March 13, 2016
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.
January 26, 2016
The New Year has not rolled over with great optimism. There are more columns devoted to dealing with back-to-work blues than with 2016 opportunities. In the NFP sector organisations face another year of funding constraints, government expectations (and directives), and rising competition for securing contracts. Not to mention public concern for inequality, child poverty, housing shortages, the environment, and the implications of TPPA.
It looks like we are repeating Rousseau’s adage: Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. The ethic of Fairness that has been a hallmark of New Zealand’s history is rapidly eroding, so it is no surprise to find a call to renew our social contract with government, specially in the light of the electorate’s disenchantment when it comes to exercising democratic voting rights.
Yet there is something else going on, almost under the radar. While the formal NFP sector wrings its hands, numbers of informal clusters of community groups and enterprises are increasing in response to social needs, community development initiatives continue to achieve their goals, and the ‘hand-up’ helping scene is thriving. As Colin Rochester has advocated, I am hearing the beat of a different drum.*
Statistics NZ has published results of its 2014 survey of social networks and support. In terms of how Kiwis connect 93% live in supportive neighbourhoods; 78% have friends living close by or in the same neighbourhood; around 64% belong to a club, group or organisation (we have long been known as ‘joiners’); and nearly all of us (97%) have at least one supportive family member. That looks like a pretty good level of social connectedness, despite poverty and poor living conditions for one in seven households in New Zealand. As active examples Neighbourly Facebook pages might be a digital means of communication, but it sure is an effective way to keep in touch with what is going on around your area, and about local resources. Inspiring Communities continue to facilitate community-led development, and to promote Neighbours’ Day. Time Banks are flourishing.
This ethic of reciprocity and a relationship economy is alive and well, and new and energetic small scale groups are proving their worth in social action. Some may not call such activity volunteering, yet it still involves unpaid time, energy and skills.
When it comes to donating money the World Giving Index 2015 rates New Zealand third, just behind Myanmar and the US. We are up two places from 2014, and the fourth most active nation for volunteering. Numbers donating money to charity rose by a significant 11%.
Has the press of poverty enhanced the giving spirit of Kiwis? Or is it due to the influence of Pay It Forward philosophy, the promotion of Giving Tuesday, Good Deeds Day and GiveALittle crowd-funding website? Well, we know about the health benefits of volunteering, and it seems giving money, like kindness, also has its own rewards. And more often than not volunteers are both time and money donors.
Yet word is that volunteer numbers have fallen in US by 3.5% in the last ten years, and by 5% in Australia over five years. (No recent information is available for New Zealand.)
It is time to pay more attention to the informal NFP sector, where effective volunteering doesn’t just happen: it’s based on the fundamentals of good relationships, a sense of community interdependence and a commitment to social action. There could be some valuable learning in a different approach to volunteering.
Rochester, Colin (2013) Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
February 7, 2015
Technically, all unpaid work is illegal, unless an employer can show it is a training opportunity.
This sentence leapt out at me recently when reading a columnist’s critique of internships. The writer was having a go at the dearth of jobs for new graduates, and the creeping elitism of tertiary education when being an unpaid intern is affordable only to children of the rich.
If unpaid work is illegal where does that put volunteering? Should we be nervous? And would we ever say ‘volunteering is not working’?
Of course not, except the question exposes – yet again – the looseness of English language. Have a go at writing synonyms for ‘work’ and I’ll bet in short order you’ll have a list of ten words, without even including ‘employment’.
Trouble is, ‘work’ gets conflated into ‘having a job’, ‘being employed’, ‘being paid for what you do’, and ‘work status’ is a defining personal concept in many contexts. To admit to being unemployed is not usually something to shout about. And all the while there are plenty of examples of ‘unpaid work’ that we undertake without question: mowing lawns and gardening, raising kids, ‘housework’, caring for aged parents – though we may not call these tasks ‘volunteering’.
