November 30, 2017

International Volunteer Day 2017

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Good news stories, Leading Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 11:03 pm by Sue Hine

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All hail to volunteers on this day. May you enjoy being feted in various ways, and feel real warmth in the thanks and appreciation that is showered on you. Of course, I would like to think you get the respect you deserve throughout the year, and not all at once.

For the past seven years I have paid tribute to volunteers and volunteering through this blog, and railed against the platitudes of ‘couldn’t manage without you’ and ‘you help us make a difference’ and ‘volunteers are the life-blood of our organisation’.

I have also written about the benefits of volunteering – to national economy, to social well-being, and to all the community-based organisations offering services around people and animals and the environment and all the rest of human activity. And of course I have bleated and challenged and pounded the table on best practice in leading volunteers – to the point where I begin to repeat myself. Now it is time to bring a full stop to my blogging, and this post is my last.

For this IVDay I give thanks and appreciation to volunteers for what I learned from them, and for what I gained in my time as a manager and leader of volunteers.

I did not ‘own’ volunteers or refer to them as ‘my’ volunteers. I was not their best buddy, and never a ‘nanny-manager’. But the office door was ever open, to say hello and thank you, to be the support when volunteer work wasn’t going well and to listen when there were grievances that were getting in the way of their work. I loved the recruitment process of discovering new talent, new enthusiasms, and helping the shy and nervous to blossom.

Working with volunteers affirmed my faith in human nature. Their energy and commitment and their collective action showed me how community spirit is still alive and well. They gave freely without expectation of reward – and then discovered all the intangibles that make volunteer work a reward in itself.

To volunteers I have worked with, and to those all over who contribute so much to social well-being I give my sincere appreciation in a paraphrase of an oft-quoted saying:  “I have forgotten much of what you said and did, forgotten names and perhaps what you looked like, but I still remember how great it was to work alongside you.”

Ten years ago I wrote the short personal essay which follows. For me it reveals fundamental lesson – I wonder if it rings bells for other leaders, managers, coordinators of volunteers?

My Season for Hugs

I left paid employment as a manager of volunteers some two years ago.  Didn’t miss the work routines a jot, nor the morning and evening lemming-rush of commuters.  There were a few regrets for the loss of warm relationships with people in my workplace, but these passed as I became re-tyred and got a new life as far as I wanted to travel.  Until there was a call to fill the vacuum created by my successor’s extended sick leave.  I had to go back, because the organisation was not yet ready to cope with leaderless volunteers.

What I do not foresee is the welcome I receive on my return.  There are greetings and smiles close to cheers from the paid staff.  There is a big bear-hug from bear-like Brian who has been a stalwart volunteer forever.  I am spied by Jane and Stephanie whom I met first as diffident and anxious volunteer applicants.  They are now accomplished in their supportive roles with clients, love their work and are well-liked by staff.  There are cries of delight and acclamations at seeing me again, and more close hugging.  Later in the day another Jane, who wears shyness wrapped round her like a muffler, becomes more animated than I have known before: she too is pleased I have returned.

I know how rapidly the waters close over the departure of a staff member, no matter how well respected.  I’ve spent much of my life in community volunteering, social working and counselling and never paid much attention to my inter-personal contribution in the roles I have undertaken, despite knowing about its impact in communication and relationships.  This welcome from staff and volunteers is over-the-top, I think.  Then I remember one of the quotes I used to jot down from books I have read, the sentences that leap off the page, representing perhaps small coinage in the currency of my life at the time.  In Brazzaville Beach William Boyd writes “You are the last person to understand the effect you have on other people”.  Now I know this truth.  I am honoured and humbled in the way I have been greeted in my brief return to the workplace.  I wish I could unravel the code of the effect I have on others, so that I may not always be the last to know.

………………………..

International Volunteer Day is an annual event held on December 5. The global theme for 2017 is “Volunteers Act First. Here. Everywhere.” – recognising volunteer efforts around the world, as well as a tribute to the support volunteers provide in times of instability, disasters or humanitarian crises. The banner photos are showing off New Zealand Emergency Services.

