Co-operate or Collapse

Andy Fryar October 1, 2008 2
Co-operate or Collapse


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

OzVPM has just finished co-hosting the 1st Asia Pacific Volunteer Leadership conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.

While the entire conference was a really great experience, the closing ceremony particularly stands out in my mind because unlike so many conferences I attend back in Australia, where we try and ‘hype’ delegates up to ‘go forth and conquer’ as they leave the event, the closing ceremony in Hawaii was conducted with much more of a reflective tone – something I am told is much more common for that region.

The final session I refer to was conducted by Dr Art-Ong Jumsai Na Ayudhya from Thailand, who was a part of the conference’s ‘six billion paths to peace’ stream. His final and very traditional Thai candle lighting ceremony really struck a chord with me. In this ceremony, three key conference delegates were invited to go to the front of the auditorium and light a candle each. In addition, each delegate in the room had also been given a small candle. The hall lights were dimmed and starting with the three lit candles at the front of the room, each person with a lit candle passed on their light to another, until before we knew it, the entire room was alight with the small light each of us was holding.

It was a powerful demonstration of the principal that alone we are just one small voice, but that together, if we work cooperatively, we can set the world ablaze! It also prompted me to write this month’s Hot Topic!

“I have a dream…” began Martin Luther in his historic speech about the power of people of different creeds working side by side. Well I have a dream too, one which still feels almost impossible in the political landscape which is the Australian volunteerism movement. It stems from my observations both in Australia and further abroad, that the politicising, back biting, mistrust, jockeying for position and general competitiveness of our sector remains the biggest hurdle to us ever moving volunteerism ahead in any constructive manner – what’s more, I believe it threatens to tear us apart unless we come to terms with this fast!

I am quite sure that even publishing this Hot Topic will earn me a few less friends, but it needs to be said that after more than two decades in this game it appears that a cooperative approach is still viewed with suspicion by many, which in turn never allows us to move forward.

To be even more blunt, allow me to state what I believe are several key reasons for this:

• The high turnover rate in our sector is like no other industry and does not allow for relationships to develop

• There remains a continual recruitment of people into volunteerism who don’t understand volunteerism! If you owned a garage you would not employ someone to be a mechanic who did not understand their way around an engine, yet I am constantly baffled to see volunteer involving agencies, including volunteer centres and government departments for volunteering, employing individuals who don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of our core business

• Associated with both of the above is a lack of any clear career path in our sector.

• The financial constraints our sector constantly faces and the inherent competitiveness which this funding often forces within the sector is a huge factor

• An unwillingness to acknowledge the various strengths and weaknesses which those of us in the sector already possess

• A lack of understanding about the value of working co-operatively

• An inability to think outside of the square

Let me take this argument one step further.

All too often I believe that the volunteerism sector defines itself (and is viewed by others) far too narrowly. Volunteer Centres, peak bodies and government agencies put themselves – and are viewed – as having to be ‘front and centre’ of the volunteering world. Once positioned as ‘core’ or ‘lead’ agencies they then have a need to find and have all the answers about volunteering. On the surface this would make some sense – yes?

Well my observations over many years are that trying to be ‘all things to all people’ actually weakens any agency, whether it be in volunteerism or any other sphere of life.

In volunteering, the effect of this is that these lead agencies can soon lose sight of why they exist in the first place, who they seek to serve and just what their core business is. Instead, attention is focused on seeking better ways of funding themselves to the point that the agency changes course and steers in another direction. Government agencies and funders in turn become significant and major players in this cycle, often at the expense of other very important members of the sector – namely volunteer managers, professional Associations, trainers, consultants, educators, researchers and academics. The result is that this body of additional knowledge, spheres of influence and complimentary support often becomes merely a secondary set of players in the scheme of things.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not on a witch hunt against volunteer centres or govt departments here as I believe all of us working in this field need to spend time redefining our own strengths and weaknesses to find better ways of collaborating. I am also not suggesting this pattern is true of each and every agency I have met. There are indeed some fine examples of volunteer centres and lead agencies around the world who are focussing on their strengths and collaborating with others in the sector to achieve maximum results for their volunteering community.

For instance in Singapore, the National Centre of Volunteering and Philanthropy have delegated the task of training volunteer managers across to MOVE, Singapore’s professional Association for volunteer managers. In the UK, Volunteering England recently signed an MOU with their professional Association AVM. Yet here in Australia we struggle to make these same connections.

