August 21, 2016
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.
December 3, 2015
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Volunteering New Zealand Conference e tu, where we heard a lot about the progress champion organisations have made through adopting the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations. Results are impressive, for managers of volunteers, for volunteers, and for the whole organisation.
I got excited to learn about a new set of values developed by St John New Zealand. Because organisation values have been a long-standing academic and applied interest for me. Here’s some thoughts I wrote three years ago.
In that blog I was concerned about the distance between words adopted as values and their meaning, and about organisational response to the importance of values.
Not every organisation displays their values on a website or their letterhead. Questions about organisation values are rarely asked in recruitment interviews. Monitoring behaviour against the meaning of value words is a low priority. Could this lack of attention explain the ease of ‘mission creep’ and ‘marketisation’ of many organisations over recent times?
What got me excited about St John’s innovation is the language used, avoiding the usual high-level abstract virtues:
Our five Values guide how we do things together as One St John. These are:
We do the Right Thing – Whakaaro Tika We take responsibility. Make the tough calls. Think of others.
We stand Side by Side – Whakakoha We respect, value and support what others contribute.
We Make it Better – Whakawerohia We find solutions- step up, own it, do it.
We have Open Minds – Whakahangahanga We listen openly. Encourage ideas. Welcome feedback.
We are Straight Up – Whakapono We act with honesty, courage and kindness.
Yes, there is still some abstraction. But note how Inclusive is present throughout the iteration: We do things together, and each value is a declaration of intent prefaced by We, indicating again that everyone in the organisation is involved. Instead of the word Integrity, widely invoked as a value in the sector, each value resounds with responsible ethical practice. Dignity isn’t there either, but inferred in Think of others, Respect what others contribute, Acting with kindness. No need to talk of Excellence – striving for the best is inherent in every one of those values.
Note also how each value is underpinned by behavioural expectations. These are the benchmarks that will steer all operations throughout the organisation. No longer are values something for the Board and the Senior Management Team to worry about: all staff and volunteers are responsible for aligning their actions with the stated intent of the values. There’s accountability for you, and potentially an indicator of performance and impact.
Anyone who has been involved in culture change in an organisation will know what an enormous undertaking this can be, taking a long time, overcoming resistance, and downright frustrating at times for all parties. St John New Zealand, an organisation that serves communities throughout the country, with staff and volunteers numbering thousands, has made the process look straightforward.
When an organisation establishes a new strategic plan and finds the old values are out of touch it is time for change. St John set up a steering group of representatives ‘from the shop floor’, to canvass people in all parts of the country on the values that were significant in their work. Yes, there was an external agency involved, but it was the steering group that led discussions and gathered feedback. There was a high level of engagement throughout, and it took months.
Once the preferred values were identified and named another round of meetings ensued, presenting results, encouraging understanding and buy-in of the new look line-up of values. Additional information and resources were available too, including a badge to pin on uniform shirts.
And all the time St John kept an eye on the Best Practice Guidelines, monitoring performance against changes observed and responses to the new values.
Thank you, St John New Zealand, for showing the way to implement change, and thank you Volunteering New Zealand for providing the platform.
January 18, 2015
From 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.
Handy, Charles (1988) Understanding Voluntary Organisations: How to Make Them Function Effectively. Penguin
October 5, 2014
I’ve seen a few job vacancies lately, opportunities that make me sit up and take notice. These are senior positions in national organisations, charged with strategic management and development of volunteer programmes.
Words and phrases like ‘leadership’ and ‘integrating volunteer work with service delivery’ and ‘best practice processes and resources to maximise voluntary service’ leap out of the published blurbs. These jobs are close to Executive Team level, offering opportunities to lift the profile of volunteering and its contribution to organisation operations. Candidates are expected to competent in strategic planning and project implementation, and in leading transformational change. Being able to undertake surveys and analysis could be useful too. And of course, being experienced in developing and maintaining good relationships with both internal and external stakeholders is another given.
Yay! Management of volunteers has come of age! At last, there is recognition for the rightful place of volunteering within organisations. And yes, the relevance of strategic leadership, as outlined in Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, gets acknowledged.
And then I start looking at the fine print. What are the qualities and qualifications these organisations are expecting in candidates? “A relevant tertiary qualification” can be anything from community development to health, including human resources and psychology. Or in research and evaluation. Or in ‘social services’, or management. Take your pick. Your experience is likely to count for more – say a minimum of four years in social service management. The list of desired experience includes leadership and people management. Desired communication skills extend to coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. While all these skills and experience are relevant and important, any reference to direct experience in managing volunteers is a lesser consideration.
By now you might be able to sense my raised eyebrows.