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October 25, 2017

The Great Big Shout-Out

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 9:07 pm by Sue Hine

On November 5 we will celebrate International Volunteer Managers’ Day, as we have done in various ways since 1999. This year a global effort is attracting pledges for action from leaders of volunteer programmes from north and south, east and west. There is also an opportunity for bloggers to share perspectives and ideas about being a voice. Here is my contribution.

I’m going to shout out about how the role of leading volunteers and managing a volunteer programme is where personal interests and attributes, professional standing and political commitment are rolled into one.

The Personal

It has become a truism that you need to be a ‘people person’ to lead volunteers. You like working with people and communities. You are good at building supportive relationships and developing people’s skills and confidence. Communication is everything in leading volunteers, from public speaking and facilitating group meetings to writing newsletters and the intimacies of 1:1 conversations. You know a lot about your community and its resources, and the value of networking. You are pretty self-aware, of your human frailties as well as your strengths. You recognise the importance of seeking out further training and support from your peers, or a mentor.

The Professional

There’s a set of professional standards you have set yourself, even if they are not written down. In the old-fashioned meaning of ‘professional’ you can declare what your values and beliefs are and these are demonstrably evident in your behaviour. That’s the essence of ‘being professional’.

You learn quickly about the knowledge base for leading volunteers: the processes for recruitment, training and placement, the level of support required and how to maintain their involvement. It is not an exclusive body of knowledge like the professions of medicine and law, but you know if you don’t get these things right then neither volunteers nor your organisation will be happy, and you could be missing out on meeting objectives and fulfilling organisation purposes. You know about ethical principles too, about privacy and confidentiality, as well as compliance with all the legal obligations placed on the sector. All the commitment to Professional Ethics in Volunteer Management is laid out for you here.

The Political

We may not be successful yet in establishing strong professional associations for strengthening the status of our role. Nor do we hold collective power to bargain for better pay and conditions of work. But that’s where Being the Voice and becoming political comes in.

To be effective as a leader of volunteers, in managing volunteer programmes, you need to get active – on several fronts. You need to shout out about the nature of volunteering and its significant contribution within organisations and to communities and society at large. You need to make sure organisation executives and the Board (volunteers themselves) ‘get’ volunteering. That means being strategic in building relationships and communicating effectively and often with all parts of the organisation. There may be misconceptions that need to be broken down, to avoid the divisive professional / amateur distinction between paid staff and volunteers for example.

And you do not need to go it alone. Volunteers can be encouraged to speak up about their interests, to present their case to senior management. (Of course they could have been invited in the first place, as a means to engage with the volunteer workforce and to enable their integration into the organisation.)

Another important strategic step is to join with other leaders as peers, for a learning opportunity and for mutual support. Meeting with others also encourages debate and collaboration on common issues. That’s where you could go public, as an independent group speaking about the relevance of the leadership role and the value of volunteers. Social media, opinion pieces, community newsletters – there’s plenty of opportunity to make the public voice of volunteer managers heard loud and clear.

 

There you have it, a tautology that says the Personal is the Professional is the Political. Of course this may not be you right now, but that’s where you can be heading, with your beliefs, your standards and your power. Let’s make sure our Voice is heard.

July 24, 2017

Finding Your Feet

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Professional Development tagged , , , , , at 4:11 am by Sue Hine

New Picture (1)So – you’ve got your dream job, managing a volunteer programme. You are all get up and go, until you discover it’s a pretty complex role and all your previous experience and training really was not enough. And sometimes you get tripped up and stumble with what is expected of you.

That’s tough, and you need to find time to figure out what you need and how to get your feet strong on the ground. Will the organisation give you some back-up, and support (with funding) to attend a worthwhile training programme, or to attend a relevant workshop or conference? No such luck if professional development is not included in the organisation’s employment policies, or if the organisation is a small-size community-led operation with minimal funding.

That’s when you need to start thinking about mentoring, that relationship process that will support you to up your skills, to find confidence and generally reach for your goals on your own terms, on your own feet, in your own time.

This mentoring thing is not a new invention. These days it is widely adopted by business and all sorts of organisations – sports, schools and universities, the arts, professions, start-up business projects, social enterprise. It’s a kind of coaching, a sort of on-the-job training, a form of supervision (clinical and administrative) – perhaps an amalgam of all the above. Mentoring has found favour over other terms which imply authoritative oversight. If it’s good enough for all those other occupations, why not for managers of volunteers?

