International Volunteer Managers’ Day is on the 5th November and I’ve been reflecting on the skills that volunteer managers draw on to create and manage successful volunteer programmes. Volunteer programmes are powered by good relationships and many volunteer managers become highly skilled at relationship building. We are often relationship experts, and this ability to create positive connections means that we design and deliver programmes that attract and empower volunteers. So, in celebration of IVM day, I’m going to explore 5 reasons why our relationships work so well and ask: how can we apply these to raise the profile of volunteering within our organisations?
1. Understanding the wider context
Many volunteer managers are profoundly interested in people and are keen to find out more about what makes them tick. We want to understand how volunteering fits within the wider context of a person’s life and what has acted as the catalyst for them getting involved. We will ask about what they love doing in their free time, their other commitments, what skills do they bring from paid employment (and do they want to use these in their volunteering or try something totally new), have they volunteered in the past and what made that a valuable experience (or not!)? We’re not just asking all this out of nosiness. We understand that these other contexts will shape and impact on their volunteering with us; the commitment they can give, what will motivate them to stay involved and what role might be a good match. Understanding the context helps us to involve, motivate and manage our volunteers well.
2. Focussing on the positive
Focussing on the positive definitely doesn’t mean ignoring all the negatives (for example, if someone doesn’t have the skills for a role or would pose a risk to a service user). However, volunteer managers are on the lookout for strengths and positive qualities that an individual can share through volunteering, and that are also of benefit to the organisation or client group we work with. We create volunteer roles that offer opportunities for people to build on these strengths, and that will support them to further grow and develop. Starting off with pointing out what someone is unable to do, or what they are bad at, is not the route to go down if we want to engage people to give their precious time and energy to our organisation. Whilst we may have set volunteer roles, we try to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. We understand that roles may need to be tailored and tweaked a little for each individual volunteer; enabling people to share their skills and experience with us effectively.
3. Working together to find solutions
When things aren’t going so well, our starting point can be that people are probably doing the best they can in the circumstances they’re in. We then work together to unpick what’s happened and to find solutions. We talk with volunteers to explore the impact of their actions and to identify what they would do differently next time. We don’t rush into blaming when, for example, someone turns up late for their volunteering shift. Instead, we are keen to understand why, and how we can work together to make sure the same problem doesn’t keep happening. We know that, in the best relationships, there’s a healthy mixture of trust, responsibility and accountability. That’s why we work in a way that, over time, empowers volunteers to act with more autonomy and to come up with their own solutions. This doesn’t mean leaving them out on a limb. Volunteer managers understand that, even when someone is highly skilled and experienced, we still need to connect with that volunteer about how things are going and that this helps things stay on track.
4. Remembering why we’re here
This remembering isn’t just about saying thank you at one super-duper awards ceremony once a year. For many of us, it runs through all our daily interactions with volunteers – from sharing about the impact that they’ve made, to saying thank you at the end of a shift, to revisiting what brought people to volunteering, what keeps them with us and how we want to work together in the future. We create a culture where paid staff understand why we involve volunteers and know how to acknowledge and value their work. When our organisation produces its annual report, we make sure that the impact of volunteers is mentioned. We ask that volunteering is built into the business plan and we let volunteers know how their actions contribute to achieving the organisation’s vision and mission. We know that seeing the bigger picture often gets our relationships through the tough times and the daily niggles and that it’s crucial to keeping people motivated.
5. Letting go
A good volunteer manager doesn’t hold volunteers tightly to them. They understand that the whole organisation needs to be volunteer-friendly and that staff throughout need to feel confident about building great relationships with volunteers. We also know that people will grow, change, progress and move on. As Meridian Swift pointed out in her excellent article, this progression to other opportunities is a feature of a healthy, sustainable volunteer programme. Focussing on hoarding volunteers for our individual organisation, and keeping them there forever, isn’t necessarily that great for volunteers or for the wider world. What we do know is that just because someone moves on from volunteering, it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship. Many former-volunteers will give financially, take part in one-off volunteering, or re-engage in volunteering with us again in the future. They will share with others about their volunteering and encourage (depending on how that experience was!) them to get involved. In other words, they will carry on being ambassadors for our organisations, long after they cease volunteering with us. The volunteering may not last forever, but the relationship can be a lifelong one.
The next challenge - connecting upwards!
At the recent AVM conference, Vicky Browning, CEO of ACEVO, challenged volunteer managers to ‘stop whining’ and to “learn the secret of how to convince chief executives to take them seriously”. It got me thinking – if volunteer managers really are relationship experts, why do we often struggle to build relationships with the people in senior positions where we work? Do we try hard enough to understand the context they are operating within, their motivations and priorities, to speak their language, to focus on the positive, find solutions, and to share our knowledge about the impact of volunteering? We’ve had years of practice doing this with our volunteers. If we just shift the focus and apply the same principles, would it improve our relationships and increase our influence with the decision makers in our organisations?
