HOT TOPIC – APRIL 2008
By Guest Hot Topic Author, Liz Scarfe
Something I’ve been ruminating on and off for the last year or two involves issues of personal power which we are exhibiting in the evolution of the volunteering sector.
A simple sociological definition of power could be the ability to make choices or influence outcomes. Power is not inherently good or bad. It is relational and reciprocal which means we cannot talk about how much power a person or group has without referring to the broader context of that person or group – and the levels of power of others in that context.
Firstly, there seems to be an incredible perception of a lack of power. I’ve observed it in volunteers, in the frustratingly common statement “Oh I’m just a volunteer”. The statement is often made to elicit some positive feedback (who ever responds with “Yes dear, that’s right”?) but the symptoms of this kind of powerlessness are not only demoralizing to work with, but can be dangerous when manifested as an absence of responsibility.
Perceived powerlessness seems to be a significant issue for managers of volunteers as well. While overtly many seem to be working hard to gain more power at several levels, there seems to be some double signals about our capacity to take and use power.
Within the sector there are now many groups campaigning for more power at social/structural levels i.e. pushing the evolution of volunteer management as a career. However, instead of being able to focus their campaigns in the broader community, they seem to have to spend significant resources trying to convince volunteer managers themselves of their own value.
Within our own organizations we attempt to gain more power by applying for more resources, internal marketing campaigns, internal advocating for volunteer rights and recognition etc. I was recently writing a development proposal requesting additional resources and asked peers in my local managers’ network to forward me any successful proposals or techniques they had used. I was excited at the flurry of responses, only to discover that they were all tales of unsuccessful attempts and good luck messages!! Resourcing better volunteer management has got to be one of the best business cases an organization can be presented with, so why are so few of them successful? Traditional views of volunteering seem to have left us with a legacy of victim-hood and powerlessness that has overridden good sense.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Hobart last year (some of you were probably there too) . It was a fantastic retreat at which I learnt a lot; not all of it good though. One of the sessions was a whole group role play that was essentially a community debate about the value of volunteer management. As the role play progressed, my jaw dropped closer and closer to the floor; stunned at the absence of articulate debate from those supposedly arguing in the positive. Those arguing against the value of volunteer management absolutely wiped the floor!!
This isn’t a personal criticism of individuals though, as I believe at its heart the issue is social and structural. We have been living through a time where good leadership has been in short supply, with personal empowerment at an all time low.
However, I think this sense of powerlessness is illusory. I actually think volunteers and volunteer managers have an incredible amount of power but are hesitating to wield it.
Aside from general responses and feisty debate, I’d love to hear some ‘good news’ stories of how managers have wielded power for the benefit of their programs and also how people have gone about developing their own personal power.
Let’s hear your thoughts!
Response posted on 29 May 2008 by Jayne Cravens, Bonn, Germany, Services for Nonprofits/NGOs/Civil Society http://www.coyotecommunications.com
And the crowd goes mild… can’t believe I’m the first one responding to this.
I, too, think the sense of powerlessness that seems to dominate volunteer management culture is illusory. By contrast, new advocacy groups that don’t call their participants “volunteers” (even though they are) and don’t call those that support the volunteers “volunteer managers” (even though they are) seem fearless. Their answer to everything seems to be “why not?” They don’t know about traditional volunteer management conferences and retreats — and I suspect they’d be quite bored by them.
I am not just a volunteer management consultant — I am also a manager of volunteers. In that latter capacity, I come from the it’s-easier-to-ask-for-forgiveness-than-permission school when it comes to volunteer management, and so far, it’s been a great strategy! For instance, I don’t wait for the board to ask me for an update on volunteer involvement — I put one together and give it to the executive director to be submitted. I bring up volunteer involvement in staff meetings, regardless of whether or not I’m asked. I update the web site regarding volunteer involvement and encourage everyone to have a look after the information is up. Why shouldn’t I act just like any other manager at an organization? And this attitude has always paid off positively — it’s not aggressive, it’s not threatening, and everyone else just assumes that this is how volunteer management is done.