I believe it is only when we truly understand and utilise the scope of information and knowledge we all bring to the table that we will begin to move forward as a whole.

Let me give you an example. While in Hawaii I had a few quiet beers with a guy called Tony Goodrow. Tony is the creator of a volunteer management software system in North America and CEO of that same company. Not someone you would automatically assume to be part of the volunteer movement right? Well the discussion I had with Tony about trends and issues in our field transcend the discussions I would have with 98% of other people in the sector.

The first thing that struck me is how sad it was that a software specialist knew so much more about how to manage volunteer programs than most people doing the job! The second thought I had was why don’t we refer to those on the periphery of our sector, people like Tony, more often to seek alternate views on how volunteerism issues could be improved?

Collaborating is not new – and what’s more it is not difficult.

It requires us to think broadly and approach each new opportunity with a sense of excitement and anticipation rather than from an angle of suspicion and fear.

Here are some additional challenges and opportunities to embrace the sector as a whole:

• Why do so many VPM’s complain about the lack of professionalism in the sector – yet so few bother to take the time and join AAVA? • Why don’t our national professional Associations make more efforts to band together and collaborate internationally?

• Why is it often considered ‘immoral’ that ‘for profit’ trainers, consultants, researchers and companies make a living from volunteerism (and are often excluded), when our volunteer centres and government offices for volunteering are filled with people doing exactly the same thing? • Why do government departments continually ‘reinvent the wheel’ instead of relying on and better funding our existing infrastructure, including volunteer centres?

Like the candles in that Hawaiian conference room, if we learnt to be less threatened and work cooperatively with one another, we too can light up our societies with new and exciting ways – and break the cycles of competitiveness once and for all.

Because unless we all take some responsibility for doing this, our sector will only continue to become more divided and ultimately weaker

The challenge is set!

• What are you going to do about it?

• What other thoughts would you like to add to this debate?


  1. ozvpm_andy March 20, 2012 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Response posted by Garry Slik – Manager, Wide Bay Volunteer Resource Association Inc., Queensland, Australia

    Sometimes friendship can be tested when something important needs to be said.

    If your words of wisdom (or advice) as noted in your article on Co-operate or Collapse tests your friendship in the volunteering sector, they need to seriously take a look at their own beliefs and motivations for being in the sector.

    Volunteerism is not about building your own profile or image, it is about helping others and helping organisations who rely on volunteers. Just like volunteering itself, as a Manager, Co-coordinator or Sector advocate you need to be selfless and compassionate to volunteerism.

    I have worked in this sector as a Volunteer Resource Centre Manager for over 18 months now and can say with little doubt, it is competitive and an exclusive sector.
    Exclusive in the sense that Volunteer Resource Centres tend to figure it out on their own and do have a culture far distant from the concept of synergy or interagency co-operation. I am constantly bewilded that other Centres have their own business philosophy and have developed their own Mission and Vision – should it not be aligned throughout the State and throughout Australia, particularly as most Centres receive the same funding to promote volunteering with the same funding requirements and focus attached?

    I am also quite astonished with the support from our peek bodies. A peak body as defined From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “A peak organisation or peak body in Australia is an association of industries or groups. They are generally established for the purposes of developing standards and processes, or to act on behalf of all members when lobbying government or promoting the interests of the members”.

    Peak bodies also need to act in the best interests of who they intended to represent – in this context – Volunteer Resource Centres. I then ask the question, why don’t our Peak Bodies communicate with us on a regular basis with tips on service or latest updates on volunteering issues, this is left to associations such as yours – OxVMP. Why don’t we have representation on our Peak Bodies Committee or Board – Volunteer Resource Centres (and in particular the Regional Centres) are the soul of volunteering, yet it is only a very significant few Centres (generally the capital city Centres) who may have any type of advocacy or representation. Why don’t many regional Centres have close relationships with our Peak Bodies, after all they assume the role as our Peak Body and in such a role they need to guide us, develop relationship building between us and create synergies in our service delivery and customer service? Why is my State Based Peak Body perceived as a competitor by many of our State Based Volunteer Resource Centres – because they act as a competitor and have in the past sought to engage our Members directly without our consent, engaged our local communities without our consent and act in isolation without true consideration for the Network? If anything it is very frustrating. The sector needs a Memorandum of Understanding to ensure each and every Volunteer Resource Centre acts cooperatively and acts united. All Centres need to send the same message on a National basis.

