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.
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.
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.
June 22, 2014
From start to finish National Volunteer Week 2014 has been an outstanding success in achieving widespread promotion and acknowledgements for volunteer contributions to organisations and communities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.
Day after day sector organisations offered press releases, postings on social media and accounts of events to mark the week. There was a huge increase in the numbers of organisations going public, and in the range of organisations – the small, the large, the national and the local groups.
Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te tangata.
(With your contribution and my contribution the people will live.)
This whakatauki represents the fundamental nature of volunteering. It highlights the cooperative work of individuals and the sharing of skills, knowledge and experience that can make a difference in our communities. And this is what the published tributes are saying:
Thanks for taking a moment to connect with us
Thank you for your passion, for all your hard work and thank you for your time. You have helped us keep more hearts beating for longer.
Thank you for making our work possible
We recognise the talent and dedication of our volunteers
Ordinary people can make an extraordinary difference
They say it takes a village to raise a child, by volunteering at Playcentre we’ve found that village.
Then there are the events, the awards and the displays.
There were static displays at public libraries promoting what volunteering can offer and how to connect with an organisation. There were community fairs where organisations could display information about their work. The first Employee Volunteering Awards were presented in Wellington, the outcome of another sponsored Corporate Challenge for the region. In other centres there are certificates of service to be presented, and local ‘Volunteer of the Year’ awards to be announced.
Special mention has to be made for the Wellington Sportsperson of the Year whose work is based on a philosophy of ‘attract, retain, develop’ in working with volunteers. That’s a pretty good summation of the purpose for good management of volunteers.
Another special mention goes to Kiwibank who went all out to produce a couple of videos on Facebook, on staff who volunteer. “Everyone contributes”, says one winner, “Giving back is natural, and it’s good to find work values are in line with my own”.
Prime-time TV grabbed a head-start on the week with a news item about Coastguard volunteers, outlining their work and the training involved. Volunteers talked about why they volunteer and why they stick with it.
Volunteers at VNZ’s office were kept busy compiling a record of all the media items. If you missed anything you can probably find it here.
So congratulations to Volunteering New Zealand for promoting the celebrations we have enjoyed this past week. I did not get all last week’s wishes met, but one day, some day in the near future, we might reach a point where shouting out for volunteers happens every day, not just one week in a year.
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”.
February 2, 2014
Volunteers. They are everywhere. You wouldn’t notice them in a crowd. There are no distinctive physical characteristics, nor can they be marked by their age cohort. They are people like you and me, living like you and me in a community, everywhere.
When they are on the job they can be easier to identify, by the badge or the bib or the branded T-shirt, or the full uniform of a volunteer emergency service. Except I can’t remember wearing an ID for any of my volunteer positions, apart from stints of street- collecting, the annual fund-raising event. And that’s the organisation brand being in-your-face, rather than noticing the volunteer giving time and goodwill.
Last weekend I encountered volunteers in two different contexts, and I wasn’t looking at the T-shirt or the name badge. What I noticed before anything else was the quality of their work and their professionalism.
First up is a visit to a scientific and historic reserve, a place for visitors to explore, to get to know native plants and wild-life, and to see how forest restoration is developing. There is no doubt there has been huge growth in the 14 years since I first visited. And all of it started with plantings by volunteers. Now volunteers are involved in maintaining tracks and predator-free status, guiding visitors, and of course in the governance of a charitable trust that oversees management of the reserve. Development here is remarkable for the collaboration between at least three different volunteer organisations and the Department of Conservation.
There are no special IDs for the volunteers we meet. What impresses me is the way they mingle quietly with the visitors, giving us information without being encyclopaedic, helping us understand and appreciate what we are seeing. All friendly and relaxed – just the right touch.
It gets even better when a volunteer invites me and my two young charges to take a look at a special project to establish a breeding colony of Fluttering Shearwater. We get to see the chicks in their burrows, and learn about their care. It’s a big commitment for volunteers: the chicks need to be fed sardine smoothies by syringe, on a daily basis.
The next day we visit an aquarium, a popular place to find and handle local rock pool inhabitants and to view tanks of fish from deeper waters. Volunteers here wear well-labelled T-shirts, and their ages range from teenagers to retirees. Again they are unobtrusive, yet ever ready to answer questions, to show children how to handle the creatures, and tell them something of their life cycle. These volunteers know their stuff too.
The volunteers in these contexts are dedicated enthusiasts for their fields of interest. No doubt newcomers are oriented to responsibilities, and there is a leadership role to ensure organisation protocols are met. It is this autonomous confidence in their role, and enthusiasm for their work, that I would wish all volunteers could experience.
October 27, 2013
News headlines this week have not been pretty stories. Blue Mountain country in New South Wales (Australia) has been devastated by the worst bush fires in forty-five years. The pictures of a wall of flame are succeeded by burnt-out homes and grieving residents. Acres of bush are laid waste.
