January 18, 2015

Understanding Voluntary Organisations – A Book Review

Posted in Leading Volunteers, Managing Change, Organisation Development, Organisation responsibilities, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , at 3:27 am by Sue Hine

Charles HandyFrom time to time I have wondered about absence of ‘organisation theory’ in training courses for managers of volunteers.  The focus continues to be devoted to the components and processes of a volunteer programme and getting them right.  Yet all the while we live and breathe within a structure that contains and at times constrains the work we do.  The struggles a manager of volunteers can encounter are well-recorded and debated, but rarely set in the context of organisational realities.  It’s as though we should know about organisations by osmosis – after all, we live all our lives in one form of them or other.

So when I discovered recently that Charles Handy had published a book outlining the characteristics of voluntary organisations I pounced on the old and tattered copy found in my public library.  Handy was a go-to management guru of the late 20th century, the person who did for organisations what Myers-Briggs (and others) has done for our understanding of personality types.  Who could resist Handy’s typology of organisations based on the characteristics of ancient Greek gods?  (See Gods of Management, 1978.)

You can find out a bit more about these gods in Understanding Voluntary Organisations.  And so much more about how to make organisations function effectively.  This book is about organisations, not management, on the principle that better understanding will lead to better practice.  As Handy suggests in this advice:

It is as foolish to try to run things without organisational understanding as it would be to go mountain climbing without the proper clothing and equipment.

The first part of the book is devoted to people in organisations.  Handy writes about individual motivation, casting aside conventional theories on volunteering based on needs and focusing on our self-concepts.  He reminds us that people like targets, they like to feel good and that we are all different: truisms that fit well with what we learn very quickly about volunteers.  When it comes to ‘roles’, Handy shows how complex they can be: overlapping, confused, ambiguous, conflicting, and overloaded.  “People in roles talk to other people in roles”, affecting our thinking and behaviour.  When we slot people into role pigeon-holes we can get blinded by our expectations and forget to see the person in the role.  There we have an explanation for the sometimes poor relations between paid staff and volunteers.

The chapter on groups covers standard theory and practice on teams, committees and group process, putting a framework on the do’s and don’ts of group work.  The longest chapter in this section is on power and influence – forbidden topics, according to Handy, “especially in voluntary organisations”.  Handy brings them into the light, both the negative and positive aspects, and calls for a better understanding based around democracy.  There are plenty of cues here to support the practice of managers of volunteers.

Part Two is all about organising the organisation.  Here you can find a chapter on the cultures of the Greek gods, with the proviso that organisations are not culturally pure, just like one’s dominant personality type is infused with others.  Factors of size, work flow, environment and history can influence the cultural style.

The shape of organisation structures is determined according to division of labour, accountability and coherence.  A structure is the skeleton which comes alive with people and groups and tasks “to get the blood running and the nerves and sinews working” – which implies the need to find ways to integrate different parts of the structure, something well-understood by managers of volunteers, even if we do not always know why or how to achieve integration.

Organisation systems are never more at risk of fall-out than when communications are distorted, by either sender or receiver, or a lack of clarity and distance.  (How many volunteer offices are located down the far end of the building, some distance from the executive wing – and what does that communicate?)

The numbers game for accountability is just as fraught, depending on different levels of success and how to measure them.  Handy’s answer is to be very clear about purpose; to be specific about tasks related to that purpose; and to establish a set of measures indicating what will mean success for each task – that’s the role of numbers.  He emphasises the importance of numbers: neglecting this part of the system will distort organisational effort.  There’s a message here for organisations struggling to find ways to measure outcomes and effectiveness.

The final chapter covers organisational change, that drive for growth and development that can also bring dislocation and disruption.  We adopt blinkers to block change; we prefer predictability – and organisations rely on predictability to ensure efficiency – which just inhibits experimentation, innovation and creativity.  Handy sets out the ‘levers of change’ which are the key elements of an organisation he has described previously: task, systems, structures and people.  They are all interconnected, so change in one part will impact on all others (that is basic systems theory).  He does not present a manual for change but does say:

If you want an exciting, developing, changing organisation, look for one where the individuals are themselves encouraged to be exciting, developing and changing.

Leadership, in case you are wondering, permeates all chapters in the book.  It’s there in discussion on groups, on power and influence, on communication, and on organisational change and development.   Handy points out that the word ‘management’ is found only in English, and its use in everyday contexts is not confined to organisations or running a business.  Management theory is based on engineering models, he says, implying that “control of people is similar to the control of things, that people are resources to be counted, deployed and utilised.”  Non-profit organisations are not immune to treating people this way.

Handy urges us to adopt the new metaphors of political theory, in thinking of organisations as societies or communities rather than as machines or warehouses.  Look how we are currently investing more usage and practice on words like ‘networks and alliances’, ‘shared values’, ‘power and influence’ and ‘leadership’.  Is it time to drop the word ‘management’ from our understanding of volunteer programmes and our job title?

Handy offers an explanation of voluntary organisations that tells us why things are as they are: he is not just repeating what we already know.  There are times when lines between formal and informal organisations are blurred.  Perhaps the book sketches the world we inhabit rather too lightly, and its publication date means there is no account of sector developments over the past 25 years.  Yet the key messages resonate still, about people, tasks, structures and systems that make up our organisations.   Understanding Voluntary Organisations is a short and easy read with plenty of examples and box inserts.  Go find a copy if you can – it’s worth a read.

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Handy, Charles (1988) Understanding Voluntary Organisations: How to Make Them Function Effectively.  Penguin

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July 29, 2012

What if ……?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , , at 4:57 am by Sue Hine

I have been rabbiting on for ages about the relevance of volunteering and the importance of good management of volunteers in the community and voluntary sector.  I have been on about organisations that just don’t get volunteering, about boards and management that take volunteers for granted, and who fail to recognise that volunteers might be just the true deliverers of organisation vision and values.

