August 21, 2016

The Next Big Challenge

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership, Managing Change, Managing Volunteers, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , at 2:42 am by Sue Hine

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There is something going on in the business world that looks awfully like the principles of volunteer management.

 

I’ve been reading stuff on improving paid staff engagement, on increasing employee diversity (instead of hiring a bunch of clones), on how more people are placing importance on values and company purpose in their job-seeking than on the size of salary or climbing a career ladder. And when employees quit research is showing it’s mostly because organisation goals and action plans have got out of kilter with its vision and mission. Employees also want recognition and appreciation that isn’t just a monetary bonus for reaching pre-determined goals.

How come business is usurping all the best practices the volunteer industry has been developing for decades? And how dare they, without acknowledging this important intellectual property!

I congratulate those businesses that recognise employees are people before economic inputs, and that ‘work’ is not simply labour in exchange for pay. And this is where I see opportunity to get recognition for volunteers up where it belongs.

For years we have struggled to get organisations and stakeholders to ‘get’ volunteering. In recent times we have encouraged strategic development of volunteer programmes and management as a way to achieve full recognition of volunteer contributions. Now I think business interest in people development over labour units provides an opportunity for a real alignment between volunteering and organisation structure, policies, practice and culture.

This move may involve a bit of a seismic shift, because the role of manager of volunteers will either change dramatically, or be disestablished. Please read on before you rain down hellfire and damnation for such heresy.

At least two large volunteer-involving organisations in my city have changed their ways. Both have diverse spheres of work, with paid staff engaged in different operations. Both no longer have a position for a manager of volunteers directly responsible for the volunteers, and volunteers are directly assigned to different operational teams.  So the team leader is expected to engage, train and oversee the volunteer in his/her charge. Here is where integration and a unified approach to the work of the organisation can begin.  Here is where to find the embedding of volunteers into a people-centred culture. And the bricks-and-mortar strength of this culture goes a long way towards achieving organisation mission and vision.

When volunteers are an add-on, a nice-to-have extra assistance for the organisation’s services there’s a distance between volunteer work and the real stuff undertaken by paid staff. Yes, volunteers can be essential for successful fundraising and promotion events, but these aren’t really the main events for the organisation. It’s like the volunteer programme is a parallel universe to the real life of the organisation.

Yes, I know all the arguments about volunteer management being different from human resource management. Yet increasing regulation in recent years says volunteers are tied to more rules than they faced in the past – think police vetting, health and safety legislation, and even codes of conduct and signed agreements.

Change of the magnitude I am suggesting brings resistance and anxiety for paid staff, not to mention grizzles about additional responsibilities. Organisation change is unsettling at any time.  In this case it is more about staff inexperience in leading volunteers, and volunteers may lament the loss of their friendly go-to manager who could move mountains and do anything. Everyone is obliged to develop new relationships.

But think of the opportunities! For team development, for collaboration and integration of different ways of working; for volunteers to step up to leadership roles in support of paid staff. Think of the potential for relationship-building, improved people-management, and the intrinsic rewards for both paid staff and volunteers.

I reckon this future is like investing in Lego – you know, those colourful interlocking bricks that are endlessly creative and that hold together, no matter how many add-ons. When volunteering is embedded into a well-structured and solid organisation there’s a better chance that both volunteers and paid staff will flourish.

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July 30, 2016

Righting a Wrong

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities tagged , , , at 11:51 pm by Sue Hine

Right & WrongOh dear – another volunteer has hit the headlines, for all the wrong reasons and then some.

It’s a breach of confidentiality, perhaps a slip of the tongue or maybe an inadvertent blurt about something that did not seem important at the time.  Nothing malicious it seems, nor at whistle-blowing level.

The matter caused the police to lay a complaint with the organisation, because they have a memorandum of understanding which includes the condition of confidentiality.  The organisation is duly obliged to investigate.  In the end no action is taken because there was insufficient evidence to support the complaint.  However, the volunteer called in a lawyer and incurred significant costs, and now looks for compensation and an apology, even though he may have been a bit obstructive in engaging with the investigation.

When a story like this hits national news then it’s something for volunteers and their organisations to sit up and take notice.

It would be rare for a volunteer-involving organisation to have a contract or code of conduct for volunteers that does not include confidentiality.  But the issues around confidentiality are complex.  At the top end are things like intellectual property and ‘commercial sensitivity’ and personal privacy which might invoke expensive prosecution if a breach occurs.  At the other end of the scale a volunteer might simply make an unthinking comment.

