OzVPM HOT TOPIC – MAY 2006
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
I recently spent a few nights in the pearling community of Broome, which for those of you unfamiliar with Australian geography, is located in the remote far north of Western Australia .
I was staying at a well known holiday resort in a poolside room surrounded by tropical palms bathed by the warm humid environment provided by the wonderful northern Australian sun.
When you lead a very busy lifestyle like I do, it’s easy in those types of situations to simply fade into your new surroundings and relax for all you are worth, which is exactly what I did. The only problem however, was that on day two of my trip, comforted by the serenity of my new surroundings, I inadvertently failed to properly check that the screen door leading to the pool was locked and as a result, in the still of the night, an intruder managed to open the door, walk past the bed where I was sleeping and steal my wallet!
In reporting the incident to Broome police I was told that it was a very common method of intrusion in the Broome area, as tourists enter the region and let their guard down. The police woman’s words to me were “people get complacent and then they get robbed”
Ahhhh complacency! .what a costly lesson.
The whole incident got me thinking about how complacency can be such a dangerous thing to have emerge in a volunteer management setting. While we talk and hear a lot about the importance of and need for good policies and risk management practices in volunteer involving agencies, they soon come to nought if we are not vigilant in applying them in a structured and careful manner. That is, if we decide something is worth developing a policy around, then we need to actually find ways to implement that policy consistently.
Now before I move on, let me say that I am the first one to put my hand up to say that I think some agencies ‘over structure’ their programs. They’ll develop policies to cover everything from screening new volunteers right down to how the kitchen area needs to be cleaned! It’s no wonder staff and volunteers of those organisations have difficulty keeping up with all the requirements and ultimately feel overwhelmed by the level of bureaucracy – so let’s firstly gauge if a situation really does need a policy before we develop one – but if we do, then let’s stick to it – as complacent practices can lead to a myriad of problems.
Let’s examine just a few.
Complacency in recruitment
When we recruit volunteers we need to be mindful that we have a successful match between a person and a position. It’s no use trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and being complacent in who we recruit can easily have a flow on effect throughout other parts of our programs – with other team members, with job satisfaction and with retention rates amongst our team.
Where it becomes difficult are those times when a long standing volunteer recommends someone to the program, or in struggling programs where you’ll take just about anyone who is standing in an upright position with a pulse. Setting standards and having a clear idea about the kinds of volunteers you want to recruit and then sticking to that is imperative for the ongoing development of your program.
Complacency in screening
It’s also easy to get complacent in the screening process – especially if you are working in a program which is struggling to attract volunteers. Sadly in these situations the temptation exists to view even the devil as having a halo and wings – and complacent practices can easily have dire consequences.
I’m reminded of a situation I found myself in several years ago, where I had interviewed a young 19 year old woman who had just arrived from interstate for a volunteer position in a playgroup. Our organisational policies dictated that referees be checked prior to a new volunteer starting in the area, something we did almost religiously. However on this occasion complacency set in and I was going to defer referee checks until a date after the new person had begun. After all, I had interviewed thousands of volunteers, I was busy, I knew people and I trusted my gut instinct. What could possibly go wrong?
Well luckily for me and our organisation nothing did go wrong because one of the referees the young woman had listed called me! She explained that she understood she had been listed as a referee but was concerned about the character of the potential volunteer as the young woman had confided in her that she had moved from interstate because the police were after her on kidnapping charges!
She never did start with our organisation and on that day I learnt a very valuable lesson about complacency in the selection and screening process.
Complacency in retention and support
There is a temptation in the management of volunteer programs to devote the majority of our available time and attention to the recruitment of new volunteers – and less to the activities associated with retaining and supporting those volunteers already a vital part of our program success.
Focusing too much on only the recruitment elements of our program and becoming complacent in the need for ongoing support of
exiting team members can lead to higher rates of turn over and even dissent amongst existing volunteers.
Complacency in maintaining boundaries
The final complacent temptation is to try and meet the individual requests of volunteers, and in the process begin to transcend boundaries – or at the very least overstep policy guidelines.
I am reminded of a particular and recent situation where a long standing volunteer had been receiving a ride into her volunteer workplace for a number of years – courtesy of the agency’s transport department. This arrangement had begun some years earlier as the result of a simple request made by the volunteer to the volunteer manager. The only problem was that this ‘once off’ request was repeated over and over until it was not questioned anymore and the weekly ride became the norm, much to the chagrin of other volunteers who felt aggrieved by the fact that they too were not offered a lift each week! While the results in this case were minimal, complacency in these types of situations can be catastrophic when the boundaries being crossed come with legal implications attached.
So let me encourage you to give some consideration to the ways you might be becoming complacent in areas of your program’s management.
- Is there an area of policy development you have been putting off?
- Is there a situation going on in your agency that you just know is going to come back and bite you at some time?
- Are you feeling stale or overworked? If so are there areas of your work that might be open to complacent practices as a result?
Let’s hear your thoughts and experiences on this important subject.