When I first started out as a volunteer manager, way back in 2001, volunteer retention was seen as key evidence of good practice and a sign of a successful volunteer programme. It wasn’t necessarily the focus of funders, who were often more interested in the number of volunteers recruited/involved, rather than how enduring the relationship was. But at events and training courses I attended for volunteer managers, retention was often highly prized.
What I’ve noticed, is that over the last 15 years, the nature of volunteers and volunteering has changed, and I’m interested to hear about other people’s thoughts and experiences around volunteer retention. In the 21st century, is it still a helpful for volunteer managers to aspire to retain volunteers, and how does retention dovetail with the expectations and lives of our 21st century volunteers?
This isn’t a new area for debate; Rob Jackson was blogging about it back in 2013, when he argued:
“It’s time to ditch the word retention…I think the idea of retention is fundamentally flawed. Try and retain volunteers in the traditional sense (keep them as long as possible) and watch your volunteer base dwindle like sand slipping through your fingers”
But my sense is that the word is still very much in common currency and that many see retention as a the hallmark of a well functioning and successful volunteer programme.
Reading the first part of NFP Synergy’s 2014 volunteering report, “The New Alchemy”, it’s clear that there’s been huge shifts in our political, economic, social and technological landscape. These shifts in turn are shaping and moulding both the lives of our volunteers and the needs of our organisations and the people/communities we serve. For example:
- welfare reforms that aim to move people back into the marketplace for paid work apply pressure to spend a large number of hours each week job seeking or attending schemes such as the work programme. This can affect people’s ability to continue volunteering.
- changed working patterns, less job security, more erratic working hours and shorter term/zero hours contracts mean less predictability in people’s availability and ability to commit to long term volunteering.
- baby boomers have different expectations of retirement and an income level that enables them to travel or engage in leisure activities. Many also want to use their skills in volunteering and this may lend itself more to shorter term “volunteer assignments” with organisations. Changing family structuresand work demands also mean that grandparents often carry some childcare responsibilities.
- technology has the potential to mobilise and facilitate shorter term participation with less resource.
These are just a few of the many, many factors that are shaping volunteering today. I’m sure you’ll have other examples from your own experience of volunteer management and volunteer involvement.
Some questions to think about:
- do you think “retention” is still a useful aim for volunteer managers?
- what’s your experience of volunteer retention within your organisation/amongst the volunteers you manage?
- how is our changing world impacting on volunteering?
- is there a different word we should be using, instead of retention?
Blog originally published June 2016
This blog is going to get us focussing on matters of the heart. Don’t worry – it’s not love of the romantic kind that I’m talking about, although there’s evidence out there that volunteering can help you find that special someone. What I want to reflect on is how volunteering helps us to have a bigger heart – to be kinder and more compassionate people in the world – and why that’s so important.
In a culture where narrow individualism is strongly valued and endorsed, it’s easy to forget what’s at the heart of volunteering, or that volunteering should, on some level, be about the heart. Compassion and kindness become easily eclipsed by values of competitiveness and self-advancement. Volunteer managers, are often caught in a web of competing demands, reducing budgets and a very real need to prove the value and worth of what we do in facts and figures. And I worry that sometimes, in this process, we risk losing sight of some of the warmer, fuzzier and really very precious outcomes of volunteering. As Sue Hine points out in her recent blog, “we are close to perceiving volunteering as an asset to be exploited, to be traded like any other commodity.”
Compassion is our caring, human response to suffering. It’s the feeling that arises when we see another being’s suffering and feel an authentic desire to help. Over the last 10 years there’s been a growing interest in the science, psychology and sociology of compassion. Stanford University has a Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, whilst Berkeley hosts the Greater Good Science Centre.
Researchers now think that both humans and animals have a compassionate instinct, which has evolved and adapted to aid our survival. So compassion is instinctive, but it can also be cultivated. As Stefan Einhorn points out:human beings learn by imitating, in fact, we’re more prone to imitate other people than to do what they say and therefore we need inspiration and examples, in order to learn how to be more kind and compassionate.
As volunteer managers, we create opportunities where people can get in touch with and express their compassion for others (we’re like compassion cultivators!). And these volunteering opportunities are incredibly valuable, not just because they enhance CVs or improve employability, but, as a growing body of research shows, because acting from a place of compassion can have a radically positive impact on people’s health, wellbeing and happiness. A recent study at the University of Michigan found that people who engaged in volunteering lived longer than their peers who didn’t volunteer, but only if their motivations for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about what should be at the heart of volunteering. Here’s some questions to get us started:
- what aspect of volunteering do you consider particularly precious?
- do you think compassion matters? is it important whether people volunteer from the heart or from the head?
- As leaders of volunteers, what could you do to encourage compassion within your volunteering programme?
- Have you witnessed positive impacts amongst your volunteers when they act from a place of compassion?
