March 25, 2017
A few days ago I got a call from Matthew, one of those volunteer types who like to put up their hand for the next best thing. He had landed the job of recruiting a team of volunteers for a city-wide fund-raising effort and scheduling them into a roster for the day. Not a problem he thought – just ring around the people on the list handed to him – slot them in at their preferred time, perhaps do a bit of juggling with where they wanted to go. Piece of cake. And a nice way to support an organisation he respected.
Except a lot of people did not answer his calls, even after several messages. ‘Should I keep on trying to contact them?’ he asked. Of course my question in reply was ‘What sort of briefing were you given when you took up this job?’ Not much. ‘What did you understand you were asked to do?’ Just ring around a few people. ‘No outline of how to run a conversation?’ Zilch. … And so on.
Matthew was not very happy.
Neither was Gina, who volunteered for a branch of a national organisation that had a high reputation in the community. She really wanted to get involved in this work, took up the intensive training, got fired up to give it a go. Loved the work and being involved with people in the community, but hugely disappointed and disillusioned with the organisation. Problem was the other volunteers had all been involved for some years, and they were a very cliquey group. Not at all inclusive when it came to newcomers. And the team leader, the local manager of this branch, was in cahoots with them. You’d go to a meeting and they would spend half the time gossiping about local issues, and even the cases they had been working on. No direction from the manager, no meaningful support, and little guidance when you needed it. Gina stuck it out for a year or so but was pleased to move on to new employment in a different town. She was going to be more cautious about volunteering in the future.
Jess’s problem was somewhat similar. Her volunteering involved supporting families in the community, taking up heaps of time and rather a lot of travel when there were meetings arranged with various agencies. That was OK, really, but Jess was missing the organisation support she had got from volunteering stints with other organisations. Yes, there was an occasional group email with a generic thank-you message, and a list of instructions on what still needed to be done. And yes, there was also a compulsory fortnightly team meeting to attend. But instead of a forum for discussion of ideas and sharing concerns, the manager would go through a list of what Jess and her colleagues were doing wrong. All rather dispiriting. Jess checked out what other people were thinking and feeling and they supported her idea to challenge the manager at their next meeting.
It wasn’t going to be a formal complaint, just setting out what volunteers would appreciate in support and recognition for the work they were doing. Jess was not unaccustomed to laying out facts and examples, but she did not expect the hostile response from the manager. There was no discussion, just a personal attack that made Jess out to be ungrateful, lacking understanding of the organisation and its mission, and totally off the wall in her comments. The other volunteers stayed silent.
Jess has not done any formal volunteering since.
Fortunately I don’t think the experiences of Matthew, Gina and Jess happen frequently, but they are reminders of the real importance of
- Clear instructions for volunteer tasks via a role description
- Ensuring an inclusive process for new volunteers
- Managers of volunteers understanding ethical boundaries and their leadership role
- Genuine recognition and appreciation of volunteer work
- Listening to volunteers and their ideas for improvements in the programme
When we listen carefully volunteers can always teach us a thing or two.
December 10, 2016
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:
“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!
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.
May 15, 2016
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:
And thank you for Making Time to read this blog.
April 10, 2016
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
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.
February 14, 2016
I take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like. Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.
I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training. We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word. But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.
I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’. Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.
Except it seems this is not so simple. Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.
I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.
If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’
If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up. A job description is not always available.
When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.
I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.
And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made. I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.
Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check. It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation. And it does not do volunteerism any good.
So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers? Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above. Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.
This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle. And that’s just the beginning. Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.
We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement. All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities. We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience. When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.
Of course the engagement is just the beginning. Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated. Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving. Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation. In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.
None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish. It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills. But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector? And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.