Given the seriousness of privacy when working with vulnerable people or the organisation’s business, how much discussion on confidentiality takes place in a volunteer training session?  What would be considered a breach of confidentiality?  Are there limits of confidentiality when it comes to client/users health and welfare issues? What’s a volunteer to do if they learn of criminal activities?  Here’s the place to introduce discussion on confidentiality and the ethics around confidential issues.  And to make sure everyone is familiar with privacy legislation.  This kind of protection for volunteers and the organisation is just as important as the measures for physical safety.

And after all that do we ever spell out the process for investigating and dealing with an actual or potential breach?  Is there a policy and procedure in place?  And are the possible remedies included?  For example, minor breaches can be dealt with a reminder or a verbal warning, or possibly a flag on your personal file.   Investigation of a serious breach may lead to dismissal.

I am not suggesting we go to the lengths of a volunteer equivalent of employment tribunals and courts.  But we can avoid such drastic measures when we ensure the full implications of confidentiality and consequences of a breach are fully explained and understood.

Prevention is better than cure, right?

February 14, 2016

Getting Engaged

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Recognition of Volunteering, Relationships, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 3:52 am by Sue Hine

all_about_relationshipsI take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like.  Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.

I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training.  We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word.  But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.

I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’.  Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.

Except it seems this is not so simple.  Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.

I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.

If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’

If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up.  A job description is not always available.

When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.

I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.

And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made.   I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.

Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check.  It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation.  And it does not do volunteerism any good.

So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers?  Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above.  Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.

This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle.  And that’s just the beginning.  Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.

We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement.  All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities.  We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience.  When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.

Of course the engagement is just the beginning.  Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated.  Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving.  Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation.  In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.

None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish.  It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills.  But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector?  And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers  and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.

November 2, 2014

To Care and to Clap

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:10 am by Sue Hine

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We all know there are a few principles (quite a few!) to follow in leading volunteers. So when you are asked for your best tips, what you have learned from experience, what would you be putting at the top of your list?

A couple of people presented me with acronyms recently. Just a couple of single-syllable words that say pretty much everything we need to note in relationships with volunteers.

CARE: Communicate; Appreciate; Respect; Engage

CLAP: Communication; Listening; Acknowledgement; Participation

Pretty simple, huh? We care about volunteers, right?  And we want to clap and cheer them for their work?  So what do we need to know about the words that make up the acronyms?

Communication comes at the top of just about everybody’s list.  Volunteers want to know and understand what is expected of them.  Some volunteers work well being told in person what the specific tasks are, others enjoy working off a list on the whiteboard. Some (oh joy!) like to use their initiative to identify other tasks that might also need to be done – that is when you chalk up real value-added service.  A huge part of communication comes from the manager knowing and understanding the volunteer, in listening and really hearing what is being said, in getting to know the person, warts ‘n’ all, not simply as more grist for the organisation mill.  Communication is the art of connecting with people, more than regular news updates about organisation matters.

The importance of showing appreciation and acknowledging the work of volunteers can never be underestimated.  Saying ‘thank you’ with meaning, in as many ways as possible should never be an add-on chore.  A special email sent out after a particular job is completed, a small note left on the board with a smiley face or a surprise plate of biscuits can all remind a volunteer that ‘yes’ the organisation appreciates their contribution.

Treating everyone with respect, regardless of their position or the hours and the effort they put in goes without saying. When the manager leads by example in demonstrating respect, the standard is set for everyone else.

Engaging with your volunteers shows that you are an integrated team, working towards the same goals. That means you don’t shy away from working alongside them, or checking in on how the weekend went or what the family is up to these days.

Because ultimately, volunteers are in and of the community, and participation in a community-based organisation enhances the connection between them.   Volunteering is a way to realise our existence in a wider world.

So here’s a big thank you to Tara and Laura for encapsulating a big part of the role of managers of volunteer in well-crafted acronyms. Here is an alliterative last word from Tara:

Clap for the victorious vital volunteers, for their valued vigilant vivaciousness!

And when it comes to November 5 this week, we will be letting off a few fireworks in praise of managers of volunteers in our communities, and doing some clapping for the way they care for volunteers.

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.

October 19, 2014

Raising the Bar

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Management of Volunteers Project, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Professional Development, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 1:50 am by Sue Hine

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Volunteering New Zealand held a workshop for managers of volunteers in Wellington last week. Raising the Bar was the first of a number to be held around the country, drawing on the Best Practice Guidelines to ask What does Best Practice look like and how do we get there?