Yes, I know there are people out there with qualifications and experience that could foot any of these positions.
And yes, management is management, and leadership likewise, regardless of the field.
And yet, a toehold at executive management level is still precarious for volunteering.
Unless the executive team has their own experience of volunteering, unless they understand fully what volunteering is about, the new strategic manager is still in the position of advocating for volunteers, still arguing their cause and how to engage fully with them. That’s a hard road, where expectations and big ideals can get sidelined when the organisations are struggling to meet contract obligations and to secure funding to cover the shortfall. It is even harder if the appointee is not steeped in volunteering philosophy and practice.
What if the new position is more about taking control and command of volunteering, ‘using’ volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision? That’s a risk, specially without direct experience of volunteering. And volunteering will be the poorer for that.
Because at bottom there are big distinctions between working for pay and working as a volunteer. I need to earn a living, so a paid job is a necessity. When I volunteer it is by choice, to follow an interest or to support a cause. There are set hours for paid work; volunteer work can happen at all hours, including weekends. Volunteers set their own ‘leave’ schedules; paid workers must apply to take time off. Paid workers fit into designated positions, limited by organisation budgets; volunteers will be assigned to particular roles, but these are limitless. Numbers of volunteers can outweigh paid staff 5:1 and more.
So there are big challenges for the person taking on an organisation’s strategic development of volunteering. How to meet the challenges is a story for another time.
June 1, 2014
In just a couple of weeks it is New Zealand’s turn to hold National Volunteer Week, that opportunity to give some real acknowledgement and appreciation of volunteer work undertaken for organisations and in communities throughout the country. If you did not know about this event already I am giving you advance notice to get cracking and plan something special for the volunteers in your organisation.
I was reminded recently of the sometime lack of understanding of volunteering and the relevance of holding a National Volunteer Week:
I asked audiences of managers of volunteers how executive leadership at their organizations define success regarding volunteer involvement. And one of the answers really disturbed me: It’s successful if no one complains.
That statement is a huge indictment on executive ignorance of volunteering, not to mention any understanding of the skills and professionalism required to manage volunteers. I have to wonder if there was a similar lack of interest in the work of paid staff. I wonder if there is any executive consideration of the relation between the organisation’s structure and function, and outcomes for its users? I don’t think I would enjoy employment in that organisation, in either paid or voluntary capacity.
So I would like National Volunteer Week to be trumpeting not just volunteer virtues, but also the meaning of volunteering and what organisations need to know about volunteering and its management. Here are three questions executives in leadership positions could be asking themselves in the lead-up to NVW.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
How does volunteering contribute to social well-being in our communities?
What do you need to know about managing volunteers?
I’m not going to answer the questions, because that’s the mission for executive managers. Think of it as a treasure hunt, with the potential to bring as much value to the organisation as the next funding grant. Then everyone will be better informed about volunteering, and will be looking to celebrate volunteer achievements. Then we will know the real success of a volunteer programme.
By coincidence there is another post considering the meaning of success for volunteers and management of volunteers. There’s plenty of material available to tell us what a successful volunteer programme looks like – don’t let’s accept excuses like ‘no complaints received’.
You see, if it takes a whole village to raise a child, it can take a whole organisation to make the most of volunteer contributions.
May 4, 2014
In continuing the vein of last week’s blog, I am picking up on the distinction between formal and informal volunteer organisations. Because this is where Volunteer Centres might have got a bit stuck between the rock of government-funding obligations and the hard-place needs of organisations and communities, and the wider net of volunteering and community-led development.
Trends of recent decades have drawn the ‘formal volunteering sector’ into the market economy, into competition for services and project funding, has shaped activities to meet performance criteria, and has notched up business practice standards. Read the history of global developments in ‘volunteering infrastructure’ in this e-volunteerism article.
As we know, 90% of ‘voluntary organisations’ in New Zealand are not formally registered charities, and though most of them will have formal structures and purposes many fall outside the purview of government funding contracts. Thus we get a division in the community and voluntary sector, between NGOs and NFPs, even if the former are still non-profit organisations. In this broad-brush and diverse context the question is where best to place Volunteer Centre energies. Are they here for ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ organisations, or for volunteers? Of course in practice all three are important.
Volunteer Centres in New Zealand emerged independently around the country from the mid-1980s. Each one has a slightly different take on their vision and purpose which can be summarised as To promote, support and advocate for volunteering. In practice this allows for working and liaising with community organisations and local government. Supporting managers of volunteers comes with the territory, to ensure volunteers get a good experience and organisations understand and appreciate the work of volunteers. So the infrastructure is there, as a sound base to support volunteering. To offer a rounded ecosystem we should add in the work of engaging with business interests around employee volunteering (and sponsorship), and with philanthropic funders (for Centre funding as well as promoting volunteer causes).
