March 25, 2017

Lessons from Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 10:30 pm by Sue Hine

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 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

new-picture

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’.

It’s 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?

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

black-hole

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!

October 3, 2016

Think Global, Act Local

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 9:55 pm by Sue Hine

think-global-act-localBack in the early 2000s I was doing post-grad study on Development, the word applied to ‘Low-Income Countries’ and the aid programmes that might raise their economies.  Up in bright lights were the Millenium Development Goals, the United Nations’ aspirations for achievement by the year 2015.  A year ago UN replaced the MDGs with a new sustainable development agenda. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), embracing a global approach to social, economic and environmental development.  These goals are for everyone, not just a catch-up for developing countries.

In New Zealand ‘sustainability’ is never far from our news headlines, as in fishing quotas and predator-free zones, in recycling and renewable energy.  There is plenty of opportunity to be engaged, locally and globally, in supporting SDGs.  There is a part to play for governments, the private sector, and civil society (including our community and voluntary sector).

Alongside the SDGs comes the UN State of the World Volunteering Report, also published in 2015. Volunteering New Zealand has compiled a review of the SWVR2015 and links findings with SDGs.  In their response, published in June this year, they note that

SWVR 2015 focuses on ‘transforming governance’, because good governance is critical for sustainable development.

In case you are wondering, ‘governance’ is broader than the responsibilities of an organisation’s Board:

[Governance is] the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.                Source: UNDP 1997.

According to SWVR2015 the three pillars of governance where volunteerism can have the greatest impact are voice and participation, accountability and responsiveness. Volunteers at the local level build peoples’ capacity; governments can create greater space for volunteerism to enhance social inclusion; and global volunteer networks promote voice, participation, accountability and responsiveness. This model of governance will lead to success for the SDGs.

While SWVR2015 applies the pillars of governance at a national and international level I think there is a model here that could be applied to volunteers and organisations at a local level. Consider:

  • What level of voice and participation do volunteers enjoy in your organisation? Are they invited to staff meetings, training and social events? Are in-house newsletters circulated to volunteers? Do volunteers have a say in planning and development of the organisation? Are their new ideas and initiatives welcomed? These questions could be the litmus test for volunteer inclusiveness and diversity in the organisation.
  • Allowing a volunteer voice and participation requires responsiveness on your organisation’s part. It requires listening and being receptive to views, and a willingness to modify decision-making to enable volunteer initiatives. Are the appropriate mechanisms and processes in place to be responsive to good ideas?
  • Then there is accountability, the obligation to take responsibility for decisions and actions. How does your organisation respond when ‘called to account’? There are plenty of training opportunities for Board members to cope with increasing pressures for organisation accountability and performance. In terms of accountability to volunteers, does the board of your organisation include a portfolio responsibility for the interests of volunteers?

Thinking Big about volunteers and volunteering can make a huge difference at a local level.  Just think what this kind of wave could create on the global stage.

SWVR2015 calls for much greater engagement with volunteers and volunteerism in all its forms – formal (including international volunteering) and informal – and at all levels from the local to the global. This engagement requires raising our understanding of the needs and rights of volunteers, and finding ways to resource, support and actively engage with volunteer work to improve governance. There is the challenge, so how shall we respond?

March 23, 2013

Looking Both Ways

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 11:48 pm by Sue Hine

looking both ways

No, this post is not a lecture on Road Safety, nor is it about peripheral vision.  I want to talk about how a manager of volunteers needs two lines of sight.

Because it’s all very well to design and develop and run a programme for volunteers in an organisation, and to take to heart the mission of ensuring the best experience for the volunteers – but if you have not looked the other way to see how the volunteer programme integrates with other organisation functions and policies then both volunteers and the organisation can end up being short-changed.

Over the years I’ve listened to the sorrowful song-book presented by managers of volunteers.   Here’s a small sample:

  • Volunteers are regarded as second-rate workers
  • Managers of volunteers don’t rate it as ‘managers’, nor as ‘professionals’
  • They are lowly-paid and inadequately resourced
  • No support for professional development
  • Lip-service recognition of the volunteer programme, and volunteer achievements
  • ‘They’ just don’t get volunteering

It does not have to be like that!  And it isn’t of course, as the champions and leaders of our profession can demonstrate.  There are also Chief Executives who know and understand volunteering and its importance to the organisation, ensuring volunteers get a fair go and respect for their work.

So what can you be doing to get away from the moan-and-groan stuff?

Simple answer: you get strategic.

Help!  I don’t know how.

Yes you do! You have thought through what was needed for the programme, developed policies and processes, set everything in place for the recruitment and training of volunteers, and how volunteering would work in the organisation.  You connected with your communities, and with the local network of managers of volunteers.  Now you can do it all again, in the other direction, developing the connections and the strategies that will show senior management how to embrace volunteering and your management and leadership within the organisational fold.

Where do I start?

Hang on a minute.  Before you get to action you have to do the planning.  And before the planning, you need to figure what it is you are trying to do.  You want the organisation to get volunteering, and the importance of good management and leadership of volunteers, right?  What do you mean by “get volunteering”?  What is it that people need to know about volunteering?  What do you want to tell them and what is the best way to do it?

Now you can start thinking about your strategic plan – the key areas to work on, and the goals you have identified.  You will be taking into account what is working and what doesn’t and what is missing.  For instance, does volunteering get more than a mention in the organisation’s strategic plan and its business plan?  How would you write up volunteering in these plans?

There is more: being strategic includes identifying potential allies, formulating the key points you want to communicate, and considering the channels open to you.  You might, in the first instance, start reporting on volunteers and their activities, telling their stories and successes – and circulating the report to key players in the organisation, and especially the chief executive.  Be bold, and go further by offering to meet and discuss the report.  Even suggest what more could be achieved by volunteers.

Is this enough to go on with, to give you a kick-start?

If you want more info and other perspectives, go see how volunteer programmes can get Messed Up and what to do about it; or the observations of a group UK Managers of Volunteers.  For details on how-to-plan, and what should be included, see this chapter of the Community Resource Kit or get the basics from Sport NZ.

One of the slogans I hear frequently is “managers of volunteers are advocates for volunteers in the organisation”, though I hear little about results of advocacy.  The plaint of getting volunteering gets much more air time.  Quite honestly this is the biggest foot-fault of our profession: wishing others would see our point of view is wishful thinking and accomplishes nothing.  It is time to change our ways, to work on making looking-both-ways a key dynamic in the life of a manager of volunteers.