The Rural Fire Service has rightly won praise and gratitude for its heroic efforts, working 12-hour shifts and staying overnight in dense bushland when required, snatching a rest when they can. Need I add that most of them are volunteers?
I don’t think I would make a good fireman. I’d have to get really fit, do hard yards at training, and wear all that clobber, and work long hours mostly at unfriendly times, cope with emotional and distraught people and be involved in those big disasters that turn up without warning. It’s a big commitment.
Only twice in my volunteering career have I been asked to commit to a minimum length of service. One was for two years, and another for just six months. The latter, in reality, was just time to complete the basic assignment, and it took another two years before it was really done. I’ve no doubt the rationale was to ensure a return from the investment in training and support, and to send a message that this was not a fly-by-night undertaking.
Should we spell out expectations for length of volunteer service?
The stories of loyal and long-serving volunteers are legend. It is not unusual to find people who have been working for the same organisation for twenty-five or thirty years. When people resign within five years it is usually for legitimate reasons: going overseas, relocating to another town, a change of employment, having babies, or a family crisis.
We all know what keeps volunteers keeping on, so my observations suggest we are doing things right: ensure volunteers enjoy a good experience with your organisation and they will stay loyal and enthusiastic. That ‘good experience’ may vary according to organisation mission and the work of the volunteer programme.
Key indicators to maintain volunteer commitment would include:
- Philosophy and policies that integrate volunteers throughout the organisation
- Good relations with staff and senior management
- Strong relationship with the manager of volunteers
- Congruence between personal values and organisation mission and values
- Ongoing communication, in various forms
- Options for skill development
- Recognition and rewards that highlight non-monetary value of volunteer contributions
Now I start thinking about that trend noted over the past couple of years, that preference for time-limited, task-focussed volunteering. Sure, this sort of volunteering has always been available, particularly for fund-raising or events and projects, and a creative manager of volunteers knows how to find ways to engage a skilled volunteer for a few weeks or months.
I am not hearing about increases in turnover of volunteers, but if that should happen – if there is a fall-off in staying power – then prospects could be dire for volunteer programmes based around on-going services and relationships. I can’t imagine a volunteer fireman being taken on for a six month stint. Nor a volunteer for ambulance services, or civil defence. Short-term volunteering would make unviable those programmes that revolve around support relationships and befriending vulnerable people.
Or does the interest in short-term volunteering stem from the rise of practical motivations, like graduate internships, work experience, ‘obligatory’ volunteering and corporate volunteering? Is it attracting a different sort of volunteer from the stayers?
Should I be worried?
August 11, 2013
There are always stories to tell after travel adventures. I did not go looking for volunteers and volunteering on my recent OE, but the following tale was overheard during a long day on the bus. It was related by a big man with a big voice. We all got to hear what he had to say.
I retired about five years ago. Best thing I ever did. I’ve got my hobbies and I go travelling pretty much every year. I don’t miss the grind of work a jot. Some people say I should be doing some volunteering: no way! I’m not going in to do drudge work to help an organisation save a bit of money. If I am going to volunteer I want to make sure it’s for a mission I believe in and want to help.
Right on, I said to myself. That’s the way most people are getting involved in volunteering these days. After all, volunteering is always about giving time freely and willingly, right?
Hmmm…. Free Will is something philosophers have been debating for centuries. Does free choice really exist alongside all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ learned during our childhood and reinforced throughout a lifetime?
For quite a while now it has been clear that the free will of volunteering can be generated by self-interest. I want some work experience, some credits for my study courses, to get out of the house and enjoy some company, to help me learn about my new community, or to practice speaking English. About the only real freedom is in engaging with an organisation of my own choosing. Even those sentenced to Community Service (mandatory volunteering) are able to select where they will work out their time.
The ethics of Duty, Obligation and Civic Responsibility do not feature in our language so much these days. A recent research publication records the decline over the past two hundred years in the use of words linked to duty and obligation, while words linked to individualism and materialism have increased. This shift in our mind-sets, says the psychologist researcher, reflects the socio-cultural changes effected by urbanisation, universal education and technology. It’s also worth noting how volunteering has become more formalised and structured – and the emergence of professional standards for management practice.
When motivation is a matter of self-interest Free Will can still get exercised in selecting an organisation for volunteer effort – though self-interest carries a responsibility to ensure our expectations match the organisation goals and the available volunteer roles. I would hope recruitment and orientation procedures would help ensure an appropriate match between organisation and aspiring volunteer. And if the organisation and the volunteer programme offer the best possible experience then further volunteering is encouraged.
So let us not get precious about definitions and the different paths that bring people to volunteering. Language changes, and the way we think and behave and relate to our environment and in our communities will continue to change over time.