It’s a huge mandate to cover all those interests, indicating Volunteer Centres are running a sophisticated consultancy business. But there are some questions a hard-headed auditor might want to ask:
- Why should funds be allocated for volunteer brokerage when there is potential for it to be adequately managed through an on-line programme?
- When national awards for volunteering are handed out how many of them go to individuals or organisations that have been supported by Volunteer Centres?
- How good are you (or other statistical surveys) at counting voluntary effort? Isn’t it time to get beyond counting to evaluating quality of the effort, and to capture the extent of ‘informal’ volunteering?
- If 34% of New Zealand’s population are engaged in volunteering, what would it take to raise that proportion to 40% or higher?
- Advocacy is specialist work – what successes can be reported on promoting volunteering with government (local and central) and philanthropists?
These are the questions Volunteer Centres could be addressing. See how Centres around the world are adapting to new environments in another article in e-volunteerism.
March 16, 2014
News media are regularly reporting leaks of information, not always on the scale of an Assange or a Snowden. This past week an Auckland institution has had some of its domestic linen waved around in public. The Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) has been around for more than 50 years. It was started by volunteers and continues to be supported by volunteers who work on restoration and maintenance of exhibits as well as hosting visitors. Auckland ratepayers contribute $12 million in annual funding. There is also a history of troubled relationships between the founding Motat Society and the museum’s governance. This time the headline reads:
The deputy board chairman at Motat has resigned and 20 volunteers have walked out as troubles grow deeper at the country’s largest transport museum.
The walk-out is related to a confidential review tabled two years ago which has now been leaked, revealing the museum is in crisis, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘childish’, facing irrelevance and closing if there is no change in direction. These words are pretty damning, even though a new strategic vision is about to be launched.
Organisation change is difficult at the best of times and needs careful management. Motat’s director recognises “Not everyone will want to come on this journey. Some will be threatened by it. You get an element of disaffection or insecurity that comes out of change. There are some people who will feel exposed.”
I don’t know details of volunteer dissension at Motat, but I do know how long-standing volunteers can feel they own their work and the organisation as an intimate part of their life. And I’ve lived through enough organisational change to know how uncomfortable it can be for employees as well as volunteers.
Well, here’s a story that illustrates organisation change and a less-than-disastrous outcome:
There’s an Op Shop that’s been operating for years, a social enterprise and excellent source of funding for a well-known national organisation. A new manager is appointed. She’s got business experience and nous for the industry of second-hand, pre-loved, re-cycled goods. “We’ve got to up our game”, she says to the volunteer staff. “We need better displays of our goods and we need to offer excellent customer service. We’ve got to be up-to-the-minute with our marketing because there is lots of competition out there.” She adds “Our organisation is looking to us to increase the funding base so we can maintain services to clients.
A development plan is presented for discussion. “Have your say”, invites the manager.
Of course there is much mumbling and grumbling among the volunteers. “You can’t do that”, one says, “It won’t work”. Another says “We’ve always done it this way and your way doesn’t look any better”. There is a tide of objections and opposition.
A bunch of volunteers resign, saying they cannot work with the new manager and certainly not with her new-fangled ideas. That’s the price of organisation change, though at least there are no redundancy payments for volunteers. Yes, there may have been some negative tattling in the community, but no newspaper headlines exposed dissension in the ranks of volunteers.
The manager gets on with introducing the changes, engaging volunteers in each step of the way, providing extra training if warranted. New volunteers come knocking at the door when they hear about new opportunities. Customer count rises, drawn to attractive window displays, and word-of-mouth conversations about helpful volunteer staff. And of course the ultimate goal of increased income is a monthly cause for celebration.
And then, in ones and twos, and then more – the old volunteers start to return. They are impressed with what they see and they hear good things about the new manager – how she listens to volunteers and is willing to try out their suggestions. They do not ask for their old jobs back: they want to give the organisation another go, to join what looks like a fun place to work. And they miss the social camaraderie that goes with the job.
This story is not a fiction, though I have embroidered the details. It does not describe change of the magnitude Motat is likely to be looking at, nor does it give assurance that Motat volunteers will accept the changes ahead of them. But it does tell me that even if you lose some in the process of change, you can also win them back.
For more on long-term volunteers see this Thoughtful Thursdays blog and discussion.
February 9, 2014
Ask a reasonable question about why volunteers are involved in non-profit organisations and don’t be surprised if the answer is To Save Money! It’s there in writing as well, in comments about budget constraints which ‘increase reliance on volunteer support’, and in ‘saving on administration costs’.
