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?