New Picture (2)

When you look at this image it’s pretty much like what you do as a manager of volunteers: you want to sustain volunteer motivation, you are setting goals for them, giving advice and direction, and you are coaching and supporting them in their roles. Just what you are wishing for too?

So how do you find a mentor? Of course there are people who make mentoring a professional career. If that is beyond your means help could be on hand at your local Volunteer Centre. Try them, tell them what you are looking for, and see what they can come up with.

What can you expect from a mentor? A trusting relationship with somebody who listens, but doesn’t tell you what you ought to be doing. It’s amazing what you can learn just by talking out loud. Somebody who can challenge your ideas and attitudes, yet remain supportive while you figure out what will work best for you. Somebody who knows about good resources, as options to explore, not as imperatives.

As an alternative to 1:1 mentoring you could join a Peer Mentoring group in your own locality. Leaders of volunteers get together to find solutions to common issues, to support colleagues in working through what needs to happen, and to identify training needs, swapping notes and resources on best practice and policy procedures. Peer mentoring is thus a more purposeful form of networking. And a Peer Group could also operate as a professional committee to promote volunteering and the importance of management of volunteers within their network.

Peer groups work best when there is a regular facilitator or external leader, but a rotating facilitator can also help participants practice leadership skills.

Now a word for the people who have worked so hard to make the grade of an experienced programme manager and leader of volunteers: can you put up your hand to be a mentor for others? You’ve learned so much, you know the ropes, you’ve been around the traps – why not help others to get a grip on the ground of managing volunteers?

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.

November 9, 2014

Happiness At Work

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities tagged , , , at 2:09 am by Sue Hine

Smile-happiness[1]I’ve never thought too much about job satisfaction in my working life. I’ve taken the rough with the smooth, got on with it, and found small pleasures where I could.  And most of the time the roles I’ve undertaken have offered scope for applying skills and finding creative responses to all the challenges.  I don’t think I would be amongst the 40% of New Zealand’s workforce that are reportedly unhappy in their jobs these days.

But I am not surprised by this figure. The nature of work and employment has been changing for decades.  Full employment went out the window more than 30 years ago and worker rights keep on being eroded.  Technology has changed the level of knowledge and skills required for the greater part of the workforce, and unskilled work gets harder and harder to find.

The bit in the news report that got my attention was this:

[P]art-timers seemed to hold less attachment to their job and were more likely to look for a new role or career in the pursuit of happiness.

For those employing large numbers of part-time staff, it is vital to build a culture of inclusion and make sure employees feel their contribution is valued in order to inspire loyalty and retain good staff.

Of course! Managers of volunteers have known that forever, haven’t we?  Our job is all about ‘part-timers’.  We work hard to ensure volunteers feel their contribution is valued; inclusion is what you do to help people feel they belong to the organisation.  Hence the attention paid to interpersonal communication, and all the newsletters and social media posts aimed at keeping in touch.

Because for a volunteer the counterpoint of being valued and included in an organisation amounts to dissatisfaction and departure – and a risk to the organisation’s reputation in the community.

From where I sit it seems employers of part-time staff could learn a lot from managers of volunteers and their approach to good relations with volunteers. Go ask them: they’ll show you how to enhance part-timer commitment and job satisfaction.

This claim is supported by research that showed paid staff wanted improvements to provision of career development, the work environment (particularly culture and morale), and to their welfare (stress levels, feeling appreciated and engaged).  Such negativity resulted in 32% of the research sample intending to leave their jobs in the next three months.  The most important traits employees wanted in their managers were openness, honesty, and good communication skills.

Of course there are plenty of executive managers who can demonstrate these qualities (see this post). I’ve also commented a few times on employer practice that offers lessons for managers of volunteers (see here, here and here) – and vice versa.

These principles are even more important for organisations involved in the voluntary and community sector. Good people management is not just for staff and volunteer job satisfaction – these skills are also essential for working with service users and in wider community relations.

So while the manager of volunteers makes every effort to develop volunteer inclusiveness and job satisfaction, I hope the organisation’s executive managers are also working to ensure a happiness culture for everyone.