Annual Reports can include acknowledgement of volunteer numbers and hours contributed translated into monetary value, but rarely any analysis or demonstration of why they are valued and important for the organisation.
This money thing really gets in the way of thinking about volunteers and understanding volunteering.
The people who claim ‘volunteers are priceless’ have not looked at the costs of running a volunteer programme. Somebody should be adding up expenditure on recruitment and training, provision of support and supervision, functions for recognition of volunteer work, and reimbursement of expenses. Hang on, why should we reimburse volunteer expenses? Paid employees don’t get reimbursed for travelling to work, nor their parking fees!
When I hear about organisations saving money by using volunteers I am hearing ‘exploitation’. To ‘use’ volunteers is close to ‘abusing’ their goodwill, and their time and their talents.
If the budget shortfall really means increasing volunteer support what extra work will they do? Taking up jobs that used to be paid? That would mean relaxing some of the current rules that limit volunteer roles like a ban on undertaking personal cares for frail and vulnerable people or the constraints of safety boundaries. And let’s not overlook a potential backlash from worker associations.
What is it that so many people need to understand about volunteering?
For starters, ‘volunteering’ is a modern-day term for an ancient human practice that provided mutual support and protection for the collective group, binding people within their communities. These days we call it ‘Civil Society’, denoting all those activities that bring people together to pursue their mutual interests. Volunteering is noted for its diversity and the wide fields of interests, for large national organisations and small informal and local groups. These days, volunteering is a means for community engagement, for maintaining social relations and stability. Volunteering is also the agency to promote a cause, to bring enlightenment and create change.
So when we get down to organisation level, to the place that employs paid staff, what’s the point of volunteering, if it is not to save money? Here are some pointers to finding an answer:
- At a basic level, volunteer assistance will support staff and enable them to focus on specialist responsibilities.
- Volunteers help to create a positive image of the organisation in the community. As ambassadors they can be a real asset, attracting donors and more volunteers, and being the best-ever marketing agents. (Or, as the worst-ever critics, they could be your biggest liability.)
- Volunteers can bring new insights, energy and time to the organisation. It was probably volunteer enthusiasm and commitment that got it started in the first place. So why not harness that energy to develop and trial new strategies or processes, to push the envelope beyond existing limits. The voluntary sector needs a research and development function as much as manufacturing corporations.
- When volunteers bring a diverse range of skills and experience they enrich the organisation, and help expand community connections which can extend the reach of organisation services.
- At best, volunteers offer added value to the organisation’s vision and contribute to achieving its mission.
These are general points, and will need to be tailored to organisation specifics. More importantly, getting to grips with the real reasons for volunteer involvement will mean you never have to say ‘volunteers are priceless’ or that they save you money. And, you’ll find the words and phrases to give real meaning to volunteering.
January 18, 2014
On New Year’s Day 2014 I was far from windy and wet Wellington. Beachcombing on a wide bay under a hot sun was just the tonic to clear the head.
I had a few things to sort out about developments in volunteering, social services and the community sector.
I have been mightily impressed with the promotion of volunteering during the past year. The work of Volunteering New Zealand for National Volunteer Week (June) and the International Days in November and December was truly encouraging. The model of NGO partnership between Volunteering New Zealand, ANGOA and Social Development Partners is one to follow for other organisations, for economies of scale if nothing else. I would like to think such a partnership will enhance the status and influence of the community sector on political decision-making. I also noted how managers of volunteers got to find greater confidence in undertaking their roles, and the value of meeting and learning from each other – the VNZ Conference in November was testimony to that.
But the devil in my mind is in a bigger picture, not the detail.
The growth and status of NGOs After thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and devolution of government I should not be surprised to find organisations tending to act like corporate businesses. Of course they needed to lift their game, to become more businesslike in governance and financial management and to comply with all the regulations that filtered through government contracts and obligations to philanthropic funding. Of course time and changing social conditions can alter an organisation’s focus on its mission and vision. But the trend to seek sponsors and partnership arrangements with private sector business, and the rise and rise of corporate employee volunteering is another dimension that risks turning NGOs into ‘subsidiary businesses’.
Three matters of concern arise from this trend.
Ongoing lack of understanding about volunteering The commercial and consumerist world has trouble accommodating the idea and practice of time, skill and effort given freely for the benefit of others. We get platitudes of appreciation, not genuine understanding. It seems the wealth of volunteer action cannot be counted therefore it must be of little value. Which explains why so many managers of volunteers remain poorly paid and of low status, while fundraising and marketing personnel are the rising stars. The resulting outcome is to find pursuit of sustainable funding sources taking priority over connections with the communities organisations purport to serve.