    Currently Volunteer Resource Centres try to deliver services aligned to funding requirements, but the experience by a volunteer can vary enormously from Centre to Centre. Different information brochures, different referral processes, different interview process, different forms to be completed, different operating hours, and the list goes on and on. What is the answer, a Nationally accepted process – using the same forms, information (except when State based information is different) and using an agreed process. Imagine any other national service operating this way, for instance McDonalds having different menu items, different colours in their signage, different logos and uniforms, different Mission Statements for each location – a similar service being delivered but a completely different experience each time.

    We need consistency and we need common goals and common “rules of engagement”, we all act independently far too much. Each region needs a generic News Letter, sending out the same information and message. Each region needs similar processes and similar work practices. If the public see us as disjointed and with no common theme, we will be treated as independent and without a united approach from all of our stakeholders.

    How do we change this? At the next VMP workshop, lets understand why we exist, lets begin to understand by using a united approach and a unified approach we all benefit from synergies, we all benefit by reducing the cost of reinventing the same form or the same promotional material. Printing 100,000 brochures for 100 centres would be far more efficient that each centre printing 1000 different brochures preaching a similar message but in a disjointed way. I challenge all Centres and all Peak Bodies to step up to the plate and engage us, listen to our needs, allow real representation from Volunteer Resource Centres (your immediate customer) and create universal and national processes to ensure the whole sector can become more efficient and effective.

    Lastly I need to highlight the viewpoints made above are my own viewpoints and may not necessary reflect those of the Centre I work for. My comments are based on my personal experiences and my formal and practical knowledge in Management, Quality Management and International Business. I would also welcome your feedback to my comments at:

  2. ozvpm_andy March 20, 2012 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Response posted by Ben Temby-Nichols, Director, Volunteer Services, Mater Health Services, Brisbane, Australia
    I too share that dream Andy …

    There is a skill used in leadership development called Holding to Account. What this means is that we create a culture of willingness to hold others to account and be held accountable ourselves for performance and actions. It is in fact what professional coaches teach their clients in order to facilitate their development and growth.

    I could be way off point here but from my own observations about our ‘sector’ we really don’t know how to develop professionally and we don’t have a planned career path so we are not held accountable for outcomes. So what happens? … we wander in the same circles until we get so comfortable that we don’t see the need to change and grow any more.

    If we don’t know where we are going we will never get anywhere and I believe we are reaching a point where we are all going to have to ask ourselves if we have gone to sleep and left our engines running.

    The Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Managers is an interesting study. If it is indeed supposed to target the ‘pointy end’ of our industry then where are all the CEO’s, Executive Directors & General Managers? AAVA membership is much the same.

    The message being sent out is that most of our industry leaders don’t need a professional association and don’t see the need to invest in developing VPM’s to become senior leaders.

    My view is that the top tier of our sector are being recruited from outside the volunteer management arena because that is where the perceived skilled leaders are.

    Where does this leave us and what does it mean?

    I may lose some friends over this response but I am seeing more and more VPM’s going in circles and not really making any great professional or even personal development improvements. We keep looking within our own circles to network and be coached or mentored but how many of us have an understanding of the skill of Holding to Account much less all the other important leadership skills, all of which take learning and hard work to refine.

    When was the last time we took time out to work on one of these types of skills?
    How do we measure our own personal and professional growth?
    What are the milestones we have set for our career path?
    When was the last time we sat down and articulated in writing our own goals and what the measurement of their success would be?
    When was the last time we articulated to Andy and Martin or a State Centre or AAVA our expectations of them and again what the success factors would be?

    ****How many of us plan to be our sectors’ next CEO, Executive Director or General Manager?

    Our top leaders need to start to invest in developing our skills and we as a sector need to be willing to work hard and be prepared to be held accountable and give a valuable RIO (return on investment).

    So Andy, to answer your question “what are you going to do about it?” … I can say that my career path is quite clear and has been for some time. I am currently on a senior management leadership course (outside the sector) and on track with my personal and professional development to be a CEO, Executive Director or General Manager in the not-too-distant future. I can only hope that it is within our sector so my skills can be put to good use in helping to break down the barriers your wrote about in your Hot Topic article.

    If we don’t do it … who will?

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