January 27, 2013

A Back-Handed Lesson

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 2:22 am by Sue Hine

employee-relations[1]A couple of weeks ago a colleague reminded me of a paper I had thought interesting enough to copy several years ago.  It was good fortune to find it in the depth of my badly archived resources.

The topic is a perennial conversation among managers of volunteers, that business of establishing and maintaining good relationships between paid staff and volunteers.  There can be lots of agonising on how-to, and what to do when volunteers get a raw deal.

Well, on just one short page, authors Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch turn the discussion on its head. Their paper is titled How to Generate Conflict between Paid Staff and Volunteers.  I can’t find the date of publication, but you can still find the page here.

The recommended advice contradicts everything good practice in managing volunteers would support.  It points up the hazards of relationships, and what can go wrong – specially if the manager gets precious about volunteers.  Here’s what McCurley and Lynch are suggesting:

  • Don’t involve staff in the decisions as to if and how to utilize volunteers within the agency. Everybody loves a surprise.
  • Don’t plan in advance the job descriptions or support and supervision systems for the volunteers. These things will work themselves out if you just give them time.
  • Accept everyone who volunteers for a position, regardless of whether you think they are over-qualified or under-qualified. Quantity is everything.
  • Assume that anyone who volunteers can pick up whatever skills or knowledge they need as they go along.
  • If you do insist on training volunteers, be sure not to include the staff with whom the volunteers will be working in the design of the training.
  • Assume that your staff already knows everything it needs about proper volunteer utilization. Why should they receive any better training than you did?
  • Don’t presume to recognize the contributions that volunteers make to the agency. After all, volunteers are simply too valuable for words.
  • Don’t reward staff who work well with volunteers. They are only doing their job.
  • Don’t let staff supervise the volunteers who work with them. As a volunteer director, you should be sure to retain all authority over ‘your’ volunteers.
  • Try to suppress any problems that come to your attention. Listening only encourages complaints.
  • In case of disputes, operate on the principle that “The Staff is Always Right.” Or operate on the principle of “My Volunteers, Right or Wrong.” This is no time for compromise.

I hope this litany raises more giggles than guilt.  I hope it points out best practice principles in ways that are simple to apply.  Maybe it will generate action to be taken, indicate areas for negotiation, especially around the extent of responsibilities carried by the manager of volunteers.

For example, letting go of direct management could be a strategic way to get paid staff more directly involved with volunteers.  It would bring management closer to volunteers and open up opportunities for ‘volunteer’ team leaders.  Ultimately, devolving direct line-responsibilities could be the stress-and sanity-saver for managers of volunteers.  Just think of the time and energy conserved when there is less effort required for trouble-shooting and peace-keeping.

The bottom line, if you need to be reminded, is a better deal for volunteers, with a side-dressing dollop of greater respect for the role and the skills of the manager of volunteers.