Volunteering is work, no question. We have job descriptions and tasks to perform. We put much effort into our endeavours. The organisation will have policies which support our ‘work’ and recognise our rights, similar to employee conditions. We like to be included as ‘staff’ of the organisation, and sometimes we are happy to be referred to as ‘staff’, even if we are not paid. We are not too keen on situations where professional staff regard us as amateurs – that suggests our volunteer work is of lesser value to the organisation.
I am not hearing mumbles about volunteers encroaching on paid staff roles, nor of volunteers being seen as a threat. (Though there are concerns expressed in this nfpSynergy report, p12.) How far can we promote volunteering in the non-profit sector before there is a backlash?
But back to taking on an internship. “Whatever happened to the idea of paying for honest toil?” asks the columnist. Entry level career opportunities seem to have disappeared: it’s either a volunteer internship or flipping burgers and night-shift office cleaning. The struggle to get a foot on the employment ladder makes me wonder if gaining university qualifications are worth the effort. So it is good to see Student Job Search developing proactive partnerships with corporate groups, offering part-time permanent – and paid – positions for graduate students.
There are other anomalies related to ‘work’. New Zealand’s government office for welfare benefits is called Work & Income. A programme to get unemployed people into jobs is called Workfare. Mandatory ‘work for the dole’ is not formalised in New Zealand, and volunteering is a recommended option. We could not call compulsory ‘work experience’ volunteering, yet Volunteer Centres report growing numbers of unemployed people independently seeking volunteer positions for that purpose.
Internships and work experience placements are just a couple of indicators of changes in the employment market and job opportunities. The level of required skill has been raised; unskilled paid work is becoming hard to find. There is no longer a life-long certainty of employment; demand for technological expertise is increasing. Businesses and organisations get restructured at regular intervals. Businesses are bought and sold, and down-sized, and reports of staff lay-offs are reported frequently. So volunteering has become a popular occupation while waiting for the next spell of employment.
Volunteering will never be deemed illegal, yet with the way the world is going we might just see volunteering become an honourable profession.
August 24, 2014
The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector. And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments. Here are some variations on his theme:
A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.
Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.
The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.
These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand. I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:
The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected. (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)
Volunteer sector service providers are under public management. The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.
There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement. There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.
A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society. We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time. When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector. When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice. When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.
“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly. But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”. It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”. Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community. We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.
None of these views are new. You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector. This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:
….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline. This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.
It is time now to get beyond outrage. We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place. The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.
Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone 24/01/13
August 17, 2014
Diversity is the theme of the moment, popping up in workshops around the country, promoted on websites, and a national forum is to be held next week, with a focus on migrant and refugee employment.
New Zealand is now recognised as one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Without overlooking our bicultural heritage we need to acknowledge the 213 ethnicities that are living here in Aotearoa. You could say we have become a melting pot for the 21st century. So what does this mean for the voluntary and community sector?
Volunteering is a well-travelled route for new migrants, for offering work experience, for improving language skills, for getting to know local communities. There are countless success stories, and many continue their volunteer involvement long after they find paid work.
But diversity is wider than including ethnic groups. There’s a huge range of skills, interests, ages and abilities in our population to contribute to volunteering in our communities. And when this diversity is set alongside the diversity of volunteer organisations and their members and users we could be entering a golden age of volunteering.
So let’s look at developing further all those different volunteer streams.
Corporate volunteering is increasing in bounds, especially when it is organised through the local Volunteer Centre. (Find out more here – Employees in the Community) Corporate groups can tackle large-scale projects or special ventures for organisations, or offer pro bono services. Here is a way to introduce people to the excitement, the creative stimulation, the camaraderie and companionship that volunteering can offer, which can then spin-off to a continuing involvement for individuals.
Engaging people with disabilities is not a new source of volunteers, not if you have an open mind and a focus on ability. Disabled people might need accessible facilities or extra support (see this useful model) – but to exclude them from volunteering opportunities is to deny their participation as members of our communities. There are plenty of examples where disabled or chronically-ill people are helping their fellows, or working in another field altogether. Well-planned programmes bring benefits to disabled people and to the organisation, and to our communities.