Volunteering is a utilitarian tool Volunteers have all sorts of reasons to volunteer, and it’s good to be open about wanting work experience, social interaction, practice in speaking English, to be job-seeking or doing court-ordered community service. Altruism has always involved a reciprocal benefit, even if it was a simple feel-good factor. But we are close to perceiving volunteering as an asset to be exploited, to be traded like any other commodity.
Two-tiered non-profit sector All this business development for NGOs has led to overlooking what is happening in the rest of the sector. We should not need to be reminded there are thousands of not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) keeping communities keeping on mostly without the benefit of government contracts and philanthropists’ largesse. Outspoken concern from writers, researchers and commentators on poverty and inequality during the past year has highlighted the distance between government rhetoric and social reality in many parts of our communities. The words ‘democratic disconnect’ resonate, emphasising voter apathy and a populace focussed more on survival needs than on gathering people power. ‘Democratic deficit’ highlights government opposition to criticism and a lack of real consultation which pressures NGOs into silence for fear of jeopardising their funding arrangements.
So where does all this leave managers of volunteers? In the spirit of New Year optimism I think there are heaps of indicators for a positive future. The role of managing volunteers might have emerged in concert with the growth of NGOs and the sector, yet over the last ten years the profession has made huge strides in defining the role and articulating best practice. Technology and the internet have fostered global and local communication. There are opportunities for training and development. There is an established sense of identity and collegial fraternity among practitioners which extends to supporting people new to the role.
The challenge for now will be to protect volunteer programmes from the encroachments of utilitarian managerialism, to maintain that spirit of volunteering we have taken as an article of faith for generations. Or shall we accept a radical shift in our ideology and go with the flow of larger interests?
December 1, 2013
“Outsource to Volunteers” were the words inscribed on a floating pendant at Festival for the Future, a weekend event to celebrate what’s possible, “supporting the next generation to spark & grow world-changing ideas for a better New Zealand”.
Now there’s an idea, I thought, and my mind raced away on the potential for community organisations to outsource work and even whole service delivery to volunteers. All I need to do is work up a business plan and organise a few contracts.
After all, hospitals outsource food and cleaning services to private operators; local authorities outsource waste collection services; airlines might have aircraft servicing done outside their country of origin; and we are all familiar with local businesses that outsource the manufacture of their products to way beyond our shores, along with IT services and Call Centres .
How could I make this work for volunteering? It would be a non-profit business for starters. I would recruit and train volunteers, undertake the whole professional management of volunteers, and organisations would contract with me to supply and deliver their volunteer programme. I would make sure a contract price included provision for volunteer rewards and recognition, and also allowances for travel – as well as the costs of administration and training and support and so on – and reasonable recompense for my own efforts. Volunteers do not come for free, you know.
Outsourcing will foster a strong volunteer identity, give volunteers a sense of ownership and pride in their status instead of being reminded of that professional/amateur inequality. Nor would volunteering fall into the black hole of ignorance and being ignored by management in the organisation. Outsourcing could make volunteering more visible in the community rather than being confined to particular organisations. Ultimately volunteering would become an attractive proposition to a wider range of people, and stimulate widespread recognition as well as a broader range of activities. Outsourcing will also give a manager of volunteers the freedom to apply best practice away from the curbs of restrictive organisation processes.
But would it still be ‘volunteering’? Sigh. Such flights of fancy always have fish-hooks. Worst is the inference that volunteers are just another tradable commodity, even if they do not get paid for their work. Market principles do not, should not ever, apply to volunteering. Outsourcing might also expose a shameful concession that volunteer programmes are not part of an organisation’s core business.
My ideas also cut across some of the present work of Volunteer Centres. Many organisations would never dream of letting an outsider take over ‘their’ volunteers. There could be practical objections when it comes to specialised services like emergency services, telephone help-lines and befriending programmes. Some people will protest that outsourcing changes the whole flavour and meaning of volunteering.
But think about it. Think about the words ‘outsource to volunteers’. They do not mean ‘replace paid staff with volunteers’, nor ‘let’s exploit volunteer willingness to help’, and nor do they imply ‘volunteers can do anything’. But they do encourage me to think about extending volunteer responsibilities and developing new initiatives that would add value to organisation services, or to trial new ways of operating.
My realist head is now seeing ‘outsource to volunteers’ as a simple slogan to remind us of the wealth of goodwill, of talents and experience, that volunteers bring to any organisation – and why we should place high value on their services. If we forget that then our organisations and our communities are the poorer for it.