expense of the organisation?  I knew you would jump to that conclusion!  Let me persuade you otherwise.

Think about developing a team of volunteers.  There they are, knocking at your door, keen to ‘help’ the organisation.  They are a mixed bunch, with a dozen or more different motivations, and another dozen or so skills and aptitudes.  That’s your raw material, and you are not into conveyer-belt production.  Your job is to meet their expectations, as best you can.

So the training programme is designed to sustain volunteer enthusiasm as well as to introduce them to boundaries set by organisational policy and the roles they will be undertaking.  That is, there is a framework to follow, and enough flexible space within it for volunteers to flourish in their work.

The devil for ensuring a good volunteer experience is always in the detail.

Communication is the big No 1.  Follow-up, check in with volunteers, ask them how they’re doing.  Communicate regularly via various media to keep volunteers informed, to help them feel part of the organisation.  At the same time, be visible and proactive in advocating for volunteers with paid staff, including supporting staff who work directly with volunteers.

Continuous improvement for volunteers also needs to be on the agenda.  Volunteers may want to move their skills to another level or to try something different as much as paid staff.  The volunteer who does not ‘fit’ need not be turned away if you hang on to your sense of innovation.  That’s where management of volunteers becomes an art, way beyond the confines of human resource management.  Volunteers are a source for inspiration, not just a resource or an asset for exploitation.

Feedback on performance is as important for volunteers as it is for paid staff.  Get beyond the regular (and sincere) “Thank you” to add positive reinforcement of a job well done:

I was impressed by the way you….

Or try extending skill experience by adding:

Next time you could think about having a go at …. 

This is not just buttering up a volunteer ego, it is demonstrating your confidence in volunteer competence and ongoing capacity for development.

An annual review for each volunteer is another string to maintaining volunteer satisfaction.  Not so much a review of performance as a self-assessment of present involvement and future aspirations – and always including reflection on how to improve the volunteer programme, management of volunteers included.

Don’t forget the exit interview.  That can be another strand for comment on possible improvement and change.  Keeping a record of ‘reasons for leaving’ will draw a useful picture on turnover and levels of volunteer satisfaction, which could be incredibly useful in indicating to senior management and boards on the state of the organisation.

So what is the pay-off?  Why is a good volunteer experience important?  You will get any or all of the following:

Support for organisation mission     ADDING VALUE TO SERVICES            Retention          Loyalty       Commitment                Public Relations

Ambassadors in the Community               CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

Volunteers pilot new ways of delivering services          INNOVATION

Volunteers build Civil Society         Community Development

SOCIAL INCLUSION        Service enhancement

Get the best team of volunteers and enable their very best volunteer experience and you will find volunteers contribute OTT to organisation mission and service delivery.  All round there is a Win-Win outcome.

June 5, 2011

The Role of the Manager of Volunteers

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Role definition at 5:21 am by Sue Hine

What is the role of a manager of volunteers? Now there’s a challenge, a gauntlet laid down by Susan J Ellis at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management held inWellington.

Responses came thick and fast: recruitment, training, support, appreciation of volunteers. No, no, says Susan, those are tasks, not the role.

Doh! So we talk in our small groups and have another go.  The role is about being creative, enterprising, energizing, resolving problems.  No, that’s not quite right either.

OK – I have to go back to Sociology 101.  A role is made up of expected patterns of behaviour, enabling us to identify and place an individual in our social structures.  We have expectations of people in particular roles – like teachers and doctors, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.  There are social norms attached to roles dictating our rights and obligations.  A role can indicate social status, an identified place in the division of labour. You might also encounter role conflict, and role ambiguity, ascribed roles and achieved roles.

Much easier, I think, to understand role from an actor’s perspective.  An assigned part means I have to act within the dictates of the script.  Playing the same role does not mean I am a clone of everyone who has been a Hamlet or Ophelia before me: there is reasonable flexibility and tolerance, though I will be told soon enough if I step over the mark.

Now I get it!  The role is a label, a tag denoting a particular part I have to play, and the words to describe a role are active doing words.

So what is the role of a manager of volunteers?  Here’s my litany:

Leader, Advocate, Multi-tasker, Organiser (par excellence), Communicator – face-to-face, on-line, written, and specially good at building interpersonal relationships, a Networker, Enabler, Community Development worker, a creative Entrepreneur, a Big-time Trouble-Shooter, a Coach, Facilitator, Negotiator……..

Please add your own labels to this list – it is not exhaustive.

I begin to see the purpose of being a Manager of Volunteers as a contribution to the organisation’s mission, to facilitate delivery of  services.  So my role function is to attract, train and support (etc) volunteers to carry out tasks that will do just that.

There is a load of role expectations here that makes me wonder how one person can undertake all these responsibilities.  Yet we keep on taking up the challenge and achieving wondrous things in the name of volunteering and for our organisations.

Wouldn’t be luverly to get the respect and recognition we deserve, to access professional development as of right – either in training courses or in mentoring.  Wouldn’t be luverly to get other sectors understanding the nature of volunteering and its contribution to our communities, and to our social structures.

That’s when I would really get the full picture of my role as a Manager of Volunteers.


Note:  I shall be off-air for the next five weeks.  Transmission will resume on July 18.