OzVPM HOT TOPIC – MARCH 2006
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
Last month’s OzVPM Hot Topic asked the question of whether or not we have over-regulated the practice of volunteer program management. The essay elicited a great deal of comment and has spawned several thoughts for this month’s column.
In thinking through the subject a little more, I decided to start this month’s Hot Topic by sharing with you a very famous, yet hard to find recipe.
2 cups flour
1 oz kindness
½ cup selflessness
2 heaped cups of altruism (raw and non pretentious if you can find it)
¾ cup reciprocity
1 pinch disobedience
3 cups of water
Pour all ingredients into a large mixing bowl and combine well. Cover bowl with wrap and seal with red tape. Let mixture sit for several days. Now place onto an oven tray making small equal sized balls of mixture, and bake under heavy screening lights. Scrutinize contents carefully to ensure it contains no nuts. Once they have finished baking, place into individually sealed bags and store in an airtight container.
To use, simply microwave pack for 30 seconds.
Of course if you haven’t already guessed, this is the age old and fabled recipe for instant, microwavable volunteers – for those times unrealistic department managers come calling and demand a few dozen new volunteers by tomorrow morning!
~ Simply whack a few in the microwave and voila! ~
If only it were that easy!
In the same way there is no such thing as a recipe to create an instant volunteer, there is also no such thing as a ‘standard’ volunteer – yet how often do we narrow down the complex process of recruiting volunteers into a recipe of sorts?
Think about it.
Simply take one interested community member, routinely interviewing them using a standard set of application questions and ask them to complete copious amounts of regulated paperwork. Screen thoroughly, undertake reference checks and finally, have them undertake training and orientation!
OK so maybe I am being a little cynical, but the truth of the matter is that volunteer management actually does not lend itself very well to following a strict formula. Our profession deals with people of all age groups, genders and cultural backgrounds who bring with them a broad range of interests, skills and life experiences. As such, all the wonderful texts that have been written over the years about sound volunteer management practices (including my own) should only ever be used as a guide in developing your program and adapted to the suit particularities of the context in which volunteers are working within your own setting.
Let’s take another look at our recipe analogy.
If I follow a recipe for chocolate cake to the letter, there is one thing that is certain – I’m going to wind up making a chocolate cake. Nothing surer!
There are however two problems associated with following a recipe and expecting success.
Firstly, there is no guarantee that my chocolate cake will be perfect. In fact if your cooking adventures are anything like mine, no two cakes ever seem to turn out the same! One will be soft and fluffy, while the next, having supposedly sprung from the same process, is more representative of a lump of concrete than a sweet delicacy! Why? Well the quality of the final product will also depend on a number of external factors such as oven temperature, the quality of the raw products used and the accuracy of the oven timer. However the product is still (hopefully) discernable as a chocolate cake.
In the same way, stringently following a volunteer induction process to the letter of the law will reap you volunteers – no doubt about it. But at what cost to our programs do they arrive? Are they all at the same ‘standard’, or does the process mess with some of our new recruits right from the start? More importantly, have you ever stopped to ponder what sort of volunteer you are trying to ‘create’ in the first place and asked if this is indeed the final outcome you are achieving through using the procedures you have adopted?
Now don’t get me wrong – processes are great. But if you ever watched a good cook in the kitchen, they know how to ‘work’ a recipe for success every time. Where the recipe says 2 cups of flour, they’ll instinctively add 2 ½, they’ll taste the mix and add just a little more salt or sugar. Better still, they’ll take a bunch of raw ingredients and no recipe, and still make a masterpiece from nothing. The trick of course is that they know their art, back their judgement and have confidence in their abilities.
In the same way I believe we need to start to think a little more about ways we can vary our recruitment and induction processes – tweak them if you like – to gain a greater level of tailored success with every new volunteer. I’m certainly not suggesting we do anything to put program clients at risk, but what use is there in a local animal shelter or tree planting group following exactly the same process as the local battered women’s refuge?
The second problem associated with following a volunteer management ‘recipe’ is that no matter how varied our chocolate cake recipes may be we only ever make chocolate cakes!
Allow me to flog the cooking example to death one last time. What if I decide I want to hold a tea party or open a bakery? Nothing but chocolate cake would soon lose its appeal. I’d need to start fishing around for a banana cake recipe or carrot slice or biscuits or scones. I may even want to lash out and make some savoury dishes – spring rolls or a quiche. These will all require me to adopt my basic cooking techniques and apply them in different ways with different ingredients.