My long memory recalls the origins of this workshop, the tiny germs of ideas that got translated over time into a working group, to a VNZ project, to publishing the Guidelines, and now to working on getting them implemented.

Back in 2009 the VNZ Conference theme was Volunteering Unleashed, and there were two streams: Volunteering Tomorrow and Inspiring Leaders – two sides of the same coin you might say.  With presentations like ‘Unmasking the role of volunteer management’ and ‘Awaken the hero leader in you’ there was plenty to inspire and unleash imaginations for future effort.  At the final session I asked “What happens next?” to which there was a smart reply: “What would you like to happen?”

A few weeks later a meeting was convened with a bunch of other people who were asking the same question. The Management of Volunteers Development Group was born, if not right then, but over the next few meetings.  I’ve written about its progress several times:

Getting to Go; Management of Volunteers Project; Creating a Learning Pathway; and The Fruits of Our Labours

Raising the Bar was the theme for VNZ’s conference in 2011, and a principal stream was devoted to ‘Developing the Leaders’.  Sessions covered a range of regular practice for managers of volunteers, and included focus on leadership – because managing volunteers is nothing without leadership.

The present round of workshops on Raising the Bar is another step to encourage managers of volunteers to take on strategic leadership, and to advocate for implementation of the Best Practice Guidelines.  At the same time there is a parallel effort going into nominating champions of managing volunteers, the executives of organisations that demonstrate and promote understanding and recognition of volunteering and its management.  Yes, we need to promote these champions so others may raise their sights, to include the value of volunteers and their managers in their vision.

The workshop this past week raised a real buzz, a community of managers of volunteers sharing concerns and their ideas and information, using the material of the Best Practice Guidelines. There was plenty of diversity in this group, both in size of organisation and in sector interests.  The old hands mixed with the newbies, and there was learning for everyone.

At the end of the day what happens next is up to participants. They’ve got their take-home message and intent for action, but we’ll have to wait to see results.  Strategic leadership for change and development takes skill, courage and determination.  And time.

How high does the bar have to go? We’ll know when we get there, for sure.

May 25, 2014

Professionalism, Again

Posted in Professional Development, Professionalism tagged , , , at 4:37 am by Sue Hine

search_for_professionalism_wallpaper_by_sspssp-d4ulzbbFrom time to time over past decades flags have been waved about professionalism in managers of volunteers.  Country-wide and regional associations to promote the profession have been founded, and foundered.  Certification and credentials and National Standards have struggled to gain a foothold.  In New Zealand we have developed Best Practice Guidelines, and a Competency pathway, as a means to support managers of volunteers and to gain recognition of their roles.  Now UK’s Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is generating a renewed discussion on professionalism.  Here’s an opening paragraph on the context for the arguments:

Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.

More recent presentations have covered a case for a Code of Practice; distinctions between a job, an occupation and a profession; and some of the questions and risks that need to be discussed.

I have been down this road before.  Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in debates about registration for social workers in New Zealand.  University level programmes had been going for some years, offering academic credentials; a national association was active with newsletters and a quarterly journal.  But the arguments on professionalising were about competence and performance appraisal.  (I’ve still got the documents, typed in Courier font before the days of computers.)  For social workers in government welfare agencies there were statutory responsibilities to worry about; in the health sector social workers were more concerned with raising their status to the level of other Allied Health professionals.  Compared with the current position of management of volunteers, social work at this time was streets ahead in developing professional credibility.

I bowed out of the debate, gave up membership of the association, and have never submitted to assessment for registration – in part because I moved to some different fields of work, rather as managers of volunteers will do.  Mostly I gave up because being professional was far more important to me than professionalisation.

Professionalisation is a formal process to gain status and credentials, to ensure standards of practice can be maintained.  Trouble is, elements of exclusiveness can creep in, and it would be mighty difficult to establish a comprehensive code of practice that would cover all contexts that engage managers of volunteers.  See here for an outline of potential consequences of this form of professionalisation.   As we have been saying in New Zealand for several years, one size does not fit all.

Being professional, on the other hand, is about demonstrating a set of beliefs and values in behaviour.  That’s why the art of managing volunteers includes such emphasis on communication and relationships with volunteers, paid staff and management, with the wider community, and in support and appreciation and recognition of volunteer work.   That’s why we work hard at advocating for volunteers and volunteering – and there’s an art in doing that effectively too.  Being professional connotes the integrity of our work, a wholeness that comes from articulating beliefs about volunteering and communities, and in acting on those beliefs.

