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.
March 9, 2014
Whenever I hear the sad tale of a manager of volunteers who is wrung out by overwork and lack of support, who is under-appreciated and sometimes un-noticed, I get reminded of that old folk tale that turns up in every generation as a child’s reader. You know the story: how the Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat, asks the farmyard animals to help plant it and when they refuse she says “Then I’ll do it myself”.
(If you have forgotten the tale, see this beautifully illustrated version.)
What I hear in my mind is not the moral of caring and sharing and helping each other. I hear the tone of the Little Red Hen as she says “Then I’ll do it myself”, repeated at each stage of the growing and harvesting of wheat. I can see her puffing up her chest, giving a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, and her tone of voice is one of martyred self-righteousness.
I’m sure that is not how a manager of volunteers reacts, though some may feel like it. So let me tell another version of the LRH story to see how life could be turned around for those who are over-burdened…..
LRH sighs when yet another task lands on her* desk. Maybe there is something here that would interest volunteers. She asks around, but there are no takers. Not this week please; not really my thing; I want to stick with what I’m doing; sounds interesting, hope you find someone: these replies make LRH even more depressed.
Enter Cinderella’s fairy godmother, who waves a wand and says: “Let’s look at this job you’ve got to do – or think about your current tasks that could be handed over to a volunteer. What’s involved – tasks, time, responsibilities, skills required? Let’s work up a job description and see if there is an existing volunteer who might fit the bill. If not where could we go to find one? You’ve got to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, not send out vague messages about needing help.”
LRH protests: “That takes time, and then I have to do a screening and orientation and training and monitor what the volunteer does on the job, and I’m tired and I just don’t have the energy”. FG has to do some straight-talking about excuses that mean nothing will ever change, and trusting volunteers to do a good job. “I mean”, says FG with a rather intense stare, “what’s the point of running a volunteer programme if you have to keep such a tight hold on the reins?”
LRH buckles under the charm of FG and before long she has engaged the volunteer of her dreams: enthusiastic, willing, skilled in all the right places, and experienced. “You just need to know how to make time and see new possibilities” she tells her peer support group.
She’s fired up now. She devolves to volunteers responsibility for a lot of daily administration, managing social media posts, collating items for a newsletter, even gets a volunteer on the organisation’s Health & Safety Committee where they get to meet and participate with paid staff. Soon she is going to find a volunteer competent enough to interview new recruits.
LRH is not so much a manager now, pulling all the strings to her tune. She’s a leader, supporting and nurturing her team to be the best volunteers they can be. And they are. They love their work; they are sharing in the creation and development of the volunteer programme, and even better, demonstrating to the wider organisation what powerful contributions volunteers can make to its mission.
No longer does LRH get excuses when she invites a volunteer to take on a new role. She has turned around from potential burn-out, and no longer has to puff up her chest, give a loud sniff and a dismissive shrug of her shoulder, or say in a tone of martyred self-righteousness “Then I’ll do it myself”. And when it comes time to eat the loaf of bread, the fruit of all her efforts, she does not do that alone in the time-honoured ending of the folk tale. Instead she holds a joyous celebration for all volunteers who have shared in the undertaking.
* Yes, I know a hen is always female, and yes, I know there are many men who manage volunteers – so please take this narration as gender-neutral.
April 15, 2012
The Latin tag cui bono can be applied in many contexts, but rarely do we stop to consider the implications of who benefits from volunteering and in what ways.
Too often we speak in clichés and platitudes, like:
- Volunteers are the salt of the earth
- They are the glue of society
- Thank you volunteers, we couldn’t manage without you
Yes we can measure volunteer contributions by translating hours and inputs into $$ figures which tell me little beyond how volunteers save the organisation a lot of money. What of the qualitative value of their work and its impact on outcomes? We really need to find the measuring tool that shows the true value of volunteer contributions to the organisation’s big-picture mission and strategic goals. There are ways and means, as I suggested some 18 months ago, and there are extensive references listed at Energizinc.
There are two other questions worth considering:
Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?
Why do volunteers choose to volunteer for your organisation?
Finding some answers could lead us away from the financial cost-benefit analysis to getting some real understanding of volunteering and the kind of social profit it brings, to the organisation as well as to volunteers.
Ideally we should be looking for a win-win outcome on all counts. Any act of volunteering is a giving process, but it is never selfless. There is always a quid pro quo, an exchange of something in return for a volunteer’s time, skills and knowledge. So the real question should be What is the pay-off for the volunteer?
There are practical gains, like work experience, learning new skills, developing new interests. Volunteering can improve job prospects and open new career options.
The intrinsic benefits may not be articulated well by volunteers. They can come up with clichés and platitudes too:
- Making a difference in the community
- A sense of purpose
Get volunteers to talk about satisfactions and what they gain and they will offer responses like the following:
Volunteering can enlarge social networks and social interaction; volunteering offers a sense of belonging in a community. Supporting a cause is to participate in creating change, to realise personal values. The ethic of service can be a satisfaction in itself. All of these ‘goods’ promote personal growth, enhanced confidence and competence in the work undertaken and a satisfying sense of achievement. In other words, volunteering is empowering.
Research findings from the Rugby World Cup, and a survey of volunteers involved in the Bay of Plenty clean-up after the Rena grounding indicate similar satisfactions. There are more references at Energize.
So really, the gains, benefits and satisfactions are a two-way street between volunteers and their organisations. That is a fundamental connection which should not be overlooked.