Blog originally published February 2014
Our values are our guiding principles in life – they motivate us, shape our attitudes and influence how we behave and act in the world. They are often what inspire us to work or volunteer in the voluntary/third sector and are closely related to the change we want to see in the world, and our means of getting there. They sound pretty important don’t they? That’s why I’d like you to join me in exploring, debating and discussing the values of volunteering and volunteer management.
Back in 2006, Community Links produced a report called Living Values. It argues that values are so important and integral to the existence of the voluntary/third sector, that they need to be “constantly referred to and kept in the front of the minds of everyone connected to the organisation”. Arguably, in the current rapid, disorienting whirl of social and economic change, our values are more important than ever. In 2012, the Director of Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation gave an emotive call to action on the issue:
“I urge everyone involved in voluntary organisations to continue to think and talk and negotiate your organisational values. This isn’t a pleasant diversion from the real work. It is the only way to keep our hearts, our only chance of keeping sight of the right way.”
Yet as volunteer managers, it seems we face challenges in terms of ensuring that volunteer programmes, and how volunteers are involved and treated, reflect the values base of our organisations:
- Organisations can be thoughtless about how they recruit, involve and work alongside volunteers and unwilling to allocate enough time and money to resourcing programmes. This can result in volunteering experiences that at best don’t adequately reflect or reinforce the organisations’ key values, or wider aims and at worst actually run counter to them. For example, an organisation’s stated values include “diversity” and “empowerment”, yet it invests no resources in making volunteering opportunities accessible and imposes a very “top down”, hierarchical model in which volunteers’ perspectives or concerns are not listened to or valued.
- There is a real danger that the values base of volunteering itself is being reconfigured; with volunteering being used as a punitive measure and activities being branded as volunteering that don’t fit with the concept of time being “freely given”. Organisations that involve people in these types of “volunteering” risk endorsing a values base that is oppositional to their own.
Recently, I’ve been reading The Common Cause Handbook. It’s a guide, produced by the Public Interest Research Centre, all about working with values. Common Cause’s key argument is that, if we truly want to create a more compassionate society and a better world to live in, we need to examine how our organisational messages and actions work to strengthen or weaken certain values. Research indicates that repeatedly playing into people’s concerns about personal status and wealth results in lower levels of concern for others and for the environment. We therefore need to be working in a way that fosters what they call “intrinsic” values, such as self acceptance, care for others and concern for the natural world, rather than “extrinsic” ones that focus on personal status, success and rewards such as wealth, status, power and authority.
Common Cause draws together a range of research studies in order to explore how values work. What these studies point to is that across all cultures, there are some key recurring values.
Each of us is motivated by all of these values, but to differing degrees, at different points in time, depending on our experiences. Values can be temporarily ‘engaged,’ when brought to mind by certain communications or experience, which then has a knock on effect on our attitudes and behaviours
Values can also be grouped. And if we’re engaging with one group of values, opposing groups of values are suppressed. So, for example, when we are encouraged to focus on others’ welfare, our values around our own status or financial success are likely to move into the background.
I think this research has several useful pointers for volunteer managers:
- Firstly, I know that we know this already, but volunteering really can change the world! It offers people opportunities for the kind of first hand experiences, deep involvement, self expression and critical thought, which cultivate the positive values we need to make a better world.
- But how we motivate our volunteers and the messages we communicate about why volunteering is valuable could have unintended consequences in terms of values. If we overly focus on the material rewards and status gained through volunteering, for example, or solely talk about volunteer impact in terms of financial value, it could be reinforcing values that in the long term are damaging to the world. This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore individuals’ motivations for volunteering, or never tailor our messages for different groups. It’s more about being mindful of the values we are communicating and reinforcing in our messages about volunteering.
- Volunteer involvement is a fantastic opportunity for organisations to cultivate deeply positive values and to really make their values live. But that’s not going to happen if proper attention isn’t given to involving volunteers in discussing and shaping values, embedding values into volunteer programmes and ensuring that volunteers are treated fairly and equally. If our organisations are serious about putting their values into practice, then they need to invest time and energy in their volunteer programmes!
- Positive values and ethics in volunteering and volunteer involvement really are important and are worth fighting for!
As volunteer managers we have a really vital role to play in embodying, communicating, cultivating and creating environments where positive values can flourish. Many of us will witness, day in and day out, that with the right conditions, volunteers’ attitudes, actions and values can shift, in a positive way, that reflects the values and changes that our organisations want to achieve in the wider world. To do our job well though, we need the time and the resources to understand our volunteers’ individual values and motivations and to ensure that volunteers are involved and supported in ways that reflect and reinforce our organisation’s values.
I’d love to hear your views on:
- What values are embraced and encouraged in your volunteer programme?
- How can we ensure that our organisation’s values are reflected in our approach to volunteering?
- Does volunteer management have its own values and if so what are they?