July 30, 2016
Oh 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?
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.
March 16, 2015
A bunch of leaflets landed in my letterbox this week. They were inside an envelope from a UK publisher of academic works who keeps hoping I will purchase another book. This time the promotion was all about new publications on safety in the workplace. I groaned.
I am, at best, ambivalent about safety and the regulatory environment that is imposed in workplaces. I grew up learning the consequences of climbing trees without a safety net, and there was never a playground swing sheathed in protective rubber. I cycled everywhere on open roads without a care (or a helmet) and later drove a car with a few elements of recklessness. I learned my risk-taking limits through practical experience and without any disastrous consequences. So when I find a person in a hi-viz vest is designated sole responsibility to shepherd pedestrians round a bit of roadworks, I confess to being offended by the assumption that I have no common sense, don’t know my road rules and that I will deliberately create mischief for the roading project.
Of course the flip side of this kind of over-protection is the high accident rate in farming and forestry industries, in manufacturing and on our wharves, resulting in serious injury and death. It seems there is enough management and worker carelessness out there to give cowboys a bad name.
I take a closer look at those leaflets and the blurbs that tell me a little about the content of the books. There’s a whole library of them, all more or less dealing with safety in the workplace, with titles like The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’; The Past and Future of Safety Management; and The Human Contribution. The common point seems to be the ‘human factors’ that contribute to accidents. Even company bonuses have potential for perverse consequences when attention to major hazard risk is diverted to financial incentives – that’s the book titled Risky Rewards.
There are also a number of titles about ‘resilience engineering’, as in changing human behaviour. Being resilient is all about shifting safety from being protective to becoming productive, increasing the number of things that people do right instead of engendering risk. In my earthquake-risk city resilience is not a new concept: we have been urged for some years now to prepare ‘for when the big one comes’.
One book blurb reminds us that even if humans are the major hazard in a safety system, they can also be the heroes, as a documentary on the Christchurch earthquake demonstrated. Here’s another reason to broaden our thinking beyond the blame and punishment regimes of safety regulations.
The reform of workplace health and safety in New Zealand has caused much concern for the community and voluntary sector, mostly for the extended responsibilities of employers and board members, and increased financial penalties if found at fault. Yet for most non-profit organisations and NGOs this is also an opportunity to review current obligations and practice, and to start encouraging a culture of ‘looking out for each other’, and speaking out about hazards and safe practice. That would go a long way to keep us all safe, much better than ‘turning a blind eye’ and thinking ‘that’s not my problem’.
Hang on a minute. Isn’t this ‘resilience engineering’ just the stuff of developing and managing a volunteer programme? In the selection and training process there is a constant assessment of individual risk elements, and the degree of risk that might impact on the volunteer roles and tasks to which they are assigned. We look out for the well-being of volunteers, for job satisfaction and retention as well as their safety. And volunteers, even if it is not their primary motivation, will find that the pleasure of participation and connectedness will also contribute to their resilience and their safety in the workplace.
The key to excellent health and safety management for volunteers, says a Factsheet on Volunteers, is good planning and good communication. But before you sit back with a got-it-sorted grin, best to check out how good you really are and whether all bases are covered.
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
November 9, 2014
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 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 11, 2014
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.
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 23, 2014
Two items referring to volunteering turned up in my news reading this past week. One cast a slur on the meaning of ‘volunteer’ and the other described volunteers as ‘committed staff’.
The bad news story is about a man who drove a pub’s courtesy van and undertook other tasks on request from staff. He was paid $50 per shift, but did not have an employment contract despite repeated requests. The hotel’s new owner decided the man’s services were no longer required and a text message was sent to that effect. However, our man took his case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to claim unpaid wages and compensation for unfair dismissal. The hotel owner argued the man was “just a lonely elderly volunteer”.
To be dismissive of volunteers in this way is enough to start a protest march, a vigil outside the hotel, or a boycott of the pub’s services. Or all three! The protest can be generated on several counts:
- Nobody is ever ‘just a volunteer’
- Not all volunteers are lonely and elderly
- Neither are all older volunteers lonely
- Not to mention demonstrably shoddy HR practice
There is a good ending to this story. The ERA decided our man was a regular on-call casual employee: he was paid regularly for regular work days and he answered to a manager. The dismissal was found to be unjustified and monetary compensation duly awarded.
I am hoping that the hotel’s owner will heed two important messages from this experience. Firstly, volunteer work is not to be taken lightly: it is an honourable commitment that should be valued regardless of age and status. Secondly, and possibly more important, is the fair and professional practice of HR management. Volunteers and paid workers might be simply the labour inputs for a business, but employers need to apply a duty of care to both those resources.
The next story offers much better news. The International Rugby Sevens was hosted in Wellington a couple of weeks ago, an annual party event that has been going on for fifteen years. This year misbehaviour and drunkenness by a small proportion of the crowd got more media attention than New Zealand’s team carrying off another tournament win. Yet the event was still counted a success, attributed to “300 committed staff … the vast majority of them volunteers”. There speaks a manager who understands the parity status of paid employees and volunteers. He adds:
“All of them are dedicated to our values – being passionate about Wellington; delivering excellence (which includes learning from our mistakes) and teamwork.”
There will be many managers of volunteers who can applaud the people they work with for the similar qualities. Wouldn’t it be great if more organisations could proclaim equal status on these grounds for volunteers and their paid staff?