October 26, 2014

The Drivers of Passion

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 1:20 am by Sue Hine

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Celebrations for the fifteenth international day for managers of volunteers will happen at a place near you on November 5. It’s a day to acknowledge the skills, talents, leadership and downright doggedness of managing volunteers.  And by proxy, to understand how volunteering makes magic happen in our communities, in organisations and in all the services supported by volunteers.

On Facebook we are spurred to consider what elements of volunteer management drives our passion.  And what is our vision for an ideal world of managing volunteers?

It’s all very well to dream up future scenarios, and to repeat that quote attributed to GB Shaw:

You see things and you ask “Why?” But I dream things that never were, and I ask “Why not?”

Well – Susan J Ellis taught me a long time ago how the history of volunteering is the history of the lunatic fringe: volunteers often work at the cutting edge of change. Managers of volunteers are part of that fringe, forever seeking new chemistry that will enable volunteering to adapt to changing conditions.

For the moment I am keeping my feet on the ground.  I am thinking about the drivers that keep managers of volunteers keeping on.  What is it that the stayers among managers of volunteers love about their work?  Here is my sampling:

  • When the shy and nervous volunteer turns into a confident and well-respected member of the team.
  • When you are charged with organising a huge event, and the volunteers just keep on turning up and turning their hands to what needs doing. They know how to manage themselves.
  • When you find heads nodding in a training session covering organisation mission and values – not because people are falling asleep or because it’s boring – because the mission and values is what has attracted them to the organisation in the first place.
  • When thank you letters from grateful clients are sent to the Chief Executive, and they include volunteers alongside paid staff. It’s even better when they mention the volunteer by name.
  • When a volunteer steps up to manage an unexpected crisis situation, showing how all that training and support pays off.
  • When staff get to understand they have responsibility to support and guide volunteers on their team, and they cease running to the manager with complaints about volunteer performance.
  • When International Volunteers’ Day or National Volunteer Week happen, and staff and senior managers organise an appreciation function for volunteers. Or they set up a Post-it board to pin up messages of goodwill and recognition of good work.
  • When volunteers get due acknowledgement at Annual Meetings, and in the Annual Report – more than a few words or a last page paragraph.
  • When people stop saying how wonderful volunteers are and uttering platitudes – when they start talking about the real work and accomplishments of volunteers.
  • When we finally get a means to measure the impact of volunteer work that is more than a record of outputs translated into $ values.

You will notice this litany is all about the product of managing volunteers, not what has to happen to achieve these credits.  But that’s just it – job satisfaction comes from the outcomes, seeing how the manager’s ground work produces great results. You will also see how volunteering is people-centred, dependent on personal service and performance.   And at last, get to understand how great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky: it takes a visionary manager to make them happen.

March 9, 2014

The Little Red Hen Syndrome

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Good news stories, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers tagged , , , at 5:09 am by Sue Hine

10-apr-21-red-henWhenever 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.

November 3, 2013

The Adventurous Manager of Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , at 3:27 am by Sue Hine

new_zealand-bungy_jumping[1]Taking a leap, despite a safety harness and all the instruction is always a risk.  But look how much fun it could be, what a different perspective to be gained, and how one achievement could lead to new adventures.

Taking tips from the business world could be another version of bungy-jumping for managers of volunteers – a leap of faith beyond experience.  I’m taking tips from a former corporate chief executive this week, ideas that can apply equally well to community organisations and the practice of managing volunteers.  Here are some quotes from a recent newspaper interview.

“I suspect many smaller companies hit a barrier, where they can’t unlock that next phase of potential growth. They can’t get past that ‘Kiwi-ness’ and they can’t get past the founder who wants to be part of everything and can’t let go.”

Well maybe we are not all into business growth and export markets, but keeping our organisation alive and flourishing is important.  So configuring a strategic plan that strengthens what we do well is important.  Take a visionary look into future development for the volunteering programme, cultivate the art of the possible.  That means responding to trends in volunteering, population change and social change, and being alert to shifts in political winds.  We cannot rely on the same-old ways forever.

 “I like to be accessible.”

This ex-CE was head of around 11,000 staff.  There are no reports on how many employees got to meet him, but he built a reputation for being communicative and approachable.  That’s how managers of volunteers like to see themselves.  So best practice will include an open-door policy, regular communication through a variety of media, and being responsive to emails and telephone messages.   Those leadership and people skills really do matter.

