HOT TOPIC – NOVEMBER 2007
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
As I write this hot topic, Australia is in the grip of an impending Federal election. As always, it is interesting to watch politicians suddenly become everyone’s best friends during the course of a political campaign. The federal opposition party has come up with a simple and telling catchphrase to summarise its election platform – ‘New Leadership’. It’s an interesting slogan because while it doesn’t (of itself) say that the current government is bad, it does strongly imply it is time the Australian public acknowledges that it is time for a change.
In terms of volunteer management I also believe it may well be time for some new leadership – or more precisely, as the political spin doctors suggest, I believe it is time we acknowledged that change is now both timely and necessary.
A change of what I hear you ask? Well firstly let me say that I am not suggesting that we make ourselves redundant and vote for others to take our place! What I am talking about here is my belief that the time has come to begin a re-think on our fundamental function as volunteer program managers.
It is no surprise that volunteers have changed, and they will continue to morph as we move into the future. Today, volunteers have a range of different motivations than they did in the past for providing community service, their roles have often become more episodic and the expectations they have of the agency in which they contribute their time has evolved. I well remember the handover I received when I got my first job as a volunteer program manager many years ago. It primarily included a broad run down on some very basic training regimes, a quick overview of the minimal administrative processes that were in place and most importantly, knowing which volunteers I needed to have coffee with each week in order to keep them happy and motivated!
I believe we can see evidence that the nature of volunteering has changed if we look at many Volunteer Centres around the world. As the CEO and Director positions of Centres have become vacant over recent years, boards have made clear strategic decisions to replace outgoing staff (who had been employed years earlier largely due to their people skills) with new Directors whose skills are more heavily weighed towards strong experiences working with government and a good sense of business acumen. Again, that is not to say their predecessors were also not highly skilled, their employment was critical in the growth of those Centres at that time. Rather, these new appointments are being made in response to the changing needs of the voluntary sector.
With the emergence of both the Baby Boomer and Generation X volunteer came a corresponding demand that our programs became far more ‘professional’. Administrative processes became more pronounced, red tape continued to grow to saturation point and we made a fundamental shift from seeing ourselves as ‘coordinators’ to ‘program managers / administrators’. This is evident by the number of volunteer management professional Associations that have grown around the world in the past decade.
We worked hard to move to this point, and it is pleasing to see our profession starting to be taken a little more seriously, but sometimes I think we need to be careful what we wish for. In many ways I believe we have now painted our profession into a corner. We are at risk of being defined too narrowly as a pseudo HR function and not for the dynamic and life changing juggernauts we really are.
For those of us working at the ‘coal face’ of volunteerism, I feel we are at risk of missing the boat if we don’t begin to acknowledge that change is both necessary and imminent. In the same way that the Baby Boomers and Generation X volunteers have dictated a move to operating more professional services, the influx of Generation Y volunteers will bring with it an expectation that the placement we have to offer will reward Generation Y with personal growth opportunities and qualities to enhance their work / life balance.
Generation Y will expect good quality and ongoing training. They will expect their skills to be fully utilised. They will expect opportunities to learn and stretch themselves. They will demand leadership.
It is in this that I believe fundamental change must take place. We need to begin moving from being ‘managers of programs’ to ‘leaders of people’. Now that’s not to say we all suddenly have a need to put on our leadership hat and play a different role, as not everyone is a natural leader. In fact, if you have been employed in the last few years, there is a very good chance you’ve actually been employed for your managerial strengths and not your leadership abilities.
I believe there are three things we need to be doing to create stronger leadership opportunities in our programs:
• Firstly and most importantly, we need to acknowledge the need for strong leadership as an emerging quality within our programs. Each and every one of us ought to start reading leadership books right away, to learn about the different qualities between good leadership and good management. The two are not exclusive and it is important we understand how they interact and intersect.
• If we are not natural leaders ourselves, we should acknowledge this and begin to find ways of building up those natural leaders that exist within our teams – to act as guides and mentors and shining lights. There should be no shame in this, it is about acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses and empowering others to fill the voids where we are not so strong
• If we are natural leaders, we need to develop this attribute even further. This may well involve shifting and delegating some managerial responsibilities to allow more time to lead.
Make no mistake, Generation Y are coming …in fact they are already here and volunteering in their droves. I do not exaggerate when I say the future of our programs depends on the way we lead our programs into the future. That’s a big call and a big responsibility, but one I am happy to charge you all with at this very moment!
Let’s hear your thoughts on this important topic
• Do you agree or disagree with my sentiments?
• Do you have examples where this shift has already taken place?
• Any case studies you would like to share?
Response posted by Wayne from Prisoner’s Aid, Canberra, Australia
My name is Wayne and I work with Prisoner’s Aid in Canberra.We are all volunteers, and depend at the moment on government funding to do our work.
In the next twelve months or so, we will change our organisation completely due to the new correctional centre opening in the ACT. The new organisation we hope will include professionals as well as lay people all of whom will be need for our new role. We are currently thinking about the people issues involved in the change so your article was timely – Thanks.
Perhaps at a later stage we could provide a case study for others interested in changing the role of their organisation.