Again, if we transpose this analogy to a volunteer management setting it is easy to see that using the same method may not allow for the diversity we may require in order to increase the effectiveness of our programs.
In brief, maybe it’s time we started to think more about what’s going to work best for our individual programs. Time we tailored the volunteer management ‘recipe’ to suit our style and needs. Time we stopped relying so much on having ‘one particular’ system by which to recruit our team members.
The truth is simple – ‘One size does not fit all!’
As volunteer management professionals we need to remember that we are not just facilitators of volunteer involvement. We are specialists in our field, and like a good cook, we also need to know and understand how to work best with a wide range of individuals to get the best out of them for the benefits of both our programs and the volunteers we are working with.
So let’s hear what you think?
- Do you agree that we fall into the trap of using a ‘process’ for volunteer recruitment without often enough thinking about what the results are that we want to achieve in the first place?
- Are there ways to get around this?
- Do you feel comfortable working outside the parameters of established boundaries?
- Do you have stories of success to share?
Response posted on 7th March 2006 by Jayne Cravens, Bonn, Germany
I think that by talking about and trying to involve only those kind-hearted, “nice” volunteers who just want to help from a place of complese selflessness excludes some of the most exciting, innovative and results-driven volunteer programs around. For instance, many advocacy groups do an incredible job of channeling some very angry people with very selfish ideas into productive volunteer activities. Many open-source movements are doing ground-breaking work in involving and retaining online volunteers in time-intensive assignments. But I never see any of these nontraditional groups’ volunteer managers at volunteerism conferences. How are they recruiting these volunteers, screening them, supervising them, re-directing their energies, and rewarding them? There’s so much we could learn from these organizations, but they aren’t usually invited to the table. In fact, they are largely unaware of volunteer management as a field of practice.
And I’ve talked to so many friends who have wanted to volunteer, but have been utterly turned off at the way they have been treated by an organization has treated them — they’ve actually wanted a formal, professional process, and what they’ve gotten in too many cases is a hodge podge of uncoordinated responses and staff that treats volunteers as an afterthought. I fear that many of them now roll their eyes at calls for volunteers, per their past experiences.
I love working outside the parameters of established boundaries when those boundaries don’t make sense to me, or seem to stand in the way of an organization’s mission. I’ve learned much in the last few years about effective volunteer management and future trends from discussion groups and articles focused outside the traditional volunteer management world, such as readng about trends in telecommuting, human resources management, facilitation, advocacy, online discussion groups tied to television shows, online gaming, and political organizing.
Response posted on 5th March 2006 by Steven Wolf, Intern / Volunteer Coordinator, Probation and COurt Services, Wheaton, IL, USA
I don’t always get a chance to look at the hot topic, but really enjoyed this one. I struggle with how we have our program set up. I am lucky in that, outside of a posting on 1800volunteer.net, I don’t really have to recruit volunteers. They find me through the internet or word of mouth. I have the opposite the problem of the movie “Field of Dreams”. Instead of building it and they will come, they come and we need to build it.
People generally come to me, I interview them to find their interests then I run around looking for placements for them. I have always thought it would be easier if the Department would recognize where we need volunteers and to have specific positions that I would fill. On the other hand, sometimes I get some fantastic ingredients for which we don’t have a particular recipe. The true joy for me (as a master chef) is getting creative, taking those ingredients and creating something that satisfies a particular “hunger” within the Department. I take the ingredients; bake them just right and make sure that wonderful smell wafts through the agency and creates hunger.
With the demise of the AVA, some people have challenged the need for a professional organization and, for that matter, professional managers. You’re analogy helped me to put into perspective the need for good chefs to create recipes not only to satisfy identified hunger, but to create enough healthy food to strengthen our agencies.
Response posted on 3rd March 2006 by Rosanna Tarsiero, Giannethics, Italy
Funny how I liked this topic and your comparison with cooking. Just on Sept 2005 I was diagnosed with a very rare disorder that basically obliges me to cook everything I eat. Well, you ’ re right: no two cakes come out equal. Yet, there is a profound lesson in that. Life is not a recipe. Life is not a 100% controlled situation, a lab, in which we can “ make ” stuff.
Implication for the profession is, as much as we like to represent volunteer management as project management stuff, it ’ s not really that way. Recipe (project) is the same, cake (goal) is the same, but eggs and flour (volunteers) are not. So, we have to adapt situations to people, NOT the reverse.