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.
November 30, 2014
This week there’s that global day to honour volunteers (IYV), and I’ll be joining the crowd in Wellington to hear our praises sung and the inspiring stories about volunteer journeys.
Right now there’s also a raft of KiwiBank medals being awarded throughout New Zealand to Local Heroes, those people doing extraordinary things in their local communities.
We’ve even got our own set of awards for Wellingtonians – the Welly’s – which include an award for Community Service.
And Volunteer Centre websites are carrying regular pages for Featured Volunteers, or Volunteer Testimonials, or Volunteer Profiles.
Fantastic! To shout out about volunteers and volunteering, and rewarding people for their service to a cause, or their creative initiative, or for the difference they have made in their communities – for all these reasons it’s important to ensure we give public recognition where it is due. A newspaper editorial (Dominion Post, November 22, 2014) puts it like this:
New Zealand has a long tradition of modesty. Not for us the big-noting of brasher cultures. Strutting, boasting celebrities who too often are all sizzle and no sausage are unwelcome. Instead, achievements should speak for themselves. Which is all well and good, but sometimes it is important to praise those among us who have succeeded.
Yes indeed. At last the Tall Poppy Syndrome is on the wane. We can get rid of that fateful Kiwi term, the Clobbering Machine. Some time ago I wanted to nominate a volunteer for an award, but the idea was vetoed because you can’t single out one volunteer, you must not imply that one is above the rest. So the whole volunteer programme misses out on being noticed, and neither is the impact of volunteering on community well-being.
Sometimes volunteering awards appear to be given out on the basis of length of service. Working for the same organisation for twenty or thirty years is admirable of course, but I hope it is the particular achievements over time that are being recognised, not just longevity and loyalty.
The citations of awards bring to public attention a great deal of the volunteer activity in our communities, including the whole range of volunteering fields – sport, working with youth or needy families and disabled people, a training course in prisons, emergency services, local communities and environment issues, or the arts. Recipients are also as diverse as the volunteer population: young people gain as many awards as older people; disabled people and an ethnic mix are included. These unsung heroes are our Tall Poppies, demonstrating what can be achieved.
So let us rejoice, and cheer on all volunteers – whether they win awards or not. Their stories need to be told, because here is all the raw data to illustrate the outcomes and impact of volunteering. Get the measuring process right, and we’ll be able to find out just how valuable volunteering can be.
Let’s keep on telling the stories and making sure the poppies grow tall.
November 23, 2014
IVD is a global celebration of volunteerism, honouring people’s participation in making a change at all levels.
This statement is a tag-line on IVD 2014 website. December 5 is the day to ‘applaud hundreds of millions of people who volunteer to make change happen’. The Volunteering New Zealand whakatauki for the day (in the banner above) conveys a similar meaning.
Yes, I know it’s hard on the heels of International Volunteer Managers’ Day, but the two go together, don’t they? It’s a moot point on which is more important: managers of volunteers will not exist without a volunteer programme; and you will never get the best of volunteer contribution and achievement without a switched-on leader and manager of the programme.
Even then we can run into trouble. How can we measure the outcome, the effectiveness and the impact of volunteer work? That’s the question that’s troubling the community and voluntary sector at present. Counting hours of time delivered, perhaps adding in transport and travel costs as donations in kind, tells us simply the amount of free labour an organisation has enjoyed. When the hours are translated into a rough (read basic hourly rate) $$ amount we can shout loudly about how much money volunteers have saved us.
That is not real appreciation for volunteer effort, not what most volunteers set out to do. That is not ‘honouring people’s participation in making a change’.
So what are some better ways to acknowledge the real work of volunteers? When the question is put like this the answers are obvious:
- What is the real work volunteers have been doing? Describe it.
- Add in how this work has contributed to organisation mission.
- How does the work of volunteers enable higher staff performance and overall service provision? (Please don’t say staff could not manage without volunteers.)
- In thinking about why volunteers are engaged in your organisation, what has been impressive in the way volunteers carry out their roles.
- Go to consumers and ask them for stories about volunteers – the school kids who are coached by a volunteer; the homebound older person who relies on meals delivered by volunteers; the guests at the soup kitchen; the person whose cat was rescued from a tall tree by the volunteer fireman.
It’s hard to cover everything volunteers undertake. But the more specific we can be in celebrating volunteering the better we can demonstrate our understanding of volunteering, and how we value it for its non-monetary worth.
When December 5 comes round I do not want to be disappointed by the raft of blanket statements proclaiming volunteers as the organisation’s backbone, or the backbone of society. Volunteers are not skeletons!
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.
April 1, 2013
What do you reckon? How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does? What is your performance rating? Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale? Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?
There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game. Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat? Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?
When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment. There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding. It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors. Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board? To the tune of the latest marketing programme? Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?
The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures. But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.
Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.
It’s still much the same these days. Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth. Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.
The impact of services like these goes in several directions. Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future. The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements. Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits. There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services. Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved. The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements. That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.
We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society. We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change. Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels. As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business. Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.
But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change. We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.
November 11, 2012
We know all about the benefits of volunteering, for organisations and communities. We can count up the numbers – of volunteers and hours worked – which show simple aggregates of inputs and outputs, and we are finding ways to offer evidence of ‘making a difference’.
We know how a well-run programme can attract new volunteers and donors and gains in street-cred for the organisation. (And how quickly the reverse can happen if quality standards slip).
These days we know volunteer motivation can be less grounded in altruism than in seeking ROI – skill development, work experience and social contact. That’s the individual and personal gain.
There are other spin-offs. At volunteer gatherings where a mix of teams get together I have known excited reunions of people who went to school together or who lived in the same street a long time ago.
When volunteers are really engaged in the organisation you can bet they are developing relationships and forging new friendships. There’s many a tale of clusters of volunteers who meet regularly out of the workplace, organise a reunion, start their own Facebook page. Rugby World Cup volunteers got together again recently, to reminisce and to celebrate their achievements.
But did you know that Volunteering is also Good for Your Heart?
So says a report on research on individual health benefits of volunteering (published 2007).
Volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.
Those who engage in volunteer activities are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life and may be introduced into a positive reinforcing cycle of good health and future volunteering.
Even when controlling for other factors such as age, health, and gender, research has found that when individuals volunteer, they are more likely to live longer.
These claims are substantiated in more than 30 studies reviewing the relationship between health and volunteering. It is suggested by one commentator that Civic Engagement and Volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century – and it’s free to join.
Which is all very encouraging for volunteerism and community organisations and community well-being. But is the correlation of volunteering with good health dependent on practice standards in organisations, and quality management of volunteers? Feeling good about volunteering is certainly related to job satisfaction, a supportive work environment, and being respected and appreciated – all charged out as organisation responsibilities.
So the launch this week of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Organisations is to be welcomed, by administrators, managers of volunteers, and surely – by volunteers themselves.
June 4, 2012
It’s such a simple question. Quite straightforward. Should be easy-as to give me an answer.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy! Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff? Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power? And if you say No way – impossible! then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers? This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief. Let me offer a few leads to think about.
There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel. Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence. Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers. The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme. Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.
There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category. Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example. All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.
Why? Why involve volunteers?
Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff? Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work? Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?
I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.
Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness. Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal? Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?
I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then
- Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
- There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
- Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
- Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
- The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
- And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.
There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility. Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.