Gen Y and Millenials get a lot of public attention these days. There is quite an industry devoted to encouraging young people into volunteering. Yet I note plenty of examples where these generations are doing boots-and-all stuff in their communities, creating and sustaining initiatives and developing social enterprises, and their own strategies to counter limited opportunities in mainstream employment. The story of the Student Volunteer Army is a good example. At the same time traditional volunteer services are proving they are open to engaging with young people.
Internship programmes offer another point of entry to volunteering for young people. Despite concerns and debates the best programmes will be ensuring benefits to both organisation and the intern. And if they have not discovered volunteering previously the interns I meet are also discovering community and the world beyond paid employment.
The Boomer generation is another significant population group, yet we hear little about them as volunteers. Are they being ignored? As the community movers and shakers of times past is their continuing involvement being taken for granted? Like all other volunteers older people are looking beyond stuffing envelopes for challenges relevant to their knowledge and skills. There is still a place for cross-generational mix, and without full representation in the volunteer pool then the claim to diversity is diminished.
It takes all sorts to achieve the best in volunteering. I’ve said all this before, but some things are worth repeating.
April 6, 2014
I am no musician, though I enjoy listening to a variety of music. This week I have come across two new variations on the theme of volunteering. When you think about it there’s quite a catalogue of words playing on ‘volunteering’. Let me introduce you to the old, the new and my own inventions.
Volun-Told – I start with this term, because that’s how I got involved in volunteering, years and years ago when my mother roped me in to help with a fund-raising event. I was about eight years old, and you did what mother said in those days. It was a while before I understood fully what volunteering is about. Today it’s ‘work-for-the-dole’ and community service sentencing that keeps ‘volun-told’ alive.
Volun-Tourist – Another familiar term, referring to those (like Grey Nomads) who take up a spot of volunteering while on holiday, or to spend time helping on a development programme in foreign parts. Nice work, as long as there is benefit to local people.
Micro-volunteer – The new kid off the block, offering multiple opportunities for time-poor people, for virtually anything. But not well understood in my neck of the woods.
Shadow-volunteer – Here’s a newcomer, courtesy of Gisborne Volunteer Centre (March 31). Could be a new way to induct new volunteers, or a ‘try-and-buy’ recruitment option.
Volunt-Hear – From Volunteer Canada, running a hotline for North America’s National Volunteer week, for people to shout out about volunteers and their efforts. Possible spin-off: organisations create in-house opportunities to appreciate volunteers.
Now here are my novel terms:
Vol-Intern – Bring this word into common parlance and we would be rid of arguments on whether an intern is a volunteer or not.
Volun-Corp – Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring of importance as ‘corporate volunteers’, but at least it puts the volunteering context up front.
Volun-Finders – Raising cheers for all the Volunteer Centres that facilitate volunteer engagement between organisations and the volunteer aspirant.
Volun-Funders – They’re a special breed, going all out to support organisations of their choice. They are the elves to the Fundraising Manager’s shoemaker.
Volun-Tired and Volunt-Tried – Here is a bit of word-play, referring to the long-standing volunteer, or to the volunteer on trial (and/or found wanting). Or maybe the volunteer who contacted the organisation and never got a reply; or the volunteer who has not enjoyed a good experience. Take your pick.
Volun-Steering – I like this one, referring to the manager/leader of volunteers. Not only steering the programme, but negotiating organisation waters that can sometimes be troubled. Could apply equally to volunteer peak bodies.
There is one word omitted from this list: I refuse to include ‘Vollies’. It may be a colloquial term of endearment, but I see it more as word used in a patronising tone, one you might apply to a domestic pet.
That’s enough to go on with; there are plenty more variations to conjure up (suggestions welcomed!). ‘Volunteering’ is a generalist term, covering a multitude of activities and roles. It’s a bit like an orchestra, a collection of very different instruments that collectively can make a beautiful noise. Let’s keep it that way, because in being inclusive we can demonstrate the strength of volunteer actions and the organisations that engage with volunteers. We might yet “become the change we want to see in the world”.