Managing volunteers is like herding sheep (Australian style)

Andy Fryar September 1, 2005 1
Managing volunteers is like herding sheep (Australian style)


by guest hot Topic author, Fraser Dyer

Warren Bennis, of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, once wrote a book called Managing People is Like Herding Cats. It is a great title (and an even better book) which I’ve decided to plagiarize having learnt something about sheep farming in Australia.

Here in England farmers keep their flocks together by confining them to fields surrounded by thick hedges. Even in my native Scotland, where sheep are free to roam over moorland, cattle grids and wire fences stop flocks drifting too far away. What I’ve learned about Australian sheep farming [and I guess this only applies to some of the more remote areas] is that there is no need for fences. You just show them the waterhole and they won’t drift too far from there.

It’s a good metaphor for managing volunteers; to what extent do we try to restrict and control their performance rather than create an environment to which they are drawn and enabled to contribute in fabulous ways. I’m concerned that the increasing bureaucratization of volunteer management – which has had a very positive effect in many regards – is sometimes applied so rigorously that volunteers become too constrained to do their jobs well. At the same time our selection procedures or training requirements are in danger of becoming so fussy and paternalistic that we create barriers which keep volunteers out of our organisations.

In Wales, recently, a group of 26 meals-on-wheels volunteers resigned en masse after the local authority announced that they should all be trained in spotting signs of abuse in older people, and must be vetted for a criminal records check. Sue Pickavance, Director of Volunteering at Wales Council for Voluntary Action – which supports and resources volunteerism in Wales – wrote about the situation in the UKVPM’s newsgroup: ” [The volunteers] are well known locally, respected and trusted by the people they deliver to. All of the volunteers ‘looked out for’ their clients, reported illness or concerns and did many additional little acts of kindness.”

“The local authority wrote to the volunteers telling them that they wished the volunteers to attend training on ‘elderly abuse’ and as a consequence to undertake police checks. Before the local authority took this action they were strongly advised not to go about it in this way but to discuss it with the volunteers first. They apparently chose to ignore this advice, with the unfortunate consequences.”

Obviously we want clients and service-users to be safe. But this episode cuts to the heart of the leadership crisis taking place in many organisations. Do you enable people to perform effectively or dictate the terms on which they should do so? This is the difference between leadership and management.

Managers are organizers. They coordinate activities to ensure goals are met within agreed budgets, policies and procedures. Management is all about control , and you can only really control activities which are repetitive and predictable. There is a clear need for management within organisations, for example in controlling financial resources or monitoring production tasks. Suppose you ask a group of volunteers to put together a mail-shot for you. You will certainly want to set up a system to enable this repetitive task to be done speedily, accurately and at the lowest cost.

Yet often the work that volunteers undertake is not of this kind. They provide person-centred assistance that requires them to offer themselves in the service of another. When a volunteer listens, assists, or supports they are engaging in a unique interaction with another individual. The outcome is going to be different every time, in the same way that every conversation you have with your friends is different. It is dynamic .

While we most certainly need to set boundaries on volunteers’ conduct – a line over which they must not cross – we start to create problems for ourselves the more we try to control the dynamic that volunteers bring to person-centred services. When the performance of people is managed (controlled) rather than led (empowered) situations like the meals-on-wheels crisis will arise.

Leadership is not about control, but about vision, inspiration and motivation. Leaders create environments in which volunteers collaborate with the organisation to deliver effective services. This requires a wholly different skill-set from management. It is the people side of the business where we must learn to negotiate, give feedback, encourage, coach and cooperate. Leaders serve their teams by creating a workplace that attracts volunteers to become part of their mission.

Part of such leadership requires recognizing the capabilities, strengths and attributes of the team at your disposal so that you can incorporate them into the work programme. The temptation that managers face, and this is perhaps at the heart of the hurt felt by the meals-on-wheels volunteers, is to impose their own methods of ensuring good performance without acknowledging what is already present.

Such control measures often fail to recognize that they are only as good as the imagination and foresight of the person who designed them. It is also the case that a desire to control often stems from a lack of trust, from a manager’s insecurity about letting the unpredictable take place (there are sometimes good grounds for this, especially where an organisation has not taken care to recruit the right volunteers for the job in hand) . But person-to-person volunteering activities are unpredictable.

In the same way that you can’t know exactly what will happen when you pick up the phone to call someone else, a volunteer supporting a client is engaged in a dynamic unpredictable activity. Our job as leaders is to create a setting where we can let the magic of that happen safely and effectively. That requires giving volunteers not just the right resources but room to breath, to be themselves and bring the best of what they have to offer to their work.

How, then, do we create ‘waterhole’ volunteer programmes which attract the right people and give them space to be brilliant?

That is one of the questions Andy Fryar, Martin J Cowling and myself are going to be addressing in the upcoming workshop Turn Your Organisation Into a Volunteer Magnet (Sept and October 2005). I’m truly excited about the opportunity to meet with you and work together with you in exploring how we develop volunteer programmes that strike the right balance between management and leadership.

One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Response posted on September 2, 2005 by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Manager, The Wesley Hospital, Brisbane, Qld

    Interesting article Fraser and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. For me, I believe the key is trust and consultation. As a manager, I hope to have trust in the volunteers that work for us and that they in turn trust the coordinators and me. That trust must be built however. To that end we try to operate on the basis of ” this is what we need to do, and this is why” rather than “this is what you must now do”. If organisations develop a culture of trust and respect in their volunteer team and consult with them, then volunteers will know that you have their best interests at heart when implementing any changes. We formed a Volunteer Representative Group for example. This is a group of volunteers elected by their peers who meet with management once a month to discuss all aspects of the volunteer program. These volunteers are consulted on all decision making. Trusting volunteers to have a look at the bigger picture with you can certainly contribute positively to a manager’s leadership style. I look forward to hearing more from you when the Magnet tour hits Brisbane.

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