Being professional in this sense is about leadership and personal characteristics.  It is different from the administrative and management processes of establishing and maintaining a volunteer programme.  These elements can be clearly defined and applied; leadership is the behavioural style of application.

Professionalism in management of volunteers does not fall easily into conventional patterns of professional status.  There is no exclusive knowledge base, and our practice skills are not so different from those required in other management positions.  There are any number of training and experience routes that bring us to appointment as a manager of volunteers, and there are even more variations in volunteering and volunteer programmes.  And, there is no formal career path to follow.

Susan Ellis wrote way back in 1997:

No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.

A professional association can offer a defined set of ethical principles related to management roles and some form of accountability for abiding by those principles.  A professional association also has the potential to take collective action, speaking out on controversial issues outside the constraints of our employing organisations.  Real professions, says Susan Ellis, have strong associations.  I maintain my membership in the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) on the basis of these expectations.

Because, to paraphrase a quote from a long-ago text* on professionalism in social work:

Management of volunteers without service would be lame, without values would be blind, and without professional association will be mute.

……………..

*Toren, Nina  (1972) Social Work: the Case of a Semi-Profession  Sage Publications.

May 11, 2014

Playing the Game

Posted in Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities, Professional Development, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 4:01 am by Sue Hine

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A rugby league star switched to rugby union last year, but has failed to make the grade in this different code.  He has now returned to rugby league.

 

Some commentators reckon he was not given enough game time and opportunities to make his mark in rugby.

As an employee he was entitled to receive adequate training to meet team management’s expectations.  Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff can perform their roles at high levels, whether in the office or on the sports field.  I grabbed at this statement from an employment law specialist in my weekend newspaper.

Because in attending conferences and specialist training programmes I have been surprised at how many managers of volunteers are paying their own way to participate in their own professional development.  Three cheers for their personal commitment to on-going learning, even though they were not supported or encouraged by their employing organisations.  (On the other hand, equal opportunity becomes a mirage if I cannot afford the cost of the conference or training course.)

Surely it is in the employer’s best interests to enable best possible performance from all staff.  Skill maintenance and up-skilling has to be a good investment – for business productivity and for staff retention and job satisfaction.  In the absence of organisation support the high turnover rates for management of volunteer positions is not surprising.  Like that rugby player who is leaving the game, there is disappointment and disillusionment.

When professional development is not offered to managers of volunteers I have to wonder if the volunteer programme is perceived as merely a nice-to-have optional extra for the organisation’s operations; that managing volunteers is a job anyone can do; and one that does not need specialist training.  It means that volunteers are not really appreciated for their contributions, and by extension neither is their manager.

On the other hand, finding a training programme that meets particular or even general needs for managing volunteers can entail a lot of searching.  You have to go looking across local and global interconnections, and do the ‘stumble-upon’.  You have to know where to look, unless you already know about Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, or their on-line training programme.  That’s a good starting point.

There is good value too in connecting with the local Volunteer Centre, usually offering everything from a lunchtime forum to day-long seminars and workshops, extending to opportunities for mentoring.

Yes, say employers, there is a monetary cost to training.  But the relatively small investment in conference fees or a short course can reap significant benefits in management confidence and competence, and in developing effective volunteer programmes.  Don’t let the manager get choked off like the rugby player, before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves.

April 20, 2014

Volunteer Recruitment – the ‘Group Interview’

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism tagged , , at 3:43 am by Sue Hine

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Screening and interviewing prospective volunteers is that most basic of tasks for managers of volunteers. My take on what to do and how to go about it is a bit different to most of the reams of available information.

I like to get a head start by asking searching questions on the application form, as I described in a previous blog. Get beyond contact details. Ask about motivation, personal qualities appropriate for the work of the organisation, skills and relevant previous experience, and of course availability and preferred time commitment. Not quite a CV, but information that offers a great deal about the applicant.

Of course this approach assumes we are clear on what we want to know about applicants, and why. Beyond their capacity to undertake volunteer roles we will be assessing the fit of volunteer and organisation expectations, and best get the latter sorted before starting the recruitment process.

I gave up individual interviews years ago, mostly because spending an hour with each applicant would have taken up more of my part-time working week than I could afford. I adopted a group screening and orientation process, two two-hour sessions held a week apart. Mostly there are between twelve and twenty participants.