What is needed is a leadership mentality based on risk-taking, innovation and “disruptive change”.  Too often management gives employees “permission to fail”. Too many New Zealand organisations have a fear of failure in innovation. It’s human. I always said: ‘It’s much better to get out and try new ways of serving customers and to stuff up, than to do everything right’.

There’s a challenge for organisations and managers of volunteers!  Sometimes it feels like we have become so risk-averse we dare not step outside a safety zone.  We hesitate at pushing boundaries, seizing opportunities and creating innovative services.  We have lost the crusading zeal that established many a community organisation and community services.  Do we really fear failure and stuff-ups, or is it the fear of losing funding and service delivery contracts that matters most?

‘Push for change. We need to make more mistakes, because from them we learn so much about what particular customers value’.

Of course!  Making mistakes is the best teacher in managing volunteers, as in life.  So be honest, acknowledge the error, apologise, and rectify.  And move on.

And if you are thinking this is all too much, take courage from recent UK postings.  Be an adventurous manager of volunteers.  Go bungy-jumping.

And don’t forget to make November 5 Your Day!

October 6, 2013

Why Managers of Volunteers Love their Work

Posted in Leadership, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 2:54 am by Sue Hine

thinking-out-loud-banner[1]Ask a group of managers of volunteers what they like most about their job and nine out of ten will say “working with volunteers”.  I forget what the tenth person says, because I have started thinking and wondering why and how volunteers make their manager feel so good about their work.

It’s the people thing, isn’t it?  Those interpersonal relationships, the people skills.  We get to know volunteers in quite intimate ways, which enhances our ability to involve them effectively, to encourage skill development, to help move them to greater performance.  It’s a virtuous circle, really.

It’s also a bit soft and mushy.  There has to be more than simply being on good terms with each other.

Enlightenment has come to me this week from several different sources.

  1. Look at the words for Volunteering New Zealand’s whakatauki for IVM Day:

Ma mua ka kete a muri,  Those who lead give sight to those who follow;

Ma muri ka ora a mua.   Those who follow give life to those who lead.

There’s that mutual benefit of the reciprocal relationship again, a self-reinforcing cycle.  There are also imputations of ‘leadership’: leaders enable their followers; they model desired behaviour and practice.  And followers affirm their belief in and support for their leaders.

So people who manage volunteer programmes are really leaders.  Yes, we know that – but what are the ingredients of leadership?

2.  That’s where a recent issue of NZ Listener spotlighting ‘influentials’ offers some leads.

“Today’s complexities demand new forms of leadership and influence across private, public and non-profit spheres.”  Great to have the community sector included here, with examples like the Student Army efforts post-Christchurch earthquake.  “This is an example of the kind of bottom-up, adaptive influence that can channel the resources and energy of ordinary people with something to contribute, and turn it into effective action that improves lives” (Brad Jackson, co-director of New Zealand Leadership Institute).

Yes, a manager can be influential in the way volunteers achieve effective action, so ‘influence’ is surely one part of a leader’s tool-kit.  I am cautious about using this word, however, because ‘influence’ has connotations of that P-word that can produce hugely negative results.  But when there is a common cause it is not so difficult to channel ‘the resources and energy of ordinary people’.  I know how the common cause also facilitates harnessing the diversity of ages and skills and interests among volunteers.

There is a huge literature on leadership, including masses of research, though not a lot spills into the volunteer management domain.  Contemporary thinking appears to be less concerned with individual personality profiles: it’s the ability to take the initiative and responsibility for the purpose of the cause that matters.  So the role of the leader is to ensure common interests, shared goals and collective commitment: these drivers have been forever the means for development of community organisations.  There is also a shift from individual accountability to mutual accountability, a change from ‘I know best’ to ‘we know how’, says Chris Johnson, Auckland leadership consultant. Leadership becomes Teamwork, as the America’s Cup racing in San Francisco has demonstrated – by both Team New Zealand and Oracle.  The role of each team member is integrated into a seamless collaboration.

Yes again: these points will be familiar to managers of volunteers.

