March 25, 2017

Lessons from Volunteers

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 10:30 pm by Sue Hine

A few days ago I got a call from Matthew, one of those volunteer types who like to put up their hand for the next best thing. He had landed the job of recruiting a team of volunteers for a city-wide fund-raising effort and scheduling them into a roster for the day. Not a problem he thought – just ring around the people on the list handed to him – slot them in at their preferred time, perhaps do a bit of juggling with where they wanted to go. Piece of cake. And a nice way to support an organisation he respected.

Except a lot of people did not answer his calls, even after several messages. ‘Should I keep on trying to contact them?’ he asked. Of course my question in reply was ‘What sort of briefing were you given when you took up this job?’ Not much. ‘What did you understand you were asked to do?’ Just ring around a few people. ‘No outline of how to run a conversation?’ Zilch. … And so on.

Matthew was not very happy.

Neither was Gina, who volunteered for a branch of a national organisation that had a high reputation in the community. She really wanted to get involved in this work, took up the intensive training, got fired up to give it a go. Loved the work and being involved with people in the community, but hugely disappointed and disillusioned with the organisation. Problem was the other volunteers had all been involved for some years, and they were a very cliquey group. Not at all inclusive when it came to newcomers. And the team leader, the local manager of this branch, was in cahoots with them. You’d go to a meeting and they would spend half the time gossiping about local issues, and even the cases they had been working on. No direction from the manager, no meaningful support, and little guidance when you needed it. Gina stuck it out for a year or so but was pleased to move on to new employment in a different town. She was going to be more cautious about volunteering in the future.

Jess’s problem was somewhat similar. Her volunteering involved supporting families in the community, taking up heaps of time and rather a lot of travel when there were meetings arranged with various agencies. That was OK, really, but Jess was missing the organisation support she had got from volunteering stints with other organisations. Yes, there was an occasional group email with a generic thank-you message, and a list of instructions on what still needed to be done. And yes, there was also a compulsory fortnightly team meeting to attend. But instead of a forum for discussion of ideas and sharing concerns, the manager would go through a list of what Jess and her colleagues were doing wrong. All rather dispiriting. Jess checked out what other people were thinking and feeling and they supported her idea to challenge the manager at their next meeting.

It wasn’t going to be a formal complaint, just setting out what volunteers would appreciate in support and recognition for the work they were doing. Jess was not unaccustomed to laying out facts and examples, but she did not expect the hostile response from the manager. There was no discussion, just a personal attack that made Jess out to be ungrateful, lacking understanding of the organisation and its mission, and totally off the wall in her comments. The other volunteers stayed silent.

Jess has not done any formal volunteering since.

Fortunately I don’t think the experiences of Matthew, Gina and Jess happen frequently, but they are reminders of the real importance of

  • Clear instructions for volunteer tasks via a role description
  • Ensuring an inclusive process for new volunteers
  • Managers of volunteers understanding ethical boundaries and their leadership role
  • Genuine recognition and appreciation of volunteer work
  • Listening to volunteers and their ideas for improvements in the programme

When we listen carefully volunteers can always teach us a thing or two.


March 16, 2015

Playing Safe

Posted in Best Practice, Organisation responsibilities tagged , , , at 2:12 am by Sue Hine


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.

September 9, 2012

Volunteer – At Your Own Risk

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism, volunteer experience tagged , at 4:17 am by Sue Hine

My present work focus is updating a basic guide for managers of volunteers which can serve as an introduction for new people and also a reminder and refresher for the old hands.  It’s amazing how much has changed, or shifted over the past five years.  This new edition will go on line, keeping up with technological advances and it will certainly be more user-friendly.

The hardest part of this update is ensuring accurate information on legislation relevant to volunteering – all the Health & Safety stuff, the Privacy and Human Rights provisions, and Employment law, and a few other things besides.  I am getting a headache from trying to assimilate all the information.  That’s when I think about the bundle that managers of volunteers have to absorb into training programmes and in their daily practice.

It is also a huge responsibility for organisations who engage volunteers (and paid staff), and exposes a number of risks.  Ideally, all organisation policies would cover the work of volunteers as well as paid staff.

Trouble is, the law vacillates a bit when it comes to volunteers.   Yes, they are included (with some exceptions) in the organisation’s ‘duty of care’ – the obligation ‘to take reasonable care not to cause injury or damage to a person or property’.  There’s some very clear guidance about this duty to volunteers under Health & Safety regulations.

On the other hand Employment law specifically excludes volunteers.  There is no recourse to employee rights, no option to be heard at a Tribunal or Employment Court.  But hello, the provision to be a ‘good employer’ extends to volunteers!  Except there is no one recipe or template for being a good employer.   At best we can follow a guide that includes examples and initiatives.  All of these are pretty much common sense – though sometimes we need to be reminded of common sense practice.

So a risk management strategy is an important ingredient in best practice for managers of volunteers.  Yes we have some guidance from existing law.  Yes, we are blessed in New Zealand with Accident Compensation, providing comprehensive, no-fault personal injury cover – though this will not excuse us from ensuring volunteers are informed about all the health and safety information relevant to our organisation.  Yes, the legislation on Human Rights and Privacy give us a good steer on how to be inclusive in recruitment, and how to protect volunteer privacy.

What worries me is the short cuts that can be taken when recruiting volunteers, in implementing a programme that has not developed all the necessary policies, in short-circuiting volunteer training, and failing to monitor volunteer practice and experience.  If you want to know more about the risks of legal liabilities read Sport NZ’s account.  Better to skip the worst case scenarios and go for the straightforward information and advice from Keeping it Legal or CommunityNet Aotearoa (see p 13).

We can cover risks and protect volunteers through a signed agreement relating to the job description.  We can hold to a Code of Practice, outlining commitments by the volunteer, and by the organisation.  Or ensure everyone knows their Rights and Responsibilities in a document that spells out the entitlements and obligations of both volunteers and the organisation.  Undertaking Police Checks of volunteer applicants is another safeguard for those working with vulnerable people.

There is no way I am suggesting we become fearful risk-aversive managers of volunteers.  Nor are volunteers saying they want to be wrapped in cotton-wool – indeed some people object to learning about all the regulations and policies.  Volunteering to make cups of tea is not as simple as it used to be, they say.

The bottom line of risk management has to be ‘beneficence’, the practice (in medical ethics) of ‘doing no harm’.  Or, to use the word in its conventional sense, the business of community organisations and the work of volunteers are about ‘doing good’.  Let’s not lose sight of that!