Volunteers live the organisation’s mission; they have organisational values at heart; and they put up their hands to work for free without expectation of a pay package or other reward.

What if, I venture to ask, what if we turn running the organisation over to volunteers?

I can hear the objections shouted down the e-waves:

  • The board members / trustees are all volunteers!  Isn’t that enough?
  • Volunteers are part-timers, mere bit-players in service delivery
  • Volunteers are unreliable, take time out, have other commitments and priorities
  • Volunteers do not have the necessary professional knowledge and skills
  • Come on – volunteers are not the answer to everything!
  • Lots of them are merely getting work experience, or fulfilling their employer’s obligations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
  • Open Sesame to organisational chaos!

To which I respond:

  • The role of Board members / Trustees is governance, overall direction and decision-making responsibility – well-placed to ensure best practice service delivery
  • If you regard volunteers in your organisation as ‘bit-players’ then you do not deserve them
  • Many community services are delivered entirely by volunteers – and highly valued for their standard of service
  • Yes, volunteers are free to come and go: respect that freedom and you get loyalty and long-term commitment
  • When volunteers know and understand why they join your organisation, they are demonstrating the real meaning of being ‘professional’, and all the knowledge and skills that go with that
  • Volunteers are powerful contributors to community development, community integration, and the building of Civil Society
  • And by being exposed to volunteer experience those people engaged for work experience or CSR events are likely to continue volunteering
  • As for the chaos, welcome to tumultuous energy of the world of Management of Volunteers and  the community and voluntary sector

What if, I ask again, what if the manager of volunteers was promoted to Chief Executive?

I can hear the gob-smacked responses from here!  Sure there’s a load of extra responsibility and more things to think about.  But think about it a bit more:

  • The manager of volunteers is well-versed in management and leadership, especially in being responsible for more people than most Chief Executives in the community sector.  [See Susan J Ellis, Non-Profit World 1986, 4/2 – Maximising the Potential of the Director of Volunteers; and 1996 – What Makes the Position of Volunteer Programme Manager (VPM) Unique?  (Adapted from Chapter 4, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success)]
  • The manager of volunteers is creative and flexible; has to be a strategic thinker and really good at time management; has an amazing network of colleagues and game-players to call on, and really good mentor support.
  • The manager of volunteers knows the organisation inside out; works across all service areas; has effective working relationships with senior managers.
  • The manager of volunteers is committed to organisation mission and vision and knows how to engage volunteers to put these into practice.

You might still think I am in fantasy-land.  Not so, if you read Claire Teal’s arguments about the status of management of volunteers:

[S]o many of us seem to simultaneously lament the lack of value given to our role, but also resist any real attempt to do anything about this. In many ways we seem to want to have our cake (a higher value placed on our role) and eat it too (not change anything we’re doing).

This on-going self-deprecation has to be turned around!  If you really object to a volunteer take-over, or to the manager of volunteers becoming your Chief Executive, go read Betty Stalling’s counterfactuals about Volunteer Program Champions.

That is the What If challenge for organisations and their managers of volunteers.  That’s the world of difference a What If question can make.

January 22, 2012

Good Governance, or Good Grief!

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Annual Review, Best Practice, Managers Matter, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , , , , at 4:11 am by Sue Hine

In the mode of New Year wishes there is just one best thing I want to happen in 2012: the application of good governance – and good executive management – in organisations that don’t.  At the end of this year I want to find committees, boards and executives have lifted their game and can demonstrate a better understanding of volunteering and of managing volunteers.

Is this too much to expect?

What I do not want to hear at the end of this year are more sorry stories of people hired to ‘manage volunteers’, only to be pulled and pushed into a whole lot of different roles and tasks that end up making the job untenable.

Not good to be all steamed up so early in the year.  Not good to be hearing another sad-sack story of a manager of volunteers who resigned from a situation that amounted to workplace bullying and abuse, and ultimately a constructive dismissal.

Not good to find my most viewed post of 2011 is once again about a bad volunteer experience. It is almost worse to be writing now about organisations which lack basic understanding of employment law, let alone understanding how to apply best practice in HR management.

OK – the community and voluntary sector is a large amorphous collective. There are organisations that could be called corporations for their size and their budgets and their scale of operations.  There are local, regional and national organisations delivering services under contract to government.  There are many more organisations existing as small entities serving local community interests and particular social, political or cultural goals.

It is important to remember that more than 90% of 97,000+ NFP organisations in NZ do not employ staff. On one hand this statistic illustrates the miracle of volunteering, the power of the collective, and the strength of Civil Society. On the other hand there is the potential misery of good intentions going awry, perhaps from ignorance of the resources that are available to set an organisation on the best practice track.

There are opportunities out there for training in Governance.  There are guidelines and information and training programmes available online, much of it for free. You can get the basics from OCVS, and a bit more detail at CommunityNet Aotearoa.  For a really comprehensive (and lengthy) document on the Nine Steps to Effective Governance go to SPARC.  Occasionally Volunteer Centres can offer a workshop on governance in association with Unitec’s Graduate Diploma in Not-for-Profit Management.

The best immediate advice comes from American educator Betty Stallings.  Her recommendations for 12 Key Actions of Volunteer Programme Champions are based on research undertaken with Chief Executives, and there are some powerful messages in this short document.

On the flip side what I do want to hear about is employees finding courage to stand up for their rights, to show organisations there are other ways of managing work conditions and programmes, and to doing better in meeting the organisation’s mission and values.  Even if they have to take their case to the Employment Court – an option, please note, not available to discouraged volunteers.

So to all people out there engaged with volunteers and in organisations providing community sector services through volunteers, take heed of the message expressed in this proverb:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!