However, on the employment front research shows that only about 20% of the average workforce is ‘highly engaged’ – that is, motivated and committed to the organisation’s purpose (according to Johnson).  That would never happen in a volunteer programme: if volunteers are not highly engaged they will be walking elsewhere.  And there we have a very big distinction between paid staff and volunteers.

Today’s leaders have to trust the people who work for them (Johnson).  Again, this is nothing new to managers of volunteers.  Trust is probably the biggest attribute in their tool-box, contributing to their positive relationships with volunteers.  We know that too, don’t we?

3.  Here is affirmation for managers of volunteers, coming from an unexpected quarter:

Volunteering – A Great Way To Learn Real Executive Leadership

Young corporate managers are urged to do volunteer work early in their careers, because the type of leadership at the top is akin to being a leader of volunteers. It is not about carrots and sticks but about persuasion and getting people to grasp and follow your vision. [Emphasis added]

The article acknowledges the challenging environment for managers in volunteer organisations.  It refers to ‘permission leadership’, in which managers have to earn the trust and respect of people they are supervising.

Here’s the virtuous circle again.  Relationships do matter: leadership (and management) is all about people skills.

So what? I hear people thinking, if not saying.  We’ve always known the importance of ‘people skills’, and by extension the precepts of leadership.

I am thinking aloud, you understand, unravelling the obvious, just a little.  What is still an open question is the detail in ‘people skills’ and how we get to learn them.  Where can I find some answers?

May 19, 2013

Unpacking ‘Communication’

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Leading Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 4:21 am by Sue Hine

communication-pattern[1]A member of parliament resigned this week, in disgrace.  For ten days the news media communicated to the public arena all the ill-chosen words that were spoken, emailed and twittered, plus as many details as they could extract from the Prime Minister.   The MP could not have managed better his exit from the political stage.  All because what he said, the way he said it and the medium he used compounded his errors.  His resignation and departure saves the coalition government’s slender majority, and shows us all how critical the choice of words and the way they are said can be.

Put a bunch of managers of volunteers together, ask them to nominate the most important principle in leading volunteers, and 80% will tell you it’s Communication.

Of course!  Except Communication is a really big carpet-bag word, stuffed full of a range of meanings and processes and practice – and technologies.  It’s time we unpacked the implications of the word and understand how it is best used in the context of a volunteer programme.

Communication is about Exchange of Information   Yes, the sending and receiving of accurate information is all-important to help volunteers into the organisation and for on-going retention.  Ensuring information about volunteers and the volunteer programme is spread to other staff and senior managers is also important.  And – being timely in responding to queries and messages: there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting to hear back from someone, even if it is simply an acknowledgement your message has been received.

Because Communication is also about Relationships   It’s about creating personal connections, getting to know people and their circumstances.  It’s about getting alongside paid staff, creating goodwill, and their understanding and appreciation of volunteer work.  And you don’t get good relationships going without being a Listener.  You have to be really genuine in meeting and greeting and appreciating volunteers – they will see through formulaic responses very smartly.

Communication is about inter-connectedness   Communication is the way to create links with communities, to network with other managers of volunteers, and to open up intra-organisation channels.  Beware the pitfalls of ‘talking past each other’ whether in cross-cultural communication or in everyday exchanges.  It’s the intimacy of interpersonal interaction that counts towards real connections.

Communication is a leadership dynamic   A leader’s support, encouragement, enthusiasm and inspiration do not happen in isolation – by definition there is always a following team.  So a leader is tuned to know which buttons to press and when and what words to use, and how to draw in the reluctant player, or to spur the confidence of the shy and retiring volunteer, or to find new ways to develop volunteer talents.  A good communicator will also demonstrate the value of a volunteer programme to the organisation.

You cannot not communicate    There’s a truism for you!  The experts can demonstrate how just 10% of a message is conveyed in words.  The rest is non-verbal, the body language, the tone of voice, the facial expression.  So even a tight-lipped poker-face is sending a message, whether they mean to or not.

Hang on a minute – a heck of a lot of our communication these days is not face-to-face.  You’ve got everything from formal letters, newsletters and written planning and policy papers, to email and social media, to websites and webinars.  So the written word is still a primary tool for communicating ideas and information.

Being a communicator and minding our language comes with the territory of managing volunteers. I reckon we could teach foolish MPs a thing or two.

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