In the first session introductions and ice-breakers and then a couple of key questions on motivation can demonstrate people’s ability to relate easily with each other, and to understand more about the nature of volunteering.   The presence of an experienced volunteer or staff member to act as an observer at this session allows a ‘second opinion’ on the qualities of participants.

Because volunteer roles involve interaction with patients and families it is important applicants can cope with stress, so a role-play engages them in exploring depths of emotion they might encounter in themselves and others. It’s a powerful tool that prepares them for volunteer work. Or else it shows this organisation is not for them.

The other side of screening is orientation to the organisation, helping people understand how it works, a bit of its history and discussion on its values and their meanings.

Few applicants withdraw from this process. They receive a folder of information to reinforce their learning so far. Following referee and police checks they will be partnered with a buddy to introduce them to their volunteer role and tasks. A 16-hour training programme comes later, and this brief experience has primed them for what they want to learn.

Now you have a brief outline of my alternative to individual interviews. It works, on several levels. Applicants are presenting themselves to their peers as well as organisation representatives, and there is less opportunity to fudge answers to direct questions. It is a learning process, about volunteering and the organisation, and also about themselves and each other. There is opportunity for group bonding which gets renewed at organisation functions.

It may not work for all organisations. When volunteers are engaged in extended term 1:1 relationships with clients it is likely further screening is needed, and the group process may not be appropriate.   Facilitating the sessions also requires skilled experience, being able to draw on human resource principles, social work and community development practice – but isn’t that all the stuff that makes a manager of volunteers?

Give it a go – group screening is a great way to discover the best in volunteering potential.

April 13, 2014

Managing Volunteers: The Extreme Sport?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Managing Volunteers, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:07 am by Sue Hine

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A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting where a consultant trainer in mentoring declared managing volunteers is an extreme sport. Wow! We are up there with all those dare-devils who go base-jumping, running rapids, going higher, deeper, longer and faster in places I would never venture. I know I’ve advocated being adventurous, taking a risk or two, like bungy-jumping, so we can learn from mistakes, push boundaries and seize opportunities for innovation and creative programme development. Extreme sport? That is something else.

‘Extreme’ in a sporting context means Very High Risk, and death is not an uncommon outcome for participants. I have never heard of a manager of volunteers dying on the job, unless you count burn-out and stress-related resignations. So I go digging for more insight into this comment.

A sport is labelled extreme when there are a high number of uncontrollable variables. Yes, I understand how weather and terrain – wind, snow, water and mountains – inevitably affect the outcome of an activity. Combine uncertainty and risk with human errors of judgement and disaster is a sure result.

So how can the job of managing volunteers be included as an extreme sport?

First there is the sheer number of variables. Numbers of volunteers, their age ranges, the cultural mix, the range of experience and skills they bring as well as the roles they undertake, their flexible time commitment – all these are add up to a mountain of detail that needs to be absorbed into the management process.

Then there are the uncontrolled variables. Human nature in its infinite variety means desired behaviour is not always predictable or guaranteed. This uncertainty applies to relations with staff and organisation management as much as to volunteers. Neither are managers of volunteers immune from errors of judgement.

The environment, in this case the community and social and political context of the organisation can also be unpredictable. In a world of constant change how can we be certain of the efficacy of this policy or that strategy and the intended outcome of a particular programme?

By these conditions I reckon management of volunteers qualifies for membership in the Extreme Sports Hall of Fame. Welcome to the club!

You can’t quite see how you make the grade? Sure, you would never find me gliding in a wing-suit or scaling high rise buildings and doing back-flips on a narrow board when I get to the top. But think about the basic tasks for management of volunteers: they are pretty-much focused on minimising risk. Policies and processes to cover recruitment, training, on-going support and communication – all these are designed to ensure the safety of volunteers and the organisation and as far as possible a programme that functions without hitches.

But of course the hitches and glitches turn up, every day. No amount of planning can guarantee a smooth path. Volunteers and organisations, let me remind you, do not run on prescribed channels like cans of peas on a manufacturing production line. So the constant juggling of multiple demands, the flexibility, the political nous, the mental stamina – all desirable qualities for managers of volunteers – add up to create an extreme sports participant.

I have chosen surfing extreme waves as my image of an extreme sport. After all, managing volunteers is about riding the highs and lows of a turbulent environment, and we keep on climbing back on board after the tumbles.

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